Eileen Mountjoy

The year 1919 was marked by an explosion of activity in the American labor movement. Discontent surged among industrial workers as promises of wage increases and improved working conditions, made by employers during World War One, failed to materialize.

Telegraph operators, theater ushers and textile workers joined firemen, policemen and dock workers to oppose some of the country's most powerful conglomerates. The turmoil between labor and management, resulting in fear and uncertainty, erupted in the 1919 strike of iron and steel workers, which eventually cooled the furnaces in thousands of mills throughout the country.

In Johnstown, Cambria County, the grievances of steelworkers rattled the entire community. Endowed with an abundance of iron ore, soft coal, limestone and clay, the valley had, since the first charcoal furnace was built in 1842, pioneered the manufacture of iron and, later, steel. The introduction of the railroad augmented the area's ample river transportation. The Cambria Steel Company, founded in 1898, absorbed both a predecessor company and a large force of mill laborers. European immigrants, seeking work and a better way of life, poured into Johnstown until, by World War One, its iron and steel companies employed about fifteen thousand workers in mills and mines.

During World War One, an increased demand for steel occurred during a period of sharply declining immigration. As workers suddenly found their status enhanced, they began to realize that their wages did not reflect the value of their labor. By the end of the war, steelworkers were foremost among the American labor force eager for unionization.

On September 22, 1919, three hundred thousand steelworkers walked off their jobs, initiating the largest steel strike in history. The larger of Johnstown's two daily newspapers, the Tribune, heralded the news that afternoon, informing the public that of the total, fifteen thousand of the mill workers were employed by the Cambria Steel Company, and that the plants were to be closed "indefinitely."

The steelworkers were joined in their protest by a sympathetic strike of more than two thousand local coal miners seeking "recognition of their union." More was at stake than mere recognition; bound by the Washington Wage Agreement since October 1917, the miners, too, in the months since the Armistice, had begun demanding increased wages. At the invitation of the millworkers, attempts to form labor unions in Johnstown had been undertaken during the winter of 1918-1919. Headed by Thomas J. Conboy, an A.F. of L. organizer, the first drive attracted thousands of disgruntled steelworkers.

In Johnstown, where the mining industry had especially strong ties to the steel industry, the stage was set for the localized efforts of a small band of courageous individuals. Lost in the annals of labor history among such giants as John L. Lewis, WZ. Foster and John Brophy, one voice in particular, less celebrated, perhaps, but as persistent, survives through his spirited, mainly hand-written correspondence -that of an Italian immigrant from Calabria, Cosenza, Italy: Dominick Gelotte.

By January 1919, Gelotte was actively working in the District 2 territories. In an entry marked New Year's Day, 1919, Brophy noted "Gelotte was at the Dockerty mine where the men were on strike. (A) settlement was reached and the miners agreed to return to work on the following day." Although in Indianapolis at the International headquarters, Brophy was fully apprised concerning activities back home. On January 2, he added, "organizers Foster and Dominick Gelotte were at Franklin meeting, (Johnstown)." On the same day, Brophy made another, more pertinent entry in his little book: "...spoke to John L. Lewis in the English Hotel about the Johnstown situation re to organizers going there. He told me that on account of District 29 situation the executive board were unwilling now to make any move that would likely incur much expense because of possibility of struggle in District 29."

By the next month, Gelotte's activities as an organizer were bearing fruit. On February 25, Brophy wrote a memo:

At the beginning of the year there were just 7 members in the recruiting local of the United Mine Workers. Now there are 30 or more. A local union was organized in Franklin on the 8th day of January with 124 members, an since that time the number has increased to about 300... The total Number of workers organized as a result of the organizing campaign of the A.F. of L. and the U.M.W.A. organizers is about 10,000...

In Gelotte's next letter to Brophy, dated April 5, 1919, he had other, more pressing news to relate, in addition to his satisfaction over the parade:

... in the last 3 days more than 200 miners have been discharged for their activity, in the union and as matter of fact we have much to do to keep them at work, for they want to come out. Several special mass meetings have been Called 1,11 the locals and their intention was to call every one out, but so fare I, with the assistance of the other organizers, succeeded in convincing them that the time is not altogether ripe to call a strike .... Today many other men have been discharged and really cannot tell what the local may decided to do...

Brophy responded, on April 7, concurring with Gelotte's efforts to keep the men at work. "I can understand;' he wrote, "the difficulties caused by the discharge of large numbers of the men, but as the entire campaign of organization in Johnstown is being conducted by the A.F. of L. committee, this would be no move on the part of the individual or trade union in any one branch of work. Action of this kind would endanger the whole program. Keep this fact before the men."

Having firmly stated his position, Brophy wrote to International Vice President John L. Lewis, enclosing a copy of the organizer's letter of April 5, and inquiring, "In the view of the fact that (other) unions have approved of a strike there in the case the A.F. of L. committee in charge should decide that such actions were necessary do you not think that our Organization should do the same?" One week later, Gelotte telegrammed important news to the District 2 headquarters in Clearfield: "Council demands that National Committee make effort to get conference with Cambria Steel officials within next few days, refusal upon part of company to meet ... that a strike will be called to become effective May First."

Independent of this exchange of communications between District and International offices, Dominick Gelotte was busy circulating, under his title of District Organizer, a one page circular well worthy of the rich American tradition of pamphleteers:

Brothers: You certainly realize the hard struggle now going on in Johnstown, Pa. between the Cambria Steel and its employees, For sixty-nine years the workers of the said City have been under the wings of this tyrannical corporation and no workingman was free, but a secular slave of this Steel Corporation. For the first time in the history of Johnstown the workers have taken a determined Position to fight for their exclusive rights.

As matter of historical evidence at any time that the Proletarians demanded better compensation for their work they met with opposition, and we know that the corporations have expended millions of dollars to crush any labor movement but in spite of this fact the sublime idea of the labor movement has made a priceless progress.... There never was a limitation to their intolerable and treacherous method of attacking the labor movement, but their hypocritical and detestable tactics has not changed in the least.... So far their satanic and hypocritical action have not met with any material success, but as the Cambria Steel gets very desperate we cannot tell what they may do in the future...

The principal purpose of the circular letter, besides providing an outlet for the full force of Gelotte's rhetoric, was to protest the use of local newspapers by the steel company to "attack any labor union or the Labor Movement in Johnstown, either directly or indirectly," and to request that all interested parties write letters of protest to the newspapers, threatening to cancel their subscriptions if "company-supported, antilabor articles" continued to appear.

There was little to predict the eventual, bitter conflict between the District 2 president and John L. Lewis, which reached its climax during the 1926 United Mine Workers presidential election. But by 1919, some lack of sympathy between the two labor leaders was growing apparent. By June 18, Dominick Gelotte, in his report to Brophy on the "Johnstown situation," was showing visible signs of frustration. "I notice that the men are disinterested and they think that we have fooled them, this is what they tell us at any time we meet them, some of them went as far as stating that we sold them out, even the best active men are now hopeless."

A few days later, Gelotte advised Brophy "the situation in Johnstown is critical; we had general mass meetings of all the miners for three consecutive Sundays, it was necessary to do so, because the spirit of unionism was dying out rapidly, but now, the men are as good as ever, and absolutely determined to take a final action." Predicting that the miners would come out "in a very short time;' regardless of the international officers' decision, Gelotte suggested that Brophy arrange a meeting with Johnstown's coal operators. Whether or not it was at Gelotte's suggestion, Brophy did, on July 24, circulate a letter to the "Independent Operators in the Johnstown field," informing them that, You no doubt have learned from the Press that the National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers has decided to take a strike vote of the workers of the steel industry, and if a strike is called it will likely spread to all the mines in Johnstown and vicinity ... I suggest that a conference be held between a representative of your company, myself, and a committee of your employees, for the purpose of considering the making of an agreement covering the wages and working conditions at your mine.

On July 5, E.E. Johns, secretary of UMWA Local 2986, Johnstown, had written directly to now acting president John L. Lewis, asking for international sanction of a strike of District 2 miners. On July 9, Lewis wrote back, stating unequivocally, "...no strike will be sanctioned by the International union unless the International Board passes on it." On July 15, 1919, Frank Podboy, a veteran District 2 organizer, launched a three-way correspondence with John Brophy and John L. Lewis, which resulted ultimately in Podboy's "bewilderment" as the acting international president repeatedly attempted to keep a lid on the Johnstown situation. 'The International organization did not authorize a campaign of organization in the Johnstown field and consequently is not responsible for the conditions that have obtained the persecutions of our membership," Lewis wrote. Refusing once again to sanction a strike in Johnstown, the acting president referred Podboy back to Brophy who, in turn, counseled patience.

During the month of July, 1919, the miners' Struggle for recognition in Johnstown had attracted little attention from local newspapers, but on August 11, the Democrat announced that John Brophy had sent a telegram to the White House "after addressing a meeting here, alleging that workers were discharged for organizing into union!" At the conclusion of the meeting held the previous day, the telegram was read aloud and enthusiastically supported by the men, who held high hopes of intervention by President Woodrow Wilson. Two missives, issued in reply to Brophy's plea "on behalf of the miners of Johnstown, Pa.," were signed not by the president, nor by the Secretary of Labor but by an "assistant to the secretary," who promised only that "the situation in Johnstown," was receiving "the earnest consideration of the Department of Labor."

If Washington demurred, however, Dominick Gelotte was on the job in Johnstown, helping to build momentum as Labor Day approached. He wrote to Brophy on August 30.

At a meeting of the Allied Mill workers consill held on the 19 inst, it was decided that if any Union men will he discharged for celebrating labor Day, that all the Union men (without any exceptions) will suspend work until the discharged men are reinstated. Since this has been decided the men are coming in by the hundreds everyday... The enthusiasm is stronger than ever...

The September 11 edition of the "Tribune" expressed increasing concern about the labor situation, and ran a halfpage headline that announced "Steelworkers' Union Heads Planning for a Nationwide Strike Called for September 22, But Hope for Peace." Quoting the acting president, the paper informed its reader that "there will be no strike of miners on November 1 with its resulting coal famine... ." "I feel confident," Lewis continued, "that when we meet with operators on the 25th of this month, we shall reach a satisfactory agreement.' Next, he demonstrated his lack of knowledge of the growing discontent of the District 2 locals when he replied, when asked whether Or not the coal miners would support the steel workers in their strike if one occurred, that he did not think "his organization would take sides as its own hands full at this time.' Still focusing his attention on November 1, he concluded by adding darkly, "the result of such a strike would be a coal famine, and I dislike to think of it."

On September 20, the Tribune bannered the news that "The Lines are Tightening as Time for Big Steel Strike Draws Near," but mentioned no activity on a local level.

The strike including miners, steel workers and other workers, which their union has not been recognized by the employers, and fully 975 of the workers responded to the call. We estimate that over seventeen thousand are out, so fare has been no material disorder, two men was attached by the strikers this morning and forced to return. The authority is not against us for 3 police were present when a group of strikers attacked a man going to work throwing a dinner pail in the river beside a few punches he got and forced to go home, the officers have made no attempt to arrest the assailants but stood there and smile, in the other case the officer said to the strikers, 'you can go after him, I do not care what you do to him. Of course, our instructions to the men is to be as orderly as possible, but the number of men is so large that it is very difficult use to reach them all...

In Johnstown, the steel strike was featured in a screaming Tribune headline: "Approximately 15,000 Mill Men Obey General Strike Order and Plants are Closed Indefinitely." The coal strike, inexplicably, was relegated to an inside page. There, a third of a column noted that, "Practically every independent coal mining concern in the Johnstown district is affected by the strike of miners which went into effect this morning at the same time as the strike of steel workers.'

On September 23, the paper informed its readers that the "Steel Strike Remains Unchanged in This City," but made no reference to the coal strike until the following day. On the evening of September 24, the last paragraph of a steel strike update concluded, "In reference to any adjustment with the miners, A F of L organizer T.J. Conboy, fresh from a meeting in Pittsburgh with other District organizers, said that an effort was being made to have such matters referred to John Brophy."' Conboy emphasized the need for peaceful demonstration only, warning strikers that in case of violence, "the State police would come riding up." On the same day, the UMWA convention ended in Cleveland, with delegates scattering to all parts of the country determined to "call a nationwide coal strike on November 1, unless a satisfactory wage agreement was reached with operators."

On September 29, 1919, Dominick Gelotte penned yet another letter to District 2 president John Brophy, reiterating his breathless zeal for organization, and for his unshakable belief in the efficacy of the union:

This is to inform you that the situation in Johnstown is splendid ... progress has been made, new member has been taken in every days.... the Cambria steel mines are completely down of all the rest of the mines of Johnstown involved in the conflict, only the citizen coal co. have 11 men at work the rest are closed file. So fare there is no indication of settlement, it is possible that some of the large coal companies will come across... On Sunday I organized a new local Johnstown with over 60 men. Miners have a mass meeting every Monday at 3 O'clock try to come some time if you can and let me know in advance.

That day, Gelotte made the front page of the Tribune. "Organizer Gelotte is responsible for the statement that the miners who struck in 19 independent mines had been sent back to work. He asserted that the operators had agreed to recognize them but had signed no scale." The next day's edition reported that the coal situation was calm, that Conboy had returned to Pittsburgh and that Dominick Gelotte had made a statement that on September 29, all striking miners had returned to work. He added that he had given copies of the new union scale to a few operators, but that none of them had signed. The paper also noted that thirty independent coal operators had met the previous evening and had agreed to operate

On October 3, a familiar name again appeared in a headline in the Tribune: "Miners to be Called Out by an Organizer --- Dominick Gelotte Threatens to Produce Coal Strike Monday Morning." The accompanying article indicated the growing gap between district locals and presidential offices on both district and International levels:

Expressing dissatisfaction over the present strike situation and declaring that 'we are going to unionize Johnstown, organizer Dominick Gelotte declared this morning that he proposed to call a strike of the miners in and around Johnstown because the operators had neglected to signify their recognition of the union. He said that he had called a mass meeting of the miners for Sunday.

Johnstown's other daily, the Democrat, also covered the story that same day, but with a slightly different slant:

Gelotte, of the UMW, declared this morning that he proposed to call a strike of the miners employed in at least 30 different mines in and around Johnstown.... In giving this announcement to the press Gelotte went over the heads of Chief Organizer Conboy... Conboy is displeased because of false and misleading statements to the press given by other officials at the Labor Temple, and had shut down the various sources of news by demanding that all matters for publication be handled by him only.

Despite Conboy's order, Gelotte concluded his interview with the press with a firm command to the reporter: "...get this right. I do not care what you say about me --- everybody knows me --- but I do not want you to mistake anything about the union.' Public reaction to Gelotte's proclamation was not long in coming. The following day, a story broke in the press that would eventually create a threatening environment for labor organizers from all Johnstown unions:

A meeting of Johnstown businessmen was held today to discuss the closing down of local independent mines announcing the closing down of local independent mines announced by organizer Gelotte... The outcome of the meeting was the adoption of a set of resolutions condemning the threatened calling out of miners engaged in the mining of house coal and coal for local utilities.

In conclusion, the "Citizens' Committee" of Johnstown petitioned Mayor Louis Franke and Roscoe Custer, County Sheriff, to use their best efforts to prevent the closing of the mines by Dominick Gelotte, with its resulting "darkness;' leading to "crime and violence;' and "endangering of the health of the people" in case of a return of the "influenza epidemic."

In spite of the committee's best efforts, however, Gelotte, although unable to pull all of Johnstown's miners out of their working places on Monday morning, did continue his best efforts, which, by October 8, were achieving some success. That day, the Tribune announced that "eighteen individual coal operators had signed a wage agreement with UMWA locals." James Mark, District 2 vice president, visited Johnstown and told reporters that he found the coal situation in their city had improved, and that he was leaving Pat Egan and Dominick Gelotee behind to handle any further contingencies.

On October 15, John L. Lewis made the announcement that on November 1, 1919, nearly four hundred thousand miners would drop their tools as a result of the conference between miners and operators' representatives held unsuccessfully at Philadelphia. In Johnstown, the news almost anticlimactic, as the weary organizers there had reached the stage of deep discouragement. Two days later, the paper reported that, contrary to the International's decision to call out the men, the miners of Johnstown had "increased production of coal at the mines that had been affected by a sympathetic walkout of the union miners on September 22."

Dominick Gelotte refused to allow his idea to die. Calling out the miners of Kelso, Pennsylvania, where "30 men have recently been discharged for union activities," the organizer indicated that the men would "stay out a year if necessary." Gelotte was again rousing the men at mass meetings, the attendance at which "showed no sign of decrease;' according to the Democrat. Typically, fellow organizer Conboy spoke to the men in English, "and other speakers in foreign tongues," not only to urge the men to unionize, but also to create a cooperative system of wholesale grocery stores for the unemployed.

Beginning October 21, the Twenty-seventh Consecutive and Fourth Biennial Convention of the United Mine Workers of America, District 2, convened at the Moose Temple in Johnstown, also elbowing the activities of Dominick Gelotte from the front pages of the two local dailies. The proceedings of the convention itself revealed surprisingly little data about situation. As an organizer, Gelotte was not among the elected delegates, and examination of the minutes shows that, if he attended, he did not address the convention as a whole.

Much attention at the gathering, however, was understandably devoted to the projected strike of November 1, and Delegate Bassett, of Local Union 472, South Fork, spoke to the group and reminded them of the broader importance of Johnstown to the UMWA:

We are situated along the Main Line, (and) feel the effects of the conditions that have existed in Johnstown and vicinity for many years, more keenly than any other part of District 2, and we realize that if the strike is lost in Johnstown we will feel that condition more keenly in the future than we have in the past.... we should show to the people of Johnstown that we miners will back them to the limit.... We as men realize that their fight is our fight.

Bassett appealed to the Convention for a promise of a financial support for the striking miners of Johnstown. Daily telegrams from John L. Lewis read aloud to the assembled group, as the acting international president met with President Wilson and with the Scale Committee. Firmly committed to the November 1 strike, Lewis assured the miners that, "Our position remains unchanged. Strike order issued October 15 is in full force and effect becomes effective November 1.... responsibility for strike must lie with coal operators who have persistently maintained their hostile attitude." On October 26, the convention disbanded and its delegates went their separate ways for another year. Brophy left for Indianapolis for still more meetings, leaving the Johnstown situation in the hands of Dominick Gelotte and the remaining District 2 and AFL organizers.

During the convention, local newspapers had devoted little space to Johnstown's own labor problems, but on October 21, the Democrat reported:

It was a quiet day in strike circles.... But Joe Foster, an organizer of the UMW in charge of the co-op stores, and Dominick Gelotte, were in Winber Saturday and claim they were trailed by hostile men. They were attempting to set up a commissary service for the strikers.

Gelotte's name frequently appeared in both Johnstown papers as he deftly negotiated with coal operators, miners and concerned area residents. Emphasizing that he, and he alone, "was in charge of the Johnstown district of the UMWA," Gelotte soundly criticized the federal government in attempting to prevent the November 1 strike.

On November 1, the nationwide strike of coal miners dominated the media across the country, and, typically, Dominick Gelotte did not remain silent. "I will give no orders to the miners", he told a Tribune reporter that day. "The miners do not need to be told what to do. They can speak for themselves. When a man has been a good union man for a year or two he can get up and make as good a speech to his fellow miners as the organizers or anybody else. The miners are not fools --- they are smart enough. They know what to do and we will have 500,000 of them out in this District."

Two days later, Gelotte again addressed the people of Johnstown through the local papers, informing readers that, as of that morning, twelve thousand or more union miners were idle in Cambria County. He stated that he had received no word from any of his superiors, "as they were under the threat of an injunction by judge Anderson of the Federal District Court forbidding union officials' support of the November 1 strike."

Injunction or not, Brophy traveled by train from Clearfield to Johnstown the next day, where some excitement was generated at the Labor Temple when a pile of handbills was thrown in through the open door. In bold type were the words "Found- a sure cure for hungry babies --- stop feeding the organizers." This type of tactic was often practiced by many steel companies to intimidate organizers and union sympathizers, and drive the organizers out of the area.

Precipitated by the visit to Johnstown of William Z. Foster, long singled out by operators as a radical and a "Bolshevist", tension erupted into wholesale violence. As secretary of the National Committee for Organizing Iron and Steel Workers, Foster preyed on the postwar fears of the American public. Foster, according to a newspaper account, "was stopped on the street while a large crowd of strikers waited to hear him at Labor Temple, and escorted back to the Pennsylvania Station by citizens and city detectives, with notice that he was not to speak again, because if he did so there would be serious trouble."

Encouraged by their first triumph, the citizen's committee traveled across town to address a large crowd on Market Street, where spokesmen stood on the curb and told onlookers that by evening, all organizers were to be out of Johnstown. W.R. Lunk, head of the Committee, then moved on to the Medea Hotel, where Dominick Gelotte was rooming. Gelotte refused to come out of the hotel at the request of the Lunk committee, and announced that, as a citizen of the country, he would continue to refuse to leave Johnstown until ordered to do so by the proper authorities! At 5:00 P.M. T.J. Conboy left Johnstown. Dominick Gelotte, however, was made of sterner stuff. "Accompanied by two reporters;' the Democrat reported, "a committee of businessmen called for Mr. Gelotte. ... Gelotte declined to leave the hotel with the committee, or to be coaxed out of the building."

"People say I was arrested on several charges," Gelotte was quoted as saying. "I want to say that there were no charges against me. The mayor told me in the presence of others that I was put in jail for my own protection. Evidently, my life was in danger and the authorities themselves did not deny it." Gelotte planned to attend a conference of district leaders later that month. After that, he affirmed, "I will be back here on the job, attempting to unionize non-union miners." "I was;' he recalled, "hunting in Black Lick (near Blairsville) when three shots were fired at me from behind a tree." Undaunted, of course, Gelotte returned to Johnstown the next day.

At work in his Clearfield office, John Brophy responded vigorously to the events of November 7. On the following day, he telegrammed Gov. William C. Sproul:

A mob headed by members of the Chamber of Commerce of Johnstown, apparently with the approval of City Authorities, yesterday prevented organizers of the American Federation of Labor from addressing labor meetings and demanded that these organizers as well as the organizers of the United Mine Workers leave town under threats of violence. I ask that you, as chief executive of the state, use your authority immediately to see that the Constitutional rights of free speech and assembly at Johnstown are maintained and mob rule suppressed.

In Brophy's surviving correspondence, there is no reply to his telegram to the governor, and newspaper coverage reports no response from the Pennsylvania official. Given, however, Sproul's quick offer of armed state constabulary to coal companies struck by Indiana County miners that same year, the governor's lack of sympathy with the Johnstown strikers is hardly surprising.

After a brief departure to attend a meeting with District 2 leaders, Dominick Gelotte returned as he had promised. On November 13, he was seen in Nanty-Glo at a mass meeting that attracted more than nine thousand workers and sympathizers. Gelotte, the Tribune noted "was in the park" where the meeting was held, but "refused to speak", indicating that he was under some form of restraining order following his release from jail.

On December 1, the fourteen percent increase in wages, produced by countless conferences, wage scale committee meetings, and various governmental agencies in Washington, had been posted at many of the mines in and around Johnstown. At first, the men voiced their protests, refusing to return to work. Within a few weeks, however, their resolve had understandably weakened. In a letter to Brophy from organizer David Irvine, the District 2 president was informed that "The conference here has been accepted the president's offer and the men have been ordered to resume work."

Just before the end of 1919, Gelotte's familiar handwriting appeared on Brophy's desk in Clearfield, demonstrating that if the strike was dead, the spirit of unionism was not:

This is to inform you that today the committeemen and I meet the Park Hill operator and we succeed in having settlement and the men will go to work Monday 29. It was agreed that all the men will return to work in their place, all the men discharged for Union activities will be replaced this mean that all the scabs will be out job...

The organizers struggled vigorously and the miners suffered months of empty pay envelopes and empty larders in their attempt to establish a labor union in Johnstown. However, technically, the 1919 coal strike was not a success, but it left in its wake the memories of the valor of the struggle and the taste of victory achievable only when workers join together in unions. Their efforts, for more than a decade, helped pave the way for the massive and successful organizational drives that followed.

Further Reading

  • Brophy, John. A Miner's Life. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.
  • Foster, William Z. The Great Steel Strike and Its Lessons. New York: B. W. Heubsch, Inc., 1920.
  • Gable, John E. History of Cambria County. Indianapolis: Historical Publishing Co., 1926.