Essential Pittsburgh
5:15 pm
Wed October 16, 2013

Early Unions Collectively Bargained For Their Safety

This famous archive photo from 1942 depicts a huge vat of molten steel being poured into a mold at the Jones and Laughlin Steel Company, with a worker standing nearby.
Credit U.S. Office of War Information / wikipedia

America’s earliest unions of the 19th century were connected to craft and trade guilds. But with factory workers facing terrible working conditions such as 12+ hour work days, and 7 day work weeks in cramped, dangerous spaces, their only choice was to come together to collectively bargain for their safety.

When Crystal Eastman, Co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union visited Pittsburgh in the 1920’s, she reported 526 industrial related deaths in Allegheny County within one year.

According to Dr. Charles McCollester, a former professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and author of The Point of Pittsburgh, about 3,000 mining industry workers died each year, between 1890 and 1920.

When unions came in, the death toll dropped drastically and even today, McCollester says unionized mines are safer than non-union mines. Unionization saw success during World War I, but during the 1920’s, and later during the Reagan administration of the 1980’s, unions faced a large a decline in membership.