Although many historians have emphasized the conservative dimensions of this language of Americanism—the ways that it reinforced rather than challenged the status quo—historian Gary Gerstle shows that it was considerably more complex and contradictory. He argues that it was “flexible enough to express both the social democratic and ethnic communalist visions that inspired political activism among the nationĚs workers during the Great Depression. As in other communities, this working-class Americanism infused the organizing campaign of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in Homestead, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1936. Four thousand steelworkers endorsed a declaration of their ”inalienable rights to organize into a great industrial union, banded together with all our fellow steel workers." It was surely not an accident that they worded that declaration in conscious imitation of the Declaration of Independence.
On July Fourth, 1776, the American people declared their independence of political tyranny from which they had long suffered. They pledged themselves to protect the right of all to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
DESPOTISM OF THE LORDS OF STEEL
But today we find the political liberty for which our forefathers fought is made meaningless by economic inequality. In the steel and other like industries a new despotism has come into being.
Through their control over the hours we work, the wages we receive, and the conditions of our labor, and through their denial of our right to organize freely and bargain collectively, the Lords of Steel try to rule us as did the royalists against whom our forefathers rebelled.
COMPANY UNIONS, SPIES, THUGS
They have interfered in every way with our right to organize in independent unions, discharging many who have joined them.
They have set up company unions, forcing employees to vote in their so-called elections.
They have sent among us swarms of stoolpigeons, who have spied upon us in the mills, in our meetings, and even in our homes.
They have kept among us armies of company gunmen, with stores of machine guns, gas bombs, and other weapons of warfare.
COMPANIES HEED NO APPEAL—
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms.
We have used every channel of the so-called representation to put forward our requests and grievances. But all we have found is that the employers control these plans and refuse to grant requests which are not backed by independent organizations.
We have appealed to the government to protect us in our right to organize freely without interference from our employers.
We have presented cases of interference and discrimination without number to government labor boards. They have ruled that our employers must observe the law by reinstating discharged unionists and ceasing to interfere with their employees' rights. But our employers have defied these rulings.
WE ARE AMERICANS!
So we steel workers do today solemnly publish and declare our independence. We say to the world: “We are Americans.”We shall exercise our inalienable rights to organize into a great industrial union, banded together with all our fellow steel workers.
WE PLEDGE OUR LIVES—
Through this union, we shall win higher wages, shorter hours, and a better standard of living. We shall win leisure for ourselves, and opportunity for our children. Together with our union brothers in other industries, we shall abolish industrial despotism. We shall make real the dreams of the pioneers who pictured America as a land where all might live in comfort and happiness.
In support of this declaration, we mutually pledge to each other our steadfast purpose as union men, our honor an our very lives.
Source: Steel Labor (August 1, 1936), Reprinted with permission of the United Steelworkers of America, as cited in Jerold Auerbach, ed.,American Labor: the Twentieth Century, Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1969, pp. 320–323.
See Also:"That Broke Down the Ethnic Barriers": A Steelworker Describes the Decline of Ethnic Hostility in the 1930s