Union Switch & Signal Strike Photographs

What's online?

The online photograph collection of the Union Switch & Signal Strike contains images selected from a photograph album. The photographs portray strikers from US&S, and several other Westinghouse plants, marching in the streets of Swissvale in June 1914. There are also photographs of company management, including Superintendent George H. Pfeil, and non-striking workers in the plant as well as a copy of a strike bulletin.

What is in the entire collection?

The Union Switch & Signal Strike Album, held by the Archives Service Center (ASC) at the University of Pittsburgh, contains 90 black and white photographs documenting the June 1914 walkout of over 1,000 workers at the Union Switch & Signal Company plant in Swissvale, Pennsylvania and a strike bulletin distributed by the Allegheny Congenial Industrial Union, Local No. 2, on June 16, 1914.

The purpose of this album, salvaged by labor historian and former UE chief steward at US&S Charles McCollester before it closed, is unclear. The identity of the photographer(s) responsible for its existence is also uncertain, although the name "S.J. Turocy" appears written throughout the album. Some photographs of striking workers are taken from high vantage points while other shots are taken from close-up, as if the subjects posed for the photographs. Interestingly, one of the images clearly shows another photographer and his camera positioned on a railroad crossing bridge with striking workers, giving support to the idea that more than one photographer was responsible for documenting the strike.

It is difficult to identify the exact dates that photographs in the collection were taken. Given the evidence, however, it seems likely that many of the photographs originated on June 12th: the day of the initial walkout and parade.

About Union Switch & Signal

George Westinghouse founded Union Switch & Signal in 1881. He relocated the company from downtown Pittsburgh to Swissvale in 1887. Like Westinghouse Airbrake Company in nearby Wilmerding, US&S specialized in railroad safety; specifically closed track circuits and interlocking switch and signal controls.

Union Switch & Signal still exists today, with its headquarters on Technology Drive near the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The Swissvale plant, however, closed in 1986 and was razed. A shopping plaza, the Edgewood Town Centre, was developed on the land formerly occupied by the plant.

About the strike

Employees upset with piece rates, working conditions, and lay-offs walked out of the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing plant in East Pittsburgh on June 5, 1914. Organized by the Allegheny Congenial Industrial Union (ACIU), they soon organized marches through East Pittsburgh and Turtle Creek in an effort to persuade workers at other Westinghouse plants to join the walkout.

These marches made their way to Swissvale as the ACIU Local No. 2, Union Switch & Signal Plant, voted to strike. On Friday, June 12th, US&S officially joined the walkout when over 1,000 workers left the plant at lunchtime to be greeted by an additional 2,000 parading strikers from the East Pittsburgh plants. Women played a vital role in the marches and their participation in these events is well represented in the album. It was a festive event on a gorgeous late spring day. Marching bands headed the parade, American flags flew, and sympathetic shop owners provided refreshments and food to the sun-soaked demonstrators. Several hundred US&S strikers joined the parade while the rest formed pickets surrounding the plant on Edgewood and Braddock Avenues. Picketing continued in this fashion outside of Union Switch & Signal for the duration of the strike while newspapers reported that at least one other parade took place on June 16th.

Rumors of discontent at US&S had circulated prior to the walkout and it was reported that the company placed ballot boxes in the plant for the purpose of allowing employees to vote as to whether or not they wished to strike. When employees abstained from voting, the company assumed wrongly that no action would be taken. The surprise on the part of management at the strike's genesis was apparent in general manager George Prout's take on the situation following the walkout (Pittsburgh Post, June 13, 1914): "Their action seemed to have been spontaneous, and came without presenting any grievances whatever. We were not asked to recognize their union. Indeed, they had not asked us for anything."

After this spontaneity and initial lack of concrete demands, the union would state its case to Prout. Their demands were (Pittsburgh Post, June 24, 1914): "That men discharged for affiliation with the union be reinstated. That the workmen be allowed to elect a committee to present grievances arising between them and their foremen. That an eight-hour day be established. That the workmen be paid time and half-time for all overtime, and double time for Sundays and holidays, and that piece workers be given same rate."

Prout eventually agreed to allow work committees and approved the overtime rates for wage workers. He also agreed to question foremen regarding employees that they discharged, consider the eight-hour day, and consider "time and half-time rate" for piece workers. Employees voted to return to work on June 27th, claiming victory based on the concessions made by the company. Prout disputed these claims of union triumph however, asserting that US&S had not given into any demands and had not promised anything to its employees.

The Union Switch & Signal plant remained an open shop until 1937 when it was organized on an industrial union basis by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, as UE Local 610.

For Further Reading

Meyerhuber, Carl I. Less Than Forever. Cranbury, NJ: Associated Univeristy Presses, 1987.

McCollester, Charles. "Turtle Creek Fights Taylorism: The Westinghouse Strike of 1914." Labor's Heritage Vol. 4 - No. 2.

Montgomery, David. The Fall of the House of Labor. New York, NY: University of Cambridge, 1987.

Pittsburgh Newspapers Available on Microfilm: The Pittsburgh Leader, The Pittsburgh Post, The Pittsburgh Sun, The Pittsburg Daily Dispatch.

(1 - 20 of 46)