Youngstown was one of the hubs of the steel industry in 1916.
The mills hummed with activity as they tried to meet the demand from the war in Europe. The steel unions had been crushed in the 1890's. The shantytown slums on the town outskirts were filled with recent immigrants from eastern Europe who were willing to work in those dangerous jobs with long hours and little pay.
It was a good time to be a capitalist.
The recent immigrants were unfamiliar with the recent history of how the mill owners had crushed the labor unions. So on December 27, 1915, they went out on strike with little organization and no union backing.
They wanted a raise from 19.5 cents an hour to 25 cents an hour, time and a half for overtime, 48 hour work weeks, and improved safety.
At first only 300 walked out but the strike quickly spread to 6,000, which basically idled the entire plant.
Strikers marched to the gates of the mill to keep scabs from entering the plant. Inside the mill was a small army of company security. The strikers had taken their wives and children with them that day.
They gathered at the end of a small bridge that workers had to use to enter the mill.
What happened next is in some dispute, but what most likely happened is this:
Someone threw a stone or brick at the mill guards.
J.M. Woltz, chief of the company guards fired a shot into the crowd of strikers. At which point all the guards fired one volley after another into the crowd of unarmed, men, women and children.
Officially at least 3 were killed and 27 injured. But the exact total is probably much higher because it is likely that many families didn't go to the hospital out of fear.
Enraged, the strikers attacked the guards with stone and bricks before retreating.
That night, after some heavy drinking, the unorganized strikers went on a rampage in the business district of town. Fires were set and nearly four blocks of Youngstown was burnt to the ground. The national guard was called in and martial law was imposed.
Hundreds were arrested. Strikers were undefended by counsel and sometimes without even an interpreter. Most were sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Interestingly, since this was the Progressive Era, a real, unbiased grand jury investigation was conducted. They found that the strikers were driven to revolt by unbearable conditions and wages that didn't permit an acceptable standard of living.
Thus men got a raise of 2 to 4 cents an hour. However, wages had been cut the year before by about the same amount.
The grand jury also indicted Sheet and Steel executive James A. Campbell and Elbert H. Gary, the President of the United States Steel Corporation, for violating the Valetine Act, a state anti-trust act for conspiring to keep wages low.
The grand jury also censured Mayor Cunningham, most of the Youngstown Council, and the police force for being "unworthy to hold office".
However, a judge quickly threw out the indictment and all blame was put on the workers, as was normal.
Little Steel Strike
"When I got there I thought the Great War had started over again. Gas was flying all over the place and shots flying and flares going up and it was the first time I had ever seen anything like it in my life."
- one union organizer
"I want them women off that picket line down there."
- Charley Richmond
Richmond, supported by plenty of other policemen, tried to bully the women off the picket line. The women refused to back down and began cursing and berating Richmond.
Richmond responded in the best way he knew - with tear gas.
Some of the women had brough their children with them, including at least one infant. Men who had witnessed this became enraged and charged the police line. They managed to isolate one officer and beat him.
The police panicked and fired into the strikers, wounding several. Suprisingly the strikers didn't flee, but regrouped and re-enaged the police.
In addition, SWOC organizers frantically tried to get the authorities to call a cease-fire. However, their efforts met with no success, and the conflict continued to spiral out of control. As one SWOC member later recounted, "The shooting was going on, and I was standing right in front with bullets whizzing by my ears ... They were shooting the real stuff — bullets. ...I said: 'Boys, we're all crippled up. Let's retreat.' Just then I saw a fellow reaching down for his handkerchief; the gas was bad. A bullet hit him. I heard him gurgle." Two young strikers then came to the aid of the wounded John Bogovich as blood poured from his neck. As they attempted to get him to safety, the men carrying Bogovich were forced to the ground three times to avoid new volleys of police gunfire. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain. Bogovich died on the way to the hospital.The death of Bogovich only intensified the violence. Some of the strikers returned with their own guns.
- SWOC organizer John Steuben
Eventually Steuben was able to negotiate a cease fire.
But the mill owners got what they wanted. The violence gave reason to bring in the national guard and impose martial law.
Picketing was strictly limited so the mill owners were able to break the strike.