Our History & Heritage

In some ways 1929, with the creation of National Steel Corporation had to be one of the highpoints of the life of Ernest Tener (E. T.) Weir. It also had a significant setback for him. That was the death of his brother, at age 48, David Manson Weir, who was one of the founders of Weirton Steel Company. The cause of death was pneumonia. He is buried in Union Cemetery in Steubenville. (As a side note some people have forgotten that David’s widow later married Thomas Millsop, who succeeded E. T. Weir in many capacities.)
The years 1930 to 1940, was the period called the Great Depression, by economists, but more importantly for me it was called that by my parents. They were always urging me to save money for the next depression. However, during that time National Steel made money every year. There were numerous stories of how well Mr. Weir treated his employees. The much beloved, long time, voice of the Pittsburgh Pirates Bob Prince once told a story during a Pirate game of how, during the depression, Mr. Weir kept employees who would otherwise have been laid off at jobs building the golf course at Williams County Club. I don’t know if it was true or not. Probably was. After all the steel company owned the Country Club until 1984. The property also had a structure called “The Lodge” which at one time had been home to J. C. Williams, and later served as a summer home to Mr. Weir. Anyone who saw the movie “Reckless” starring Daryl Hanna and Aidan Quinn shot in Weirton during the early 1980’s could recognize the exterior of the Lodge as Ms. Hanna’s home in the movie. Imagine my disappointment upon going to the Lodge for the first time and finding it to be totally unlike the movie. They obviously didn’t use the inside for any shots.
But the depression years were difficult at Weirton Steel and Mr. Weir for another reason, unionization. The Amalgamated Association of Iron Steel and Tin Workers of North America, the predecessor to the United Steelworkers of America was active. However, prior to the enactment of the National Industrial Recovery Act they still had great difficulty organizing big steel. Most of us take Labor Unions for granted. Everyone has at least heard ofa the National Labor Relations Board. However, neither the Act nor the Board existed at the outset of the Depression. When Mr. Roosevelt took office in 1933, things were bad. Allegedly, Mr. Weir initially supported Roosevelt and the “New Deal,” but split over the National Industrial Recovery Act. More particularly the Act provided for the right of Steelmakers to be free from the country’s anti-trust laws and to engage in price fixing and other restraints on trade, the idea was to eliminate, at least temporarily, price competition in the steel industry, which was only driving prices downward. In exchange, the Act provided for the right of workers in the Iron and Steel industry to “organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing….” From the time of the Act’s introduction as a Bill until its passage in August 1933, Weirton Steel, taking a page out of Bethlehem Steel’s playbook, went about the business of setting up an “Employees Representation Plan” whereby in each area of the Weirton Mill the employees would elect one of their own, by secret ballot to represent them in matters relevant to their work. The Weirton Steel Employees Representation Plan was in place and elections were held prior to July 1, 1933. However, the Amalgamated also went about getting some Weirton Steel employees to join their ranks. Among the circulars distributed by the Amalgamated some made outlandish false claims such as one stating President Roosevelt was calling upon them not to be slackers and to join the union. On Sunday September 24, 1933 without any demands or warnings the Amalgamated went into strike mode at Weirton Steel.
“The pickets congregated in large groups in the streets and at the mill entrances. They turned back cars of workmen seeking to go to work. They refused every one admittance to the mill. They carried clubs and threw stones and hooted and jeered men trying to go to work, calling them scabs and other vile names. They lifted automobiles off their wheels and turned them around; pushed back cars trying to enter the mill; threatened men who wanted to work; stoned cars hauling workmen to the mill; and sent groups of men called “Good-Will” committees to the homes of workmen to threaten them and their families with personal violence if they returned to work.” United States v Weirton Steel 10 F.Supp. 55 (D.Del, 1935).
Mr. Weir came to Weirton and had open door meetings with as many employees as he could. He had the mill open and operating by October 10. Then on October 14, 1933 the National Labor Board, an entity created informally by FDR, asserted jurisdiction over the strike and called for hearings.
Mr. Weir did attend the meeting set in DC. In his mind there was no strike for the President’s ad hoc Board to deal with. In his mind he was so sure of winning that he agreed to an election. There were hearings first as the Board called employees and Amalgamated leaders to testify. Eventually both the Company and the Amalgamated agreed to the time and place for an election to decide whether or not the Weirton Representation Plan should stay in place or should the Amalgamated represent the workers at Weirton Steel.
One big problem was that rules by which to hold the election were not forthcoming. Despite requests from the employee representatives at Weirton nothing was forthcoming. So the Weirton employee association proceeded on the basis of the rules used in their June 1933 election and ran a slate of candidates for 49 seats. Shortly before the election was to begin the Board delivered criteria for the election of 98 seats. However, on the morning of the election the Board employees in charge of it showed up with a new set of rules providing for the election of 49 seats. The Amalgamated told people not to participate. However, participate they did. There were approximately 11,000 eligible to vote 9,300 of that number did. About 1,500 ballots were disallowed. The result which was not in favor of the Amalgamated led to the government lawsuit against Weirton Steel, from which I quoted, above.
However, the Court held that the Board had no authority to act and did so only as a volunteer. That the few instances presented as the Company attempting to influence the election were not illegal or improper, and were frequently legitimate responses to untruthful statements made to employees by Amalgamated organizers. The Court also stated without providing numbers that the Weirton Steel employees overwhelmingly selected the representatives of the Weirton Plan in the election.
However, in 1935 the National Labor Relations Act, otherwise known as the Wagner Act was adopted and the playing field changed. Around that time the National Industrial Recovery Act was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.