The Grand Hall at Cooper Union, November 22nd, 1909 - Source: Labor Arts
Chapter XVII: Experiments in Solidarity: New Strategies for a New America
During his successful bout for the presidential title, William R. Hearst keenly employed labor agitation as a tool to secure electoral victory, but, as noted, he was unable to pass any meaningful legislation to qualm the woes of working people in the United States. That is not to say, however, that workers were content to remain in squalor while men in Washington waited idly by. It was truly quite the opposite, with industrial workers proving more than capable of enforcing their own demands down the gullet of an unsuspecting owner class. Unskilled laborers, sometimes known or referred to as a the "machine proletariat," became the unlikely vanguard for a new chapter in the American labor movement.
In the summer of 1909, a railcar manufacturing business based out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, mandated to its workforce a novel method of distributing wages. To their 6,000-strong cache of employees, owners of the McKees Rocks Pressed Steel Car Company introduced a primitive system of scientific management designed to increase worker output by lowering its base wage according to the least productive plant worker. This allowed for the company to establish artificially raised rates and bonus incentives for the most efficient workers. In such a system, particularly in conjunction with an industry rife with managerial corruption and a hushed network of kickbacks, the owners could retain a psychological advantage over its workforce.
Finding the above methodology inhumane and their lousy pay wholly unacceptable, some hundred workers walked out from their factories. They were soon joined by the remaining McKees plant laborers, and thereafter workers in neighboring plants. IWW organizers Bill Haywood and Wiliam Trautmann swiftly arrived to assist in the developing work stoppage and worked to convince the strikers to join in their cause for industrial unionism. The AFL's continued refusal to adjust its traditional doctrine of forbidding unskilled workers to join in their ranks allowed for complete displacement by the IWW in this instance, and dozens more. Once violent skirmishes began to break out between the scores of mounted members of the Pennsylvanian constabulary and the thousands of strikers of whom were chiefly first and second generation immigrants, one AFL delegate famously blamed the fighting on, "ignorant, foreign labor."
The strike held throughout the month of July and lasted all through August. Not until September, when thirteen in all had died from the bloody affair, did the Pressed Steel Car Company call for a settlement. Company owners bent to the will of the strikers, shockingly redacting the reward system and granting an increase in wages. The entire ordeal, thereby dubbed the McKees Rocks Strike, proved the power of organizing unskilled workers as well as the ignorance of the old AFL policies. The IWW, which dunked itself into the Pittsburgh brouhaha with a spirit of inclusivity and solidarity (exemplified through its deployment of bilingual speakers and publications), won their first significant victory since the enlistment of the United Mine Workers in 1907. Mirrored strikes at steel factories in McKeesport and South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, also led to wins for the laborers as the IWW sowed class-wide unity among all sects of workingmen.
Additional hot spots for the growing American Labor Movement emerged in New York City and Philadelphia, when the young female workforce of the novel shirtwaist-manufacturing industry rallied against brutal working conditions. They were expected to work 12-hour days with no time off and with zero union representation. Their pay was a meager $4-6 per week, with deductions for needles, thread, and the electricity used by their sewing machines. Employees of the Leiserson Shirtwiast Company walked out from their jobs in September of 1909, joined shortly thereafter by the all-women workforce of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company. Both groups aspired for coordination with a strong industrial union to ally themselves with. They turned to a local chapter of the recently established Workingwomen's Craft and Industrial Union League: An IWW-affiliate organization built to advance the interests of women within the union movement. As an unapologetic ally of skilled and unskilled women workers, it contrasted itself with its more conservative, AFL "business unionist" counterpart: The Women's Trade Organization.
The WTO was underfunded (it relied heavily on upper-class philanthropist donations) and underappreciated by AFL President Samuel Gompers, while the WCIUL, by comparison, was prominently endorsed by IWW leaders as a tool to be used to contest with the open-shop system, ameliorate the conditions for working women, and secure women's suffrage. Led by activists including famed settlement house organizer Mary Kenney O'Sullivan, Polish-born social feminist Rose Schneiderman, and rent strike leader Pauline Newman, the small and inexperienced union organized a picket line. Allies to the cause gleefully joined extended picket lines in New York as word of the strike spread, including members of the WTO. Police officers commonly harassed the striking women, oftentimes culminating in violent beatings and arrests. City officials refused to comment.
An absolute turning-point for the Triangle Workers' Strike came about on a brisk day in late November, when these inspired women paraded to New York's Cooper Union to call for a general strike. They arrived in such astounding numbers that the crowds spilled out into the street. Representatives of the local unions, including workers-rights advocate Frances Perkins, spoke their peace to the sea of agitated workingwomen. Then, a young Jewish immigrant and WCIUL-affiliated garment laborer named Clara Lemlich rose. In her familial Yiddish, she told of her experience on the picket line, the beatings, arrests, and sexist shouts from the officers.She said to them, "I am a working girl, one of those who are on strike against intolerable conditions. I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in general terms. What we are here for is to decide whether we shall or shall not strike. I offer a resolution that a general strike be declared - now." The audience roared in approval and were galvanized to demand the general strike be called. Two thousand women swore to honor the strike. Their righteous course set, tens of thousands of shirtwaist makers answered the call. The strike would spread to Pennsylvania, and it would receive prompt assistance from dozens of labor organizations, women's groups, and the local and national Socialist parties. [...] This became known as the Uprising of the 20,000.Benjamin McIntyre, The Workers' Struggle: The Birth of a Columbian International, 2018
Left with no other option but to concede, the company owners acquiesced to the demands of the strikers. After three and a half months of brutal picketing in the freezing city streets, the women won. The WCIUL negotiated contracts for over two-thirds of the total 337 shirtwaist companies in NYC and Philadelphia, with the WTO only holding representation among five. As recalled by Helen Marot of the WCIUL, "The unyielding and uncompromising temper of the strikers showed that women make the best strikers." The WCIUL became one of the most powerful union organizations in New York City, with newcomers like Clara Lemlich rising to the forefront. Humbled company owners like Triangle's "Shirtwaist Kings" Max Blanck and Isaac Harris begrudgingly agreed to recognize the women's union, and, within the year, followed-up with slightly reduced hours, heightened pay, and more sanitary conditions and safety precautions in the shops.
Due to the victories of the shirtwaist workers, as well as a second strike involving 50,000 cloakmakers in 1910, the newly elected Progressive Mayor of New York City, John Purroy Mitchel, implemented building safety standards as a mandate for all industrial operations located in the metropolitan area. Two years following the Shirtwaist Strike, when a fire had broken out in the Triangle-occupied Asch Building, these safety standards were celebrated as a chief reason for the efficient and orderly evacuation of the burning building. Not one worker was harmed from the building fire, and to this the IWW, the WCIUL, and a receptive progressive city government was granted kudos.
Sitting at the edge of my seat here