World War I and Bethlehem’s Labor Force


By Jonathan H

Bethlehem Steel's Powerhouse
Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corp. used gigantic engines, which drove a total of four Chicago Pneumatic air compressors. The compressors were used to power the riveting tools integral to pre-World War II shipbuilding.

Part 3 — The Great War & Union Busting

Soon enough, however, the Great War, on which Schwab had gambled, was in full swing. As a result of the impending war, Bethlehem’s stock had gone from $8 a share in 1907 to $700 a share in 1916. The war was only another impetus to limit the power of labor organization — all under the guise of patriotism. The 1918 Sedition Act was the lynchpin of this. Championed by Woodrow Wilson, it was suspiciously passed only months after Schwab and Wilson had met in the Oval Office. Socialist labor organizer Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for 10 years as a result of the Act, and numerous labor strikes were broken up by the military.

Fear of the Sedition Act was so widespread among labor organizers that Fred U. Weiss, then an employee of Bethlehem’s San Francisco yard, had to write a disclaimer in his organizing pamphlet. “I hereby declare,” Weiss wrote in his introduction to Our Human Rights According to the Laws of Nature, “that none of my ideas, writings or theories shall be used for radical or revolutionary propaganda, and only in orderly debate for better and more human and just laws and conditions for all alike” (Weiss, 5). Weiss’s pamphlet was (not surprisingly) published only months after the Sedition Act was passed.

The spring before Congress passed the Sedition Act, Schwab agreed to take over as the government’s head of the Shipping Board, but only in exchange for one promise: That Wilson would allow Schwab to run the Shipping Board’s subsidiary, the Emergency Fleet Corp. his own way. “Will you stand back of me?” Schwab famously asked Wilson. “To the last resources of the United States of America,” Wilson replied (Forging, “The King of Steel).

In the midst of the war, Bethlehem employed 10,000 in its San Francisco yard and had acquired other yards at Alameda and Hunter’s Point. In all, Bethlehem’s Bay Area employees numbered 25,000 by 1918 cementing it as the “single largest ship producing complex in the world” (VerPlanck). Despite its size, Bethlehem was surprisingly able to keep the AFL and CIO out of its work force. Bethlehem’s treatment of workers during the First World War was so bad that the National War Labor Board noted urgent morale and pay problems. Fearing a strike that could freeze war production, the government demanded that Bethlehem bargain with its employees.

Schwab responded with his own “company union” — which, on the face, made Bethlehem look as though it wasn’t anti-union, but in reality preventing any other unions from infiltrating the company. As an ironic ode to George Plunkitt of Tammany Hall (Riordon, 24-25), Schwab followed Plunkitt’s example, forming his own baseball clubs, choir groups, and social organizations within Bethlehem. His baseball team was famous, but even more important: it was a shelter for Major League players who wanted to dodge the draft. Shoeless Joe Jackson and Babe Ruth ended up working for Bethlehem. Ruth left only weeks after the armistice was announced (Forging, “The King of Steel).

Babe Ruth Soon After Working for Bethlehem Shoeless Joe Jackson
Babe Ruth and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson both ended up working for Charles Schwab at Bethlehem’s steel plants during the First World War. Ruth went back to professional baseball soon after the armistice agreement of 1918 (photos courtesy Library of Congress).

Even beyond his death, Schwab was able to keep Bethlehem as an open shop operation. His grip over the corporate structure of Bethlehem was so strong that, years after his death, Bethlehem became the last World War II ship producer to negotiate with unions. The agreement only occurred after months of strikes in 1941 that resulted in the intervention of President Roosevelt himself. The government took the reigns and continued to squash any labor dissent during the war. The Navy seized over 100 metalworking plants and had purchased Hunter’s Point from Bethlehem (Rodden). A new era in labor would begin, and the government would continue to play an important role in limiting the power of unions.

The government’s stance on labor during the war had done in a few years what Schwab spent his life battling against in Bethlehem. The National War Labor Board (RG 202) limited wage increases during the Second War. Today, a derelict 1941 building sits near the grand Beaux-arts building and complex of Bethlehem (see images below). It is the government-owned employment office for the shipyards, which managed more than a dozen trade unions. The building is situated kitty-corner away from the procession of workers to prevent disturbing the war effort. Its small footprint looks more like a concession than protection for workers.

Bethlehem Administration in Dogpatch
The Bethlehem Administration and Operations building for West Coast Shipbuilding towers above the employment office to the left. The employment office was built in the midst of the war, 1941, in order to process employees for over a dozen trade unions represented. Notice the footprint of the employment office compared with the administration building (courtesy Microsoft Virtual Earth).

Bethlehem Shipbuilding Union Office
Inside the Bethlehem employment office for West Coast shipbuilding.

By the end of the Second War, according to Katherine Archibald, workers were leaving to re-form the same old residue of prejudice against the principles of organization. “The unions missed the bus. They completely missed the bus, and all you can hope for now is that, if the same chance ever comes again, they’ll know enough to do a better job of it” (qtd. In Archibald, 149).

Further Research

Archibald, Katherine. “Wartime Shipyard: A Study in Social Disunity.” Berkeley : Univ. of California Press, 1947.

“Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel.” Allentown Morning Call. Allentown, PA, 2003. <,0,1193897.htmlstory?coll=all-bethsteel-nav>

O’Brien, Robert “Riptides, From Shovels to Ships,” San Francisco Chronicle. October 21, 1949. p. 14

Quin, Mike. “On the Drumhead.” San Francisco: Daily People’s World, 1948.

Riordon, William R. “Plunkitt of Tammany Hall.” New York: Signet Classics, 1995. Pgs. 24-25.

Rodden, Robert G. “The Fighting Machinists: A Century of Struggle.” Washington, D.C.: Kelly Press, 1984

VerPlanck, Christopher. “The Story of Dogpatch.” Ed. Ralph Wilson. Pier 70 San Francisco. <>

Weiss, Fred U. “Our Human Rights According to the Laws of Nature.” San Francisco: Harr Wagner Pub. Co. 1919.

3 comments on “World War I and Bethlehem’s Labor Force

  1. Pingback: Charles Schwab and Shipbuilding Labor - Bearings

  2. BirchBeer on said:

    My great grandmother was a secretary at BethSteel during WWI and shared an office with Babe Ruth while he was sitting out the war. The Babe may have been one of the greatest players of our national past-time, but as an office worker, he was strictly minor league!

  3. Liminallenses on said:

    Amazing photos! I love this site. I also love this whole area including Pier 70 and other abandoned brick buildings, roofless with the morning sun pouring through them. Love to know how you got access to BS building. I love the old bones of her.

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