While many eyes and ears are focused on developments in the ongoing strike against Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), in terms of the numbers, this labor dispute pales in comparison to what happened in this country fifty-two years ago.
For five months in the latter half of 1959, a half-million steelworkers went on strike against U.S. Steel – a nationwide work stoppage that is generally regarded as the biggest strike in American history. By contrast, 45,000 Verizon workers are on strike now, primarily in the Northeast.
Citing the soaring profits of the steel industry, rank-and-file members of the United Steelworkers of America (USOA) demanded higher wages. Concurrently, company management was seeking to remove a clause in the union contract which protected jobs and worker hours, and frustrated management’s ability to change worker rules.
David McDonald, president of the USOA, feared that company management was seeking to break the union and called for the strike in July, upon the expiration of their contract.
Erstwhile U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, knowing how important the steel industry was to the country’s economy, tried to intercede by seeking to persuade both parties to extend their existing contract by one year. He also offered to form a joint committee to study the contract clause at the center of the conflict. However, the steel company rejected his propositions.
The strike continued, affecting nearly every steel mill in the nation. The situation became so worrisome that the Department of Defense warned that a shortage of steel could compromise and endanger the country’s security (at a time when the Cold War against Soviet Russia was raging).
Moreover, shortages of steel raised fears that the automobile industry would suffer production cuts and might have to lay off significant numbers of their own workers.
Even The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) started pressuring McDonald to call off the strike.
By late September, a desperate Eisenhower threatened he would force the recalcitrant steelworkers back to the mills by invoking the back-to-work provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act.
Steelworkers still refused to cross the picket lines.
With no end in sight to the crisis, in late October 1959, the Department of Justice ordered the steelworkers back to work by invoking the Taft-Hartley injunction in a federal court petition.
The court ruled in favor of Eisenhower, the unions appealed the ruling – and in the end the unions lost.
On Nov. 6, the strike ended after 116 days.
After five contentious months, the union essentially got what they wanted – higher salaries and the preservation of the contract clause, but it was a hollow victory: Wages were increased by a mere seven cents an hour.
Moreover, an ominous development occured during the long strike -- as U.S. steel mills lay idle (more than 85 percent of US steel production shut down), companies were forced to import steel from overseas for the first time ever.
In the long run, the U.S. steel industry was devastated and ultimately usurped by foreign steel producers, particularly from Japan and South Korea, whose product proved to be cheaper than American steel.