To Strike Or Not To Strike

To him leadership came naturally, he simply stepped up and others followed, without drawn out discussion or question, as though it was destined from before time began that, for over thirty years,  my father, Jesse Aaron Curry, would wear the mantle of Grievance Committeeman in the United Steel Worker’s Union of the Glassport, Pennsylvania, Plant of the Pittsburgh Steel Foundry.

While growing up in the town of Liberty in Western Pennsylvania, family discussions at the dinner table generally centered around three subjects: the Great Depression and how fortunate we were that, unlike many families, Dad had a good paying job as a steel worker that put food on the table and clothes on our backs; the goings on at Bethlehem Baptist Church where my mother was superintendent of the Sunday School; and how well my five brothers and sisters and I were doing in our school work and in performing the family chores.

Dad worked five days a week as a welder at the steel foundry, but in the evenings and on weekends he did truck farming. Each of us children had assigned chores and we carried them out faithfully or, as our father promised, “he would tear down a tree limb across our backs,” and Dad was always true to his word.

My assigned chores consisted of slopping the hogs twice a day, cleaning out the hen house, picking up eggs each morning, and killing and plucking chickens that Dad had sold to friends in town. It kept me busy and out of most normal childhood mischief.

Dad was a strong believer in labor unions and had been an officer, a grievance committee man, in the local steel workers union all my young life, and made its affairs our family’s affairs. Around the dinner table we discussed management labor problems, sometimes passing memos around the table for comment and suggested grammatical improvements, occasionally Dad holding forth on some pet subject of his, usually having to do with “The Local,” which is how the steel workers referred to the local branch of the steelworker’s union.

When my two brothers and I finished high school, before we left home to do other things, Dad felt we should spend a year working in The Foundry, not learning a skill so much as learning how to develop good adult work habits. Many years would pass before I fully appreciated the service he had done me that year, by insisting that I work along side him as a welder and scarffer.

One winter’s night after work Dad said to me, “Son, the rank and file don’t know it yet, but next week they are going to go out on strike. The order to call a strike has come down from “National.” [He was referring to the national headquarters of the United Steel Worker’s Union].

“Now here’s the way it works. The Local will call a labor meeting at the Union Hall for Friday afternoon when the shifts change. I want you to sit in the back of the Hall and observe. No matter how strongly you feel about what’s going on, don’t say a word, nothing.

“The President of the Local and some of us officers will sit up front. The President will read a letter from National presenting the union’s side of the issue, saying that  Company and Management have treated us workers unfairly, tramped all over our rights, refused to listen to reason, and so there’s nothing left for us to do but to go on strike. At the end of the meeting we’ll take a strike vote, and the majority will vote to strike.

“My role is to stand up and argue vehemently that it makes no sense to strike and that I think Management is willing to talk to us and iron out our differences. Then some of the other local officers will jump to their feet and angrily condemn me, will strongly support the President and National, and will say that only cowards are afraid to strike for their rights.

“Most workers will go along with whatever the President says, but there will be about a half dozen trouble makers in the hall, men who will not easily go along with the decision to “Strike” and who, if allowed to be heard, could change some of the other men’s minds. These trouble makers will jump to their feet and try to present the ‘No Strike’ side of the argument. We think we know who most of them are and will be watching them closely.

“Also we have appointed goons to sit close by each one of them, when they stand up our boys will grab them and haul them back down into their seats and out shout them. It won’t be very pretty and emotions will run high, but in the end they’ll be intimidated into sitting down and shutting up. Remember, no matter what happens, don’t you get involved and don’t try to protect me.”

Dad called it exactly right and it developed just as he predicted it would. The President condemned Management, My father put up a good fight as to why the workers should vote “No, to going out on strike.” Some misguided individuals tried to support him and to rationally present reasons as to why striking at this time didn’t make good sense, the goons sitting near them were ready, manhandled them back into their seats, and shouted them into silence. At the end of the meeting we all voted, little slips of paper were passed around, we marked the ballots “Yes” or “No,” and the “ayes” won. 

While we had been inside the Hall practicing labor union democracy, some of the union guys had rolled out 55 gallon barrels, placed them at convenient locations, shoveled them partially full of coal, and set them on fire so we wouldn’t be getting cold walking the picket lines. Then the “Strike” signs for us to carry miraculously appeared from somewhere and we “Struck”.

There wasn’t much interest or excitement on either side, Management or Union. A few days later Management caved in to the Union’s demands, which weren’t much,  just National letting management know that if the union didn’t get its way all the time, they weren’t afraid to shut down the entire Steel Foundry.

Soon official word came down from National that the Union had won and that the strike was over, so we put out the fires and went home — and back to work.