Since its founding, Bethlehem has always prided itself on its love of music. So, it is not surprising that on the evening of March 24, 1941, a crowd of 1,500, some in formal wear, packed Liberty High School Auditorium to hear Metropolitan Opera Company diva Helen Jepsen enthrall them with operatic selections from Massenet and Gounod. Arias from Jepsen’s highly praised performance as Marguerite in Gounod’s Faust were almost certainly on the program. If Bethlehem Steel’s Charles Schwab had been there, he almost surely would have attended. A lover of operatic music, but not necessarily operas, Schwab had no desire, as the Cole Porter lyric had it, to “sleep through Wagner at the Met.” He once said, “I have no interest in watching somebody taking 20 minutes to die warbling the whole time.”
But Schwab, a broken man thanks to the Depression and unsuccessful stock speculations, had died in 1939 and been buried on the grounds of his estate at Loretto in western Pennsylvania. His huge New York mansion Riverside stood unwanted. When his estate had offered it to the city of New York as an official residence, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, perhaps aware of what his Depression scarred constituents would think, exclaimed “What! Me live in that?”
That evening on Bethlehem’s South Side, it was the rhythmic sound of marching feet as pickets from Bethlehem Steel began to go out on strike that were making a different kind of music, one that heralded the end of an era that Schwab had helped bring to birth. Fortune business magazine viewed Bethlehem Steel’s management as hopelessly out of date. In truth, Bethlehem Steel under Eugene Gifford Grace, Schwab’s hand-picked successor, had throughout the 1930s did what he understood to be his primary job: kept the company in prime working order despite the pressures of the Great Depression. But like all the industrialists of the era, he did not want to have unions in his plant. The much-praised Alfred P. Sloan, CEO of General Motors, did everything he could to prevent them, including sending spies out into the workforce to find out what was going on. “I will not be in the position of having labor dictate to management,” Schwab had said in 1919, and most industrialists of the day agreed.
But the labor movement of 1941 was not that of the last strike in 1919. It was better organized, for one thing, and had a sympathetic friend in the White House in the person of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He had established the National Labor Relations Board that supported the right of workers who tended to support the idea for workers to organize and bargain collectively. And when they decided that Bethlehem Steel’s Employee Representation Plan, which did not give workers those things, was a company union and did not qualify as a union, Bethlehem Steel took them to court.
Among those who took up the union cause was a Bethlehem Steel worker named Mitchell Scheffer, “I went to work there in the late 1930s,” he recalled many years later, “swinging a 20-pound sledge hammer, to break iron billets. I got 40 cents an hour, six days a week and no vacation.” Schaffer saw what this was doing, particularly to older workers. “When they couldn’t do the work, they were taken off the job and given a broom. When they went to get a pension there was no pension there.” Schaffer, who had been a union member on a previous job, decided to contact the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). “I was the first one to sign a union card at Bethlehem,” he told the Morning Call in 1991. When he tried to recruit other members, Schaffer was not well appreciated by his bosses. But gradually more and more of the men, particularly, he recalled, the Mexicans and Portuguese, began to sign on.
In the meantime, Bethlehem Steel was battling the decision of the NLRB on the issue of the ERP. It was still battling that issue in 1941. Historical events were taking place that strengthened the organizers’ hands. World War II had broken out in Europe and Britain and France were ordering arms from the company, taking it out of the Depression. By the start of 1941, following the fall of France and despite a strong isolationist movement in the country, most people were convinced that eventually the U.S. would get involved in the war. The government had begun to issue contacts to American companies for arms and munitions. And as Eugene Grace was well aware, the government would not give contracts to those who opposed them. And he might lose a lot of money if they did so. Workers also recognized this, and both at Bethlehem and across the country, were going out on strike.
The first walkouts came in February of 1941 at Bethlehem’s Lackawanna plant in Buffalo, New York. It lasted only 38 hours as the plant officials agreed to all of the strikers’ demands. This made the workers in Bethlehem at least a little confident that Grace would follow the same path. So, on March 24, 1941, the workers went out on strike. By 11 p.m. the police estimated there were 2,500 people, strikers, women and children at the company’s main gate. At midnight Mayor Robert Pfeifle announced that W. Calvin Nickel, the Northampton County Sheriff, had contacted the State Police who were bringing 30 to 40 troopers to station around plant gates.
When they arrived, as one trooper later remembered, they were greeted with hisses, boos and sometimes rocks and bottles. Recalling it later, the strike leaders claimed they were solely interested in peaceful picketing. It was the sudden arrival of a Bethlehem city police car that lobbed a tear gas bomb that started the action. Enraged, the workers charged into the company parking lot, overturning 20 cars. Pennsylvania Governor Arthur James called in another 125 state police.
When they heard about the governor’s order, the workers were furious. But John Riffe, the SWOC’S field director, took charge. He told them that their anger was understandable, but violence would not solve anything. “Calm down,” one worker remembered hearing him say.
Riffe was remembered many years later by local strike organizers as one of the bravest people they knew. When he was accused of being a Communist, Riffe responded, “I am worse than a Communist, I am a Christian.” Later, recalled one, Riffe went down South to organize. ”The Ku Klux Klan got him and tied him to a tree and whipped him until he blead to death.”
One of the most unlikely figures who got the respect of workers was Bethlehem mounted policeman Mel Packard. Packard, who joined the force in 1937 and rose through the ranks until he retired as chief in 1962, had four brothers in the plant, all of whom were out on strike. “I tried to understand the men,” he recalled later. “A few of the others (police officers) had a little problem with that. There was some bitterness. But you can’t go around banging people over the head. There were outside agitators, goons we called them, they came in to stir up trouble. But most of the folks, ordinary people in the neighborhood, they were not lawbreakers. There were women and children around.”
Packard found himself caught up in one of the best remembered incidents of the strike. He was riding his horse “Chief” outside the steel company’s gates when a crowd started to approach them. “One of the guys was half drunk. He came up to me and said, ‘You’d look funny under that horse,’” Packard, reacting without thinking replied, “You’d look funny with this club over your head.”
Realizing that this was exactly the wrong thing to say Packard tried to back off and his frightened horse reared up. What happened next was unknown to Packard at the time, but a nearby photographer took his picture with Chief rearing up. Picked up by PM, a radical New York publication of the time, it was soon all over the world as a symbol of police repression. What was not seen was Packard calming the crowd and guiding the half-drunk man to the nearest bus stop and giving him change for the bus.
Not all encounters ended as peacefully as Packard’s did. Several times on March 25 and 26, the state police charged the strikers and were met with a hail of bricks and bottles. Some of the troopers were thrown to the ground into the jeering mob. Windshields in police cars were smashed and many were overturned.
But as all this was going on, negotiations were secretly taking place. State and federal mediators were brought in. The Roosevelt administration made it clear that it wanted an agreement to be reached. On the night of March 27, Riffe told a rally of 1,000 workers, “our fight is about to end.” Leading the victory parade to cheers was Mel Packard on Chief.
The agreement was announced the next day. All strikers would return to their jobs. The company would engage in collective bargaining with the SWOC. It would not be until August before Bethlehem Steel agreed that the SWOC was selected to represent the workers as part of the United Steel Workers Union.
Bethlehem Steel would go on, hailed as one of America’s “Arsenals of Democracy” in World War II. It also made a lot of money.