Scene 11: Strikes
Well, even with all those dumb smart guys runnin’ things, I figured I had it better than the old man ever did. I remember during the Depression the old man was workin’ at #6 Machine Shop and lucky to get in one day a week. Things were really tough. He refused to go on welfare. They called it relief back then, and he wouldn’t let my mother go to work either. I can remember going to school with cardboard in my shoes ’cause we didn’t have the money to get ’em resoled. Once when I was in Junior High my mother cut down a couple pairs of the old man’s wool pants to fit me. They itched so bad that I had to wear pajamas underneath ’em. I was afraid that the other kids would make fun of me when they seen me changin’ in gym class, but nobody ever said nothin’. I guess they was wearin’ their fathers’ pants too.
Anyways, sometimes the old man heard that they were makin’ shells down at forge specialty, so he’d get up at 5 am, catch the trolley, and go down and stand around outside the Montgomery St. gate. There’d be maybe a hundred guys there. The foreman would come out and pick about 20 of his Irish buddies. Seniority didn’t mean a damn thing. The old man never got picked, except once when Rufus Heller—he belonged to our church—happened to be the foreman and he saw the old man and picked him.
Those guys standin’ out there in the cold never forgot that stuff and that’s one reason the Union got started.
To hear the old-timers tell it, they really had a tough time to get recognized by Bethlehem Steel. The old man useta talk about the Strike of 1910, how they was makin’ 10-12 dollars a week and Charlie Schwab said that was plenty.
“ Hell, they can live on that. These Foreigners got it a lot better in America than they did in the Old Country. If they don’t like it over here let ’em go back where they come from.”
So, things started gettin’ rough. They called in the State Mounted Constabulary. They starts clubbin’ the strikers and one of the strikers throws a bottle at ’em. It hits one of the horses and cuts him. The cop starts chasin’ the guy, rides right into a saloon, horse and all, and shoots the guy. Only he shot the wrong guy. Anyways, that ended the strike of 1910.
Few years later the First War starts and everybody’s makin’ money. Then the Roaring Twenties, same thing. Depression comes, I mean, hell, it don’t do you no good to strike when everybody’s laid off. Then toward the end of the Thirties things started to pick up, Lend-Lease and all. Come 1939-40 the Union figures the time is ripe. They start this organization, the S.W.O.C.—Steel Workers Organizing Committee.
The old man was an organizer. I was in High School at the time and he gave me a whole bunch of buttons. They had a white background and the letters S.W.O.C. in black letters. I gave ’em to all my buddies and we walked around with our S.W.O.C. buttons. Didn’t sit to well with a lot of the kids, their fathers bein’ white collar.
A lot of stories went around about how the organizers put pressure on people to join up. Like if they heard a guy wasn’t to hot on the Union, they’d wait till some night after 3-11 and meet the guy in the middle of the Minsi Trail Bridge.
“You’re gonna join the Union aren’t ya?”
“O.K. We just wanted to make sure you were with us. Understand?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
On the other hand the foremen were meetin’ with everyone, too.
“You like your job.”
“Well, we don’t want you to join the Union. Understand?”
“Yeah, I understand.”
It was tough on a lot of guys. Anyways, they struck. All hell broke loose!
The non-union guys stayed in the plant and the strikers turned their cars over. Second and Third Avenue looked like a junk yard. They threw bricks through the plant windows. They put up tents and some guys stayed there twenty-four hours a day. American flags were everywhere. It was like a war zone. The women were there too, supportin’ their men, cookin’ food and makin’ coffee. It went on for weeks. Then one day the plant gates opened up and mounted police come flyin’ out just like 1910. They beat the crap out of anyone in their way, man, woman, or child. Turns out the Company brought ’em in at night in railroad cars. Well, this time they didn’t break the strike. They held an election and the Union won.
The first strike I was involved in was the one in 1947. We went out in the winter. No one’s car got turned over, but we caused a lot of trouble because we left all the furnaces running and supervision had to stay in around the clock bankin’ the furnaces and makin’ sure all the hydraulic equipment didn’t freeze up. First time most of those guys had to work in years. We were strikin’ for wages and benefits. After about 30 days they settled. That was when we started gettin’ health care.
1:40 PM PT: 'The 28 Inch Mill' by Robert D. Frantz was written in 1992, edited and updated in 1994 by me with additional copy by my Dad. I performed it in 1995 in Santa Barbara CA and again in 2004 in Bethlehem PA.
This material is strictly copyrighted and all publication, reprint and performance rights, in whole or in part, are held by me, Stanley R. Frantz, his son. Inquiries regarding reprint or republishing permission may be directed to me via my Kos account. I welcome your interest.
I hope and expect of course, that all Kossacks will respect my late father and his one great creative accomplishment and respect our copyright to this material, while at the same time helping us to tell the story far and wide.