Work Conditions Ignite Labor Reform
Steelworkers often labored
six or even seven days a week in long and exhausting shifts. Accidents were common. Over 500 men died on the job between 1905 and 1941
. Hundreds, if not thousands, were badly injured by burning metal, toxic gases, and fast-moving machinery. The men who worked these dangerous jobs were desperately poor and mostly immigrants. Few could afford to choose a safer or easier job.
In the 1900s through the 1940s, labor organizers tried to unite the workers into a single force, or labor union. After a long and sometimes violent struggle with management, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) succeeded in unionizing Bethlehem in 1942. The union negotiated with management for improved safety measures, shorter hours, and fair wages.
"I almost went down in the fire. If it wouldn't have been for my buddy standing right in back of me, he caught me. Otherwise I would have bought it, sure thing."
- Frank Furry
Coke and Ore Dumper
In the early 1900s
there were two major strikes that rocked the Steel
and the South Bethlehem community. After lasting 104 days, the Bethlehem Steel strike of 1910 was a costly fight for the workers, leaving one man dead and several others injured. At the end of the strike, president Charles M. Schwab barely budged despite growing
outrage. This strike did succeed in drawing public attention and prompted a federal investigation into the work conditions for the steelworkers. Ultimately, the work day was shortened to 8 hours, and working conditions and safety measures improved.
In 1941, when the corporate-sponsored Employee Representation Plan couldn't effectively negotiate for the workers, members of the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee struck. Though this strike lasted only four days, it was still violent: over 50 cars were flipped, men were injured, and the governor called a state of emergency, shutting down all saloons and liquor stores. The strike delayed a vote for new ERP officers, but a US District Court ruling paved the way for collective bargaining.
[Photo captions, from left to right, read]
· This 1914 photograph
of worker illustrates the effectiveness of safety glasses against steel projectiles.
· A steelworker known as a "puller out"
spent his shifts lifting heavy, red-hot crucibles out of the furnace and onto the shop floor. He wears wet leather wrapping and wooden shoes to protect himself from the intense heat.
· The strike in 1941 became so violent
that strikers flipped cars of police brought in to maintain order.