One of the major convulsions in American labor history was the Steel Strike of 1919 which, for a period, badly crippled the iron and steel industry. This strike pitted the leadership of a war-expanded and highly integrated industry against a coordinating committee of craft unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. The strike ended in the complete defeat of the unions after unprecedented losses to both sides, not to mention the cost to the nation as a whole. Viewed from the standpoint of organized labor, giant autocratic corporations had triumphed through espionage, blacklists, the denial of freedom of speech and assembly, and through their complete unwillingness to recognize the right to collective bargaining with representatives of the workers' own choosing. Viewed from the standpoint of the corporations, the strike represented the handiwork of radicals and professional labor agitators who had secured the uncomprehending adherence of a minority of foreign-born and largely unskilled steel laborers. It did not arise out of dissatisfaction with existing wages, hours, or working conditions but from the actions of those who wished to impose the closed shop upon a dynamic industry.
Tensions in the steel industry had mounted during World War I. Organized labor had grown in strength and prestige during the course of the war. The Chicago leadership of the American Federation of Labor had just concluded the successful organization of packinghouse workers and in 1919 felt the time ripe for a test of strength in steel. The unions, in launching the strike, stressedtwo major demands: (1) Union recognition was necessary in order to provide a democratic channel through which grievances might be handled, and (2) a contract should be signed with the participating unions which would both improve wages and bring about the abolition of the 12-hour workday.
The American labor movement which in 1919 challenged this citadel of American industrialism had first gained firm roots in the 1850's in such crafts as the typographers, the molders, and the carpenters. By fixing standards of apprenticeship, standards of skill, and common standards of wages for a craft, these early unions developed a fraternal spirit as well as the economic power to withstand employer opposition. Collective bargaining agreements were formulated which stipulated the wages, the hours, and the working conditions in each craft or trade. While such agreements often broke down in periods of depression, by the 1880's a sufficiently strong nucleus of craft organizations had developed so that a central federation emerged. This was the American Federation of Labor, headed by Samuel Gompers, a leader in the Cigar-makers' Union.
The ideas of the A.F. of L. reflected in substantial measure the personality of Gompers who, as his ideas matured, stoutly repudiated socialism and advocated a pragmatic, "pure and simple" unionism which accented trade agreements with employers -- agreements which would spell out for a stipulated period the wages, the hours of work, and the procedures for the handling of grievances. Gompers believed that Labor had . . .