By Tony DeAngelis
As 2009 ends and 2010 begins, I'd like to take a look back at an event that took place a century ago.
In 1906, a young Ukrainian immigrant and his wife emigrated to McKees Rocks, an industrial community just downriver from Pittsburgh, Pa., the center of a burgeoning steel industry. Michael and Mary Kiselicia had little idea of what was about to happen to them, along with 4,000 other immigrants from southeastern Europe, and the impact they would have on labor history.
They settled in Presston, a company town owned by the Pressed Steel Car Company, a manufacturer of railroad cars, most of them hoppers (open-air cars built to transport coal and iron ore to the steel mills in the Pittsburgh area). Mike Kiselicia was hired by the company, and two years later he and Mary began their family with a daughter, Katherine.
What was coming was an event that is not well-known: the McKees Rocks Pressed Steel Car Strike of 1909. Although it is not as famous as the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892 or the Steel Strike of 1919, it was the second bloodiest strike in Pittsburgh history (behind the Great Railroad Uprising of 1877).
The Pressed Steel Car Company was formed by a merger with the Schoen Pressed Steel Car Company in 1899. The new company built an immense new plant on the Ohio River bottoms in Stowe Township, adjacent to the borough of McKees Rocks. To house most of the 4,000 new employees, it built company housing - the town of Presston, also called "Hunky Town" or "Hunkeyville," after the ethnic immigrant groups that came to work for the company (Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Slovaks, and Slovenians, among others). Most of them were unskilled or semi-skilled workers who spoke little or no English.
In 1903, the English-speaking workers struck to protest low pay and hazardous working conditions. Their strike was broken when they were replaced by Slavic immigrants. By 1909, the company employed 6,000 workers - 4,000 foreign-born - speaking 16 different languages.
Conditions in the plant remained extremely unsafe. The Allegheny County Coroner's Office estimated that one worker per day died at Pressed Steel. It was known at the time as the "Last Chance Job" and the "Slaughterhouse."
In addition, according to labor historian, Charles McCollester, workers had to pay to get and keep a job, being fired occasionally and hired back for a fee; and were paid through a "pool system," where individual wages were determined by how much their "team" produced on a weekly basis. And, as pay rates were not published, workers never knew what their pay would be from week to week. This led to workers going in debt to the company store, falling behind in their rent and eventually leading to eviction from company housing. Another charge made by the workers was that their wives and daughters were being subjected to sexual harassment to repay food and rental debts
Things came to a head on July 10, when a group of workers went to management and demanded to know what the wage rates were. The company president, Frank N. Hoffstot refused. On July 13, the strike began with 600 workers walking out, and being promptly fired. The next day they were joined by the rest of the workforce (unskilled and skilled), effectively shutting down the plant.
The strikers were assisted by organizers of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the IWW or "Wobblies." Pressed Steel responded by hiring Pearl Berghoff, the owner of a notorious strikebreaking firm. The company also requested assistance from local and state government, including 300 local deputy sheriffs, 200 state constables, and 62 mounted state police.
Beginning on July 14, ongoing battles broke out between the strikers and law enforcement. Strikers began daily meetings (translated into 16 different languages) on the "Indian Mound," a former Native-American burial ground. They also set up a 24-hour system to monitor the importation of scabs. As the company attempted to bring in strikebreakers, the strikers intercepted streetcars, pulling off the suspected scabs. A ferry carrying strikebreakers was fired upon by strikers and turned away from the dock on the Ohio River.
The violence culminated on August 22, "Bloody Sunday." When a group of strikers attempted to remove a scab from a street car, a deputy opened fire, and a gun battle ensued. Another streetcar carrying state troopers arrived. The fighting ended with 11 men being killed. The next days brought raids on strikers' meetings and forceful evictions from the company housing. Because of the violence, nationwide attention was now focused on the strike.
At the end of August, the strikers convinced 300 of the 400 strikebreakers in the plant to leave, and on September 8, the company offered a settlement, and the workers returned to work. A week later, the company reneged, and the workers walked out again. A day later, the 2,000 English-speaking workers returned to work, dividing the strikers. They were soon followed by the 4,000 immigrant workers, and the strike was broken.
There were a number of lessons to be learned from this event, the company's use of ethnic and skill differences to divide the workers being but one. But, for me, on a personal level, one lesson sticks out. What happened to Mike and Mary Kiselicia, and their daughter Katherine? Well, they moved to neighboring McKees Rocks, and grew their family to eight children. Their daughter Katherine got a job in a bank (becoming one of the first female tellers in the country), married Nick DeAngelis (a tavern owner), and had two sons, Nick and Tony, the latter of whom wrote this story.
Growing up, nobody in our family ever talked about the strike. I learned about it in a labor history class in college. When I asked my mom about it, she said, "Oh yes, your grandfather was involved in it." And that was it. The lesson for all of us is to ask our parents and grandparents to tell us their stories, and in turn, to share their stories and ours with our children. Grandpa Mike was just an ordinary guy, but as someone once said, "Labor history is made by ordinary people coming together to do extraordinary things."
Happy New Year!
Tony DeAngelis has more than 30 years of experience as an educator with the University of Minnesota Labor Education Service.
This Viewpoint can be found here on Workday Minnesota.