Scanned from The Pittsburgh Survey, Vol. 3: The Steel Workers

    This excerpt is from the chapter titled "Unionism and the Union Movement."

Of the several bodies that formed the Amalgamated Association, the Sons of Vulcan was much the largest as well as the oldest. In 1873 that body had reported a membership of over 3000 and in 1877, one year after the new organization was formed, we find but 755 members added to this number. During the next five years there was rapid growth and the combined organizations enrolled 16,000 members. In the summer of 1882 there was a long and costly strike, which showed its effects upon the ranks of the union down to 1885 when the tide turned again and there was steady increase until 1891, when 24,068 members were reported. This was the high water mark of membership. The next year the organization encountered the most disastrous strike in its history, that at the Homestead Steel Works, and received a setback from which it has never recovered. The membership fell to 13,613 in 1893, and fluctuated between 15,000 and 10,000 until 1907; it fell to 6,295 in 1909 rising again in 1910 to 8,257.

In order to understand the development of the policies of the Amalgamated Association it is necessary to give due weight to the fact that the organizations that met in Pittsburgh in 1876 and formed a joint national body were organizations of iron workers. Pittsburgh was in fact as well as in name the "Iron City." It was before the day of the great steel plants and there was but one important steel mill in the district. The Edgar Thomson works had just been built and the first Bessemer steel produced in Allegheny County was blown there in 1875. Homestead was not in existence as a steel town. The National Tube Works at McKeesport made nothing but iron; Jones and Laughlin were the largest producers of iron in the lower Monongahela Valley, and Carnegie Brothers and Company were operating only the Upper and Lower Union mills, where iron alone was handled. The policies and acts of the Amalgamated Association have been modified from the beginning by the fact that it has been and is largely an iron workers' union. The name "Iron and Steel Workers" was almost a misnomer, for the steel workers who participated at the organization meeting were so few in numbers as to be almost negligible. The Sons of Vulcan, composed of iron workers exclusively, contributed, as we have seen, over 85 per cent of the original membership, and formed the backbone of the new organization. The members of the Heaters and Rollers' and of the Roll Hands' unions were largely iron workers also. The first three presidents of the association were puddlers, the fourth was a puddler and heater of iron, and it was not until 1898 that a steel worker was elected to that position.

Through the decade from 1880 to 1890, practically all of the iron mills in Allegheny County were unionized. The list of manufacturers who signed the scale was practically a list of those engaged in the business. There were difficulties and strikes occasionally; there was a long and determined strike in the summer of 1882, and now and then there was a lockout. But upon the whole this decade was the period of most effective agreement between the employers and the men that the association ever experienced. Each knew and respected the strength of the other and, while hard blows were dealt on both sides, there was much mutual confidence and good will. There are instances where Pittsburgh employers requested the privilege of appearing before the convention of the association so that they might explain their position directly to the delegates.

With the rise of the steel industry, the organization spread into the new mills, carrying its policies with it; but with the great strike which broke the unions' hold in the steel mills in 1892, the iron workers lost their grip on their own trade. After 1892 the iron mills in Pittsburgh began to leave off making agreements with the union, until now hardly a third of the iron worked in Allegheny County is handled by union labor.

Unionism in the steel industry was never so general as in the iron mills. In Illinois, the steel mills became fairly generally organized, but this was never true of the Pittsburgh District. There are but four large steel mills in Allegheny County that were built for the purpose of manufacturing steel; all the others were originally iron mills and have been built over. The four are the Homestead, Edgar Thomson, Duquesne and Clairton plants, all owned now by the Carnegie Steel Company. The oldest of these, the Edgar Thomson, was built at Braddock by Carnegie, Brothers and Company in 1874, and began to roll rails in 1875. This was a non-union mill down to 1882, when a lodge of the Amalgamated Association was formed. The lodge was short-lived, however; as was a second one formed there in 1890. The Duquesne mill, completed in 1889 by the Allegheny Bessemer Company, was purchased by the Carnegie Steel Company in 1890. This was never a union mill. There were a few attempts to organize the men, coupled with one or two embryonic strikes, but there never was any successful unionism. Clairton, which is a new mill, has been non-union from the beginning.

The only one of the four mills ever to be successfully unionized is Homestead, where the union was driven out in 1892. The Homestead works, built in 1881 by the Pittsburgh Bessemer Steel Company, were purchased about a year later by Carnegie, Phipps and Company. Two lodges of the Amalgamated Association were organized here as early as October, 1881. This continued a union mill during the 11 years succeeding, though the union strength remained by no means uniform. After the middle of the decade, the union membership began to grow, and in 1889 there were six lodges at Homestead. These were all disbanded at the close of the "big strike," and Homestead has since been non-union.

Of the other steel mills in Allegheny County, those which began as iron works, a majority had by 1890 become union mills; but the succeeding decade saw the falling away of the men's organizations in all of them. Jones and Laughlin, originally an iron company and thoroughly unionized, continued to deal with the organization down to 1897, when the plant became non-union. The Shoenberger plant of the American Steel and Wire Company was a union mill down to 1892 and a number of the smaller steel mills dealt with the union for a half dozen years longer. The works of the National Tube Company at McKeesport have been pretty steadily non-union from the beginning.

It is doubtful whether the Amalgamated Association at the height of its strength in 1891 numbered 50 per cent of the steel workers of Allegheny County among its members; it is certain that such a proportion were never effectively organized. Since 1901 all of the steel mills in Allegheny County, large and, small, have been non-union.