The Star of Bethlehem and the Wise Men, a political cartoon by John Knott, depicts a seemingly “peaceful” denouement to the Little Steel Strike of 1937. This was a progressive period in the fight for workers rights but one marked by violence and immense frustration because for more than a half-century unions were unable to protect steelworkers from exploitative labor practices. “Little Steel Corps,” the primary culprits behind the exploitation of more than a million steelworkers, were steel companies in the 1930s that were smaller than the behemoth manufacturer, U.S. Steel. Little Steel Corps maintained a stubborn and stiff fist of oppression that had detrimental effects on employees. Steelworkers were trapped by extremely low wages and excessively long work schedules, all while also being denied the ability to form unions.
Luckily, by the end of the 1930s, through the use of political and economic coercion, steelworkers finally received the fair compromise they deserved. Knott’s cartoon showcased this by depicting the working man literally holding, in his own hand, the written promise of a “40-hour week, pay increase and collective bargaining.” Knott emphasized the celebratory mood by incorporating biblical allusions, more specifically, the Christian story of the birth of Jesus, in order to reinforce a monumental event: the peaceful resolution of labor-management conflict. These allusions further add specific commentary regarding each individual actor, illuminating the admiration and joy that Knott has for the resolve to The Little Steel Strike of 1937.
The US Steel Industry began operations in the 1870s, and just six years later, the first national union to include steelworkers, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, was formed (Rees 544). However, due to politico-economic conditions of the period–Gilded Age–the Amalgamated Association’s power was limited to the iron industry, because following the Homestead Lockout of 1892, the Association lost major power in the steel industry which subsequently allowed Carnegie Steel, the largest firm in the world at that time, to sabotage competition by staging conflicts and strikes. Eventually, power imbalance between unions and management lead to one of the most infamous incidents in American labor history, the gun battle between Pinkerton guards and strikers in 1892 (Rees 544).
By 1901 the Amalgamated Association’s membership was greatly diminished as a result of crafted unrest on the part of management and the Amalgamated Association’s inability to resolve violent conflicts and its overall lack of influence in the steel industry. Just eight years later, in 1909, U.S. Steel and other major firms were practically union free, leaving unprotected steelworkers vulnerable to greedy industrialist steel firms.
John L. Lewis, an American Congressman, formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935 to force 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 Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), a subcommittee that dealt specifically with issues of workers’ rights in the steel sector. This CIO became crucial for the advancement of steelworkers. (Rees 546). Despite the efforts of the SWOC, Little Steel firms did not cave to the union’s demands.
Steel strikes of that era were too often deadly in nature. Inextricable unrest was a defining characteristic of the employer-worker relationship in the steel industry, until the New Deal era in tandem with the industrial ramp-up of World War II, the U.S. Congress and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) were able to economically and politically put pressure Little Steel firms (Rees 544). Little Steel companies desperately needed workers in order to maintain operations and competitively supply steel; thus, they eventually acceded to the demands of strikers. One of those firms was Bethlehem Steel.
Although labeled a “little” steel firm, Bethlehem Steel was in fact a major corporation that dominated the American economy from the early-to mid- 20th century. Based in Pennsylvania in the city of Bethlehem, 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 (Ferrara 38). Even to this day, it is difficult to name a famous building that was not erected using steel from the firm. Iconic examples in New York include: the Woolworth building, the Chrysler building, the Lincoln Tunnel, and Madison Square Garden. In San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge is a landmark structure that was built with Bethlehem steel, and in Washington, D.C., the Supreme Court building is yet another example (Ferrara 42). Understood against this backdrop, Bethlehem Steel was an influential and powerful company that was able to vigorously fight back against the SWOC until late February of 1937. At that point, war-time demands and pressures from the National Labor Relations Board finally forced the steel firm to recognize and honor the ultimatums of their workers, which included a 40 hour work week, a pay increase, and the ability to bargain collectively..
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. In the cartoon above, the most prominent and easily recognizable images are the large star in the sky, the word “peace,” the two men labeled “worker” and “employer” and the large steel mill in the background titled “Bethlehem Steel.” There are several key biblical allusions in this cartoon, allusions that were and are easily recognizable by both earlier and contemporary American readers because of the predominant cultural influence of Christianity.
One example is the “Star of Bethlehem,” which refer to both the name of the corporation and the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Knott also utilizes the idea of “wise-men” to editorially praise the men involved and affirm their compromise as not only commonsensical but wise. The mild humor of this particular political cartoon derives from the juxtaposition of the peaceful biblical allegory and the exceptional violence that characterized the Little Steel Strike.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, often referred to as the “workers’ bill of rights,” was pushed through Congress by the FDR Administration to protect people’s’ right to join and be represented by a union (Cooper Par.1). Labor union membership in United States peaked in the 1950s, following the post-World War II industrial boom of the American economy (Cooper Par.2). Thereafter, union membership has declined significantly, especially in the industrial sector, which includes automobile factories, steel mills, coal mines, and railroads. Globalization has encouraged American corporations to use imported materials and outsourced labor from cheaper international sources. As a result, the American steel industry has markedly declined to just one-third the production capacity of the all time high post-World War II era (Coffin 2). While the American economy has shifted from industrial to a post-industrial economy, the battle for workers’ rights continues to be a pressing issue in the 21st century.
Reagan gave dedicated union foes direct control of the federal agencies that were designed originally to protect and further the rights and interests of workers and their unions.
“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
Coffin, Donald A. “The State of Steel.” The State of Steel, www.ibrc.indiana.edu/ibr/2003/spring03/spring03_art1.html.
Cooper, M. H. “Organized Labor in the 1980s.” CQ Researcher by CQ Press, 1985, library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1985061400.