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Fourth International, April 1946


V. Grey

Lackawanna: Steel Town 1946


From Fourth International, April 1946, Vol.7 No.4, pp.106-110.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


A big strike is like a rehearsal for revolution. Like a revolution, it has a long preparatory stage or series of stages; and yet it comes with a suddenness and ferocity that surprises everyone; not least of all, the participants. It can carry a huge mass of people to a higher level of development. And when it is over, when it recedes, it does not permit this heavy mass to ebb all the way back to the starting point. This too is like a revolution.

As long as capitalism continues, with its constant pressure on the workers, we must look at these advances as mileposts on the road of socialist revolution – and not as real lasting improvements in the material conditions of the workers. They are mainly advances in understanding. The workers then stand on a higher vantage point, and are better able to see the tasks ahead. How they gain the height, how the human mind leaps, should be seen and understood by those who want to prepare for the greatest leap of all.

A big strike tests ideas as well as people. It shoulders prejudice aside. It rejects all cowardice. Its own needs demand sacrifices the majority had never consciously contemplated. The more crucial the strike, the more bitter the struggle, all the more surely does the latent genius of the masses come into the open.

Such was the case in Lackawanna during the 1946 Steel Strike. These things were demonstrated more clearly there than in most steel towns where they were only half-disclosed. This was because large picket lines were necessary here. The steel corporations used Lackawanna as one of their guinea pigs and refused to allow union men to maintain the plant. They provided food and bedding for the scabs, asked foremen and others to work, and defied the union. So the workers struck January 11 instead of on the 20th, and began mass picketing which they continued 24 hours a day until February 18.

The great steel strike shook the capitalist earth. The mighty Morgans trembled at it. It stopped the usual show in Washington (where pitiful creatures like Truman tried to wield a ring-master’s whip.) It left its mark on the country’s economy. And it did a great deal more.

It reached down into the little town of Lackawanna of some 28,000 souls, and shook these 28,000 out of their accustomed way of life. Lackawanna will never be the same. It was a town of saloons and churches. More a huddle of houses than a town, cultureless and hard bitten. It was prejudice-ridden. Adjacent to the industrial and commercial city of Buffalo, it conducted no real business but the dreary business of making a living seven to three, three to eleven, eleven to seven, in the steel plant.

The town was Jim Crow – divided into sections by race and nationality. The pathetically small margin of difference between the two sides of the tracks was an insurmountable social barrier. People were frozen into little molds. The crumpled, dirt stiffened overalls of the plant or the shinier stiff clothing of Main Street – both seemed to contain unthinking, unfeeling ingots of humanity. The only constructive activity the people seemed to know was the body-destroying, mind-murdering work of the mills.

But a tremendous change has now taken place. The strike unleashed a torrent of enthusiasm – from a reservoir nobody had ever seen. The dam and dikes of conservatism and prejudice were battered down. The narrow rut’s of people’s lives were widened. Negroes, foreign workers, native whites – were jostled, pressed together in a crowding flood of their own making.

True, the houses still stand in Lackawanna – Fifth Street, the Turnpike, Gates and Wasson Avenues – unpainted, miserable. And the railway tracks still divide the town. True, each brother returned to his side of the ghetto when the storm was over. But every picket among the thousands had felt in his prejudiced heart the disturbing wind of class solidarity, and he would never be the same again.

It wasn’t just a case of colored and white workers rubbing shoulders in a common activity. They had done that in the plant for years. But here was a common FIGHT – against a common enemy. Here was the camaraderie of struggle. Negro pickets, almost as if they consciously wanted to show off to their white brothers, would take long chances. They would run behind the mills to lonely places, to find a bunch of sneak foremen who were attempting to scab. They would go out on the ice of Lake Erie to prevent the foremen-scabs from entering from the rear. They would be the first to volunteer for less pleasant tasks when the first exciting days were over. The best white pickets wanted to be assigned with the best Negroes. White men learned to be proud to clap their brother fighters on the back and kid around with them.

These were the same Negroes whose fathers had been imported from the south by Bethlehem Steel to break the 1919 strike. These were the same whites whose fathers persecuted and despised the Negroes. They were the same whites who themselves only yesterday reviled the Negro – and had little faith that these poverty stricken people would hold out in a strike of any duration.

But the very doubts and suspicions of the past, the dead wood of conservatism, added fuel to the conflagration when it came. People living under capitalism are not dew-sprinkled little plants, like lillies-of-the-valley. They are big with faults. The men of Lackawanna brought their faults and prejudices to the picket line with them. These faults did not automatically die away as a precondition of unity – but entered into the melting pot in their own way during the struggle.

For instance, you can spot the more anti-Negro elements by their use of the word “boogie.” But before the strike was very old you began to hear warm expressions something like this – “Say, those boogies are ALL RIGHT!”

If there had been no mistrust in the past, there would have been no rivalry in action in the present – no urge among the best elements to cement and emphasize their unity. An excellent example of this new-born urge was the picketing of Gerald K. Smith in nearby Buffalo during the strike. A dozen carloads of colored and white workers came eight miles from the steel town to show their solidarity against this race-baiter. They had no former knowledge of working-class politics whatever. They understood only one thing: that Smith was trying to break up their picket lines by turning the white against the colored. That was enough for them.

Turning the Tables

It is a commonplace in history that a brake upon progress can under certain conditions become its accelerator. The understandable desire for food, clothing and shelter in Lackawanna kept the workers chained yesterday. But with changing times this same desire caused them to break the chains.

Less commonplace, but illustrating the same law of transformation, are other phases of Lackawanna’s struggle. During the war, most of the men worked 16 hours a day at one time or another. And on the very eve of the strike, many men were still fighting over “sixteens.” But the men whom poverty and Bethlehem Steel forced to work these long hours in the plant were well prepared for eight, twelve and sixteen hours a day on the picket line.

Not only on the first day but on the tenth and the twentieth, there were sleepless, red-rimmed eyes. Many insisted on these long hours even though there might be an adequate complement of fresh men at their post.

The familiar badge of capitalist servitude, is the check number and the eternal time-card. In Lackawanna these same timecards were given out for picket duty. On them were written the picket’s name, and his check number in the plant. His picket captain signed him in and out for picket duty just as his foreman had done in the plant. After five weeks of picketing – long after the excitement was over, after financial troubles, sickness, dullness, and false rumours of victory had done their work, there were still 1,276 men showing up steadily on the picket line out of 10,000 people in the plant. Capitalism had given Lackawanna a good training.

A Defeat Contributes to Victory

Other obstacles turned into stepping stones, too. The memory of the 1919 defeat was often considered, and no doubt was in fact, an obstacle in the way of strike, a stumbling block of the mind, just as it was in the organization campaigns.

Steel is not an industry of changing personnel. The 1919 defeat was as familiar as is yesterday to a great many steel workers. It stuck in their minds. A great many younger men were the sons of 1919 strikers. They remembered their fathers blacklisted-or locked out an extra year for daring to strike. Many were the tales of mounted cops charging horse and all into saloons, clubbing and dragging their helpless victims into the street. This memory hung over the mind, like the smoke-pall over the town.

Before the strike no matter how hard you tried you could seldom get up much interest over 1919 – not even much bitterness against the company. Surely, you would say, anyone would be class-conscious for fair after he went through THAT experience. But it didn’t seem to be so. They remembered the hunger and the suffering but couldn’t definitely and clearly state the basic cause for it. A “radical” would say the most obvious thing that ought to stick in your mind after an experience like that is that the workers have to fight the bosses. But the worker who has done the fighting – and lost, thinks otherwise ... Sure, these workers knew the company boded them no good. Sure, they did not believe in the Horatio Alger fairy tales of poor boy makes good. But they did not seem to have the fire and the will to action that great fights require. And the memory of 1919 was one thing that caused this partial paralysis.

But this same memory, once the step was taken, turned into a mood of vengeance, and hurled new soldiers into battle. Hundreds and hundreds of men in their fifties and sixties, some in their seventies, walked the picket line in Lackawanna – veterans of 1919. By and large it was a picket line of middle-aged and old men ...

Some had been in other areas during that struggle. One old timer said, “I was down in Pennsylvania then. I walked away from our fellows on line because I think I could take care of myself. – I was young fellow,” he said apologetically, “and the scabs jump me. – See this leg? – I stay together with the line now. But I stay here and help – don’t worry – I stay here.”

Towards the end of the strike, far more than at the beginning, you would hear the remarks about 1919 – the determination not to let the companies do what they did then. With the passage of time the similarity of struggle became more apparent, just as its points of difference did. The basic, and crucial character of the struggle became so clear that men began to say, “It’s not the 18½ cents I’m worried about. It’s us or the company; that’s what I’m thinking of.” This may have been in their minds much earlier. But finally it began to be on their tongues.

Some might say this fight was easier than 1919. But that would be putting the question wrongly. If the present strike was not so costly it is because the down payment of 1919 and the installments of ’37 and ’41 had already paid the blood and gained the organization necessary to win the fight.

The same workers were involved. And they were fighting the same companies. Dearly bought experience could be applied directly by the buyers.

Because of the compactness of Lackawanna, the large number of people with a similar body of experience, there was actually a collective consciousness, a mass determination, a hatred of the company and a will to vengeance and victory that no single individual was aware of. If you could have opened their minds before the strike you would have found the usual family worries, and a thousand and one different interests. You would have found things perhaps, that made them all different from one another. But you would have also found – in every single one, at least a drop of memory of 1919. Small as this was, it was the great common denominator that made it possible to add all these human fractions to a mighty number.

The past struggles, though hardly spoken of in ordinary times, in reality pull like an undertow beneath the surface mind. It is all too easy to lose sight of this during times of inactivity, during reaction. It is all too easy to take the glum memory of the individual’s empty stomach for the social memory of heaving rebellion. The day-to-day home life, the movies, the church, the latest song on everybody’s lips, the interminable repetition of days in the plant – all beat their waves in one direction along the ordinary channels of the brain. But the undercurrent of social memory, giving the lie to all the clap-trap that the conscious mind believes, comes rushing to the surface in January 1946.

Answering the “Sheep” Theory

Because of the uneven rhythm of this inner development, there are those who say it does not exist. They say the steelworkers merely follow the leader. The union moved because Murray told it to move. The steelworkers are a bunch of sheep, etc. But this is not so. And only a sheep mentality can think that it is.

Murray was supported but never idolized by the rank and file Lackawanna worker. Murray supported the war and the no-strike pledge. So did the Lackawanna workers. But under Murray’s leadership during the war, the only general flat hourly increase was the 4½ cents awarded by the WLB in the well known 1942 “Little Steel” decision. And Murray could justify all defeats by waving the flag.

This was all very well. But the fact remained that the steelworkers wanted more money. And during the great miners’ strikes of 1943 the furnace and mill workers began to talk about John L. Lewis. They identified Lewis with the fighting miners, and they wanted a fighting leader. But this tendency never reached an organized level in Lackawanna. Not especially articulate or meeting-conscious at any time, the men were particularly loth to attend at that time, when talk – do-nothing talk – as all they heard.

Attendance at union meetings hit an all-time low in Lackawanna – during the drive for the $2 raise – just a few weeks previous to the strike. Why was this? On one side there was a tendency to disregard the promises of the leadership, or at least not to take them very seriously; and on the other, there was the feeling which the Murray leadership was itself responsible for – namely that “they” will take care of things, and “we” are only rank-and-filers, etc. – A sheep psychology to be sure, but unlike the sheep’s capable of turning suddenly into its most drastic opposite.

Of course the Lackawanna workers had the illusion that great questions are settled by “leaders.” of course they had the illusion that the government was impartial. It would all be settled without a strike. “They” would get together and give us our demands. Didn’t President Truman say that a 24½ cent increase was justified? etc. This illusion was very widespread. Without a doubt a great majority in Lackawanna were its victims. They didn’t seem to believe there would be a strike at all.

In reality, this illusion of peaceful development, though widespread, was exceedingly weak. It was like a small manure pile spread over a wide field. The sight and smell were everywhere. But the rising tide of class struggle cleansed it away very quickly.

The Lackawanna workers did not project the strike. They did not consciously prepare for it. The only mass meeting previous to the strike drew a scattered four or five hundred people. The company’s open preparations for the comforts of scabs – carloads of food, bedding, cigarettes, etc. – drew no indignant response – at the time. Yet the workers struck with firmness and ferocity when their hour came.

When Bethlehem Steel’s Lackawanna management refused to agree to the union’s maintenance plan and continued to make open preparations for scab maintenance, the District United Steelworkers Director, Joseph Molony, called the strike at 9 p.m. January 11. He announced it in a surprise move, to a small roomful of cheering stewards. The vast majority learned of the strike at the 11 o’clock exodus in the midst of shouting loudspeakers, signs, pickets, traffic jams and all the rest.


Foremen and superintendents, frantically summoned by the company to come and maintain the plant, must have expected the lines to let them through. They approached with a kind of half-confidence at first. Supervision was a holy of holies. They had generally had no trouble in the past entering the plant during work stoppages. Besides, the men weren’t hot for strike yesterday, were they? The strike was called over the men’s heads, wasn’t it? How quickly the 5 to 1 strike vote (10 to 1 in Lackawanna) was forgotten, and people’s minds lulled by appearances!

Oh yes, men took off their hats when they shuffled into the superintendent’s office only the day before. But in the very first hour of the strike the same men would tip over the same superintendent’s car with the greatest boldness, and resolutely opposed the startled foremen who tried to walk in the gate.

Three Gate, the scene of so many weary dawns, was an electrically charged human dynamo. Round and round the pickets walked, – with the rhythm and watchfulness of tigers. And then a superintendent’s car would turn hesitantly toward the gate. Sizzle went the dynamo! Bang went the line! “Get him” yelled the gang! And thirty pickets rushed the car. Some pulled the door open, some pulled the driver half out. Others tried to close the door on his neck. Still others began to turn the car over – until with eye-bulging fright the “big shot” drove away. This was not smooth, stream-lined action, with direction and discipline. But these very deficiencies prove the singleness of main purpose, the unity of intent – and most important in this case, they reveal that not a flying squadron of picked men, not an organized bunch of stewards and committeemen, but a nameless cross section of the mass, were the participants. – sheep run about when the dog barks. But they never bite the dog.

It was a long strike, in a way – long enough, at any rate, for some to go hungry. But the five weeks of picketing at sixteen posts, keeping twenty-seven shanties manned for twenty-four hours a day, brought out the iron qualities of the workers, and inexorably pushed up a rank-and-file leadership.

The men who organized the picketing, kept it tightened up, dispatched the relief pickets, kept them fed and kept them warm, saw to the thousand and one details of keeping this army in the field and on its toes – these men were not the international organizers nor, on the whole, the local union officials, although a few of these played a very good role. Whatever the man’s title-secretary of this or that, committeeman, steward – or just plain “man,“ if he could lead, then the eruption of the strike pushed him through even the conservative crust of the steel union to a position of leadership.

There were 135 picket captains, all of them volunteers. Some of the very best had never been stewards in the union, or come to a union meeting. During the strike they held their own meetings in the union hall. They created their own dispatching system and recognized only the most active picket leader as chairman. They had no “legal” power, no connection with the “top committee” but they settled the great majority of practical problems among themselves.

The strike was long enough to bring new strata of the workers into action. Living as they did, pressed together in the same little area, the less active were pressured and shamed by the more active. The wives played an important part here. Mrs. Jones would tell Mrs. Smith over the back fence, or at the grocery store, that her husband had picketed every day – and ask what Mr. Smith was doing.

This was such a powerful force that the dispatcher even tried the experiment of assigning a group of pickets to a regular post on the basis of their being neighbors instead of shop mates. Lincoln Avenue, a residential section, is adjacent to the side fence of the strip mill. Four shanties were put up on this avenue and the usual vigil kept. The place was very lonely, however, a long way from any of the front gates, and men would drop away after a few shifts of duty – especially the night men. So names were looked up, addresses were checked, and men who lived in the Lincoln Avenue area, regardless of what shop they worked in, were assigned to these posts. And those who pleaded sickness at home to get out of night duty like as not had their next door neighbors, as picket captains, answering their plea.

The strike was long enough to bring back men, who had got temporary jobs, to the picket line for a day or two a week. Four rheumatic old men shared the work of cleaning up the union headquarters. But this happened during the third week of the strike. They had stayed home until then.

A high school girl wrote an essay – an old timer wrote a scathing denunciation of “Americans” who didn’t show up on the picket line – a striker’s son offered the services of his school band – all these came in the last week of the strike, and never found their audience at all. An open-hearth worker brought his stripling 16-year-old into the hall to help the dispatcher; a college boy, a part time steel worker, came out to picket Saturdays and Sundays. Amateur sign painters began to decorate the hall with cartoons and slogans.

It wasn’t just the more backward who came forward as the strike rolled into its later weeks. Those who it seems had been stunned into backwardness, were just coming out of their daze. They were among the best contributors when their time came.

At the same time, many good men slipped away, too. After the first day or two, the excitement died down. The more volatile and adventurous, if they lacked the patience and doggedness of the majority, would not wait half the night in order to catch a lone fence-climber and give him his deserts. They drifted off and did not come back until the company began using airplanes to drop food and supplies into the besieged plant. But even this did not bring many of them. A wave of violence and strike-breaking would certainly have brought them back.

The Blast Furnace workers, the lowest paid and hardest worked, were everywhere at the beginning of the strike. But at the end the Open Hearth men were more in evidence. The latter had more Union experience and more “savvy.” They also had more savings.

In the course of the strike, the saloon keepers and small merchants of Lackawanna gave thousands of dollars. (Other unions gave next to nothing, because the fat-headed top leadership in Lackawanna opposed any real appeal to them.) Two of the saloon keepers personally aided the food committee with food preparations, coffee delivery, etc. One in particular, the owner of a small saloon – “Jos’s Place” – made almost daily tours with hot chocolate, soup, sandwiches, etc. He spent hundreds of dollars and hours of his time “helping those who helped him.” He was a Jew. His action was a real blow against anti-Semitism. But the main point is that every small business place gave something or other. Most of them really wanted to. Those who didn’t felt they had to.

The length of the strike gave the workers time to think. It gave them time to grind over the lessons of their own actions. It gave them time to realize it was really a nation-wide strike, and they were among hundreds of thousands of other steel workers. Again and again they remarked that the big companies were using Lackawanna for a guinea pig – that the companies hoped to destroy union maintenance in this particular plant – and thus destroy it everywhere.

These men said they were glad they could be the ones to win this thing for the rest of labor. This in the face of going out ten days before the rest of the country – and leaving so much equipment ruined that half the men were out of work another five weeks! What an advance for Lackawanna!

The strike gave the workers time to wonder about Washington and ask plenty of questions. “What are they doing in Washington? What are they taking away from us down there? This fellow here says we should have a Labor Party. Of course we should! I was always for a labor party – wasn’t I, Jim?” – You can’t find serious opposition to the Labor Party anywhere, up and down the picket line. Why is this? What is happening?

Why the same thing is happening on the picket line in a few weeks as happened in the plant in a generation. The accumulation of grievances and incidents that were never grievances but just part of the sluggish flow of life under capitalism – this reached the boiling point and erupted into the strike. Now in faster tempo the accumulated lessons of the past are reviewed. They are marshaled before the unaccustomed mind – and wondered at. It still hasn’t reached the stage of a “natural,” “normal” process. Even though the tempo has quickened – perhaps just because it has – the struggle for a labor party will have its repercussions too, even in Lackawanna.

Lackawanna may not be the perfect example of a steel town. It may not present a perfect picture of the American industrial worker. Certainly there have been different experiences – and special circumstances. Added to this, there is a somewhat different background from the average town.

But the workers in Lackawanna eat, drink, clothe them selves and love their children. They work in the mills of the capitalist exploiter. In this, as in many other respects, they resemble their brothers in the rest of the United States. In a certain sense, Lackawanna is a cross-section of the worker’s world in the USA.

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Last updated on 9.2.2009