The Star of Bethlehem and the Wise men by John Knott depicts a seemingly “peaceful” resolute to the Little Steel Strike of 1937, which was a violent eruption of outrage from decades of tensions between the unionized, to the de-unionized, to the then again re-unionized steel industry. These eruptions particularly dealt with steel firms in the late 1930s dubbed as “Little Steel,” because they were smaller than the U.S. Steel Corporation. The cartoon depicts the worker now holding the more modern and civil idea of a “40-hour week, pay increase and collective bargaining,” in his own hand, this is an important commentary that is developed through the use of a commonly recognized biblical symbol, the star of bethlehem. Knott portrays his viewpoint of Bethlehem Steel’s resolution of the Little Steel Strike of 1937, particularly by utilizing the idea of ‘wise men’ that is personified as the men seen in this cartoon labeled ‘Employer’ and ‘Worker,’ and of peace, as seen through the genial nature of the two men’s handshake and expression.
Beginning in the 1870s the steel industry began to take shape, and nearly immediately The Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, the first national union to include steelworkers, formed in 1876 (Rees 544). However the main issue with the union was that it remained exclusively powerful only in the iron industry. The Amalgamated Association lost major power in the steelmaking industry during the Homestead Lockout of 1892. Carnegie Steel, the largest firm in the world at that time, began to sabotage competition by starting conflicts and strikes to better compete with rival union companies. This eventually lead one of the most famous incidents in American labor history, the gun battle between Pinkerton guards and strikers in 1892 (Rees 544). With much unrest and the union’s inability to salve the violent conflicts, The Amalgamated Association dissipated by 1901. By 1909, U.S. Steel and other major firms were practically union free, allowing for vulnerable and unprotected steelworkers at the mercy of greedy, industrialist steel firms at the turn of the century. John L. Lewis, an American Congressman, formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) to get the American Federation of Labor to accompany and protect steelworkers and others who were not protected by a Union. In 1936, Lewis appointed Philip Murray, United Mine Workers vice president, as the head of the SWOC. This institution became a vital lifeline for those who worked in the steel industry, especially since U.S. Steel recognized the SWOC without retaliation in 1937 (Rees 546). However, “Little Steel” firms did not recognize the union’s demands, thus strikes arose against these individual corporations, and their deadly and violent tendencies defined this uneasy period until the coercive power of congress and FDR were able to amend the issues. By the end of World War II, almost every steelworker in America was represented by SWOC’s successor, The United Steelworkers of America, drawing an end to nearly half a century of violent uproars against the oppressive and powerful steel corporations.
Bethlehem Steel, a “Little Steel corporation,” was a major steel firm that dominated the American Economy from the early to mid 20th century. Bethlehem Steel purchased and restructured the Lackawanna Steel Company in 1922, doubling its production capacity and becoming the second-largest steel corporation in the United States. Still to this day it is difficult to name a famous building that wasn’t constructed by Bethlehem Steel. In New York City, many iconic buildings and structures can be named such as the Woolworth building, the Chrysler building, the Lincoln Tunnel, and Madison Square Garden. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is a major icon that was birthed by Bethlehem steel. And in Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court building is another recognizable example (Ferrara 42). Bethlehem steel, as powerful as it was however, vigorously fought back against the SWOC until late february of 1937, when war-time demands and pressure from the National Labor Relations board forced the steel firm to cave to the ultimatums of their steelworkers. Prompting the cartoon displayed above.
John Knott, was a Dallas Morning News cartoonist from 1905 to the mid 1950s (Perez 1). He played an important role as commentator and humorist on major national and Texas specific issues during his career. The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was one of those major issues. As seen above, the most prominent and most easily understood images are the large star in the sky, the words “peace,” two men titled “employer” and “worker,” and a large steel mill in the background titled “Bethlehem Steel.” There are obvious biblical allusions, such as the “Star of Bethlehem,” which is largely applicable because of the parallel between the name of the corporation and the birthplace of Jesus and to the cartoon’s audiences’ national sense of religious morality that was widely apart of American Society in the early 20th century. The cartoon also serves as Knott’s viewpoint on the peacefulness and of the new beginnings that were brewed from the deal that Bethlehem steel struck up with their workers. Another reason Knott probably chose to use biblical allusions for capturing this situation is because in the 1930s, large steel firms seemed to have this god-like power over the livelihood of their employees, which justifies the idea of violent uproars by the steelworkers against the bearers of their fate. Knott also utilizes the idea of “wise-men,” as mentioned in the title, to editorially praise the men involved and claim their resolution as not only common sense but wise. The Little Steel Strike, was horribly violent, making this image a juxtaposition against the understood chaos that these events entailed, which is important to understanding how revolutionary this resolution between employer and worker truly is.
Overall, through the ebb and flow of the relationship between the employer and worker in the steel industry in the early 20th century, and through deadly trials and tribulations, there is still a hopeful image of resolution that beckons a sense of new beginnings, peacefulness, and common sense that is depicted by John F. Knott.
“Bethlehem Steel Corporation.” Corporate Disasters: What Went Wrong and Why, edited by Miranda H. Ferrara and Michele P. LaMeau, Gale, 2012, pp. 42-44. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2598&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX4020500019&it=r&asid=89be82520b2ea4e993b8c33628615967. Accessed 28 Sept. 2017
Canedo, Eduardo F. “Little Steel Strike.” Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, vol. 2, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 584-585. Gale Virtual Reference Library, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=GVRL&sw=w&u=txshracd2598&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX3404500332&it=r&asid=8b076c129bf09ed7dd11d8f66aa8a344. Accessed 28 Sept. 2017.
Stark, Louis. “Organizers Rally: ‘Encircling Movement.’” The New York Times, 04 Mar. 1937, pp. 1, ProQuest Historical Newspapers. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/102301231?accountid=7118.
Ben, Adler. “Labor Unions and Lawmakers in California Agree on Minimum Wage Increase.” All Things Considered (NPR), 28 Mar. 2016. EBSCOhost. ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nfh&AN=6XN201603282119&site=ehost-live.
Rees, Jonathan. “Steel Strikes.” Dictionary of American History, edited by Stanley I. Kutler, 3rd ed., vol. 7, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003, pp. 544-546. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=T003&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=SingleTab&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm¤tPosition=3&docId=GALE%7CCX3401804038&docType=Topic+overview&sort=RELEVANCE&contentSegment=&prodId=GVRL&contentSet=GALE%7CCX3401804038&searchId=R1&userGroupName=txshracd2598&inPS=true