When Ryan Brown began digging into the Pittsburgh region’s labor battles of the early 1900s, he uncovered themes that are equally prominent in modern economics, social issues and national politics.
In 1919, Brown found, western Pennsylvania steel workers sought better working conditions and more pay amidst a culture that included:
• Blaming immigrants and racial minorities for the challenges others were experiencing.
• Accusing foreign countries of involvement in domestic social and economic struggles.
• Using terms such as “socialism” and “communism” and “Marxism” to scare and divide the public.
• Operating in a system where concepts such as honesty and truth are largely irrelevant, especially for those in power.
Brown’s book – “Pittsburgh and the Great Steel Strike of 1919” – was released last year for the 100th anniversary of that industrial event. The book was published by The History Press, and is available online at www.historypress.com and at Barnes & Noble.
“This project was really a confluence of events and topics that I think are relevant today, including local history and labor history,” Brown said in an interview from his home in Cranberry Township in Butler County.
Brown is a former reporter with the Altoona Mirror. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown with a degree in journalism.
His wife, Kelly Cernetich Brown, also an ex-reporter, is a Johnstown native and graduate of Westmont Hilltop High School and UPJ.
While much of his narrative focuses on mills and activities in the Pittsburgh region – the valleys along the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and north into Farrell, New Castle and over to Youngstown, Ohio – the industrial story stretches out to include Johnstown and the Cambria Steel Co.
Brown notes that the strike that began on Sept. 22, 1919, did not ultimately bring the gains workers were seeking, including an end of 12-hour days and 7-day work weeks.
But the walkout – which involved more than 300,000 workers nationally at its peak – set the table for the growth of the labor movement during the Great Depression and improved wages and conditions during the industrial boom of World War II.
“These striking steel workers endured some of the worst working conditions imaginable,” Brown said. “Even though they lost, so much was learned from that strike and there were so many moments that followed. ... If you fast-forward two decades, things were very different.”
Much of his research involved newspaper accounts of the day, along with records kept by labor groups and their leaders. The book shows what Brown called a “cozy” relationship between the media and industrialists, some of whom owned the newspapers – which would run “get back to work” advertising campaigns.
Media accounts were dominated by stories that were more favorable to the companies than the workers, with industry leaders often pushing out false information, even as their “strike-busting” crews took violent tactics to the picket lines and into the neighborhoods and homes of the workers, Brown writes.
The anti-strike strategies also included the targeting of immigrants – especially from eastern European countries where communism was emerging – and pitting white workers against their Black counterparts, some of whom crossed the picket lines to work.
“The blaming of immigrants or people who were ‘different’ was a major part of this,” Brown said. “And it was true that the immigrant workers were the most mistreated, and most likely to be the poorest and most abused. ... Immigrants were more likely to be radical. They came here from countries that were deeply involved in turmoil.”
He added: “Striking immigrants were seen as ‘trouble-makers from a foreign country.’ ... At the time, you could see the over-the-top government response to these organizations – armed agents coming in and attacking the organizers, local militias – which might sound familiar.
“Armed bands of people would get together and beat up those people and call them ‘Bolsheviks.’ ”
Brown said people who were not inherently threatening – organizers, activists – were marginalized.
“It was a way to make them seem more dangerous than they really were, in many cases,” Brown said. “... That’s something we’re seeing again now – the term ‘anarchists’ being used in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement. It sounds scary. It’s an intimidating way to label an entire movement.”
The year 1919 is also known for the “Red Summer” – when many Blacks died as a result of white-supremacist violence in communities across the country, sparked by social tensions and the Spanish Flu pandemic, along with an economic recession and labor strife.
“The result from a labor perspective was pitting Black and white workers against each other,” Brown said.
The Spanish Flu of 1919 offers another connection with 2020 – and COVID-19 – although newspaper accounts then seldom mentioned the health crisis and the labor battles together, Brown said.
“But much the same in the way of precautions taking place during our modern pandemic, the Spanish Flu impacted the ability to gather,” he said.
“Some of the meeting halls were closed.”
The author hopes readers will come away with a deeper understand of western Pennsylvania’s impact on industry and labor issues – “How did we get a weekend? How did we get the 8-hour day?” – and the role of Johnstown, Monessen, McKeesport and other communities in the story of America’s growth as a world economic and political power.
“I’ve always enjoyed reading about struggle and conflict – among people, between groups and even across classes,” he said.
“When it comes to local history, a lot of this material gets lost. Social issues, labor struggles – those things aren’t a focus of schools or active life. ... Those are things that are important, but nobody talks about them.”