The Pittsburgh Reds, 1911-1914: Revolutionary Socialists in Allegheny County
— Mark Hudson
THE SOCIALIST PARTY of America reached the peak of its strength and influence in 1912. In that year, the party could claim 118,000 members, and 879,000 American voters (about 6% of the total) cast their votes for Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs. There were some 1,200 Socialist elected officials throughout the United States in 1912, and over 300 Socialist periodicals.
In Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, Socialist success was even more remarkable than in the nation as a whole. In 1911 socialists began an intensive organizing campaign in the Pittsburgh area, and by the fall of that year, the party's Allegheny County Local could claim well over 3,000 members, with dozens of active branches established throughout the city of Pittsburgh and in neighboring towns such as Homestead, Duquesne, Braddock and McKeesport.
Socialists in 1911 were elected to municipal offices in East Pittsburgh, Wilmerding, and East McKeesport. While Debs received 15.5% of the overall Allegheny county vote in 1912, in some communities with high concentrations of working-class voters the percentages were much higher: 29% in Duquesne, 39% in East McKeesport, 26% in McKeesport, 29% in North Braddock, 26% in East Pittsburgh, 28% in West Homestead, and 41% in Wilmerding.
Socialists in Allegheny County, as elsewhere, confidently anticipated the continued growth of party strength in the coming years.1
One group of Allegheny County Socialists saw the situation in 1911 and 1912 as potentially revolutionary. These self-proclaimed “Reds,” ably led by Homewood resident Fred Merrick, in 1911 launched the weekly newspaper Justice to encourage the growth of working-class militancy in the Pittsburgh area by propagating the principles of revolutionary political action and industrial unionism.2
Describing Pittsburgh as “an incipient class volcano” and “the epitome of all the strength and revolt in wage slavery,” Merrick argued that, “Here more than anywhere else do craft unions demonstrate their absolute futility in the unequal struggle with international, trustified industry.”
Yet, he contended, “even industrial unionism cannot solve the problem without revolutionary political action,” since the capitalist class could “batter an industrial union to pieces by physical force as long as they hold control of the police powers through their undisputed domination of political government.”
Hence, Justice would oppose an antipolitical syndicalism which preached the futility of voting to the workers, and moreover would publicize the methods, “too numerous to mention,” used by the municipal and county governments to disfranchise workers, in order to educate them to the political reality of their class situation:
To the direct actionist who urges the disfranchisement of the worker as evidence of the futility of the ballot we answer that the frantic efforts and laws to disfranchise are proof the capitalist realizes the imperative value of the ballot to the worker else he would ignore any political tendencies of the working class. Justice is directing a vigorous campaign toward political action and is using the tricks and schemes of disfranchisement as the text and the result is extremely gratifying. Thousands of workingmen who didn't see the situation have been awakened to the fact of the power of the ballot by learning of the efforts made to disfranchise them.3The Merrick group represented, in the Pittsburgh area, a left-wing tendency which had been gaining ground for several years in the Socialist Party as a whole. The theoretical tenets of this tendency were set forth in the pages of the International Socialist Review (ISR) and in the pamphlet Industrial Socialism by IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) organizers William (Bill) Haywood and Frank Bohn.
According to the left-wing or “industrial” Socialists, the real source of ruling-class power in a capitalist society was the control of industry, not the political state, which was only a tool of the industrial state residing on Wall Street and possessed no real authority of its own. Hence, unlike the moderate “constructive” Socialists who dominated the party leadership, the left-wing Socialists viewed election campaigns as secondary, although not unimportant.
The primary task was the organization of industrial workers, and the only form of organization capable of fighting employers in a modern, “trustified” economy was the industrial union. Craft unions were merely “job trusts” designed to protect the wages of an elite group of skilled workers, and doomed anyway to extinction because mechanization was rendering skills obsolete.
But industrial unions could wrest control of the industrial state from the capitalists and establish socialism, which meant not government ownership of the economy but industrial democracy, administered by the workers themselves through their industrial unions.4
Pittsburgh's left-wing Socialists strongly supported Debs and the rest of the Socialist ticket in 1912, and Merrick himself polled 24% of the vote in the Thirtieth Congressional District.5 On November 2, Justice exhorted: WORKERS, VOTE FOR THE PARTY OF YOUR CLASS—STRIKE AT THE BALLOT BOX—NOV. 5.
A “Last Appeal to Voters” urged that Socialists elected to the state legislature could help bring about the abolition of the state constabulary and an investigation of conditions in the state's prisons, workhouses and asylums, and that Socialists elected to Congress would “fight the appropriations that are now used to maintain a great army and navy in the interests of a few Wall Street bankers and industrial lords.”
“These arguments,” the paper added, “are aside from the great goal toward which we all strive, namely, industrial democracy—that is, that the working class may own, control and manage the industries for themselves.”6
Thus the left-wing socialists did not confine their activities to electoral campaigning in the summer and fall of 1912. While most of Pittsburgh's socialists concentrated their entire efforts on bringing out the vote for Debs and other Socialist candidates, Merrick and his comrades led a successful strike for better conditions at the National Tube Company and engaged in highly visible street protests for “Free Speech” in Pittsburgh's Homewood section.
The strike at National Tube, a subsidiary of the U.S. Steel Corporation, began on June 17 when about fifty employees in the pipe-threading department walked out, and by the following day almost the entire force of 2,000 mostly Lithuanian, Polish, and Hungarian workers had left the plant.
A committee was appointed and a list of demands presented to the company, which immediately agreed to meet all the strikers' demands dealing with working conditions but refused to grant any increase in pay. The workers held out, and the leadership of the strike soon devolved upon Merrick and a small group of left-wing Socialists, who led daily mass meetings and deliberations of the strike committee.
Finally, after about a week, Merrick and his group led a march of 1,000 strikers across a bridge from the South Side over the Monongahela River to the company's office on Second Avenue, where the workers waited outside while the strike committee negotiated a settlement with company officials. The company still refused to grant an increase in pay, but agreed to allow thirty minutes for lunch instead of twenty, to leave the electric lights on during the lunch break, to pay every two weeks, and to allow twenty-minute rest “spells” every hour for the furnace hands.7
Although the company had stood pat on its initial offer, from the standpoint of left-wing socialist theory the strike was a complete success. Not only had the workers improved the conditions under which they worked; they had also learned the power of class solidarity and militant industrial organization.
They had challenged ruling-class power at its source and emerged unscathed. In the future, the left-wing socialists reasoned, these workers would be willing to fight for their complete emancipation from capitalist wage slavery. The only question was: When?
The Homewood Free Speech Fight began on Saturday, July 27, when Merrick and another left-wing Socialist, John McGuire, were arrested and fined for speaking at the corner of Kelly Street and Homewood Avenue, despite the fact that they had a permit to speak there. In protest, the Thirteenth Ward Branch of the Socialist Party (the Homewood branch, to which many of Pittsburgh's left-wing Socialists belonged) organized a protest meeting for Saturday, August 3, at the same corner, which was attended by approximately 10, 000 people.
Nine women and eleven men were arrested. They appeared the next morning before Police Magistrate Fred Goettman, who discharged them and told them they did not need a permit to hold a meeting. On August 10, another meeting was held at Kelly and Homewood. This time approximately 15,000 attended; nine women and thirty-six men were arrested and placed in six unventilated and already badly overcrowded holding cells at the Frankstown Avenue police station.
As the police were making arrests, the crowd moved to a nearby vacant lot, where they were driven off by the police despite the fact that they had a permit from the lot owner to assemble there. The next morning the forty-five who were arrested appeared before a Magistrate Natali, who fined some but discharged the majority.8
The Socialists decided to make a test case. On August 14, Samuel Mervis was arrested and fined $25 for speaking in public without a permit, and the case was appealed to the County Court. Then on August 16, the City Solicitor obtained an injunction prohibiting anyone from speaking at Kelly and Homewood, but the Socialists continued to hold protest meetings on the vacant lot where they had a permit from the owner while they awaited the verdict on the test case.
Finally, the County Court declared the city ordinance banning public meetings without a permit unconstitutional on the grounds that it was discriminatory, and the injunction was dissolved by the same judge who had issued it. But the City Council passed a new ordinance, which omitted the discriminatory clause but still made it illegal to hold a street meeting without a permit.
When the Thirteenth Ward Socialists set up a soap box at Kelly and Homewood on Saturday, October 26, the five speakers, including Merrick, were arrested the following Monday and fined $10 each by Magistrate Goettman.9
The left-wing Socialists fought for the right to assemble and speak freely because they knew that without that right, it would be much more difficult for them to carry on the struggle in the industrial field. Just as the political state was subservient to the industrial state in a capitalist society, they reasoned, the struggle for at least some measure of political democracy was only a prerequisite to organizing workers for industrial democracy. As the Socialists' attorney Jacob Margolis explained:
Free Speech is a valuable asset. To be deprived of it means that secret methods must be employed and the latter are hardly ever successful. It goes without saying that it is well nigh impossible to carry on an effective propaganda when the power of granting or refusing a permit to speak on the street is left to the discretion of a police official who may object to the cut of your coat or the color of your necktie. This is apparently what has happened in the city of Pittsburgh. They do not like the distinctively “red necktie” that was being worn by those who spoke at the corner of Homewood and Kelly.10In February 1913, IWW organizer Bill Haywood was recalled from the Socialist Party National Executive Committee for allegedly opposing political action and advocating direct action and sabotage, in violation of Article 2, Section 6 of the party constitution. Haywood and thousands of other left-wing socialists resigned or were expelled from the party, and by June membership had declined by 40,000.”11
In Pittsburgh, this factional crisis came to a head during the Hill District stogie workers' strike of July-October 1913. In the spring of 1912, Merrick and Jacob Margolis had persuaded the stogie workers in the Hill District to organize under the banner of the IWW. Although many of the predominantly Jewish stogie workers were moderate “constructive” socialists, they agreed because the American Federation of Labor refused to organize them.
In April 1912, they formed IWW Tobacco Workers Local 101, although many of them probably regarded themselves only as members of the Local and not the IWW. In July, August and September 1912, the new union struck and won pay increases, safer and cleaner conditions, and in some plants promises from employers to hire only union members.
Encouraged by this success, fifty union members at the Industrial Cigar Company struck again for higher pay in July 1913. In response, the Bosses' Association, an organization of Hill District stogie factory owners, declared “a lockout against all shops organized under the banner of the IWW” and tried to starve the 1,200 workers into submission.12
As the strike wore on, some of the smaller stogie factories and sweatshops began to settle on the strikers' terms. The strike committee adopted a policy which allowed workers in settled shops to go back to their jobs, but required them to contribute ten percent of their wages to the strike relief fund.
On October 11, Justice harshly criticized this policy of piecemeal settlements, calling it a “craft union tactic” which did irreparable damage to the strikers' morale: “The mental effect upon the workers in originally compromising is worse than an apparent defeat with a solid front of defeated workers who go back together even though temporarily defeated.”
The moderate Socialists argued that piecemeal settlements strengthened the relief fund and increased the pressure on the larger factories to settle, but the revolutionaries disagreed: “No compromise should be the motto in all strikes. The minute you fraternize and quibble with the boss you are lost.”13
The October 11 issue also included an editorial entitled “Capitalist Fools Spread Sabotage,” which accused the “capitalist retainers” in the Socialist Party of giving the word “sabotage, a meaning it did not truly possess: “In their fanatical hate for [industrial unionism], the political job hunters so connected the word sabotage in the prohibition clause [Article 2, Section 6] of the new constitution that sabotage was given a meaning by context entirely foreign to its intrinsic meaning.”
Thus they rendered a valuable service to the capitalist courts, which were “determined to put the worst possible construction on the word.” But, the paper argued, this tactic was certain to backfire, because it would “force upon the public ultimately a correct instead of an ignorant definition of this word which is deliberately and continually misrepresented by those who have selfish purposes to serve.”
The fact that advocates of other forms of “direct action” also happened to advocate sabotage did not “by any reason of fairness impart to this word an inclusiveness it does not possess.” On December 20, Justice explained that, correctly defined, “sabotage, was a form of direct action which could “only be practiced by a worker while employed for wages by the boss,” unlike other forms, such as strikes and violence, which “must be practiced by workers off of the job.” The paper promised that in the future, it would “enumerate many different ways of practicing sabotage.”14
The Allegheny County Socialist Party expelled over four hundred members in 1913 for advocating sabotage. Some of the expelled members formed a new organization called the workers Defense League (WDL), which sent delegates to the Relief Conference for the Striking Tobacco Workers, the organization responsible for the strike relief fund.
The WDL delegates pushed a “no compromise” line and aroused the intense ire of the moderate Socialist delegates, who expelled them from the conference. On October 25 a letter appeared in Justice, signed by the Relief Conference, which vilified the WDL delegates as “spiritual and mental degenerates and lunatics who do not have the slightest conception of what representation in an organization means.”
In reply, Merrick accused the “yellows” of soliciting money from craft unions and attempting to keep the amount in the relief fund a secret, so that “they could dictate to the strikers what kind of a settlement they should make and gradually wean them from the [IWW].”
He argued that many of the Relief Conference delegates were friends and relatives of stogie bosses and were “but following their middle class instincts” in attempting to get the strikers to leave the IWW and accept a compromise settlement. “Naturally,” he concluded, “they would blackguard anybody who stood in the way.”15
The WDL's newsletter, “The Rebel,” appeared each week in Justice beginning in July 1913, and by November the WDL had organized two branches, one in Wilkinsburg and one in Pittsburgh with headquarters in the Hill District.
On November 27, the Wilkinsburg Branch sponsored a “Red Thanksgiving” party to launch a campaign to organize WDL branches throughout Allegheny County. Justice declared the event a success: “Everybody went away with the idea that they would organize branches of the League wherever it was possible and start active propaganda work in their localities.”
But by February 1914, only one new branch had been organized—in Swissvale, where a branch of the Socialist Party resigned its charter to join the WDL.16 Part of the problem may have been that “The Rebel” devoted too much of its quarter-page space each week to glib wisecracking, folksy anecdotes about “fellow rebels,” and “Lemon Sketches” ridiculing prominent “yellows,” and too little to articulating a coherent revolutionary agenda.
The newsletter's Wilkinsburg correspondent warned that the “Lemon Sketches” were “taking up too much valuable space, consuming too much energy, and arousing needless antagonism.” But “Rebel” editor Edwin Stuart justified the feature with the argument that it was necessary to show “how the personality and selfish rule or ruin policy of the various lemons had wrecked the Socialist Party and brought it to its present deplorable state.”17
Even if the WDL did not grow as hoped, Justice's persistent agitation for revolutionary industrial action seems to have brought results in 1914.
On January 19 and 20, a group of workers at the East Pittsburgh plant of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company held public meetings to protest a severe reduction in wages. They elected an executive committee and adopted a declaration of principles which was published in the January 24 issue of Justice.
The Westinghouse workers charged that “This company, in spite of the living conditions under which we are forced to exist and rear our families, has cut our wages sixteen and two-thirds per cent at a time when the owners of this company propose to continue to live in luxury and idleness.” They pledged their full support for “the organization of a union throughout the Westinghouse plants which shall make no distinction as to craft, age, nationality, or sex.”
Furthermore, they called upon “all wage slaves [in the Pittsburgh area] to raise the flag of industrial revolt and organize a union of working men and women who shall no longer submit to the greed, brutality and heartlessness for which Pittsburgh millionaires have become internationally notorious.”18
On Sunday, February 1, 4,000 electrical workers met in the Lyceum Theater and organized themselves into the Allegheny County Industrial Union (ACIU). Dues were set at twenty-five cents per month, the union was declared open to all industrial workers in the Pittsburgh area regardless of craft, race, age, sex, or creed, and dual unionism was endorsed: members of other unions could join the ACIU as long as they upheld the principles of industrial unionism.
The ACIU also launched a new weekly newspaper, the Allegheny County Industrialist, which went on sale throughout the county on February 13. A mass meeting of all industrial workers in the area was scheduled for February 14 at Duquesne Garden, but the Pittsburgh Railways Company, which owned the Garden, attempted to cancel the lease it had signed with the ACIU executive committee. The union refused to cancel the contract, and an incident was narrowly averted when the company decided not to call on the police to keep the workers out of the building.19
Then, just as this promising new industrial movement was being born, Justice suspended publication. In the February 28 issue, John Schwartz and H.H. Stutsman, the President and Secretary of the Board of Directors, explained that although Justice had been “the greatest agent next to the economic cause, in encouraging the growth of industrial militancy in the Pittsburgh area, it had been necessary for them to be “extremely brutal, fearless and iconoclastic in our work.”
Thus they had made “hundreds and thousands of enemies, who, while convinced that we were right are too proud to acknowledge the fact.” They believed that there were “large groups of the working class who are standing aloof from open espousal of militant industrialism as advocated by the IWW because they feel that if they did so, Justice, whom they personally dislike, would crow and say that we had brought this about.”
Therefore, Justice was ready to “take a back seat in a movement in which we were the pioneers,” thus removing “the last excuse for failure to organize this great bee-hive of industry along industrial lines so that every man, woman, and child may join in the movement of accomplishing industrial emancipation.”
Although Justice eventually reentered the publishing field, by the end of 1916 it was out of business permanently.20
In June 1914, workers struck the Westinghouse plants east of Pittsburgh and forced the company to recognize the ACIU, which soon thereafter began calling itself the American Industrial Union (AIU). In April 1916, the AIU called a strike at Westinghouse to protest the firing of John Hall, a radical toolmaker and comrade of Merrick, and by the end of the month, the strike had shut down the entire Westinghouse complex.
On May 1 and 2 Merrick, Hall, and other strike leaders led giant parades from Wilmerding, East Pittsburgh and Swissvale into Braddock. As they marched, the strikers invaded factories and steel mills, brought out thousands of workers, and picketed every plant in the area.
On May 2 they were confronted by company guards at the Edgar Thomson Steel Works in Braddock, and in the ensuing battle the guards fired into the crowd, killing three and wounding fifty or sixty. Thirty strike leaders were then arrested and charged with rioting and being accessories to murder.
Merrick was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for his part in the strike. After his release, he became district chairman of the Communist Party in western Pennsylvania. When he was arrested again in 1923, the judge gave him the choice between going back to prison or returning to his home state of West Virginia. Merrick chose West Virginia, where he became a farmer.21
The Socialist Party never recovered from its loss of 40,000 members in 1913. By 1915, party membership had levelled off at around 79,000, and in 1916 socialist presidential candidate Allan Benson received only three percent of the nationwide vote. According to Justice, membership in Allegheny County fell to less than 1,000 in 1913, although the local claimed that it still had almost 3,000 members in good standing.22
Ira Kipnis has argued that the moderate “constructive” Socialists must bear most of the responsibility for this decline, because they “controlled the party and determined policy and activity.” Under their leadership, Kipnis contends, the party “degenerated into a vote-getting machine” which concentrated on “convincing members of craft unions that they should vote Socialist.”
To placate the American Federation of Labor, the moderate Socialists abandoned their opposition to craft unionism, and many of them used the party to obtain positions of power in Federation unions. But instead of using their influence to advance the cause of industrial unionism, the moderates only reinforced “those characteristics of craft unionism which made it timid, conservative, and of little use to the great majority of nonskilled workers.”
Kipnis criticizes the left-wing Socialists for their refusal to work inside the established labor movement, their disregard for political activity, and their apparent belief that the “mere existence” of the IWW would induce “workers still convinced that there was hope for independence and prosperity under capitalism” to suddenly become class-conscious revolutionaries.
But he blames the moderates far more, because “it was they who turned the party into what they themselves called an opportunist political organization devoted to winning public office for its leaders.”23
James Weinstein argues that Kipnis is wrong—that despite the departure of Haywood and his followers, left-wing influence in the Socialist Party actually increased after 1912. He points to the many “well-known left wingers,” such as Debs and Louis Boudin, who did not follow Haywood out of the party in 1913. According to Weinstein, the party's rejection of the IWW was not a repudiation of industrial unionism, but only a disagreement over how best to achieve it.
If Socialists in the American Federation of Labor failed “to agitate as consistently as before  for a formal endorsement of industrial unionism,” it was probably because they realized that “the task was hopeless.” But, Weinstein notes, Socialists led the Brewery Workers, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, and the Western Federation of Miners, all of which were industrial unions.24
The experience of Pittsburgh's left-wing Socialists between 1911 and 1914 tends to contradict Weinstein's assertion that left-wing influence in the party increased after 1912 and lends credence to Kipnis' view that “The Socialist Party, organized to bring real democracy to America, itself became one of the most undemocratic of political organizations.”25
It is of course impossible to generalize conclusively from the Pittsburgh situation, where industrial unionism was comparatively very weak, and it is true that many left-wing Socialists in other parts of the country chose not to leave the party in 1913. But in Pittsburgh most had no choice, because their uncompromising advocacy of revolutionary industrial action became inconvenient for the “constructive” leadership of the Allegheny County Socialist Party.
- James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 York 1967), 27; “Twentieth Anniversary Reunion and Banquet, Local Allegheny County Socialist Party”, Billy Adams Papers, Archives of Industrial Society, University of Pittsburgh; Michael Nash, Conflict and Accommodation: Coal Miners, Steel Workers, and Socialism, 1890-1920 (Westport, Connecticut 1982), 115-117. Nash points out that these percentages probably underestimate the extent of Socialist sentiment in working-class communities, since many workers (about half in the case of the steelworkers) were not native-born or naturalized citizens and thus did not qualify for the franchise.
- “Two More Revolutionary Socialist Papers,” International Socialist Review 12 (July 1911), 57-58.
- Fred H. Merrick, “Justice in Pittsburgh,” International Socialist Review 12 (September 1911), 158-163. Justice's opposition to craft unionism was more than just rhetoric; the paper was denounced as a “union smasher” because it refused to use the label of the local typographical union, which according to Merrick had “notoriously and repeatedly prostituted itself to union scabbing.” Instead of the craft-union label, Justice displayed the label of IWW Local 215.
- Ira Kipnis, The American Socialist Movement, 1897-1912 (New York 1952), 312-315; William E. Bohn, “Reformer and Revolutionist,” ISR 10 (September 1909); William D. Haywood and Frank Bohn, Industrial Socialism (Chicago 1911). See also David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor (Cambridge 1987), 314-317, for a somewhat different interpretation of the left-wing position.
- “Leading Socialist Congressional Districts,” Socialist Party of America Collection, Duke University.
- Justice, November 2, 1912.
- Survey 28 (July 6 and August 3, 1912), 487-488 and 595-596.
- Justice, November 2, 1912; Jacob Margolis, “The Streets of Pittsburgh,” ISR i3 (October 1912), 313-320. According to Margolis, it was rumored that Magistrate Goettman was transferred to another part of the city for telling the Socialists they could meet without a permit.
- Justice, November 2, 1912.
- Margolis, “Streets of Pittsburgh,” 315.
- Kipnis, American Socialist Movement, 417-418.
- Patrick Lynch, “Pittsburgh, the IWW, and the Stogie Workers,” in At the Point of Production: The Local History of the IWW, ed. Joseph R. Conlin (Westport, Connecticut 1981), 85-86.
- Justice, October 11, 1913; Lynch, “Pittsburgh, the IWW, and the Stogie Workers,” 88-89. Lynch argues that the strike committee's strategy was the correct one; the piecemeal settlement tactic finally forced the Bosses' Association to capitulate to the strikers' rate demands and recognize the IWW. [Editor's Note: It was the kind of policy advocated by the left in this struggle that gave rise to the saying that the IWW never knew how to end a strike.]
- Justice, October 11 and December 20, 1913.
- Justice, November 8 and October 25, 1913.
- Justice, November 15 and December 6, 1913; February 21, 1914.
- Justice, February 21 and 28, 1914.
- Justice, January 31 and 24, 1914.
- Justice, February 7, 14 and 21, 1914.
- Justice, February 28, 1914; Weinstein, Decline of Socialism, 101. The suspension also may have been prompted by an attempt in January by “Yellow” Socialists to kill the paper by buying up a majority of the stock. See Justice, January 10 and 17, 1914.
- Montgomery, Fall of the House of Labor, 319-326; Dante Barton, “The Pittsburgh Strikes,” ISR 16 (June 1916), 712-716; Steve Nelson, James R. Barrett and Rob Puck, Steve Nelson, American Radical (Pittsburgh 1981), 22-23.
- Weinstein, 27; Kipnis, 420; Justice, November 15 and December 6, 1913.
- Kipnis, 423-427.
- Weinstein, 28-29, 37-40.
- Kipnis, 428.
ATC 81, July-August 1999