Review: America – The Land of Bombast and Poverty

A Review of “Men and Steel,” by Mary Heaton Vorse—published by The Labour Publishing Co., 6, Tavistock Square, W.C. 1. Price 3s. 6d.

This is a book of 185 pages dealing principally with the American Steel Strike of 1918-1919. It is written in a rather rhetorical style, and, apparently, is the work of a visitor—a visitor whose emotions were stirred by the poverty and oppression she witnessed—who went to various districts and recorded impressions received, conversations, odd statements at meetings and descriptions of places visited and people seen. While a good deal of information Is given as to housing conditions in the steel towns, and oppressive actions during the strike, there is little information as to the working conditions prevailing in the steel works. At the same time there is a good deal of useful information contained in the book.

On page 17 we are told :—

 ” About one-half of the steel industry is owned by the I’.S. Steel Corporation. These are the figures of the Corporation’s surplus :—


Total undistributed surplus














“Interchurch Report of Steel Strike”

 The “Total undivided surplus” signifies the surplus after paying dividends and setting aside large sums for other purposes. For example, according to a further quotation by the author from the Interchurch Report (same page), it appears that in 1918 the above corporation paid over 96 million

dollars in dividends, set aside over 174 millions for Federal taxes due in 1919, and still had an undivided surplus of nearly 500 million dollars !

It will be observed that the undivided surplus has risen by over 200 per cent, in six years !

When, along with the above figures, we recollect the enormous amount of watered capital usually introduced into the actually paid up capital of such corporations as the above, we can obtain a faint idea of the staggering amount of surplus value robbed from the American steel workers by the steel magnates.

On page 26 we learn :—

” The United States Steel Corporation’s policy as regard labour dominates the steel industry.

” There are, roughly speaking, 500,000 steel workers in the United States.

” 191,000 employees work in U.S. Steel Corporation’s manufacturing plants.

” 32 per cent, do not make enough pay to come to the level set by Government experts as minimum subsistence standard for family of five.

” 72 per cent, of all steel workers are below the level set by Government experts as minimum of comfort level set for families of five. That means that three-quarters of the steel workers cannot earn enough for an American standard of living.

” 50 per cent, of the U.S. Steel Corporation’s employees work 12 hours a day. 50 per cent, of these work 7 days a week.

” Steel workers work from 20 to 40 hours longer a week than other basic industries near steel communities.

” American steel workers work over 20 hours a week longer than British steel workers.”(*)

(*) “Interchurch Report of Steel Strike.”

Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for less than the minimum subsistence standard for a family of five ! And the steel workers, according to the author, are in the habit of having large families. It is a pity the author does not state the nature of “the level set by Government experts as minimum of comfort level set for families of five.”

Such are wages and hours in the land of “hustle”—the country to which the sweated slaves of Europe turn hopeful eyes, under the delusion that there they will be able to find the comfort and security denied them in their present surroundings. Many buoyed up by this hope have scraped together what enabled them to reach the hopeful West?—only to find disillusionment in such places as the steel towns. Experience is bitterly teaching the workers that the ugly head of capitalism is reared in practically every land under the sun.

The author of the book under review gives various descriptions of the Steel Towns. One such description is as follows :—

“The mills of this town were on the flat river bottom. The old river banks mount steeply. The yards of the rickety frame houses slope sharply down. Melting snow had uncovered the refuse of winter. In the air was the sickly sweet smell of rotting garbage. The steep yards were surrounded by ramshackle fences. At the bottom near the street heavier things had slipped down hill—discarded bed springs, coal scuttles with holes in them, rusty pots and pans, old corsets, shoes, and more tin cans. In these towns on the Monongahela refuse and garbage are not taken away. For months it rots where it lies. Spring finds it there.” Page 27.

Here is another description, this time of the steelworkers’ dwelling places in Braddock :—

“They live some in two-storey brick houses, some in blackened frame dwellings. One set of houses faces the street, the other the court. The courts are bricked and littered with piles of cans, piles of rubbish, bins of garbage, hillocks of refuse —refuse and litter, litter and refuse. Playing in the refuse and ashes and litter—children. The decencies of life ebb away as one nears the mills. I passed one day along an alley which fronted on an empty lot. Here the filth and refuse of years had been churned into viscous mud. A lean dog was digging. Pale children paddled in the squashy filth, and made playthings of ancient rubbish. Beyond was the railway tracks, beyond that the mills. Two-storied brick houses flanked the brick street. No green thing grew anywhere.” Page 33.

Such are the districts occupied by the workers, in filthy courtyards without running water, without conveniences. As the author points out these are the only places they can occupy.

“If a man is working in the Edgar Thompson Works, he must live in Braddock ; if he is working for the Carnegie Steel Co. in Homestead, he must live in Homestead. If you look around and try to hire a better place, you will find there is none.”

Many of the people who live in these “salubrious” surroundings have come from European villages. They went to America with high hopes, but their hopes and their health were smothered in the smoke and filth of the steel towns.

The power of capital over the lives of the workers is illustrated in a multitude of ways. The following quotation will give an idea of how the much vaunted “democracy” of America works in actual practice : —

“The men who own the steel mills and the mines and the railways that brought the steel ore down to the water-front and the boats that carried it across the lake, own other things in Alleghany County. They control the law courts. The mounted state police are at their call. The political power—with all burgesses and sheriffs— they own also. In the steel country government is. possessed nakedly by those iron and steel masters and their friends.” Page 49.

In September, 1918, the steel workers struck. Now we have often been told of the way the Americans “get a move on things,” but an examination of the strike demands show that this evidently does not apply to the American workers. The demands illustrate a condition similar to what was general in England before the Factory Acts. The plentiful supply of emigrants to the “New World” kept flesh and blood relatively cheaper in America. It is only in the last twenty years that the American Capitalists learnt how much new men cost; the expensiveness of the shifting and ebbing of labour; the poorness, from a productive point of view, of a discontented and disaffected labour supply. Previously, in the tear and rush and scramble for wealth, they took no note of these things, but experience has at length forced this knowledge upon them, and so they have spent millions of dollars on welfare work.

The demands put forward by the striking steel workers were as follows :—

” (1) Right of collective bargaining.

” (2) Reinstatement of all men discharged for union activities with pay for time lost.

” (3) Eight hour day.

” (4) One day’s rest in seven.

” (5) Abolition of 24-hour shift.

” (6) Increases in wages sufficient to guarantee American standard of living.

” (7) Standard scales of wages in all trades and classification of workers.

” (8) Double rates of pay for all overtime after eight hours, holiday, and Sunday work.

” (9) Check-off system of collecting union dues.

” (10) Principles of seniority to apply in the maintenance, reduction, and increase of working forces.

” (11) Abolition of company unions.

” (12) Abolition of physical examination of applicants for employment.” Page 50.

Further comment on these demands is hardly needed, they speak for themselves, particularly 1, 4, 5, 6, 11 and 12.

Three hundred thousand steel workers came out on strike. Their organisation was poor; the companies controlled all news and the only means the workers had of finding out how things were going on in other districts was by the receipt of an occasional strike bulletin or, still less frequent, the visit of an organiser. Strike meetings were generally prohibited, strikers and sympathisers victimised. The constabulary was given a free hand and thousands of strikers were battered and thousands spirited away to prison to await a charge which was never preferred. The espionage system was in swing.

According to the Author the strike was killed by silence, by violence, and by the ultimate defection of one of the American skilled workers’ unions. The latter point is one upon which we have not sufficient information to form a judgment. Terrorist groups, under the name of citizens’ committees, also played their part in assisting to smash the strike.

Unfortunately the Author’s style prevents her from setting forth the facts of the situation in such a way as to enable us to form an accurate judgment of the immediate cause of the strike, its possibilities of success, and the reason for such a complete collapse in face of such solidarity at its commencement.

Of the strikers the Author writes :—

”They were without strike discipline, they were without strike benefits ; they were communities where no strike meetings were allowed to be held, some of the men never heard a speaker in their own language during all the strike.” Pag’e 58.

Of the activities of the masters we learn :—

“Whcn the men struck violence by the police increased. The Constabulary had already become active. Now the state troopers appeared in all the steel towns. They broke up meetings. They rode their horses into the workers’ very houses. In Braddock no assemblies of peoples were permitted.

They rode down men coming from mass. Steel workers could not assemble. They chased the children of Father Kazinci’s parish school.”


“The idea seemed to be to terrorise the workers. There were besides deputised gunmen, Workers were arrested by the hundreds, held, and no charges preferred against them. Then they were fined.” Page 63.

“The stories of beatings and arrests came in an endless flood. There was no end to them. Within two days one was drenched with them. In three days one was saturated. They made no more, impression. They became part of life.” Page 67.

We think we have now given a fair sample of the contents of the book under review. There are many tales of the patience and self-sacrifice of the strikers, but we have already overburdened this review with quotations.

To those who agree with “the right of the employer to do what he likes with his own,” it will give some staggering information. Generally speaking it is worth reading to obtain an idea of some of the methods used by the employing class of America against the working class of that country. It might help to remove the clouds from the minds of those who exalt “Republican America” over “Monarchical England,” and help to teach them that where capital goes, whether to Republic or Monarchy, there goes also its shadow—slavery and misery.


(Socialist Standard, June 1922)

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