"That Broke Down the Ethnic Barriers": A Steelworker Describes the Decline of Ethnic Hostility in the 1930s
home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

“That Broke Down the Ethnic Barriers”: A Steelworker Describes the Decline of Ethnic Hostility in the 1930s

by Joe Rudiak/Peter Gotlieb

Tensions among industrial workers of different ethnic backgrounds often proved a barrier to unionization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was, for example, a key factor in the defeat of the 1919 steel strike. In the 1930s, however, that began to change, particularly under the auspices of the CIO. In this 1974 interview done by historian Peter Gotlieb in 1974, Polish-American steelworker Joe Rudiak recalled how ethnic hostility declined in the “CIO days,” particularly among the “young folks.” This decrease in suspicion between people of different nationalities fostered unionization in the 1930s.

Listen to Audio:

Peter Gotlieb: In your experience at the Standard Steel Car when you were working with the CIO, was there hostility between different ethnic groups, different foreign nationalities?

Joe Rudiak: Not so much during the CIO days or the Amalgamated Iron and Tin Days. The company kept them separated this way: they brought their prejudices, a lot of them, with them from Europe. The Pole didn’t like the Lithuanian. The Lithuanian didn’t like the Pole. The Slovak didn’t like the Czech. A Hungarian didn’t like a Slovak or whatever it is. Serbians were made up quite a bit there. Serbians were orthodox and they were in their little section. And there was no intermarriage, very little bit of intermarriage. It was something unusual for a Lithuanian to marry a Pole or a Ukranian. And there was quite a few Ukrainians, Carpathian Russians. So the company—this is common—the company separated them. They didn’t have any blacks there or they’d have separated the blacks. And then there was the Anglo-Saxon, and the English and the German. And one would say, “These people are no good.”And they kept them separated that way. About the time the CIO come in, when they start organizing even during the depression days, they were forced to get together or starve. And it didn’t matter whether you were a Pole, Ukranian, or a Russian or anything like that, they shared, you know. Then they started going to their own mixture of dances. The Russian church would hold a dance and there’d be Polish there; there’d be Lithuanians there; there’d be Ukrainians; there’d be Serbians, among the young folks and all that. And that broke down the ethnic barriers. And then the company could not use that as they used it in the past. They couldn’t use it and they couldn’t use the racist problem either. All they had was, the weapon they had was the union is communistic, it’s Russian and, you know, Phil Murray’s a communist and Hillman’s a communist. And they worked on their religious beliefs. But fortunately we had a lot of people there that knew how to overcome it.

Gotlieb: So it wouldn’t have been necessary for the CIO to say in the plant where you worked, “What is really important is for us to forget our national differences and our racial differences and to all act as one solid group of workers.”

Rudiak: Right.

Source: Oral history courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives

See Also:"We Are Americans!": The Homestead Workers Issue a Declaration of Independence in 1936