Jack Metzgar’s Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered, an excerpt from which appears below, is a combination of memoir, labor history, and meditation on the importance of unions in transforming the lives of industrial workers in the 1950s. It is the story of Jack’s father, Johnny Metzgar who, starting in 1930 at the age of seventeen, worked for four decades in the steel mills in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Johnny Metzgar’s values, politics, life on the factory floor, and relationship to his family are evoked in a lyrical, yet unflinchingly honest way. Striking Steel is also a history of the 1959 steel strike, the largest strike in U.S. history—involving five hundred thousand workers on strike for 116 days—and, until now, virtually ignored by historians. This strike was not over wages or benefits, but rather, “work rules.” For workers, according to Metzgar, the issue was freedom from “arbitrary authority and all the indignities, the humiliation, and the fear that come with being directly subject to the unlimited authority of another human being.” The strike was won decisively by the union. Jack Metzgar’s book, about one family’s life in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is a vivid tale about class and the labor movement in America. —Eds.
Johnny Metzgar entered the mill in 1930, shortly after graduating from high school. He was seventeen years old. He got his job as a molder’s helper, a good job because you learned a skill, through a combination of family connections and persistence. His father knew somebody in management who passed on a good word to a man in the plant’s personnel office, and then Johnny badgered that man every day for three months until he got a job.
Johnstown Works of U.S. Steel was a relatively small plant, employing only about 2,000 in good years; its basic function was to produce equipment for other U.S.S. mills and mines. According to my father, he could have had a job at the much larger complex of Bethlehem Steel because it had a policy of hiring the sons of its disabled workers, but he wouldn’t “give them that satisfaction after what they did to my father.” He was referring to Bethlehem’s meager ($30 a month) disability payment and general indifference more than to the accident itself.
Evidently there was work in 1930 and into 1931. He worked six days a week, from eight to ten hours a day. He got paid for sixty hours a week, but on any given day he could leave after eight hours if his work for that day was completed; on the other hand, he could not leave until the day’s work was completed, even if that took more than ten hours, though that happened rarely. But those long weeks didn’t last. In 1932 he had only fifty-two days of work; in 1933, only eighty. “Work picked up after that,” he said.
He learned the molder’s trade from a friend and second cousin of his father’s, Runt Espey, and enjoyed the work at first along with the camaraderie among the me...
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