The Steel Strike of 1919 in Gary
On September 22, 1919, workers employed by the US Steel Corporation laid down their tools and abandoned their jobs in the steel factories. Stretching from Chicago and St. Louis to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the strikers would ultimately include 350,000 workers at factories across the Midwest including in Gary, Indiana. Those workers came mostly from eastern and southern European countries, among them, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Serbs, Croatians, Macedonians, Greeks, Romanians, Lithuanians, Italians.
World War I (1915-1918) had prohibited the immigration of workers from European nations that were at war with the United States. The war had increased the expectations of steel workers, who wanted fewer hours, more pay, better working conditions, and collective bargaining rights. Workers at US Steel averaged a 66-hour work week broken up into twelve-hour shifts. The potential for death and injury was high on the factory floor as US Steel encouraged faster production to meet rising demand. Workers spent their days and nights in heavily polluted environments with limited rights.
The 1917 Bolshevik uprising in Russia had frightened Americans who feared that socialism would flourish. Socialists promoted the idea that the means for production, distribution, and exchange should lie with the community at large rather than with capitalists like J.P. Morgan or even with the US government. The “Red Scare” of 1919 encouraged Americans to believe that socialists wanted to overthrow the government and banish private businesses. For US Steel, which had a monopoly on steel production in the US, these fears of socialist upheaval focused on their immigrant workers from Europe who were organized together as part of the American Federation of Labor Unions.
The AFL had secured promises from employers during World War I that in exchange for setting aside their ability to walk off the factory floor during the war that employers would improve working conditions. Workers envisioned a future of eight hour work days and improved safety conditions in the steel plants. They also expected an end to the harassment and violence they had faced from armed guards from the Pinkerton Agency, a private security agency hired by companies like US Steel to quash unionization efforts. With the end of the war though, US Steel and other corporations failed to fulfill their promises to workers. US Steel, who had worked with the AFL union members in 1918, refused to negotiate with the union just one year later. The steel companies wanted to go back to the prewar conditions.
The call to strike on September 22, 1919 by union leadership charged: “IRON AND STEEL WORKERS! A historic decision confronts us. If we will but stand together now like men our demands will soon be granted and a golden era of prosperity will open for us in the steel industry. But if we falter and fail to act this great effort will be lost, and we will sink back into a miserable and hopeless serfdom. The welfare of our wives and children is at stake. Now is the time to insist upon our rights as human beings.” Workers in the Gary mill were primarily of European descent, with more than 50 nations represented on the mill floor. Around 85% of all Gary workers locally refused to work.
The workforce at US Steel in Gary had been augmented during the war by African Americans from the US South as well as Mexican workers from the West. Almost three thousand workers in 1919 in Gary were Black. The percentage of the workforce that was composed of African Americans increased from 8.8% in 1919 to 20.5% by 1923. The Mexican share of the workforce increased from a negligible number in 1919 to almost 8% by 1925. By the end of that year, Mexican workers on the mill floor outnumbered all other immigrant worker ethnic groups except those of Polish descent.
When striking workers left the mill floor, Elbert Gary, who ran the corporation, ordered more than 30,000 African Americans from the South to Gary. These replacement workers were not union members; instead they were hired to ensure that mill operations could continue without union members. While some were housed on mill grounds, ensuring that they stayed loyal to US Steel, others joined existing workers living in the Patch. Every morning on Broadway Street, striking workers would talk with those brought in as replacement workers.
On October 5th, striking workers vandalized the trolley car carrying replacement workers stopping it in its tracks and prohibiting replacement workers from reaching the Mill. A thrown brick that hit a strike supporter precipitated police being called. While striking workers dispersed, the anti-Union Daily Tribune depicted the encounter as a “race riot.” One day later, the mayor of Gary ordered seven units of the Indiana State Militia to enforce martial law. All public rallies and pickets by striking workers were prohibited. Federal Troops under the command of General Leonard Wood were asked to enter the city and ensure an end to all striking activities. By the end of the day on October 6th, the entire city of Gary was controlled by the US Army.
Members of the State Militia, leaving Gary after federal troops had taken over, then moved on to confront strikers in nearby Indiana Harbor. The strike effectively ended in Gary less than a month later. It would continue nationwide only until January as striking workers began to struggle with food and housing insecurity. It would not be until 1923 when many of the goals of the striking workers were implemented, including limiting the workday to eight hours.
The 1919 Strike permanently changed the demographics of the entire Northwest Indiana region. By 1930, Gary and its surrounding environs of East Chicago and Lake County, Indiana, were arguably the most ethnically diverse places in America at the time. It should be noted that neither Gary nor East Chicago were ever among the largest cities in America, as neither community’s total population ever approached that of cities such as New York or Chicago, yet these two cities were as diverse as any in America at this time.