Friday, January 6, 2012

Youngstown Sheet and Tube Focus of Decades of Class War

William Gropper's 1937 mural of the the 1916 attack on strikers at Youngstown Sheet and Tube.

It was a bloody day on the cold and grimy streets of East Youngstown, Ohio on January 6, 1916. Yet it was just one battle in a struggle for safety, security, a living wage, and union recognition that went on for decades.

Youngstown and its suburbs were in 1916 a major hub of heavy industry and had been since steel mills opened there taking advantage of abundant coal in the region,  and good transportation links to the Great Lakes via canal and railroad allowing for the delivery of iron ore mined from the Iron Range of Minnesota  and Wisconsin.  By the 1870’s mills were lining the Mahoning Valley.  Immigrants from Ireland, Wales, Germany, Italy, and the Slavic countries came to work in the dirty and dangerous mills.

The AFL’s Amalgamated Association tried to organize the mills and gain recognition from the companiesThe Amalgamated represented only skill craft workers in the mills leaving the vast majority of laborers outside its organizations.  The Homestead Strike in Pennsylvania was just the biggest and best remembered of the battles waged in the industry.  But by the early years of the 20th Century the Amalgamated had been whipped to often and formal unionism nearly disappeared from the mills.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube was created from the consolidation a locally owned mills and smelters after the voracious aspiring trust of U.S. Steel gobbled up some local plants.  The new company was meant to insure that local ownership was maintained by at least some of the production facilities.

By 1916 the mills were humming with orders related to the war in Europe.  After a couple of decades of boom and bust, times seemed good.  Wave of new immigrants crowded into shanty town slums springing over night in East Youngstown.  These new arrivals were not familiar with past labor battles and losses.  They wanted both improved safety at plants where production demands were cutting corners and a piece of company prosperity.  

Although local Socialists and some union veterans undoubtedly helped, mostly unskilled workers at the nearby Republic works who went on strike December 27, 1915 without much organization and no union backing.  Workers at Sheet and Tube joined them in early January.

On the morning of January 7 strikers accompanied by their wives and children marched from the slums to the gates of the Sheet and Tube mill to keep strike breakers from reporting to work.  Inside the gates a small army of private security forces responded by throwing dozens of tear gas bombs.  As the thick, poisonous haze hung over the workers obscuring their vision, guard unleashed volley after volley of rifle fire directly into their ranks.  The exact toll may never be known as workers were afraid to bring the wounded to medical attention.  At least three were killed, probably twice that many including women.  Twenty-seven injuries were confirmed, but strikes made oral reports of more than a hundred.  Enraged as the dead and wounded lay bleeding on the ground the strikers attacked the guards with stones and bricks and perhaps a pistol shot or two before retreating to town.

That night, fueled by indignation and alcohol and without experienced union leadership, the strikers struck back by burning down the entire business district of East Youngstown.  The Ohio National Guard was quickly dispatched to the scene, and the strike was crushed.  

East Youngstown was re-built and renamed for Sheet and Steel executive James A. Campbell and the Sheet and Tube mill became known as the Campbell Works.

Two decades later the radical artist William Gropper created a mural depicting the moments after the fatal vollies at the mill gate.  The powerful painting, meant to rouse support for the 1936-37 Little Steel strikes, has been called “an American Guernica” and compared to Goya’s paintings of the Spanish resistance to the French.

After America entered World War I the government encouraged labor peace in basic industry and urged companies to come to terms with “responsible” unions like the AFL.  The AFL let the Amalgamated Association include unskilled workers for the first time and soon nearly half of American steelworkers claimed protection from the AA, including those in Youngstown.  

But war time prosperity in the industry came to an end with the Armistice.  Attempts by the AA to secure union recognition led to the Great Steel Strike of 1919.  In Youngstown, as in Chicago, Gary, Pittsburgh and other steel center, companies aimed to keep the mills in operation.  Thousands of Blacks were brought from the Deep South as strike breakers.  The strike was crushed and so, effectively was the Amalgamated. 
Racial bitterness lingered for years as well.  During the 1920’s the Ku Klux Klan found fertile ground in and around Youngstown.  It petered out only when its rabidly anti-Catholic nature became apparent to steelworkers, themselves overwhelmingly Catholic.  Racial divisions remained a problem to a new generation of organizers and the bosses always tried to exploit those differences at every turn.

The Steel Workers Organizing Committee, with the backing of the new CIO, unleashed a new push in the industry after wresting recognition from industry behemoth U.S. Steel.  Youngstown Sheet and Tube, which now also had significant works in Chicago, played a key role in organizing industry opposition to the drive.  The Little Steel strike was marked by serious violence in both Chicago and Youngstown.  

35,000 workers were out on strike in the Mahoning Valley.  After nearly three months on strike and constant harassment by company security forces and local authorities, on July 19th it was Ladies Day on the picket line in front of the Republic Steel mill in Youngstown.  After a company guard assaulted one of the women, they were pelted with rocks and bottles.  Retreating into the plant, in an eerie replay of the 1916 violence, guards let loose with tear gas and then opened fire, many firing down on the crowd from virtual snipers’ nests.  At least two were killed and dozens wounded.  Once again the National Guard was called in and the town became a virtual occupied territory.  The strike was crushed and workers went back.

But the Steelworkers turned to the new National Labor Relations Board for help.  They complained of unfair labor practices by the Little Steel companies.  The case took years to resolve.  But in 1942, with another war on and the need for industrial peace, the NLRB ordered the companies to recognize what had become the United Steel Workers Union.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube and the other independents, however, never gave up their rabid anti-unionism.  After the end of the war they were confident that the government, no longer reliant on war-time production demands, would turn the other way as they tried once again to drive the unions out.  There were a series of mostly local strikes, but the union held firm.

Then in 1952 the Little Steel Companies demanded huge give backs in negotiations for a new contract.  In order to avoid an imminent strike, President Harry Truman tried to seize the steel companies.  The case quickly headed to the Supreme Court which ruled in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer that the president did not have such authority.

All in all there were 9 major strikes and innumerable local work stoppages and wildcat walkouts between 1946 and 1977.  That included the longest strike in steel industry history in 1959 which lasted 116 days and was ended by the imposition of a Taft-Hartley Act injunction.

On September 17, 1997 Youngstown Sheet and Tube abruptly closed the Campbell works costing 5000 jobs.  It sold the Youngstown Briar Hill Works along with facilities in Chicago to competitor Jones and Laughlin which was in turn eaten up by the international conglomerate Ling-Temco-Vought.  In 1979 the new company shuttered the Briar Hill Works.  Republic and other facilities were also shut down in the wave of steel “reorganization” of the 70’s.

Youngstown became a poster child for Rust Belt de-industrialization.

Today a small “mini-mill” recycling old steel occupies part of the Briar Hill Works.  But the highly automated process employs only a fraction of the once humming mills.   A French conglomerate operates it.  It is non-union.


  1. Excellent column, Patrick, thanks so very much for helping to keep #LaborHistory alive!

  2. Great story well written. One of my favorite stories about James A. Campbell was about the death in the family that occurred on Christmas Night sometime in the teens. Seems the men in the family were sitting around the living room and, as was their wont, were shooting the ornaments off the Christmas tree. Surprising that it never happened before, but a stray bullet went through the floor and through the mattress on the bed above, then through the body of the person in the bed, killing them. Does that sound likely for any weapon smaller than a cannon available in 1916 ? I didn't think so either, but it's what I always think of when I think of James A. Campbell.