thumbnail of The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 3; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 1
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JAMES DOWNEY:
Up in plant six area, this is where the superintendents and the high officals of J and L, this is where they lived at. It was this area there that blacks, Italians, Polacks, Syrians, Lebanese, what have you, only time they was up there, if they went up there to do some kind of manual work, and around five or six o'clock in the evening was the latest that you could be up there. And if you was caught up there after those hours, the policeman, he would arrest you, because you wasn't allowed up there, you see. Like the swimming pool up in plant twelve, the Anglo-Saxon, they ran it, they didn't allow the Italians, the Polack, the Russians, the Lebanese, what have you, they told them, says, Don't come in here 'cause you're too hairy, we don't want the water to get too hairy and whatnot, go down to the Ohio River, down there by the mill, and swim. Yeah. Those are the things that they put those people through. Yeah.
INTERVIEWER:
Let me ask you another question. Now, there were all these ethnic groups. Did this economic situation that they found themselves in, everyone oppressed, everyone under the control of the company, did that bring all these various ethnic groups together in some way, shape, or form?
JAMES DOWNEY:
The Union.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you tell me about that?
JAMES DOWNEY:
Well, OK, lemme, wait. The union, see, when the union begins to get organized, and get strength, so did the peoples get organized at being politi-, in politics, see, and this is when you begin to elect an Italian fellow named Duke Fontana, the first, the first, let's say, non-what's-it-called as a mayor, see. All before that it was all Anglo-Saxon mayors, see. Duke Fontana, that big old building, see, up here, those Italians, they built that building there-
INTERVIEWER:
We can't get out of the time.
JAMES DOWNEY:
Wait, wait, I know, one second, they built that, they built that building, see. But what I'm saying is, they started getting unity, they getting strength, they wasn't afraid, like they used to were before, you understand, you see? When people, when people mobilize, start mobilizing, there's strength there, you see? Like Dr. Martin Luther King, he got strength there, but the thing is when he start out, he had a lot of trouble, even with blacks.
INTERVIEWER:
OK, Mr. Downey, but you need to keep me in the '30s.
JAMES DOWNEY:
Oh, I know that, I'm just showing you about, oh, go ahead, go ahead, but—
INTERVIEWER:
Because, see, at the time—
JAMES DOWNEY:
I'm not talking about that, I'm just giving you an example, that's all. OK.
INTERVIEWER:
OK... if your father was here, and I asked him if it was all worth it, what the union accomplished, what all he went through, if it was all worth it. What would he tell me?
JAMES DOWNEY:
He would say, every bit of it, OK.
INTERVIEWER:
My father would say.
JAMES DOWNEY:
Yeah, my father would say—
INTERVIEWER:
Wait a minute, Mr. Downey.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Now.
JAMES DOWNEY:
OK. My father would say that every, every moment, every second that he put in, he put in many, many hours, minutes, months, and days, and years into bringing this reality. And as I say now, the only thing I say, I just wish he would've been here to receive how these things have changed. Many peoples have told me, after my father died, 1945, that, \"Yes, your father was a great man.\" But before, before when he was living, he was no good. No no, he was a troublemaker. All this kind of stuff, see. But now they say, \"Oh yes, oh, he was a good man, a great man,\" you know. \"We need more peoples like him,\" you see. But he's gone.
[End of Downey interview; beginning of Ruttenberg interview]
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
I was a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. I transferred there from American University in Washington, D.C. when I, to become a junior. And in the fall of 1933, I began interviewing steel workers throughout the steel companies, steel industries, steel villages and towns, to provide information for a study by the Brookings Institution that was being made of the iron and steel industry. And I got to interview a considerable number of steel workers throughout many of the steel towns in western Pennsylvania, and Aliquippa, Pennsylvania was one in which I concentrated. And as a result of that I wrote an article in Nation Magazine that appeared in November of nineteen hundred and, and thirty-four. And it, it details the specifics of the organization of the town of Aliquippa, where the residents were divided by ethnic groups. It was not just a separation of whites and blacks. It was a separation of, of Croatians from Serbs, Irish, Irish from English, and so forth. And the,
the company Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation operated a very strict policy
of,
of control, of thought control and
of,
of human activity control,
insofar as any social or economic activity was concerned.
And George Isosky was a specific case where he was committed to an insane asylum in western Pennsylvania because he was unionizing, attempting to unionize, unionize the steel workers.
The, there had been an big uprising in, and a bursting of power of the chains of the, of the workers and their families with the election of Roosevelt. The NRA, the National Recovery Act was passed with Section 7A that provided the, the freedom to bargain collectively and to unionization. And the union of the old Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel and Tin Workers had attempted to organize in Aliquippa. And the company beat it back by railroading the leaders of it to insane asylums or other types of, of, of repression. George Isosky was committed to an insane asylum. The wife of the Governor of Pennsylvania, Cornelia, her name was Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, she was Gif Pinchot's wife, and she came to Aliquippa and spoke and broke the strong control that the company police had on the community. And there were upwards of three thousand workers that came to, to the first meeting, which were then held periodically. And she spoke there several times. I remember helping her up the steps to get on the back, on the flat, on a flatbed truck from where she spoke. And the, the control of the company over the unionizing meetings was broken, and I was able to, relatively comfortably, to walk through the town, and without being harassed.
INTERVIEWER:
That's great. I mean, did you have one more comment, because I was going to ask that question?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The, the—I broke the chain there.
INTERVIEWER:
Sorry.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The, the, the...
INTERVIEWER:
That's OK. Let, let me, let me just, let me just jump in and, and, and ask the next question, then. Can you describe Tom Girdler's roll when he ran J & L in Aliquippa?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, Tom Girdler had, was a very widely experienced steel operator who'd worked for a number of different companies, and he had spent some of his earlier years in Aliquippa at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation. At the time, in 1934, the period '33, '34, '35, about which we are talking, he was the CEO of the Republic Steel Corporation. But he had had perfected a worker and a thought control system in Aliquippa that that existed until the union came along in 1933 and '34, and '33 to '34, while the union organizers were beaten and driven out of town, and they couldn't rent a place for a union office. It wasn't until Mrs. Pinchot, the Governor's wife, broke that.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, why was the Aliquippa area referred to as Little Siberia?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, they called it Little Siberia. I guess that expression came from the immigrants from Russia who knew Siberia to be a place where you were sent off to prison and to torture and to slave labor. And, so the conditions were so severe that that expression was used, a Little Siberia, and, and folks that came from, families that came from other countries and other backgrounds picked it up from the, from the immigrants from Russia.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you tell me that again, but also include the explanation as to why, because remember my questions won't be included?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The... let's break for just a second there.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The—I, I wasn't following you—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Aliquippa was called Little Siberia because it was a, like a penal colony, and it was named after Siberia, where dissidents were, and, and political dissidents were, were sentenced in Russia. And the Russian immigrants in Aliquippa brought the name and the word over to it. And they called it Little Siberia, because it wasn't as big as Siberia which is a huge geographical area.
INTERVIEWER:
Will you comment on the state of civil liberties, particularly freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah. Civil liberties just didn't exist in—
INTERVIEWER:
You have to wait until I get finished, because, again, my voice won't be on. If you could begin now, please.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Civil liberties in Aliquippa were non-existent and they were carefully prohibited, and very effectively controlled during the period from the 1919 steel strike right up through 1933 into 1934, where you had union organizers, union activists sent to insane asylums when they were perfectly sane. And they were, there, there was such fear in, in the community, and the organizers when they came to town were beaten and driven out so that it was a Little Siberia, all right. However, in 1934, Mrs. Pinchot, the wife of the governor of Pennsylvania, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, she spoke to large groups, and got the state police, there were twelve state policemen that the governor sent in to protect her and to protect the union, the union workers.
INTERVIEWER:
Good. How did workers act or behave when you first visited there? When you talked to Jim in the pre-interview, you described wide-spread fear, and, but you said you were too young to be afraid.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, it, when I first went into Aliquippa, why it was, I had to do so secretly. And I went and visited a merchant there that I had a family relation, had a family reference to. And at one time whenever the, the, the plainclothes policemen got wind of me, why I had to take refuge in a small synagogue there in Aliquippa. And I, I'd come back a few times thereafter. They never ever caught up with me, although, because I was there as a student, a young fellow interviewing and talking to people, and I met them and talked to—I got into homes, I got into homes through this merchant whose name I forget, who had a store there on the main street of Aliquippa, and therefore was able to, to get my interviews. But when I published the article in the Nation Magazine in November 1934, while I was still a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, why, I had already had about three months before that when the town was fairly well opened up so that they quit having policemen or, or plainclothes men follow you and try to drive you out of town. The, later on when I was an organizer for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in Newcastle, a neighboring town, I got chased out there with a detective using a pistol to run me out of town. That never happened to me in Aliquippa, but it would have if I hadn't a been secretive in my initial approaches there.
INTERVIEWER:
OK. In the pre-interview you also mentioned the impact of, the impact of the defeat of the 1919 strike. Can you elaborate on that?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The, the—you have to bear in mind when you're talking about the conditions in 1933 and '34 in Aliquippa, that there was a strike in 1919 that the, that was broken with police power, and it was a vicious power. And it was also a strike that was broken by bringing in larger numbers of black workers from South, from the South so that they were introduced into the community under the most, most unfavorable conditions. Of course, as the,
the town itself was broken up, and you had a segregated place for blacks, a segregated place for, for Englishmen, for Italians. In other words, the whites were not altogether. They were segregated among themselves because there were divisions there.
So that was a plan of keeping them apart. There was a black individual who was shot dead in one of these other plants because they said he was being a thief and he was trying to steal. But actually he, he, he, he had wandered over the borderline, and, in that case. Another instance, whenever you had the workers, the, the Committee men who appeared before a Labor Board hearing, why, they, when it was over, why, they asked for police protection to go back. And the company attorney by the name of Bostick, he said, well he'll, he'll talk to his client to see if they could provide protection for them when they got back. Well, he talked to his client, and he was, came back and said, \"Well, they don't need protection to go back.\" But Mrs. Pinchot and the governor had arranged for a dozen state troopers to take these witnesses before the Labor Board back, to back to their homes in safety.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, do you remember, we talked about this in the pre-interview, do you remember hearing about the shooting strikers in Ambridge just across the river from Aliquippa, and that was in 1933?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah, 1933 when I first started my interviewing, I, I had been to Aliquippa, I'd been to Ambridge, which was just across the Ohio River from Aliquippa and downstream a few miles. And at the Central Tube Company there was a strike being conducted by the Metal Workers Union, which, which, which was led by the, by the Communist Party group. And one of the strikers there was killed at that time, and there was a good deal of publicity about that. The, but, the, the political orientation of the leaders, the organizers of that union were as beside the point. The, the, the, the use of gun power that had been used successfully to defeat the strike in 1919 was attempted again here in 1933 and '34. And while it had its victims, it did not succeed in stopping the unionization.
INTERVIEWER:
Great. Now can you describe for me the situation that led to John L. Lewis forming the CIO in 1935?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, the, in the early twenties, the United Mine Workers of America was one of the largest unions in the country, with upwards of four-hundred thousand members. But during the twenties they had been oppressed to such an extent and denied new contracts that, by the time the Depression, had come along in 1931 and '32, they were quite weak. With the, with the NRA, National Industrial Recovery Act, coming into effect in 1933, John L. Lewis and Philip Murray were able to re-organize the coal mines in, in the anthracite as well as in the soft coal industry and they were quite successful. Where, and so as you got into 1934 and '35, when John Lewis wanted to organize steel because many a big influence in the union, in, in the coal industry were the captive mines that were owned by the steel companies. So he wanted to protect his own flank by organizing the steel workers. Also, he had a broader object, too, which was to strengthen the organized labor movement, and steel and auto and rubber and basic industries of that kind were essential for unionization to protect the unions already in existence and to march forward to others.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you describe the AFL convention when John L. Lewis actually broke with the AFL?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, John Lewis was a good tacticianer, and he, and he started to advocate industrial unionization and tried to get the, the AFL to, to agree with it. They refused, and, and step by step he got, eventually got to the point where he broke off from the AF of L and set up the Committee for Industrial Organization, the CIO. And he didn't overtly move and walk out of the AF of L. The AF of L separated him, said that they couldn't tolerate industrial unionism inside the, of the AF of L, whereupon he finally took his mine workers out of the AF of L.
INTERVIEWER:
Do you have any remembrances or have you heard any stories about John L. Lewis' confrontation with Bill Hutchinson from the competition there at that AFL Convention?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, of course Lewis was a pugnacious fellow and a real leader of, of men, in, in, in his own style, and he opposed the AF of L leaders who were strictly craft union people like carpenters or plumbers, and even engaged in fisticuffs with one of, one of the, one of the leaders of the of the carpenters' union. He was also a showman, and it was not really a fight that, like a, like a boxing match. It was more of a push and shove affair, but it was, it got a lot of publicity, and it's become part of our history books now.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, can you describe the formation of SWOC and what you recall about those early meetings?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yes. The—I had been active in the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers indirectly because I had become the secretary to the rank and file group in 1934 at the April Convention, 1934, of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. I was the, I, I knew most of the delegates that had come to there, come from the new unions that were organized under the Blue Eagle, the NIRA. And I introduced many of them to each other. And I also had a typewriter with me, and I was the only one that could typewrite, and I was nominated and made the, the secretary of this rank and file group. And, and around Memorial Day weekend, that week of Memorial Day 1934, after having—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
—succeeded and taken control of the Amalgamated at its convention in—
Series
The Great Depression
Raw Footage
Interview with James Downey. Part 3; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 1
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Blackside, Inc.
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Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis (St. Louis, Missouri)
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Shared camera roll and video of interviews with James Downey and Harold Ruttenberg conducted for The Great Depression.
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Interviewee: Downey, James
Interviewee: Ruttenberg, Harold J.
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
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Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
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Citations
Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 3; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 1,” Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed January 31, 2023, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-td9n29pv4c.
MLA: “The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 3; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 1.” Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. January 31, 2023. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-td9n29pv4c>.
APA: The Great Depression; Interview with James Downey. Part 3; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 1. Boston, MA: Film and Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-151-td9n29pv4c