Pressed Steel Car strike in McKees Rocks reaches centennial anniversary

Among 6,000 men employed at the Pressed Steel Car Co.'s plants in McKees Rocks and Woods Run, unskilled immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who made rail cars in 1909 spoke 16 languages.

But those men spoke with one voice when they protested dangerous working conditions, low pay and industrial bondage that left them uncertain about their weekly wages, behind in rent for company-owned housing and forever in debt to the company store.

A century ago this month, between 12 to 26 people died in the Pressed Steel Car strike -- Pittsburgh's second bloodiest next to the railroad strike of 1877. Among the dead were John L. Williams and John C. Smith, the sixth and seventh state troopers to die in the line of duty. When the anniversary of the conflict's worst bloodshed arrives on Saturday, a state historical marker will be unveiled in Presston, an intact company town of 240 duplexes in Stowe. Located near the plant, Presston was often derided as "Hunkeyville."

Hundreds were wounded in the eight-week conflict that started in July 1909. It heralded the era of industrial unionism and destroyed the myth that Slavic workers were passive people content to be driven like field hands.

As men and their families demonstrated rock-ribbed solidarity, the immigrant strikers attracted leaders from the Industrial Workers of the World plus coverage by Pittsburgh's seven newspapers and The New York Times.

The 4,000 unskilled workers followed "the unknown committee," made up of a former German metalworker and union leader, Hungarian veterans of railway strikes and three Russians who had witnessed labor strife in St. Petersburg in 1905. About 2,000 skilled workers, native-born or Irish and German immigrants who had assimilated, followed a group called The Big Six.

During the conflict, workers risked their lives and livelihood in a struggle for their rights to speak, assemble in public and associate with a union authorized to negotiate on their behalf. Deputy sheriffs evicted many strikers from the company town of Presston, leaving them and their families no place to go.

This showdown between labor and management is largely forgotten because no union remained to keep the story alive the way the United Steelworkers of America retold the famous battle of Homestead in 1892, said Charles McCollester, a labor historian and author of "The Point of Pittsburgh."

That's partly because the I.W.W., which led the immigrants, believed in taking the fight to the point of production but was not good at sustained organization, he said.

Locally, the plant was called "The Slaughterhouse" and "The Last Chance." Skilled men earned between 17 and 41 cents an hour; unskilled workers even less.

The men garnered moral support from the Rev. A.F. Toner, a priest at St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in McKees Rocks, who called the plant a "pit of infamy."

"Men are persecuted, robbed, and slaughtered, and their wives are abused in a manner worse than death -- all to obtain or retain positions that barely keep starvation from the door," said the priest, whose remarks were reported in The Pittsburgh Leader, a local newspaper.

His assertions were backed up by a former local coroner, Joseph G. Armstrong, who said deaths averaged about one a day in the plant and were often caused by heavy moving cranes that struck workers.

The Pittsburgh Leader took up a collection for the strikers, and the carpenters union sent over wagons of food.

Strikers maintained their resolve by gathering daily on a long, narrow ridge overlooking the plant. Organizers translated leaders' speeches into a dozen tongues; Ignatz Klavier of Poland, a member of the unknown committee, spoke five languages.

Unrest brewed on July 10 when workers, who never knew what they would be paid, came up short in their checks. After company officials refused to tell employees their wage rates, a walkout began.

During a July 14 riot between armed deputy sheriffs and strikers, more than 100 people were injured by rocks, clubs and bullets. That evening, more than 300 strikers fired on The Steel Queen, a boat on the Ohio River the company used to ferry employees from other work sites to McKees Rocks. The boat turned back. Despite the presence of 300 deputy sheriffs, 200 state constables and 62 mounted state police, violence rocked the community. About 4,000 strikers battled with law enforcement. After a mob of 1,000 attacked 50 mounted officers and broke a state trooper's leg, state constables were ordered to shoot to kill.

The company's president, Frank Norton Hoffstot, refused to meet with the workers' leaders. On July 19, strikers ignored company notices that said if they did not return to work, they would never get their jobs back. Local judges ruled that they could not compel the company to arbitrate.

On July 23, the company established an information bureau where foreign workers could state their grievances, but the strike continued.

By the end of July, the company, which hired out-of-town scabs, brought 100 new workers into the plant and restarted the rivet department. In mid-August, the company imported more than 450 strikebreakers on three separate trains.

On Aug. 19, strikers stopped streetcars in the plant's vicinity and dragged out passengers they suspected of wanting to work for the company. Two days later, strikers shot at the company's physician, Dr. W. J. Davidson, as he approached the plant. Women from the strikers' families rioted, attacking state troopers and deputy sheriffs. The Pittsburgh Leader published a picture of Deputy Sheriff Harry Exley evicting a family from company-owned housing in Presston.

The next day, Aug. 22, turned into Bloody Sunday. After strikers boarded a trolley to search for scabs, they were confronted by an armed deputy, who opened fire.

Deputy Sheriff Exley died during the ensuing gun battle. State troopers tried to restore order, but 10 more men, including eight strikers, were killed. The next day, state troopers stormed Presston, randomly attacking men and women.

The Bloody Sunday death toll ultimately varied between 12 and 26 because many families feared being associated with the strike and may have hidden the dead.

"Some people may have been buried in unmarked graves in backyards," Mr. McCollester said.

On Sept. 8, a settlement offered by the company promised a raise for workers, posting of a pay scale and the elimination of graft in job assignments. Workers returned to the plant.

But a week later on Sept. 15, 4,000 immigrants walked out because they believed the company had not kept its word. The next day, skilled workers, armed with weapons and carrying a huge American flag, returned to the plant. Defeated, their immigrant co-workers joined the parade back to work.

John Makar, a lifelong resident of Presston who has studied the strike for 30 years, said company officials changed their attitude toward its immigrant workers and began offering English classes to them so they could become U.S. citizens.

In summers after the strike, the company tried a more benevolent approach in Presston. July Fourth programs Mr. Makar collected show the Pressed Steel Car Co. dedicated a Presston playground, planted trees on Ohio and Orchard streets, and staged free festivities on Independence Day, including running races and a garden competition with cash prizes.

Correction/Clarification: (Published 8/18/09) The Industrial Workers of the World organized immigrants from southern and eastern Europe during the Pressed Steel Car Strike of 1909. An incorrect name for the union was given. In addition, John L. Williams and John Curtis Smith, who died from injuries suffered during the strike, were the sixth and seventh state troopers to die in the line of duty. An incorrect numerical order for their deaths was given. Marylynne Pitz can be reached at or 412-263-1648. First Published August 16, 2009 4:00 AM


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