Dark Days in the Electric Valley Historian and Former Chief Union Steward Charles Mccollester Revisits the Little-Known Westinghouse Walkout of 1914

By Mccollester, Charles | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 8, 2014 | Go to article overview

Dark Days in the Electric Valley Historian and Former Chief Union Steward Charles Mccollester Revisits the Little-Known Westinghouse Walkout of 1914


Mccollester, Charles, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


In fall 1985, during the last days of the Union Switch & Signal complex in Swissvale, I was chief steward of local 610 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Most days, after some hours as a laborer in the machine shop, I made a tour of the plant, listening to anxious workers, meeting with management over grievances and monitoring the dismantlement of the plant. As I walked one day across the 40-acre site -- between the five-story electronics assembly and shipping building and the machine shop and final assembly area for switches, crossing gates and railway signals -- a tough millwright steward pulled alongside me in his maintenance vehicle.

"I thought you might be interested in this," he said, indicating a box filled mostly with company magazines from the 1920s.

On top of the stash was a plant manager's photo album. Though the photos were not annotated, some of what they depicted became clear as I uncovered the chain of events.

There were photos of a mass march outside the gates, of workers in large groups walking out of the plant and of strikers in a nearby ballfield behind St. Anselm Church. There were photos taken inside the plant of hundreds of non-strikers being fed.

It was evidence of a dramatic labor conflict largely lost to labor and Pittsburgh history.

In June 1914, about 12,000 Westinghouse Electric workers went on strike. More than 1,000 workers from Union Switch & Signal joined them in a solidarity strike. The workers organized themselves into an independent industrial union in which women played a key role in the ranks and leadership. For over a month, the strike fashioned an impressive non-violent resistance to one of the giants of the new corporate age. The strike illustrates the reaction of workers to the practices of scientific management in modern industry and raises issues of worker participation in the workplace that remain relevant today.

The most visible spokesperson, Bridget Kenny, an intense Irish worker, was dubbed the "Joan of Arc of the Strikers."

Union Switch & Signal -- the property today is Edgewood Town Center -- was the second of the three core facilities on which the far-flung Westinghouse empire was built.

George Westinghouse's original business was Westinghouse Air Brake Co., located in the Strip District and later in Wilmerding. His innovative braking systems, which used compressed air to stop long strings of railcars, enabled trains to travel much faster, and with heavier loads and more cars, than before.

But with the increased speed and complexity of rail operations came the need for a panoply of switches, signals, crossing gates and electronic control systems.

At a plant at Penn Avenue and Garrison Alley, Downtown, Westinghouse began to apply the theoretical work on alternating current pioneered by Serbo-Croatian genius Nikola Tesla. These experiments led in the 1890s to the construction of a massive complex containing the electric, machine and meter works in East Pittsburgh and Turtle Creek (later consolidated as Westinghouse Electric or "the Electric") and the switch plant ("the Switch") in Edgewood and Swissvale.

The area became known as the "Electric Valley." From Solitude, his mansion in Homewood, Westinghouse could access his air brake, electric and switch complexes via Pennsylvania Railroad.

Westinghouse was a down-to-earth man who had empathy and respect for skilled craftsmen. Unlike the overwhelmingly foreign workers who toiled 12 or more hours a day, seven days a week, at the neighboring Edgar Thomson Works of U.S. Steel, the Westinghouse force worked 10 hours a day, six days a week, until the company scaled back to a half-day on Saturday. Featuring indoor plumbing, Westinghouse housing also was significantly above steel-mill standards.

There were hopes that Westinghouse might welcome organized labor, but in a 1903 letter to Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, he declined to unionize the work force voluntarily. …

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