Featuring weekly programs highlighting the many labor markers throughout Western Pennsylvania and the people and events that made them significant.
Charles McCollester,(retired) was the director of the Pennsylvania Center for the Study of Labor Relations and a professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
He holds a doctoral degree in philosophy from the University of Louvain in Belgium. He was a machinist and the Chief Steward of UE 610 at the Union Switch and Signal in Swissvale Pennsylvania. His book “The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio”, chronicles the struggles of Native Americans, women, and laborers of all nationalities as they wrestle with the point of Pittsburgh and try to claim a fair share.
Charlie McCollester is a founding member and past president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation.
(portrait by Bill Yund)
The McKees Rocks Mound
The McKees Rocks Strike of 1909
The 1909 strike at the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks marked a major industrial rebellion by Eastern and Southern European immigrants. Two months of intense labor struggle demonstrated the immigrants’ fighting spirit and organizational abilities. The conflict came to a head with an all-out battle in front of the company gates on August 22, “Bloody Sunday” when at least 11 were killed. The strike ended with improved conditions, but a split between immigrant workers and skilled second-generation Americans undermined the victory until a USW contract was signed in 1940.
Harwick Coal Mine Disaster (1904)
Coal mining in Pennsylvania took a terrible toll of death and injury for workers and environmental degradation for communities. For 26 years between 1890 and 1920, mining deaths exceeded one thousand per year in the Commonwealth. The worst coal mining disaster in Allegheny County occurred in 1904 at the Harwick Mine running under the towns of Cheswick and Springdale. On January 25, 1904, a methane gas explosion killed 186 miners and several rescuers as well. The heroic effort for the rescuers inspired Andrew Carnegie to set up the Carnegie Hero Fund. The United Mine Workers erected a large stone memorial over the mass grave of 165 bodies, most burned beyond identification.
Allegheny Arsenal Explosion (1862)
On September 17, 1862, while the armies of the North and South wrestled to a bloody stalemate at Antietam in Maryland, a mighty explosion ripped through the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville killing 78 workers, mostly women and girls who worked there filling cartridges, shells, and canisters with powder. A teamster horse’s iron shoes probably ignited the black powder not cleaned up due to the push for increased production. Workers had protested the lack of housecleaning and the new hard stone roadway to the facility. In a tragic coincidence, the bloodiest day in U.S. military history – the Battle of Antietam – was the same day as the worst Civil War civilian accident, the Allegheny Arsenal explosion. The explosion was also the worst industrial accident inside Pittsburgh’s boundaries.
The Founding of the Ironworkers Union, 1896
The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers was formed on February 4, 1896 at a meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with 16 delegates from the local unions in Boston, Massachusetts, Buffalo, New York, Chicago, Illinois, Cleveland, Ohio, New York City, New York, Detroit, Michigan, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh. It was one of the charter members of the AFL’s Building Trades Department, which was created in 1908.
Morewood Massacre, 1891
The Morewood massacre was an armed labor-union conflict in Morewood, Pennsylvania, in Westmoreland County, west of the present-day borough of Mount Pleasant in 1891. Nine coke workers were shot and killed during a strike for higher wages and an eight-hour work day.
The United Mine Workers union, formed only the previous year, organized the strike against the local coke works owned by industrialist Henry Clay Frick. After a work stoppage beginning on February 10, weeks of increasing unrest, and evictions of mining families from company-controlled property, a crowd of about a thousand strikers accompanied by a brass band marched on the company store. Deputized members of the 10th regiment of the National Guard under the command of Captain Loar fired several volleys into the crowd, killing six strikers outright and fatally wounding three more. Thousands attended their funeral.
A Pennsylvania state historical marker describing the Morewood event was erected in 2000 on Route 981 (Morewood Road) near the Route 119 overpass.
Mammoth Mine Explosion, 1891
The Mammoth Mine disaster or Frick Mine explosion occurred on January 27, 1891 just after 9:00 AM in the Mammoth No. 1 mine in Mount Pleasant Township, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Newspapers reported that fired was ignited by a miner’s oil lamp, resulting in the deaths of 109 men and boys. Most of the miners were not killed by the force of the explosion, but rather were suffocated by the effects of afterdamp.
From approximately 1879 to 1889 the Mammoth No. 1 mine was owned by Colonel J.W. Moore Coke Company in Greensburg, PA. In 1889, the mine was purchased by The H. C. Frick Coke Company.
Accounts vary, but it is believe that 109 coal miners, mostly Polish, Hungarian, and Italian immigrants, were killed on the morning of the explosion. Seventy-nine of the victims are buried in a mass grave at St. John’s Union Cemetery. In the early 2000s, two Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission markers and a pair of personalized headstones were added to the site.
Founding of the American Federation of Labor
The Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada (FOTLU) was a federation of labor unions created on November 15, 1881, at Turner Hall in Pittsburgh. It changed its name to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) on December 8, 1886.
The Pittsburgh convention was attended by 107 delegates from eight national unions, 11 city labor federations, 42 local craft unions, and three district and 46 local assemblies of the Knights of Labor. The International Typographical Union had the largest trade union delegation, with 14 attendees. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, International Molders and Foundry Workers Union of North America, the American Flint Glass Workers’ Union of North America, the Cigar Makers’ International Union, the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, the Coopers’ International Union of North America, the International Granite Cutter’s Union and the Lake Seamen’s Union also attended. Samuel Gompers participated as a delegate from the Cigar Makers’.
1877 Railroad Strike
The Pittsburgh railway strike occurred in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as part of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. It was one of many incidents of strikes, labor unrest and violence in cities across the United States, including several in Pennsylvania. Other cities dealing with similar unrest included Philadelphia, Reading, Shamokin and Scranton. The incidents followed repeated reductions in wages and sometimes increases in workload by railroad companies, during a period of economic recession following the Panic of 1873.
Between July 21 and 22 in Pittsburgh, a major center of the Pennsylvania Railroad, some 40 people (including women and children) were killed in the ensuing riots; strikers burned the Union Depot and 38 other buildings at the yards. In addition, more than 120 train engines and more than 1,200 rail cars were destroyed. Due to track damage, trains did not run for a week following the cessation of violence. Estimates of losses ranged from $2 million to $5 million, according to the railroad company and an 1878 report by a state legislative investigative committee. Pittsburgh was the site of the most violence and physical damage of any city in the country during the Great Strike. Fresh troops arrived in the city on July 28, and within two days peace had been restored and the trains resumed.
Commentators would later place blame for the incident on a range of actors, from the railroad, to reluctant or even sympathetic members of the police and militia, to tramps and vagrants who travelled to the city to take part of the growing public unrest. In the immediate aftermath, the events in Pittsburgh and elsewhere help to solidify support for various labor groups, which had struggled during the years of the economic downturn.
A number of historical markers have since been erected at points throughout the city of Pittsburgh to commemorate events that took place during the strikes.
Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm
Jane Grey Cannon Swisshelm was an American journalist, publisher, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate. She was one of the first women journalists hired by Horace Greeley at his New York Tribune. She was active as a writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and as a publisher and editor in St. Cloud, Minnesota, where she founded a string of newspapers and regularly wrote for them.
She was born Jane Grey Cannon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1815, one of several children of Mary (Scott) and Thomas Cannon, both of Scotch-Irish descent. Her father was a merchant and real estate speculator.
In the 1840’s, Swisshelm began writing articles against capital punishment, and stories, poems, and articles for an anti-slavery newspaper, the Spirit of Liberty, and others in Pittsburgh. Prompted by the demise of the Spirit of Liberty and the similarly themed Albatross, Swisshelm founded the newspaper Saturday Visiter in 1847. It eventually reached a national circulation of 6,000, and in 1854 was merged with the weekly edition of the Pittsburgh Commercial Journal. She wrote many editorials advocating women’s property rights.
“A vigorous defense”- Pittsburgh’s forgotten Civil War fortifications
As Robert E. Lee was preparing his invasion of the north in June 1863, citizens across Pennsylvania were in a state of panic. With news spreading of the impending Confederate advance, towns and cities across the Keystone State mirrored a sense of fear and uncertainty. These communities prepared for the worst, and began constructing defensive fortifications at a rapid pace.
Believed to be viable targets for Confederate forces, the city of Pittsburgh, as well as neighboring Allegheny City and Birmingham, began an aggressive assembly of defensive works. This region of western Pennsylvania served as an industrial and military hub, but also sat within 50 miles of enemy territory along the Pennsylvania/Virginia border. In addition, the Ohio River formed at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, and starting in Pittsburgh, served as an open highway to western states and territories.
The Allegheny Textile Strike of 1845 began on September 15 in what is now known as the North Side in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the Market House where more than 400 textile workers awaited an update on their push for a ten hour day, as opposed to 12, without a pay cut. The strike began over textile workers, primarily women and children, fighting for a ten hour day without a pay cut from their typical 12 hour day.
t was a peaceful strike until October 7th when there was a ‘riot’ that challenged gender norms about how women behaved in strikes and protests–women began literal mudslinging as well as the use of axes to break down the fences surrounding factories. These actions were mainly taken to scare away scabs that took their place in the factories.
On October 13th, civic leaders attempted to write to factory owners and convince them to change the industry standard to 10 hour work days but they were unsuccessful in this effort. It wasn’t until mid-october that factories were reopened with about half of their normal amount fo workers.
In March 1848, a law was finally passed for the 10 hour workday, however a provision in it allowed for special contracts allowing a twelve hour day. This caused another strike in the textile industry that mirrored the 1845 strike.
128 years later, the Homestead Strike of 1892 retains its capacity to shock. It was a defining event which revealed in the starkest terms the respective strength of labor and management in America in the 1890s. The crushing defeat of the workers meant that there would be no recognized trade unionism and collective bargaining in steel and other heavy industries until the 1930s.
Martin Robison Delany was born free on May 6, 1812, in Charles Town, Virginia, now within West Virginia. The youngest of five children, Delany was the son of a slave and grandson of a prince, according to family reports. Delany was home schooled by his mother at first but he continued his education in Pennsylvania, alternating with work to help support his family.
When he was 19, he walked the 160 miles to Pittsburgh to attend the Bethel Church school for blacks and Jefferson College, where he studied Latin, Greek and classics. He also apprenticed with several abolitionist doctors to learn medicine. In Pittsburgh, Delany became active in abolitionist activities, including leading the Vigilance Committee that helped relocate fugitive slaves, helping to form the Young Men’s Literary and Moral Reform Society, and joining the integrated militia to help defend the black community against white mob attacks.
In recognition of his accomplishments, Martin Delany’s Pa History and Museum Commission marker is located at 5 PPG Place, 3rd Avenue and Market Street, Pittsburgh, Pa.
In this video, Charlie is describing the life and contributions of Crystal Eastman (1881-1928), a pioneer in Worker Health and Safety Studies and author of Worker Compensation laws. Crystal Eastman was also a pioneer in Women’s rights and Suffrage.
Eastman’s investigation of industrial accidents in Pittsburgh, published as “Work Accidents and the Law” (1910), seemed to be a legal and political breakthrough. She radically revised inherited common law standards, advocating a re-distribution of risk and loss to reconcile common law with common justice. Her formula seemed simple enough. “As I see it,” she explained in 1910, “the risks of trade, borne through all these years by the workmen alone, should in all wisdom and justice be shared by the employer.”
In recognition of her research, Crystal Eastman’s Pa History and Museum Commission marker is located in Market Square, Pittsburgh, Pa.
View an interactive map of the many historical labor sites in the Pittsburgh area: https://battleofhomestead.org/bhf/pittsburghs-labor-history-sites-an-interactive-map/