Great Steel Strike of 1919
In 1919, workers represented by the American Federation of Labor went on strike against the United States Steel Corporation. Eventually workers at other companies joined the strike. Because this labor unrest eventually involved more than 350,000 workers, the walkout is known as the Great Steel Strike of 1919.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many workers, including workers in the steel industry, faced difficult working conditions, long hours, and low wages. Workers organized unions to address these issues, but those unions were rarely successful in improving workers' conditions. During World War I, the situation briefly improved, as employers were concerned with wartime production needs and did not want workers to go on strike. Once the war was over, the improvements did not last. Inflation after the war made it even more difficult for workers to stretch their pay to cover their families' basic needs. Many workers went on strike during this period, hoping to force their employers to raise wages and improve conditions.
The largest strike occurred among steel workers in the Midwest from September 1919 to January 1920. Known as the "Great Steel Strike of 1919," it eventually involved more than 350,000 workers. The American Federation of Labor organized the strike, and workers demanded higher wages, an eight-hour workday, and recognition of unions.
The Great Steel Strike of 1919 proved to be a dismal failure for the steel workers. Company owners portrayed the workers as dangerous radicals who threatened the American way of life, preying on many Americans' fears of Communism during that era. Because many of the striking workers were recent immigrants, owners were able to portray them as instigators of trouble. A leader among the radicals was Ohioan Norman Z. Foster, a prominent advocate of socialism. Government officials used National Guard troops and federal troops to put down the strike in many cities, leading to violence and even workers' deaths in some cases.
Because the steel industry was important in Ohio during this time, the Great Steel Strike had a major influence on a number of Ohio cities. The strike also influenced political issues. In Canton, Ohio, Mayor Charles E. Poorman's response led to his defeat in the next election. Governor James Cox was able to use the situation in Canton to his own political advantage. Like in many other cities, the issue of immigrant labor was an important component of the debate over the strike. Nativist sentiment in Ohio meant that there was very little support for striking workers in Canton and elsewhere.
- Brody, David. Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919. N.p.: Greenwood Press Reprint, 1982.