Labor Day has always represented the mournful end of summer fun, the imminent arrival of fall and a day off. Why we have a national holiday dedicated to organized labor never really mattered to me until recently. A few months ago, I discovered an obituary for my second great-grandfather Jeremiah Holloway, who was a highly skilled sheet iron roller. Jeremiah’s reputation preceded him and he was asked to be the chief roller at the Piqua Rolling Mill in Piqua, Ohio. According to his obituary, Jeremiah was one of the pioneer members of the Amalgamated Association, the preeminent trade union in the United States iron and steel industry between its founding in 1876 and 1937.
Amalgamated was an organization for highly skilled iron workers (puddlers, heaters, rollers, roughers and nailers). Unskilled labor was not allowed membership into the organization. Chief among Amalgamated’s concerns was preserving the wage scale of its highly trained core members and negotiating standard wages with employers each year. Wages in iron mills were paid by the piece, giving the union ultimate control over output and production. Because workers were paid by the piece, Amalgamated opposed the eight-hour workday as it decreased their compensation.
As Bessemer steel production increased, less skilled labor was needed (steel was easier to produce than iron) and Amalgamated numbers dwindled. Beginning in the late 1880s, the organization suffered several setbacks that had a devastating result on the union. The group lost strikes at mills in Pennsylvania and other neighboring states where it lost footholds, and in 1892 most steel makers banned the Amalgamated Association permanently from its facilities.
In 1897, the flood of tin plate workers (who mostly manufactured roof shingles and cans), forced Amalgamated to accept non-iron workers to help make themselves a viable organization once again. Amalgamated then became the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin workers.
A 1909 lockout forced Amalgamated out of US Steel manufacturing plants. Over the course of the next 20 to 30 years, the skilled labor organization operated in just a few plants in the Midwest.
Membership shrunk from a high of 31,500 in 1920 to 4,700 in 1933. Eventually, Amalgamated, the once powerful labor union, became a non-factor in labor negotiations and it gave up control to the Committee of Industrial Organizations’ Steel Workers Organizing Committee, which went on to have more success with its collective bargaining methods.
Prior to learning about my second great-grandfather, Labor Day meant virtually nothing to me but a day off. Knowing what I know now about the struggles and hardships of the early unions in this country, it gives me a great sense of respect for the birth of the labor movement.The early 1900s were an extremely turbulent time in the iron and steel industries and changes needed to be made. Here’s to the brave individuals who helped make those changes happen.
-Source: Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working Class History, Volume 1, Eric Arnesen, Taylor & Francis, 2007, page 53.