By Jared Stonesifer
Beaver County Times
Many battles have been fought in western Pennsylvania in the last 300 years, but one in particular had far-reaching consequences that forever shaped the labor and workers-rights movement in the United States.
Indeed, workers’ rights might not even exist today if it weren’t for a U.S. Supreme Court case that unfolded in Aliquippa in 1937. The case was the last to challenge the legality of labor unions, mostly because the Supreme Court had the final word and deemed the practice constitutional.
Generations of workers have benefited since, but many have forgotten the significant role played by Beaver County workers to ensure those rights.
While residents celebrate Labor Day, it’s important to remember and pay homage to those who came before us, those who fought for their rights and won them in the highest court in the land.
Rededicating the monument
Ten men vs. Jones & Laughlin
It was in 1935 when Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act, commonly referred to as the Wagner Act. Among other things, the legislation guaranteed the basic rights of private-sector employees to organize into unions, to engage in collective bargaining and to strike.
The act also created the National Labor Relations Board.
But just because Congress passes a law doesn’t mean everyone adheres to it. Such was the case with Jones & Laughlin Corp., the gigantic steel company located along the Ohio River in Aliquippa.
Less than a year after the Wagner Act passed, a group of J&L employees decided to join the emerging Steel Workers Organizing Committee, a group of steelworkers who organized in Pittsburgh in 1936.
That action didn’t go unnoticed by J&L officials, who promptly fired the 10 employees who worked at the Aliquippa plant.
However, the newly formed National Labor Relations Board was there to advocate for the workers and ruled the company had to reinstate the fired employees while also giving them back pay.
J&L officials vehemently rejected that opinion, however, and said the company would not conform to the laws laid out in the Wagner Act, because those officials considered the act unconstitutional.
So set the stage for a court battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. It didn’t take long for the court to hear the case in 1937, and it also didn’t take long for the justices to return their verdict.
The court ruled by a 5-4 vote that the Wagner Act was indeed constitutional. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee flourished, and in 1942 it disbanded and became the United Steelworkers of America.
It was the birth of a labor movement that still exists and is stronger than ever today.
Ramifications of the decision
For Hopewell Township resident Gino Piroli, the 1937 Supreme Court decision was more than just a blurb in history books. It changed his life, and the lives of countless other Beaver County residents.
Piroli was only 10 years old when the decision came down, meaning he remembers a time before labor unions were even legal.
“It gave the working man dignity,” Piroli, 90, said. “Companies had abused workers ethnically, by race when it came to job promotions. That was a big thing.”
Unfortunately, Piroli said it got worse than that.
Workers were routinely assaulted or fired at even the first signs of trying to unionize, and Piroli said company police officers would often arrest people if they stood on the street in more than groups of three.
Those same police officers would work undercover in the mills to learn about workers’ intentions and would eavesdrop on conversations held by people outside of work.
Piroli worked at J&L for 22 years before starting a new career as postmaster of Aliquippa.
“In 1956 we went on strike for 119 days, and it nearly bankrupted all of us,” he said. “We ended up signing a contract that was nearly the same as the first one introduced by the company. It was nearly the same, but at least we had the right to protest.”
Mike McDonald, president of the Beaver County Building Trades organization and a lifelong union member, said it’s unfortunate that many of today’s local workers don’t realize the rights they have were won right here in Beaver County.
“I’d say a majority don’t know at all, and, probably more amazingly, many of them don’t understand what (the Supreme Court decision) really meant or why it was so valuable,” he said. “It actually means something to a lot of us.”
The matter hits home for McDonald. He said his uncle worked in the mills at the time and was one of the very first people to organize into a union once they became legal.
“I would always hear stories when I was a kid, and I didn’t understand (the ramifications) until I got into my 20s and comprehended just how important it was,” he said.
McDonald has been a union member for more than 40 years and doesn’t go a single day without being thankful for the life it’s afforded him.
Perhaps most important, he said, are the benefits that were won in the Supreme Court case. Those benefits include health care coverage, pensions and overtime.
“People had their heads beat in to get these rights we still enjoy today,” he said with emotion.
When examining the big picture, McDonald said the Supreme Court case did more than just give basic rights to the working class. Instead, it helped create a middle class that is the backbone of this country.
“I honestly believe the middle class, the working class, we make the country go,” he said. “This country wouldn’t be the greatest country on earth without it.”
Not only does the general public not understand the significance of the local case, McDonald said, but some go a little further. They blatantly disrespect history.
It was early in 2015 when officials noticed two historical markers — the first a monument erected by the United Steelworkers, the second a plaque installed by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission — were missing.
The USW monument was dedicated in 1976, and the state plaque was dedicated in 2000, both honoring the Supreme Court decision. Both were stolen; however, only the United Steelworkers monument has been replaced since then.
Bob Schmetzer, a South Heights councilman who has been involved in local labor for decades, was one of the people who helped install the first monument there in 1976.
He said he was shocked when he noticed the monuments were missing in early 2015, and he spearheaded the effort to get them replaced.
Schmetzer and other officials made sure to make the new monument heavy to deter criminals from stealing it for scrap.
“We didn’t put it back in bronze because the scrappers would come back again,” he said. “This time it was stone and close to a ton (in weight).”
Like others, Schmetzer is dismayed that people would show such a lack of respect for the monuments. And like others, he’s disappointed that many locals don’t know or don’t understand the significance of the Supreme Court decision.
“People always take things for granted,” he said. “What we take for granted is the eight-hour work day, minimum wage, health and safety on the job. Just about everything we enjoy today in the workplace all came out of this, and Aliquippa should take an enormous amount of pride in that.”
State Rep. Rob Matzie, D-16, Ambridge, helped in the effort to replace the USW monument and is working to replace the state plaque at its location near the former J&L plant. He said it’s unconscionable that somebody would steal the markers.
“The American labor movement made (the Supreme Court case) happen as a result truly of blood, sweat, tears and even lives lost,” he said. “And some people here don’t even know about it.”
The rights won as a result of the case are nearly too many to list: 40-hour work weeks, child labor laws, collective bargaining, to name a few, Matzie said.
The importance of that landmark decision, born out of 10 men from J&L, cannot be understated, he said.
“It affects all of us,” he said.
The names of those men thankfully aren’t lost to history. Rather, their names are engraved on the large, black granite memorial that sits outside of a tunnel entrance to the old J&L mill.