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INTERVIEWER:
First we want to do Aliquippa, then we'll pick up on what we just talked about.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah. Aliquippa kept control of the local political machine, the Republican machine, by only having Republican ballots at the polling places, and to restrict individuals from registering except as Republicans. And they wouldn't hire anyone there unless he was a registered Republican. And if he wasn't registered as anything, they would get him registered as a Republican, and they'd bring him out to vote. Of course in 1956, when Roosevelt, 1940, 1936, whenever Roosevelt was re-elected by a big majority, we had enormous campaigns to get the individual workers and their families registered to vote.
INTERVIEWER:
Let's stop again. Can you say that again, \"In 1936,\" say it...
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
In 1936, we had an enormous campaign to get the workers and their families registered so that they could vote for Roosevelt. And that was one of the big contributing factors to the enormity of his success in 19—in 1936 in his first re-election.
INTERVIEWER:
Will you comment on the increase of black voters and recent immigrants for the 1936 election?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah. In 1936 election, our problem was to establish that they were citizens for the immigrants, and the blacks that they were residents, which we had to go through the red tape on that to show that they were legally living on such and such a street in such and such a house. And so that made it, they, they did everything they could to obstruct the registration by having to show citizenship and having to show where, for in the case of blacks, particularly, that they were legal residents, that they just weren't migrants. And we had a great deal of success in that, but there were a goodly number that we couldn't qualify because of the time involved, and because of the problem of getting the citizenship papers, bringing them down to the registration places and likewise in establishing legal evidence. And they required affidavits so many people knew that you lived there. And we'd have to bring in, we didn't, many people, weren't many people had telephones then, but they had gas bills or something that they could... I think the gas, though, came from the company's gas company. But they had some, but you had to have some document to show that you really lived there.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, many of these immigrants were participants in the political process for the first time. Can you comment on why they, in '36, felt that they now had a stake in America, a stake in....?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
No, our campaign was very simple. I mean, \"We gotta keep Roosevelt in power because there was only [laughs] Hoover, Herbert Hoover or his equivalent. And if Landon came back into power, you're going to lose all the gains that Roosevelt brought. And he's got a lot of, and he's got a big unfinished agenda yet.\" So they were all voting for Roosevelt, and in terms of whoever the local candidates were. And we swept in some blacks for the first time into, the from western Pennsylvania into the, the Pennsylvania Legislature. And Homer Brown, who later became a distinguished jurist here, was a member of the Legislature. And my wife and I, we rode to Harrisburg with him, and there was no place in that 200 trip where we could stop and have lunch. We always brown-bagged it. And we'd stop somewhere, and, and, and, and have our, and have our lunch on the way.
INTERVIEWER:
What impact did the nation-wide 1937 sit-down strikes have on the steel industry?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The sit-down strikes were restricted to fabricating operations like auto, but in steel you did not have sit-down strikes because it's a process industry, hot molten metal and furnaces that you, you couldn't, you couldn't let the metal, the metal solidify there. So they couldn't engage in sit-down strikes there. What they engaged in were slow-down strikes where need be, and, and outright strikes where there was agreement between the union and the company for orderly shutdown of the blast furnace and the coke ovens and the open-hearth furnaces and the heating furnaces for steel, although you had to keep some heat there. So it would, they'd be on strike, but they would be three or four days shutting down a mill for a strike.
INTERVIEWER:
But what affect, if any, did the sit-down strikes have on the organizing effort in steel?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, the, the, the steel workers took great encouragement from the sit-down strikes, you know. And we had a lot of fabricating companies that did, come to think of it, did do some sit-down strikes. We, we didn't encourage it, particularly. We, we'd rather just have them be at home and being out on the picket line because they had the power to enforce the strike. But there were fabricating companies that did have sit-downs where they did, they merely took steel and fabricated it into a product. It, it was not a, a process plant.
INTERVIEWER:
Did the sit-down strikes give more excitement or inspiration to the, to, since the sit-down strike was successful, did they give more excitement or inspiration to the effort to organize steel as a result of the victories in the other, in the other industries?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Oh the, the, the sit-down strikes and the success of them in the, in the auto industry, particularly, were a great source of encouragement to the steel workers and helped us enormously because it showed that we were not alone. We had strength to cross the whole breadth of industry. And in, not only, not only auto, but all the other industries. We had spontaneous, we had...I remember the Armstrong Cork Company in Pittsburgh had a company union, an Employee Representation Plan, went back fifteen or twenty years, and they all came into the office and said they wanted to unionize. And they wound up in my office. And, and I gave them cards, and I said, \"You bring back the cards, you get a majority, why, we will, we'll give you a charter.\" And they come back within a week and they had all the individuals signed up. And then they took a vote in the company union, the Employee Representation Plan, they voted to disband and become a CIO local union. And so here they were cork workers, we did not take them into the steel industry. We had the pickle workers, the jam workers, the cruickshanks[?] in Lawrenceville. We didn't have a, we didn't take them into steel, but we put them into the appropriate organization in the Committee for Industrial Organization, the CIO.
INTERVIEWER:
We talked about it a little bit more, but the effect on Little Steel when U.S. Steel and Myron Taylor signed with SWOC in 1937.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah. Myron Taylor was, did a statesmanlike act in signing up with the union early. And I, I've always felt that he had personal political motivations 'cause he wanted to get into public life. And Roosevelt did appoint him as the representative, representative of the United States to the Vatican. But I think he also should be given credit for having the basic vision to see that the change had come about, it was time to recognize it and get on with the business of making steel and making profits. And U.S. Steel gained enormously from signing up with the union, 'cause they were able to raise prices way beyond the cost of the wage increases. And it brought U.S. Steel back. And Myron Taylor did a good job for his shareholders, and of course he did indirectly a good job for the employees also.
INTERVIEWER:
Do you remember how some of the other steel executives felt or some comments that they might have made when Myron Taylor did sign?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, they, they, they called him a \"sell out\". He sold them out. Myron Taylor sold out the Tom Girdler and Eugene Grace of Republic in Youngstown, in Bethlehem Steel respectively. They were fit to be tied, and, and, and, and, defied Taylor, and, and, and resisted and forced Lewis, forced Murray, a little ahead of when he wanted to, into a, into the steel strike. They, they forced it. He had no choice. He had to go ahead.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you tell me how, in particular, Girdler did provoke Murray into these, into the Little Steel strike?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, they would, they fired workers in Madison, in Canton, Ohio. Republic Steel, particularly, had a campaign to egg Murray on where he would be boxed into having to call a strike. And there were so many discriminate, discrimination cases and so many workers laid off so that he, that the, the workers themselves just went out on their own, and Murray had to support them. And then that led to the Little Steel strike, and then it spread to Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and Inland Steel, and Bethlehem Steel. Inland Steel, the officials, the Block family that owned it, owned the majority or a big part of the company, they, they were unenthusiastic about being part of the, of the Little Steel strike, but they did go along with it. But the real ring leader was, was Tom Girdler and Eugene Grace of Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel.
INTERVIEWER:
Again, now I want to go back to Girdler. Can you describe him again? You said that he was a good steel man, but a dictator.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah. Well, Tom Girdler was an authoritarian by nature. And he had been brought up in the steel industry, which was run very dictatorially among just management, among management. And so that spread, applied, of course, to the working force as well. And that was his method. And he had been involved in the 1919 steel strike. He saw how gun power had defeated the union. And he was confident that it could be done again in 1937. And, and it did temporarily succeed. And the union did have to withdraw the strike—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
—called off for strategic reasons to come back and fight another day. And of course they were eventually successful.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The preparation for, to provoke a strike by Girdler goes back a couple of years. Because when I, in, in the summer of 1934, I was employed as an investigator for the United States Senate committee investigating the munitions industry. And I was assigned to the Federal Laboratories Company here in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh for that purpose. And there, in a separate file, I ran across evidence and, and invoices of the tear gas and guns and shells that this company had purchased and provided to Republic Steel and, and to Youngstown Sheet & Tube and Bethlehem Steel. And I took that information, and I brought it down to Washington. And all hell broke loose because I'd gone beyond the jurisdiction of the Munitions Committee, and industry protested and protested. But the information became available, and Senator La Follette used it. And it was one of the pieces of information that was valuable in creating the La Follette Committee that was investigating civil liberties rights and violations in this country. So the, the companies were well armed with guns. And I saw that in 19--, during the Little Steel strike, when my wife and I were on the picket lines there in Youngstown, Ohio. We had a man shot dead right next to me. And, and of course the strikers they weren't, the, the strikers, we had their own means of retaliation, including guns. And in Madison, Ohio, when I was in charge of the picket line there, a few weeks later, we had two men killed on the picket line. So the companies were well, well organized with, with, with ammunition. And they provoked this strike. The Little Steel strike began in Republic Steel plants which is a pre-meditated program of Republic Steel. Murray knew it was going on, but he couldn't, he couldn't avoid it, he couldn't... Girdler had the power to force the men out on strike, and Murray then had no choice but to support them. So the strike was a little premature from the union's point of view, and Girdler was successful in provoking it.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, explain to me how Girdler won the Little Steel strike, in particular his Mohawk Valley formula.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, Tom, Tom Girdler—the Little Steel strike was, was won by the use of troops in Ohio. Why, the troops were brought out and the union had to restrict its picket activities, and it was reaching a point where they would be able to start to break the strike by having workers go through the picket line. And strategically Murray and the, and the leaders of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee saw that now was the time to call off before that happened, because that would be a very serious blow to the union. So they retreated to come back and fight another day. And it was the troops, the troops and the judges and the sheriffs that were on the sides of the company.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you comment on his Mohawk Valley formula in which he initiated business people to resist the organizing effort, an entire community effort?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah, well, of course, the company... Girdler's whole program included the, the, the enlistment of merchants and, and individuals in the town whose businesses were suffering, and, from the strike to oppose it and do everything they could. And they were very influential. And we, you, you did have the, the imminence of a break through of, of, of strike breakers that would be brought in purposely. Now, in the Masslilon strike, why, there was a whole, a whole line of cars organized with workers to break in and go to work. And the strike breakers had forced the wreckage of a couple of cars that blocked the line, and then they started to stone the, the cars, and they never succeeded in getting them into the picket line. But if they were to regroup, as they were going to do, with military protection, they would have gotten them in the next try. And before they could get organized to do the next try, why, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee did a strategic retreat.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, the Republic, the firings at Republic Steel, you know, during the Little Steel strike—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Before, that preceded it?
INTERVIEWER:
Yes.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
They, there was the Little Steel strike, the, the strikes preceded this, the, the big strike, the Little Steel strike... There were local unions that were forced out on strike that then led to the spreading like a wild fire of the strikes to other mills.
INTERVIEWER:
OK. Can you comment on the Republic Steel firings and the NLR, NLRB ruling reinstating those people? I mean, I know it's in the Chicago area, and we might have talked about it a little bit before, but—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Of course, in the case of Republic Steel, which was the most flagrant violator of the National Labor Relations Act, the union did, when it withdrew, when it strategically withdrew from carrying on this strike they then instituted legal proceedings. And it took a couple of years until the many, oh, there's thousands of, over five thousand Republic Steel workers were reinstated in their jobs, to their jobs with back pay. That, that was achieved through legal proceedings that took, let's see,'37—it must have been '39 or so by the time they were reinstated with back pay.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you comment on the NLRB ordered elections throughout Little Steel in the spring of '41?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, by, well, from '37 you had—I mentioned '39, when maybe '40, '41, whenever you had elections that were conducted by the steel, the Labor Board that at that time, and, and there was a substantial success for the steel workers union in those elections.
INTERVIEWER:
Can we stop for a second?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee was able to engage in the strategic retreat from the Little Steel strike because they had been organizing and signing up contracts with all kinds of fabricating companies, and in addition to Jones and Laughlin, they, they signed up Pittsburgh Steel and Wheeling Steel, who were significant companies. And so we had, we had... During the Little Steel strike we went right on signing contracts with fabricators. We had over three hundred contracts with, with smaller companies around there. And so we, we, we had the strength to carry on through the 1938 downturn and recession in the economy. And then we went into political action galore, because you, in order to establish democracy, you, you gotta get your, your candidates elected as sheriffs and elected to judges. And, and, and in '37, '38, '39, all through those elections, the union was, was super active in electing local officials, and, and we had the mayor of Clarendon, Donny Mullen. I remember helping him write literature for his campaign. He got elected mayor. Unheard of that the union leader would be the mayor! And Elmer Malloy in Duquesne, Pennsylvania became the mayor, and they were mayors for a number of years. And they, I just cite those two. I remember them because I was close to them. But there were any numbers of them spread out throughout all the, the industrial towns in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere as the steel industry lay out across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, down into West Virginia.
INTERVIEWER:
How much we got?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The, the Steel Workers,
the Steel Workers Organizing Committee after the Little Steel Strike enlarged its perspective to go into the political activity, so that the sheriffs and the, the judges would be on our side.
And we had enormous success right through the elections in '37, '39, and '40, and '41, so that the political activity of the union was branched out beyond just unionization, because it had to control the communities in which our mills were located, our members lived and worked.
INTERVIEWER:
In terms of the larger contribution to the whole and to the evolution of American society, how would you frame the effort to organize steel?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The organization of the steel industry was the most significant step toward industrial democracy in the history of the country, and it held great hope for the future. We were very enthusiastic about where we were going in the decades ahead.
Series
The Great Depression
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Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 3
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Interview with Harold J. Ruttenberg conducted for The Great Depression.
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Interview
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Interviewee: Ruttenberg, Harold J.
Interviewer: James, Dante J.
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
Writer: Malkames, Rick
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Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: cpbaacip151dn3zs2ks4z__fma261931int20120514_.h264.mp4 (AAPB Filename)
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Citations
Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 3,” 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-td9n29q023.
MLA: “The Great Depression; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 3.” 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-td9n29q023>.
APA: The Great Depression; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 3. 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-td9n29q023