Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — 1916 Steel Strike and East Youngstown Riots

william-gropper-youngstown-strike

William Gropper, “Youngstown Strike” 1937, Butler Institute of American Art

This past week was significant in Youngstown working class history. On January 7, 1916, a steel strike against Youngstown Sheet and Tube descended into tragic violence. A crowd of strikers and their wives had gathered on Wilson Avenue by bridge at the north entrance to the plant to prevent “scabs” from entering. Stories vary as to how the tragedy unfolded. Either rocks were thrown or a shot was fired from the crowd toward the security forces protecting the entrance to the plant. Then guards fired into the crowds. When the shooting was done 3 were dead and at least 27 injured.

This was only the beginning. Workers broke into company headquarters, burning records, looking for “blacklists” of union organizers target for violence. The enraged workers then turned their anger on local businesses, looting and destroying nearly 100 business blocks and residences in East Youngstown (present day Campbell) with losses in excess of $1 million dollars. Two thousand National Guard troops were called in to restore order.

Hundreds of rioters were arrested and many drew prison sentences. Workers were blamed but records do not show where those arrested worked. There were rumors of foreign agents and union instigators, none proven. A fascinating detail was that the grand jury that returned indictments against the rioters also indicted heads of the major steel companies (the strike involved not just Youngstown Sheet and Tube, but U.S. Steel, Brier Hill, and Republic Steel).

What led to this outbreak? The strike, which began on December 27, 1915 was over wages. Despite a thriving economy with wartime manufacturing, wages had been cut 9 percent the previous year and unskilled labor earned just 19.5 cents per hour. Growth of the industry had led to crowded housing, and these costs and the cost of living left most families earning less than it cost to live. The workers had asked for a wage of 25 cents an hour, time and a half overtime, and double overtime for Sundays.

The irony? Hours before, company leaders had announced a wage increase to 22 cents an hour, which went into effect after the riots. But other changes followed. Youngstown Sheet and Tube helped rebuild East Youngstown and built better worker housing that included electricity and indoor plumbing when outdoor facilities were the norm. The village was eventually renamed Campbell after James A. Campbell, chairman of Youngstown Sheet and Tube.

Not all was sweetness and light. Wages rose and fell with the economy but did not progress over the next twenty years. Another violent confrontation occurred twenty-one years later in the “Little Steel Strike” of 1936-37. Artist William Gropper visited Youngstown during the strike and published sketches and an article in The Nation. He painted Youngstown Strike during this time, but what it depicted was the events of 1916. The painting is part of the collection at the Butler.

To write of these strikes is to write of events from another time before my own. Strikes during my growing up years did not have the violence of these early confrontations. Mostly, it was an unexpected vacation at first, and increasing belt tightening when unions and management couldn’t reach settlements. Guys made ends meet by painting houses and other handyman work. Until Black Monday.

We are unquestionably in a different time. Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The violence of 1916, inexcusable on all sides, reminds us of the consequences when there are tremendous disparities between wealth and poverty and hard working people cannot earn enough to live. It seems at least to some extent Youngstown Sheet and Tube learned that they had to make workers’ situations livable. Will today’s companies remember these lessons from the past? Or will they repeat them?

 

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