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A century ago, federal troops occupied downtown Gary during the Steel Strike of 1919.

The national work stoppage shut down production at Northwest Indiana mills. It was so contentious U.S. Steel tried to sneak scab workers behind the picket lines on ore boats, and U.S. Army soldiers took over Gary and neighboring cities.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the strike organized by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers that started Sept. 22, 1919, at a time when steelworkers put in 12-hour days six days a week and a 24-hour shift every other week. The steel mills of the time were dirty and dangerous, and fatalities were common, Indiana University Northwest Labor Studies Professor Emerita Rush Needleman said.

"The death rate in mills was higher than on the battlefields in Europe," she said. "Accidents were frequent. There were no guards on anything. Workers were pushed for production and exhausted after 12- or 24-hour shifts. It was incredibly dangerous."

The goal of the strike was to get U.S. Steel, then the country's largest employer, and other steel companies to recognize unions so they could negotiate for improved working conditions, including shorter workdays.

At least 85% of the steelworkers in Northwest Indiana took part in the strike, putting a halt to production at Gary Works, Inland Steel and other mills.  The prominent labor organizer Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, joined workers at the picket lines in Gary to help rally support.

Scab workers were so fearful of crossing the picket lines U.S. Steel tried to bring them to Gary Works via ore boats on Lake Michigan, but many just took the money and went home. Those who did make it to Gary Works ended up spending their time playing cards or sleeping in the sun while the blast furnaces remained idle.

"One newspaper reported 350 scabs entered the mill," Needleman said. "In 1919, you couldn't run a steel mill with 350 people. You needed thousands of workers."

U.S. Steel ultimately broke the national strike, which ended Jan. 8, 1920. The strike failed in its aim of unionizing steel mills and was described by The History Channel as "a huge bust" and "one of labor history's most crushing defeats."

But the steel strike of 1919 ultimately paved the way for unionization in the steel industry and led to Congress passing an eight-hour workday a few years later, Needleman said.

"It broke the back of the 12-hour day," she said.

Declaring martial law

The strike shut down roughly half the steel industry, including mills in Gary, Chicago, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, and Colorado. U.S. Steel founder Elbert Gary and other steel industry leaders sought to win public opinion by portraying organizers like William Z. Foster as communists during a Red Scare after the Russian revolution in October of 1917.

But they underestimated the discontent among steelworkers, who thronged the streets of Broadway in downtown Gary outside the gates of Gary Works.

"I saw the parade in Gary. Parades were forbidden in the Steel King’s own town," Jones wrote in her autobiography, "The Autobiography of Mother Jones." "Some two hundred soldiers who had come back from Europe where they had fought to make America safe from tyrants, marched. They were steelworkers. They had on their faded uniforms and the steel hats which protected them from German bombs. In the line of march, I saw young fellows with arms gone, with crutches, with deep scars across the face — heroes they were! Workers in the cheap cotton clothes of the working class fell in behind them. Silently the thousands walked through the streets and alleys of Gary. Saying no word. With no martial music such as sent the boys into the fight with the Kaiser across the water. Marching in silence. Disbanding in silence."

After clashes between workers and police and strikebreakers, the U.S. Army was sent in at the request of Indiana Gov. James Goodrich and martial law was declared on Oct. 6, 1919.

Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, the namesake of Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and Medal of Honor recipient who commanded the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War and later ascended to chief of staff for the U.S. Army, was placed in charge of Gary, East Chicago and Indiana Harbor.

"A thousand veterans of the Fourth Division, armed with field pieces, trench mortars, hand grenades, machine guns and rifles, were rushed there from Fort Sheridan by auto-truck," according to a Western Newspaper Union News Service story. "At an early hour portions of the Sixth Division arrived in Gary from Fort Sheridan and Omaha. This morning there were 4,000 federal shock troops in the steel city: all veterans of the war."

The soldiers shut down the picket lines.

"General Woods' order provided that no public meetings or assemblies might be held in any part, street or other portion of the city," the Western Newspaper Union News Service story stated. "However, it specifically exempted from this provision churches, theaters and motion picture houses."

Strikers did not immediately give up, even when the military was occupying the city. A thousand strikers led by black World War I veterans in uniform marched up Broadway to the mill entrance, but it was then declared that anyone in uniform who was not part of the occupying military force would be arrested.

"Then I saw another parade. Into Gary marched United States soldiers under General Wood," Jones wrote. "They brought their bayonets, their long-range guns, trucks with mounted machine guns, field artillery. Then came violence. The soldiers broke up the picket line. Worse than that, they broke the ideal in the hearts of thousands of foreigners, their ideal of America. Into the blast furnace along with steel went their dream that America was a government for the people — the poor, the oppressed."

'The repression was powerful'

Women in Gary took to the picket line to try to get around the order banning picketing, but to no avail, Needleman wrote in a research paper she plans to present next month in Bloomington at a conference on “Untold Stories from Indiana’s History." 

"The repression was powerful, and the strike was doomed," she wrote.

Needleman said there were popular misconceptions about the strike, such as that it ended in Gary because of racial hostilities.

"Judge Elbert Gary used the racial tensions in the nation to provoke hostilities and then crush the steel strike," she wrote in the paper that resulted from research she did for her book, "Black Freedom Fighters in Steel."

"In many steel towns on the East coast, racial hostilities erupted during the strike, because Judge Gary had brought 30,000 Southern Blacks up North to work as scabs. The mills in the Midwest were newer, required less skilled labor, and employed large numbers of first-generation immigrants. The Eastern mills did not hire blacks, but in the Midwest, close to 3,000 black workers had been hired during the World War I. Elbert Gary’s strategy to divide the workforce along racial lines did not work in Gary. Strong inter-racial solidarity, built intentionally to avoid the conflicts developing elsewhere, prevented trouble."

It would be decades before workers at U.S. Steel eventually unionized.

"Elbert Gary hated unions," Needleman wrote. "He was the first person to articulate the slogan of 'right to work' as an anti-union tactic, arguing that unions deprived workers of a job if they did not join the union."

But the company eventually backed down.

"In the 1930s, U.S. Steel landed federal contracts for the war and did not want a big confrontation," Needleman said.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.