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HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which got to be known as SWOC, was organized in June of nineteen hundred and thirty-six. And John Lewis had appointed Philip Murray, his Vice President of the Mine Workers Union, as the head of it. And they met in Pittsburgh in June of nineteen-hundred and, and thirty-six and set up the organizing committee. And I joined it just a week later, and was sent out in the field as an organizer. And I was sent to a neighboring town, to Aliquippa, Newcastle, Pennsylvania where I was driven out by the end of the pistol by a detective, but I come back a couple of days later, and we did get things organized in Newcastle, as, as we did in Aliquippa. The steel workers... and shortly after that I then became the Research Director of the steel workers union, and worked out of the central headquarters and, and I was in there for the next ten years, then.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you describe, will you describe the failure of the Amalgamated to organize the steel industry?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The Amalgamated was a remnant left from the 1892 strike at Homestead that had, who had been broken with, with police power and state power and court injunction power. And it survived as a craft union in hand tin plate and sheet rolling mills and particular spots around it. And when I visited their headquarters, there were almost spider webs growing from the ceiling. It was so musty and old. And they, they only had a few thousand members in the couple dozen local unions. But it had the legal jurisdiction in the AF of L for the steel industry. And Lewis worked, and Murray worked out a, a legal agreement whereby the Amalgamated granted unto this, this Steel Workers Organizing Committee the legal power and jurisdiction over the steel industry. And that was the mechanism that was done, and then the officials of the Amalgamated were taken care of. A couple were put on the payroll as organizers, and Mike Tighe, the venerable old President of the Amalgamated, he retired at that time.
INTERVIEWER:
Why was organizing steel such a high priority for John L. Lewis and the CIO?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Because John L. Lewis had to protect his flank in the coal industry. He had reorganized the mine workers union. The captive steel mines that belonged to the steel industry, they were, they were a big influence, and he needed to have control of organized labor, control or power in steel. So it was very essential for him, for his own welfare of his union, to unionize steel. At the same time, his purpose was to broaden the, the, the, the base and the power of organized labor. And the unionization of steel and auto and rubber and other basic industries were essential for that purpose.
INTERVIEWER:
Would you comment on the importance of steel to the national economy?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Of course. Steel was king in, in the thirties and forties and fifties and sixties. It was the basic constructional material. It was before the plastic age, and, and we had, steel was used in all the basic industries, railroads and automotive and—it was a basic constructional material. And it was the leading industry of the country, and the heads of the steel industry were, were men of great influence in industry and in the country because of the strength and power of the basic steel industry.
INTERVIEWER:
Will you describe the organizing effort in regard to black steel workers? In the pre-interview, you said that whites organized first and then blacks were brought in.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah, well, in the organizing scheme was to or organize the leaders of the company unions in these steel plants, 'cause to counter the, the unionization that started with the NRA after it, it, it, in 1933, the companies instituted company unions. A few companies already had company unions. They called them Employee Representation Plans. The union's campaign was to capture the leaders of the company unions and make them leaders of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, of local Lodges. There was a, a spontaneous uprising, and, and, and, and a liberation of families and workers throughout the, the whole area where they, they just burst out of their, their chains of the prior two decades since the 1919 steel strike. And they formed spontaneously local unions as fast as you could issue charters to them. The company unions, attracted the higher skilled, almost, almost entirely white... I don't remember a single black among the company union leaders. But they were, were one by one brought over to the Steel Workers. Johnny Mullen who was the head of the company union at the Clarendon, Pennsylvania work where they had the big Coke plant, and many of Negro, and many black workers there. He later became Mayor of, of, of Clarendon. And Elmer Maloy in Duquesne, Pennsylvania became mayor, and that was spread around pretty widely. Now the, the blacks were kept in the background. They were organized. We had separate meetings with them, but we didn't want to bring them out and have them suffer in large numbers discrimination and layoffs. And it wasn't until we had a breakthrough with the large numbers of the white steel workers that we then brought the black workers out of hiding. There were a few exceptions to that. Fletcher Williams was an exception at, I think he came from the Duquesne Works of U. S. Steel, and he was appearing as a witness before the Steel Labor Board that had been created. And the lawyer for the company, [unintelligible] was his name, he pushed, he pushed Fletcher Williams into a corner with his cross examination establishing that, that the union's claim that there was unrest in the community was unfounded. There was no unrest. And he thought he had Fletcher Williams in the corner, and he said, \"Now where's all this unrest that you're talking about?\" Fletcher Williams was a big husky man, attractive individual. He leaned forward, put his hand on his heart, and he says, \"That unrest is right here in my heart! That's where it is!\" And [unintelligible], the lawyer, he sunk back in his chair. He'd lost the case. The chairman of the Labor Board who was handling the case, he threw his head back and just laughed as heartily as he could. That was a, a typical instance that, that sets the, the, the atmosphere that existed.
INTERVIEWER:
Will you describe Phil Murray and tell me why he was chosen to lead the SWOC effort?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, Phil Murray was the right hand man of John L. Lewis. And John L. Lewis took care of the big issues and the big, like the Secretary of State. But the secretary of the nitty gritty day to day work of unionization was carried on by Philip Murray. Philip Murray had been the president of the Mine Workers Union in western Pennsylvania when he was just a little over thirty years of age, beginning in, in 1918 and 1919. And then he became Vice President of the Mine Workers Union in the, in the early twenties, and so he was a natural choice. And Phil Murray was a far better administrator and organizer than John Lewis. John Lewis was a showman and a, and a natural leader of a different stripe. But Murray was a man of genuine character and, and he, he had a touch of greatness to him. And there, there, there's a saying that if you have deep inside of yourself a self of equality, you can get people to do anything. But, and he had inside of him a sense of equality with anyone, white, black, or whoever you were. And so individuals would follow him. And he was a, a real natural for the job. And he put together a, a staff of experienced individuals who, who beginning in June of 1936, wound up in March of 1937, a mere nine months, the time it takes for an individual to come into existence, and here the steel workers union was recognized by United States Steel Corporation. United States Steel Corporation recognized the union because the top leaders, the officers of the company, not the steel operators, the financial and, and legal one, a big. A big lawyer by name of Myron Taylor was the CEO and the head of U.S. Steel, and he signed up with the steel workers union. And, and the, personally later on, I, I heard Tom Girdler and Eugene Grace, who was the head of Bethlehem Steel, say that Myron Taylor sold them out when he signed up with the union.
INTERVIEWER:
Now you, you commented on it a little earlier, but I want to talk a little more about company unions set up at J & L and other companies. Can you just tell me how the, how they worked, and why they put them in place?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, they, they, they put together—the companies organized. They had professionals who came in with the format to have Employee Representation Plans. And at Aliquippa, the header of the plan was, was, was a man by the name of Normile. And the man, and the man in charge of the J & L Employee Representation Plan in Pittsburgh was Frank Burke. Well, both Normile and Frank Burke came over to the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and broke their back. In 1937, after U.S. Steel signed up, J & L agreed to sign, and an election was held. And, of course, Mr. Lewis, who is another Lewis, was the president of J & L, he thought that the, that the union, that the union could be defeated in the election. And Phil Murray was very confident that, that the union would win, and the vote was ten thousand against seven thousand, so the union did win out of a total of seventeen thousand. They had a majority. They didn't have a solid majority. That came later on.
INTERVIEWER:
Can you describe your feeling?
CAMERA CREW MEMBER:
We just rolled out. We might not have the very end of that on it.
INTERVIEWER:
OK.
INTERVIEWER:
Yeah. The contract was signed with the Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation provided for an election, and the, the election, the union won ten, ten thousand for the union, seven thousand against. The union had a clear majority, but it didn't have the solid majority that it developed over the next year or two as everyone then fell into line with the union.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, in regard to that election, can you tell me what the mood was throughout SWOC and how, what your feelings were with the passage of the Wagner Act?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
The Wagner Act... There was a great disappointment among all of the, of the, of the union active individuals and the workers when the Supreme Court outlawed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which had Section 7A which gave the right to unionization and collective bargaining. Whereupon Senator Robert Wagner introduced the, a Bill providing for the right to unionization and collective bargaining. And that Act was passed in 1935, I believe. And then it was challenged. Well, there ten individuals at Aliquippa who, ten workers, who had been discharged for union activities. And the union brought their case before the Labor Board, before the Labor Board, and the Labor Board ruled in their favor, whereupon the company appealed it to the Supreme Court. And in 1937, when the Supreme Court validated the National Industrial Relations, the National Labor Relations Act, why these ten individuals were all reinstated to their jobs with back pay. And I remember one of them's name was Tony, and had a big rally in Aliquippa. I was, was one of the speakers, and I referred to him as Supreme Court Tony. I think until the day he died he was called, known as Supreme Court Tony.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, can you describe the response of, to the Wagoner Act from steel executives and other industrialists, how they felt about the Wagoner Act, and in terms of where the country was going?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Of course, the steel industry leaders broke into two groups. One group who recognized the social change that was underway and adjusted to it, and, and, and reconciled themselves to living up to the National Labor Relations Act and guaranteeing the right to unionization and the right to collective bargaining. The other group were the, were the leaders of the four smaller steel companies. They were huge companies, but they were smaller in relationship then to the huge United Steel Workers, United States Steel Corporation which dominated the industry. And Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel, where Tom Girdler said that he'd go back to the apple orchard picking apples before he'd recognize the Union. Well, he'd been through the 1919 steel strike and saw how gun power was, was, a, was used to defeat the union, and they used the gun power at Memorial Day in 1937 in Chicago, and they killed ten strikers. And they did force the union to retreat strategically. The Union wasn't defeated, but they weren't winning this particular campaign in Little Steel. So after some ten weeks of strike in Little, Little Steel Strike in 1937, why, the, the Union withdrew and called the strike off. But then through administrative and, and legal proceedings, the union was able to establish itself with collective bargaining and recognition from all of these, from these four steel companies. The other two were Inland Steel and, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company.
INTERVIEWER:
Will you comment on their defiance to the Wagner Act, and the strategy of clogging the courts with litigation?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Of course. The strategy always is when the, the individuals of industry or even labor, whoever has the power, and an Act is passed that they oppose, that they go to the courts and take the year or two or three years, whatever time is required, to challenge it. And during that time there's a period of hiatus, and as to is it, is it going to be in effect or isn't it going to be in effect. Although during that period of time, the Labor Board continued to function. And then it was, when it was constitutionally validated by the court, why then the Labor Board became a very important instrument that supported unionization efforts of the unions, right through the thirties, right up to and through the, the, the Second World War.
INTERVIEWER:
Will you comment on the resistance to SWOC by steel companies and industry in general, in particular the accusations of communist involvement and red baiting campaigns?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah. The the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, when it began, picked up experienced organizers wherever it could have them, and among them were some individuals who had, who, who were of the Communist Party persuasion. One of them was Gus Hall, who later became the head of the Communist Party in the United States. And he was an organizer in the Warren/Niles, Ohio area. Shorty Steuben worked along side of me on the picket line at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube and Republic Steel when he had a steel strike in Youngstown, Ohio. And so there were all kind of charges made about being a, being communist-influenced and so on, but once the union was established in '37 and '38, step by step why Philip Murray removed the organizers who clearly were Communist Party individuals. So, but the, the red baiting continued once when the union became pure and didn't have any communist organizers, why, the red baiting still continued, because that was simply a tactic that was employed.
INTERVIEWER:
Do you remember the campaign headed by the National Association of Manufacturers and the AFL in regard to those communist accusations?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, you had the AF of L oppose the CIO, and so they would use any club that could have at their hands, despite the fact that it was a club the Manufacturers Association also used. And you have, you have that type of political activity going on all the time. It's cynical, it's inconsistent, but it, it, it, it existed then, and we have its forms today.
INTERVIEWER:
Will you describe the SWOC efforts to help President Roosevelt win re-election in '36.
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah. In 1936 was a great campaign for us. We were organizing the union and getting people out to the union, and Roosevelt was just as popular as he could be. I don't know whether they kept polls in those days that would show how popular he was, but I know here in western Pennsylvania on Labor Day, John Lewis, out at the at the County Park, the County Fair, we had well over a hundred thousand individuals at that, at that rally. And, and he spoke, and he was the lead speaker for the union. Philip Murray also spoke, and there were some politicos. Senator Guffey was the Senator from Ohio [sic—Senator Joseph Guffey was from Pennsylvania]. And we had, and he, he spoke. So the, the enthusiasm, the spontaneity of all of the uprising after the decade of the twenties, when there was repression since the 1919 steel strike, all that came to the surface. And then it, it reached its peak and its ultimate in 1936 when Landon from Kansas, I think, barely, barely got one or two states, I think. I think he may have gotten the State of Maine. I don't know whether he even won Kansas.
INTERVIEWER:
Now, our research shows that the CIO organized over a hundred meetings, you know, for FDR in the Chicago area during that '36 campaign. Do you have any remembrances or knowledge of that organizing effort?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Well, I knew it was going on. I was Pittsburgh based and did not get out to Chicago at that time very frequently. But you had Van Bittner who headed up the Steel Workers Organizing Committee in Chicago, and they put on with the other unions and, and the Democratic Party. And you had the big Democratic machine in Chicago, and, and they just overwhelmed, carried Illinois by enormous majorities.
INTERVIEWER:
We have film footage of a rally in the summer of '36, at Soldier's Field. 100,000 people turned out to support the President. Do you remember that?
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah, oh yeah, I always regret that I wasn't there, when they had over 100,000 people at Soldiers Field in Chicago in 1936 for that campaign. And that, I think that meeting was just before, it was before, it was in August, before the big Labor Day meeting in Pittsburgh. And then that swept over the country as a whole. You had that going on all over the place. And the unions, the newly organized unions, were in the forefront of that. It gave us all a great opportunity to get steam off our chests, and, and we swept in a lot of Congressmen and Senators at the, in that campaign of '36.
INTERVIEWER:
While we're talking about politics, I want to go back and ask you a question about Aliquippa, and the control of the Republican Party of Aliquippa during the twenties and on up into—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
Yeah, oh the Republican Party. Phil Murray was a member of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania. It was like down in the South, you had to be a Democrat to get any, to be in politics. In Pennsylvania, you had to be a Republican. But yet Philip Murray, he supported Roosevelt in '32. And in Aliquippa, why, you couldn't get anything but a, there was just paper ballots, there weren't machine, machines at that time. You could only get a Republic ballot. There weren't any other ballots in Aliquippa. And, and so they kept tight control, and controlled the local judges and the local mayors and so forth. All that got turned upside down with—
HAROLD RUTTENBERG:
—with the election of, of, of a Democratic, the election of Democratic judges that—
Series
The Great Depression
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Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 2
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Blackside, Inc.
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Interview with Harold J. Ruttenberg conducted for The Great Depression.
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Interview
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Cameraman: Malkames, Rick
Interviewee: Ruttenberg, Harold J.
Interviewer: James, Dante J.
Producing Organization: Blackside, Inc.
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Film & Media Archive, Washington University in St. Louis
Identifier: cpbaacip151dn3zs2ks4z__fma261929int20120514_.h264.mp4 (AAPB Filename)
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Citations
Chicago: “The Great Depression; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 2,” 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-ws8hd7pm7v.
MLA: “The Great Depression; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 2.” 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-ws8hd7pm7v>.
APA: The Great Depression; Interview with Harold Ruttenberg. Part 2. 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-ws8hd7pm7v