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.”