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“I Witnessed the Steel Strike”: Joe Rudiak Remembers the 1919 Strike

by Joe Rudiak/Peter Gotlieb

Though the Great Steel Strike of 1919 failed in its immediate aims, it left a legacy in the steel regions of the United States that lasted for decades. In 1974 when historian Peter Gotlieb asked former steelworker Joe Rudiak, the son of Polish immigrants, about his participation in unionization struggles in the 1930s, he started by recalling his memories of the 1919 steel strike as a young boy. Here, Rudiak told how his father was blacklisted for acknowledging his support of the union. From such experiences, he explained, unionism got “embedded in you.”

Listen to Audio:

Joe Rudiak: Well, my father was blacklisted in 1919. There was seven of us, at least six of us at that time, six children. We lived in the 1919 steel strikes. He was blacklisted on account of, he was a stool pigeon. I was telling you that he was a very frank person. He couldn’t read and write. And with his background that he had in Europe—he worked in the coal industry and the oil industry, the toughest jobs. And he when he came into this country he didn’t know the danger of saying the word “union.” So these steel companies had, we found out they supported taverns, beer gardens. And there was conversation of your know, different things going on and my father I guess he was asked, “How do you feel about the union and all that?” And he stood up and he says, “I’m 100% for it!” And then he was blacklisted.

Peter Gotlieb: And that was during the steel strike in 1919?

Rudiak: And then the steel strike came along and we were thrown out of the company house. And with the help of his friends that were union minded and all that, they built us a house... I was about ten years old; I was in third grade school there. And my oldest brother got a job in this place and my next to the oldest brother got a job. There was two working and possibly John was working there. And there was four of 'em working here. And these jobs were gotten by his friends from his home town. And they settled there. He worked there for about six months and he was blacklisted there, the entire family. So we came back home to the old homestead again, we came home to the homestead about 1922, about 1922. And father had to go out and he went to the coal mines to work in Butler. He’d get up about four o’clock in the morning with his two sons, John and Charlie, and sock coal, low lines, you know, knee deep, working the coal mines. Get back about eight, nine. No transportation of any kind. And non-union mines, because the miners had lost their strike. And through the help of other people, father was able to at least feed us. Mother had a garden. And this was up until 1929. And there was a real demand for labor and all that. By that time three or four of us brothers became musicians, and we became popular among the community. And we were able to slip back into the stream, the mainstream. Wally got into the American Rolling Mill as a laborer, very hard work. My brother was able to get into the wheel works, two of them. I got into Standard Steel and just about that [snaps fingers] time things closed up and the depression began.

Gotlieb: Could you tell me who was mainly responsible for bringing the CIO in?

Rudiak: Well, I’ll give you my background as far as becoming union. I come out of a union family, as I explained, maybe by accident, my father speaking out and being blacklisted. And what happened is 1919 I witnessed the steel strike. This was the general strike, 1919. I was about eight years of age. And I’ve seen strikers being beaten by the coal and iron police—state police. And also this is the first time I ever heard the word scab. In fact, I believe possibly that one of the boys' godfather—we called him a scab. And, there was marching going on and everything. You were bound to get some of that into you and you seen people take sides. I didn’t see scabs to in because I was a youngster. My uncle—well, I would say cousin—spent eighteen months in the Western Penitentiary. He was involved in at that time the 1919 steel strike. He was involved in upsetting the suburban street car hauling scabs in from the country. And he was given a stiff sentence of eighteen months because he wouldn’t turn stool pigeon. So, you’re living in his house and you’re listening to the language and they’re talking about so-and-so, why, and all that. And you’re in the corner and there’s company there and different things and you’re listening and now it’s getting embedded in you. And I happen to just fall into that. And having a little bit of a cultural background as far as music was concerned, you know, and then finally, you had to go into the union.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives

See Also:"We Do Not Understand the Foreigners": John J. Martin Testifies on the 1919 Steel Strike
"The Men Seem To Be Pretty Well Satisfied": John Anderson on the 1919 Steel Strike
"They Are Mostly All Foreigners on Strike": Joseph Fish Speaks on the 1919 Steel Strike
"It Is Entirely the Bolshevik Spirit": Mill superintendent W. M. Mink Explains the 1919 Steel Strike
"Forty-Two Cents an Hour" for Twelve to Fourteen Hours a Day: George Milkulvich Describes Work in the Clairton Mills after World War I
"We Did Not Have Enough Money": George Miller's Testimony about the 1919 Steel Strike
"We Ought to Have the Right to Belong to the Union": Frank Smith Speaks on the 1919 Steel Strike
"Eight Hours a Day and Better Conditions": Andrew Pido Explains His Support for the 1919 Steel Strike