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“We Do Not Understand the Foreigners”: John J. Martin Testifies on the 1919 Steel Strike

In the dramatic 1919 steel strike, 350,000 workers walked off their jobs and crippled the industry. The U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor set out to investigate the strike while it was still in progress. In his testimony before the committee, Youngstown steelworker John J. Martin expressed puzzlement over the grievances of the striking steelworkers and maintains that “the foreigners brought the strike on.”


THE CHAIRMAN. What is your name?

MR. MARTIN. John J. Martin.

THE CHAIRMAN. Where do you live?

Mr. MARTIN. Youngstown, Ohio.

THE CHAIRMAN. What mill are you connected with?

Mr. MARTIN. The Ohio works.

THE CHAIRMAN. Is that mill closed now?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN. How many men are employed in that mill?

MR. MARTIN. About 5,500 men.

THE CHAIRMAN. And how many men are out on strike?

MR. MARTIN. In that place, Mr. Senator, we might include the other two plants, known as the upper mill and the lower mill, and the whole three plants - and the Mcdonald - have in the neighborhood of 8,000 men.

THE CHAIRMAN. And how many of those men are out on strike?

MR.. MARTIN. Well, I think that that question ought to be qualified, Senator. That is a hard question to answer because we do not understand the foreigners.

THE CHAIRMAN. You do not understand the foreigners?

MR. MARTIN. We do not understand them.

THE CHAIRMAN. And about how many of them are foreigners?

MR. MARTIN. About 70 per cent, I should judge.

THE CHAIRMAN. Well, when they are working in the mills don’t you understand them, then?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN. And if you understand them, then, why is it you do not understand them when they are out?

MR. MARTIN. Well, it is so hard to get their sentiments and their intentions in regard to the strike.

THE CHAIRMAN. What different nationalities are there represented in this 70 per cent?

MR. MARTIN. Well, they are chiefly Slavs..

THE CHAIRMAN. And when you say “foreigners” do you mean the unnaturalized or the naturalized American citizens?

MR. MARTIN. I mean the unnaturalized and the naturalized; I mean the non-English-speaking people.

THE CHAIRMAN. You mean the non-English-speaking people?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir....

SENATOR MCKELLAR. How many were at work there yesterday, of the 8,000 men in all the mills?

MR. MARTIN. Well, I could not tell you. I will make a statement, that the Americans, day before yesterday, since the strike commenced, we have been talking to the Americans, to the American element, to try to find out where they were at, and they held a meeting day before yesterday, which was the second meeting, and at that time they decided to go back to work. First a vote was taken as to whether or not they would affiliate with the organization, with this new organization, and they voted“no” unanimously. The vote was taken then as to whether or not they should go back to work, and it was carried unanimously with the exception of two votes.... There is one point that I would like to emphasize in my testimony, and it is that question of intimidation, because it has to do with our Americanism. I believe that we ought to be entitled to all the lawful rights that are coming to us, and these men have carried on a system of intimidation that has been thoroughly un-American by the massing of thousands of men at the gate and by the threatening of the burning down of homes and the killing of families.

THE CHAIRMAN. You say that they have threatened to do that?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir; I have been threatened myself. On the first day of the strike the Americans who went to work, they included fully 90 per cent of the Americans or the English-speaking people in the heat plant, and they had nine heats, and the management had not figured that they would be tied up, and they were caught with nine heats in the open-hearth furnaces. The Americans realizing that condition, they were appealed to man the boilers and take care of the power houses; they wanted to get them to keep them up, because to leave them to go down would mean a great expense in the furnaces in the rebuilding them and the loss to the men, etc. The Americans realized this and they stayed there. We fired the boilers—I was one of the men—we fired the boilers and kept the steam up, and in the evening we were threatened as we were going out of the gate—there were nearly a thousand people there, and one fellow hollered “We will get his home; we will burn his home.” I only heard one man say that, though....

THE CHAIRMAN. Do you do anything to try to teach those people anything about this Government, its ideals and its institutions and what it stands for, or do you just get what labor you can out of them?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir. For the last couple of years, to my own personal knowledge, and maybe longer than that, but to my personal knowledge for the last couple of years, the Steel Corporation has established and conducted evening schools that these men may attend, where they are instructed in our language and in a knowledge of our institutions.

THE CHAIRMAN. Do they attend?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir. They have quite a class there at the Ohio works, where I work, and some of the officials of the plant sacrifice their evenings in order to teach them the language and teach them a knowledge of our institutions.

THE CHAIRMAN. During the war did these men contribute to the Red Cross and buy Liberty bonds?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir; they did, almost to a man.

THE CHAIRMAN. Some of these same men who are striking?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN. Is there any propaganda among those men you call foreigners along the line of Bolshevism and I. W. W.?

MR. MARTIN. Well, judging from results, that must be all they got.

THE CHAIRMAN. Now, what results?

MR. MARTIN. Why, it is the most un-American condition I ever saw; in my experience with the labor organizations we always appealed to the reason or the sense of justice of a man. In this fight the issue seems to be the saving of their homes, not the question of more money or shorter hours; because it is a known fact around the mills that the very people who are striking now for eight hours are the people who have stood in the way of the people securing eight hours in the past. That is a known fact. You never could talk eight hours to those people; they did not want that; all they could see was the money.

THE CHAIRMAN. Do most of these people you speak of as foreigners own their own homes?

MR. MARTIN. A great many of them, and right there, in our town, Youngstown, the Steel Corporation has built them homes, a cement house, that they are selling for $5,000, to these foreigners, well worth the money, based on present values of real estate in Youngstown. They have instituted this home-building plan, and many Americans complain that they always give it to the foreigner first. Now, they started this home building with the foreigners first, but I will also state that we have word from the Steel Corporation, from their officials there, that they are now considering a plan to put this opportunity within the reach of all their employees; that if a man owns a lot anywhere in the city, he does not have to build his home on company ground or buy his ground from the company, if he owns a lot anywhere in the city the corporation will put him up a home and guarantee—I mean charge him 5 per cent interest, and guarantee him a saving of $500 on the cost of the building; that is their guaranty. They have not got any further yet among us, more than to just feel the men out, how they stand toward the proposition.

THE CHAIRMAN. If conditions were so favorable there, how do you account for 85 per cent of the men going out?

MR. MARTIN. I account for it by the un-American methods used by the organizers....

SENATOR MCKELLAR. How are living conditions there? Are they good or bad?

MR. MARTIN. The sentiment of the Americans - and I believe we are backed up by the foreign element there - is that we do not want more wages.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. Your wages are fair?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. Do most of you own your homes?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, it is a good town for people owning their homes.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. Are the houses pretty good, are they comfortable?

MR. MARTIN. Yes; you will find as fine homes in Youngstown as anywhere owned by workingmen.. You would be surprised to see them.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. The workingmen own good homes?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. They are comfortable and the men are apparently happy?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir; in fact, a good many of them approach what you might designate as a mansion.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. And some of these homes are owned by workingmen?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. And there has been no complaint in regard to pay or in regard to working hours?

MR. MARTIN. NO, sir; I never heard any—that is, just recent to this trouble.

SENATOR MCKELLAR.. What about recreations for the men? Does the company take any steps toward looking after the welfare and recreation of the men?

MR. MARTIN. Yes; they maintain a hospital at the plant.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. They do maintain a hospital?

MR. MARTIN. Yes; not only for accidents, but a man is free to go there any time if he has any physical complaint and have it attended to whether he receives an injury in the plant or out, they will attend to it.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. If he works for the company?

MR. MARTIN. If he works for the company; and the treatment is gratis.

MR. LINDABURY. You were asked about recreation.

SIR. MARTIN. Oh. As to the recreation part of it, they have established a playground for the children and the young people of the neighborhood, chiefly for the foreign element.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. What about the schools?

MR. MARTIN. They have a mechanical school there; any young man working at the plant is eligible for the school; they receive all the benefits of it; they have men in the different departments to teach the school.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. Is that school maintained by the employees or employers?

MR. MARTIN. By the employers.

SENATOR MCKELLAR. They have a qualified teacher or teachers to look after that school?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir. They teach a man right up from the very fundamentals; teach him his A B C’S....

THE CHAIRMAN. We hear a good deal about the strike being brought about by foreigners; that is one of the things we are looking into. Now, it seems a large proportion of the men employed, at least as far as the concern you are connected with is concerned, are foreigners, so we have the situation of the present steel company employing these foreigners in large numbers, more than Americans, then the foreigners bringing on the strike.

MR. MARTIN. The reason the foreigners brought the strike on, Senator, was because they were the only people asked into the organization.

THE CHAIRMAN. Were not Americans asked to join the organization?

MR. MARTIN. I have yet to meet the first American that has been approached by these organizers.

THE CHAIRMAN. Do you really mean that the American Federation of Labor is not asking the Americans to join, and is asking the foreign workers to join?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN. You were a member of the Federation of Labor once, were you not?

MR. MARTIN. Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN. Was that true at that time?

MR. MARTIN. No, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN. Do you think then that the American Federation of Labor has changed and has become foreignized as to some of these industries?

MR. MARTIN. My personal opinion is this: Somebody got in and scuttled the American Federation of Labor....

SENATOR PHIPPS. I want to know whether when you purchased it [company stock] you were promised anything in addition to the regular dividend that might be declared on the stock?

MR. MARTIN. Yes; you got a special bonus from the company as an incentive to hold your stock. There is a special bonus paid by the company on the stock.

MR. GARY. A rebate of $5 a share for 5 years.

THE CHAIRMAN. One hundred dollar shares?

MR. GARY. Yes, sir; and they get a 25 per cent discount at the end of 5 years. If, in the meantime, an employee voluntarily leaves he can get his cash. He can give up his stock and get his cash.

SENATOR WALSH. The common stock has paid 16 per cent in dividends and earnings to the stockholders during the last few years, has it not?

MR. MARTIN. There were times when it ran up in that neighborhood; yes....

From U.S. Senate. Committee on Education and Labor. Hearings Pursuant to S. Res. 202. Investigation of Strike in SteelIndustries, 66th Cong., 1st Sess. (1919), Pt. 1, pp. 306- 307, 309–311, 313–314, 317–320.

Source: From U.S. Senate. Committee on Education and Labor. Industrial Munitions, 76th Cong., Ist Sess. Report No. 6, Part 3 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1939): 59–64, 66–67; as cited in American Labor: the Twentieth Century. Jerold S. Auerbach, ed. The American Heritage Series, Leonard Levy and Alfred Young, Gen. Eds. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969): 153–159.