Desperate Workers Used Mound to Keep Dream Alive —
As far as anyone knows, no event at the prehistoric McKees Rocks Indian Mound was as significant as what occurred 111 years ago.
Thousands of people speaking a half dozen languages gathered next to what remained of the burial site.
Not that anyone knew what had been there before. They were desperately focused on what could be.
The flat-topped stone bluff on which the mound once sat was big enough for throngs to vent their anger and plan action. It was easy to walk to, and it was simple to defend. Police and company cops could be expected to try intimidation.
These were strikers.
Most were immigrants from various sections of Hungaria, including Croatia, Magyar and Slovakia. We know them affectionately as “hunkies.” Back then, there was nothing affectionate in the name. They were deplored.
There also were Russians and Germans.
Their different languages had allowed the railroad car manufacturer in the valley below to keep them separated, and to pay them next to nothing — and sometimes even nothing.
The workers had had enough.
But, before I get into their walkout, let’s change the way you think about immigrants.
This Land Is Your Land . . .
We’ve been taught people came to this country a century ago for a better life, and to become Americans. Not quite.
In 1909, most came here with no intention of staying.
Most were young peasant farmers. Their dream was to make enough money here in factories and mines, and then go back home and buy 20 or 30 acres to farm.
That was the promise. It was the dream dispensed by recruiting agents for U.S. companies.
A Hungarian historian says it was a pipe dream. She estimates it took 7 to 10 years to save enough. Few, she says, had enough stamina to work that hard for that long. Thousands died in the trying.
But, at the time, it seemed quite possible.
So, they came to mills in and around Pittsburgh, and coal mines of West Virginia. They lived in barely tolerable conditions. That’s mostly because they wanted no more than that. They wanted to send as much money home as possible.
They would do the jobs Americans didn’t want to do, work longer and for less. Americans despised them.
The Walls We Build
To residents and workers born here, they looked like lowlifes, and they sounded stupid.
In McKees Rocks, they lived in crowded housing rented from the Pressed Steel Car Company.
That was in the Bottoms section along the Ohio River, and in Presston, the company town adjoining the plant. American workers lived in McKees Rocks proper, or across the river in the North Side of Pittsburgh.
The 1910 Census shows the town had just under 15,000 people. That was twice what it had 10 years before.
Of that number, less than a third were born here, and had native parents. A similar number were born here, but their parents came from overseas. The biggest portion of the McKees Rocks population, 6,100, was born outside the United States.
Of those foreign born, 4,500 came from Austria, Hungary or Russia.
A Corporate Villain
Most of the foreigners came to work at the Pressed Steel Car Company.
They learned soon enough that it was operated by a super villain, Frank N. Hoffstot.
Presston, also known as “Hunkeyville,” had 230 company houses. Rent was $12 a month, an amount that could not be met without taking in boarders.
The two-story frame structures were tightly aligned in long rows. They had no indoor plumbing. Each house had four stalls the company called rooms.
In order to keep their stalls and their jobs, the men were expected to pay bribes to foremen and housing agents, and pay exorbitant fees for such things as marriage licenses.
Which brings up another point: women. They were there, and in great enough numbers to have been a significant force in the walkout.
Okay, let’s get to the strike.
The diabolical Hoffstot, as he was portrayed in the newspapers, introduced “scientific management,” fast-paced assembly line production.
Cranes swung sheets of heavy steel over and around the men, who speedily worked 12 or more hours a day.
Daily ‘Slaughter’ Inside Plant
The coroner estimated one worker a day was killed at the Pressed Steel plant.
“These simple people are slaughtered every day, not simply killed, but slaughtered,” the Pittsburgh Leader reported.
“When some poor “Hunky,” as they even familiarly call themselves now, is maimed and mangled at his work, some foreman, or other petty “boss” pushes the bleeding body aside with his foot to make room for another living man . . . The new man often works for some minutes over the dead body until a labor gang takes it away.”
Speed, uninterrupted, was everything.
Hoffstot added a “pool system” of pay. It meant you got paid based on what everyone produced, not just yourself. Your pay, therefore, was determined by the slowest man in the group.
A complex variety of incentives, bonuses and deductions meant no one knew just how much, or how little, to expect on pay day.
The company said if workers did not like what was in their pay envelopes, they could quit.
And, so it was on a Tuesday morning in July that a contingent of immigrant workers took a set of resolutions, composed by a sympathetic American, to the company office.
The company refused to see them.
Six hundred men in the riveting department put down their tools and left the shops. By 9:30 a.m., 4,000 others did likewise. The strike was on.
Stowe Township Police Chief T.A. Farrell hurried to the scene. He tried to arrest one of the men leaving the plant, perhaps to scare the others into returning. It didn’t work.
The Violence Begins
Fifty outraged workers beat the police chief severely. He escaped by jumping aboard a passing wagon.
By 10:30 a.m., the wives got wind of what was happening. They went to the plant, several hundred strong, to heckle and threaten the skilled workers who remained working inside.
It was taking on all the makings of a peasant uprising.
The foreigners understood those. They didn’t quite get the American idea of a more-restrained fight between organized labor and management.
Early the next morning, the strikers stopped streetcars going to the plant from the North Side. Any worker who had not yet joined their cause was ejected.
They also prevented the arrival of 500 scabs from Altoona on an early-morning train. It was clear Pressed Steel had been expecting trouble.
A company in New York City provided strikebreakers, recruiting them overseas, and paying their fares to the Land of Opportunity.
By 11 o’clock, 4,000 men, women, and children gathered at the plant gates. They threw bricks and stones at the few remaining workers who had managed to sneak in.
Things got worse when Chief Farrell and 40 officers arrived to protect the men inside.
The strikers and their wives brandished clubs and knives. The policemen drew revolvers, and 50 to 100 people, including Chief Farrell, were seriously injured in the battle.
I don’t know how many times one can get seriously injured in two days, but the police chief must have been nearing the limit.
Later in the evening, word came that strikebreakers were on the ferry Steel Queen. Several hundred strikers rushed the riverbank and shot at the barge, forcing it to turn back.
10,000 Out of Work
By day’s end, Pressed Steel was shut down, and 10,000 Americans and foreigners were out of work.
The next day (Thursday, July 15), the stuff of Hunky nightmares arrived, the “Black Cossacks.”
They weren’t really Cossacks, the ethnic group often used to put down rebellions where they came from. That’s just what they called the horse-mounted police who showed up.
Many injuries were reported in skirmishes the 40 mounted police. A sullen stalemate trotted in with police reinforcements.
The first mass meeting of the eight-week strike occurred that morning at the Indian Mound. American skilled workers, who had issues of their own with the company, joined the strike.
That unification is cited as the beginning of industrialized unions in America. Skilled and unskilled labor honor each others picket lines. It didn’t last in this strike, but it set an example.
Participation by Americans caused the general public to begin regarding the strikers more sympathetically.
Hoffstot, in turn, began to be seen as a nasty human being.
“It’s nobody’s business how I run my affairs,” the Pittsburgh Leader quoted him.
He spent most of the strike comfortably far away in New York.
Strikebreakers Keep Coming
The company continued importing foreign strikebreakers. Some arrived from New York on July 27. More on August 13.
At the same time, the sheriff and his deputies evicted strikers from their homes.
As long as they didn’t resort to violence, the foreigners got good coverage. For example:
“It was a heart-rending scene as Sheriff Addison C. Gumbert walked up the steps to the house and was met by [Mr.] Polock, standing in the doorway and holding a baby in his left arm. With the other he was waving a small American flag, that of his adopted country, to attract the child’s attention.
“Stolidly the man stood and heard the sheriff read a notice which he did not understand. An interpreter explained the situation to Polock, who gazed now to the right, then to the left and then down at the child, the tears streaming down his cheeks.”
When immigrants fought back, however, they were often described as mindless savages.
On the night of August 11, a Croat striker was killed by a bullet fired by a man defending himself as a crowd attacked.
That led to a funeral march of thousands through McKees Rocks, with heavily armed police lining the route.
Almost daily, meetings were held at the Indian Mound site. Strike news and instructions were relayed by well-organized translators.
Men and women served as roving pickets, and as lookouts for any delivery of scabs by boat or rail. The strikers had two or three boats to patrol the river.
Well into the strike, a group of women organized a daring raid on the company restaurant. They stole three barrels of potatoes, a barrel of onions, a quantity of cooked meats, and several hundred loaves of bread.
More than $9,000 was donated by readers of the Pittsburgh Leader to help feed striker families.
Socialists Show Up
Then, Socialist organizers showed up. Pittsburgh newspapers and American workers leading the strike didn’t like Socialists.
The hunkies, however, found Socialists respectful and they understood the value of violence, even if they talked way too much.
According to the New York Times, workers felt defeated. Violence could spur government intervention, they thought, and then maybe they could get some of what they asked for.
That led to August 22, what came to be called Bloody Sunday.
We know Pressed Steel had a company doctor on hand for the workers. We know that because Dr. W.J. Davidson was shot through the neck, killed by a striker as he left the plant. Perhaps, his production line manner wasn’t the best.
Reports came in that more scabs were on their way.
Checking streetcars, strikers happened upon Deputy Sheriff Harry Exley. He was notorious for evicting families. They told him to get out of the streetcar.
He pulled out his revolver.
“Get away, or I’ll kill every last one of you!” he bellowed.
Instead, he was mobbed. Every last one of them killed him.
Then, they stopped a streetcar with several off-duty state constables aboard. Two were killed.
Three strikers died in gun battles that raged through the night. Many others were wounded, a dozen seriously.
The violence turned Americans off.
The Pittsburgh Leader barely mentions the crowd that later went up to the Indian mound to hear Eugene Debs, the famed Socialist organizer.
Debs called the McKees Rocks strike “the greatest labor fight in all my history in the labor movement . . . [It is] a harbinger of a new spirit among the unorganized, foreign-born workers in the mass production industries who can see here in McKees Rocks the road on which they must travel — the road of industrial unionism.”
The Times didn’t think Debs had much of an impact.
“The strikers have been listening to these arguments until they seem to be a little weary, and they sat about on the grass mostly with preoccupied expressions,” the Times wrote.
Debs blamed the violence on the company’s hired assassins. Then, he noted that even in defeat, the strikers would win.
Just Another Brick?
A brick and a note helped finally bring the strike to an end.
A strikebreaker inside the stockaded plant threw a brick at picketers. A note was attached to it.
“We are undergoing hardships. Don’t want to be here. We were brought here through lies and we want out. Can’t you help us?”
The American strike leaders took it and ran. It quickly brought the U.S. and Austro-Hungarian governments in to conduct peonage hearings.
Peonage occurs when an employer forces someone to pay a debt through work. The worker, or peon, has little to no control over employment conditions.
It was outlawed in the U.S. in 1868 because peonage kept many blacks enslaved despite the Emancipation Proclamation.
Strikebreakers testified they had been virtual prisoners inside the plant, forced to work at gunpoint.
A Times reporter wrote a guard was beating a foreign strikebreaker just outside the window of the hearing room.
A member of the Austro-Hungarian consulate opened the window and ordered the beating to stop, saying the guard was just proving what was being alleged.
U.S. officials presiding over the hearing told the diplomat to sit down, and pay attention only to what was going on inside the room.
The insulted Hungarian official said he would report the matter to his empire’s consul.
In the end, the company got off.
But, Pressed Steel was ready to bargain.
It offered the 1,000 skilled American strikers much of what they wanted, which was what they used to get.
The divide-and-conquer tactic worked.
The 9,000 unskilled foreigners were offered next to nothing, a small revamping of the pool system. Since it wasn’t in writing, even that eventually became nothing.
Everyone declared victory, except the hunkies. They held out, went back, walked out again, went back . . .
Few made it back to Hungaria to be peasant farmers. Their children and grandchildren did well enough here, though. Pierogies abound.
Soon after the strike, the Pennsylvania Railroad placed its largest order ever with the company. And, evil Hoffstot smiled.
Leon J. Pollom, writer/researcher
I had promised a fun quiz on the Indian mound this week. We’ll save it for next week. That’s when we’ll finish this series by reporting how the future looks for the Ancient Ones removed from the mound.
For more details on the Pressed Steel strike, I recommend an honors thesis written by Andrew Snyder in 2000. Careful, the topic is known to be addictive.