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Sam Johnson and my family

My name is Sam Johnson and my family and I live in Homestead, Pennsylvania. If it was 1891 or 1890, then I would be much more optimistic about our life here, even though there was not much to write home about you might say. Things are different in the summer of 1892. It is July 1st, 1892 and there is civil unrest with a majority of the workers in relation to our treatment by management, specifically Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick and his Pinkerton gang which promises to respond with force if we go on strike at the steelworks. None of the workers are stating the specifics of what we plan to do if our demands are not being met.

Everyone is speaking only in general terms. Well I move that we go on a general strike now! I am sick and tired of the monopoly that Carnegie has over the workers. He is so rich and so out of touch with the plight of the workers, that he cannot fathom the hardships that my family and I face, along side every worker here. There is no government intervention and only cries of socialism are met with the pleading of the government to act. The economy is going well for now but when we do finally experience a recession, as I know it is bound to be the case, what then shall we do?

Our experiences are the same as the plight of the worker at the Pullman factories in Chicago. We live in a company town and if this mine fails, then we as a community fail. A strike worries me but what else can we do. Frick threatens us with the Pinkertons but at this point, I couldn’t care less. I am so sick and tired of being mistreated. It is enough that I have to work six days a week, twelve hours a day, but to see my young son and wife along side me, making even less wages that I, it annoys me to the point of rage.

My twelve year old son John should be in school but had to quit school when Carnegie and Frick cut wages, yet kept our rents high within town. I have three children; two boys aged 10, 12 and a girl aged 6. At the time that they were born, our steel was commanding high wages and life was good. We were able to travel to Pittsburgh by train once or twice a month but now we can’t afford to have any time off of work. I spend Sundays, when I am not compelled to work, resting in bed, unable to move from the seventy hours of being in that damned mine.

I cannot get rid of this cough and my father at 60, is in better health than me at 40. If you have not already guessed it, I am a steelworker in Homestead, Pennyslvania. I did not particularly see myself being a steel worker but there really is nothing else that the town offers. Pittsburgh is too far away to travel and compared to the surrounding areas, Homestead is by far, the largest town. Steel is the only game in town and therefore, the only chances that I have afforded to me is try to be a farmer or work in the steel mills and waste my life away.

The only good thing is that the steel mills give a much needed solace to the cold when we are working in these ovens and dipping the steel in these huge baths in order to cool them down. I stay very warm during the winters and nearly suffocate to death in the spring, summer and fall. It kills me that my son John is not spending the summers playing with his friends of just being a kid. I had a good childhood on the farm with my parents. We worked hard but our time was our own and the freedom that was yielded to us was much more advantageous to the natural processes of life than this.

I have yet to see how industrialization is such a good thing for the country. Perhaps I am just not able to see beyond my own troubles and family but what is the use in hoping for the future when it is unlikely that I will see any of it, as well as that of my children. We cannot afford to pay the doctor and house calls like the when my youngest was sick with Scarlet fever back in ’89, we are still paying that off. Our only solace is each other and our faith. There has to be a leveling of the wrongs that are done on this earth.

How can one man have so much and the rest of us, us who are creating the revenue for Carnegie, to be so mistreated and exploited, and still have so little. I am not an advocate for anarchy or socialism as they were pushing for in 1886 Chicago with the Haymarket Riots but somebody has to start enacting the Sherman Anti Trust Act which was passed two years ago but is acting like it was never written in the first place. We worship at the Franklin Church. We are Scotch-Irish Protestants and my ancestors were part of the Scotch Irish, the first white men to cross the Appalachian Mountains.

However, that pride and faith is being challenged during these rough times. If Jesus didn’t promise a better life for all those that believed in him, I would just go crazy and lose my mind. I sure wish that Jesus would throw in a bit more and help us. There is such a powder keg of anger among the workers, and with it being unlikely that there will be given any concessions to the workers, a strike is bound to happen any day. We shall see how much power we have collectively and if Frisk and Carnegie will give us any of our just demands. So you ask me about recreation and what there is to do?

Homestead is not a large town, though bigger than the towns in our surrounding area. My family and I used to travel north to Pittsburgh but we cannot afford that. We go to church on Sundays and Wednesdays when we can muster up the strength to go or if I am not working. There are concerts and dances on Saturday night but by 6pm, when I get off of work, it takes nearly an hour to wipe off all of the black soot that I acquired while down in the factories and my back hurts so much, all I want to do is go to bed. My wife enjoys the dances and so do my children.

The church and the dances act as a good way in which to socialize and for the men, to speak more about our unrest and demands for a 40 hour work week. Last Saturday night, there was talk of agitators coming to the dance in order to create strife among the workers. However, we are united in our struggle for more rights. We do not seem unified in how we should go about achieving this end. A strike would be inconvenient to say the least for every worker, especially those of us with families but what type of life do we have to offer our wives and children if they are allowed to live like this?

My world view does not go beyond Pennsylvania, the Labor movement and my family. I do not care what is happening in the rest of the world. I used to care but have neither the strength or will to place my efforts into anything other than this so called Progressive Movement which promises to deliver to the worker their share of the pie and Gompers and the AFL has yet to do anything for us. They might be making strides in the big cities but where I live, I have yet to see any progress. We are powerless against the workers and even if we do have a strike, it will be a hollow victory I fear.

We are powerless against Foley and the Pinkertons but to do nothing and to somehow act as though we were apathetic about our exploitation, I would not be able to face myself in the mirror, which incidentally, is cracked and we don’t even have the money to get a new one! That is how frustrating it is for my family and me. My world view does not go beyond the feeding and preservation of my family which is becoming harder and harder to achieve the more we are looked on as less than the human beings that we are.

The Good Book says that we are made in the image of God. But Carnegie, as he professes to be a Christian, must have a Bible that has had those passages excluded from his Bible because I sure can read it in mine. As a Protestant, I define my life and self worth, partly by my work and the fierce pride that comes from being able to be self sufficient and to feed my family. However, I am not being given that opportunity; an opportunity that I have earned and which I have literally given my life to that mine.

I cannot afford to go to the doctor and there is still minimal knowledge as to how working in these chemicals affects the human body but just by the way that I feel, I know that it cannot be good. I want to work but the level of exploitation hat we are being forced to adhere to in my life, is nothing less than criminal. All we are asking is our fair share at the opportunity that is afforded to our wealthy immigrants like Carnegie who comes to this country and then exploits fellow immigrants as well as 3rd and 4th generation Americans like my family and does think twice about either.

This only adds to the frustrations and discontent that is alive within me as well as the other workers. We demand our fair share and no threat of Carnegie, Frisk and his Pinkerton thugs will deter us from our proper calling. We have been exploited for long enough and we need to put a stop to this now! The atmosphere is electric with anticipation over what will transpire in the coming weeks. I used to be known as a meek and mild person but that was the old me and I am fighting mad. The American worker is not being given our fair share at the table of opportunity.

The Progressive Movement, the Sherman Anti Trust Act and Gompers and his AFL are all talk in my opinion since I see nothing that would resemble an improvement in our treatment. We are not asking for anything that our fair share at the chance to provide for our children through our own hard work coupled with fiscal responsibility. When I see my oldest boy, along with the knowledge that my younger children are sure to follow, it makes me very mad and I am willing to do almost anything.

We gain strength in the numbers of workers like me that are pushing for a general strike. I do not know what good if any will come about it but I just have to do something. There may be no immediate change that will come from it but it might set in motion, the needed change for the next generation.

WORKS CITED

Commanger, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: Century Publishers. 1947 Miller, Donald. Chicago: City of the Century. New York: Simon & Schuster 2001 Lunez, John. The Progressives: American Experience. Boston: PBS Productions. 2004

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