The Mellon family war against workers
Coal mines and machine guns
Published Aug 17, 2009 6:50 PM
“You could not run a coal company without machine guns,” sums up
the Mellon style of labor relations.
Richard Mellon broke the United Mine Workers union at the family’s
Pittsburgh Coal Company in 1925. Three years later the U.S. Senate’s
Interstate Commerce Committee traveled to Pittsburgh to question this
strike-breaking brother of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.
They asked Richard Mellon about the machine guns of Pennsylvania’s Coal
and Iron Police, a notorious private strike-breaking outfit that functioned
like Blackwater (now named XE) mercenaries do. Mellon answered, “It is
necessary. You could not run without them.”
While Mellon was testifying, his coal bosses had been told to “keep our
police in the background.” Eleven months later on Feb. 9, 1929, they beat
union miner John Barkoski to death. Union supporter John Philipovich was shot
to death on the porch of his store.
Much bloodier were the East St. Louis, Ill., race riots in 1917. Two thousand
workers had gone on strike there at the Mellon-controlled Aluminum Ore Company
plant. Unionists were conducting organizing drives at other local plants.
Mellon and other employers recruited thousands of African Americans from the
South with false promises of employment. Whites were told that Black workers
were going to take their jobs. The strike at Mellon’s plant was
Unlike future Communist leader William Z. Foster, who was then organizing
African-American and white meatpacking workers in Chicago’s stockyards,
the white AFL union leaders in East St. Louis catered to racism.
These misleaders demanded Black workers be driven out of the city while local
newspapers printed lurid, lying stories of a Black “crime
This deliberate instigation of racism led to a mob of thousands of armed whites
hunting Black people on the streets on July 2, 1917. W.E.B. Du Bois estimated
in his autobiography that 125 African Americans were murdered then.
Years before railroad tycoon Jay Gould bragged he could “hire half of the
working class to shoot the other half.” Big capitalists became experts at
pitting one group of workers against another.
The anger of white and U.S.-born workers against their bosses would often be
diverted into hatred for African Americans, Latinas/os and immigrants.
Mellons are again today involved in attacking the working class and
oppressed—this time in the debate on health care. Right-wing groups are
conducting a vicious fight against any reforms of a rotten system where nearly
50 million people are uninsured. One of the biggest backers of the tax-free
foundations leading this smear campaign is Richard Mellon Scaife, whose fortune
is an estimated $1.2 billion.
Family patriarch Thomas A. Mellon hated unions. He called union leaders
“labor parasites” who were “promoters of socialism and
In 1880 Thomas Mellon busted a strike at the Waverly Coal Coke Company, which
he partially owned. Mellon even had union leader David Jones prosecuted on
“criminal conspiracy” charges for seeking to fix the price of
Andrew Mellon’s friend and financial partner Henry Clay Frick broke the
Homestead steel strike in 1892. Workers at Andrew Carnegie’s steel plant
outside Pittsburgh had driven out Pinkerton private police thugs.
The 1892 presidential campaign receded into the background as the whole country
focused on the long strike. Frick was so hated that anarchist Alexander Berkman
tried to kill him. Berkman spent 14 years in prison for his deed.
It took the whole summer and 8,000 Pennsylvania National Guard troops to
finally break the strike. Not until 45 years later in 1937 did the workers at
Homestead win a union.
Alcoa workers spent decades winning a union. The Industrial Workers of the
World led a 1913 strike at the company’s New Kensington plant, 18 miles
northeast of Pittsburgh. Women armed themselves with blacksnake whips and
After six weeks of state troopers attacking picket lines, the workers had to
settle for promises of arbitration.
Two years later in 1915 workers revolted at the Mellon’s Massena, N.Y.,
aluminum mill. Anticipating the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, they captured
every section of the big plant while management fled.
St. Lawrence County Sheriff Thaddeus Day deputized a gang of businessmen to
break the strike. New York state Gov. Whitman sent in two companies of the
National Guard who bayoneted workers. They killed strike leader Joseph
Solunski, who died in an Ogdensburg hospital on Aug. 2, 1915.
Aluminum Workers Local 19256 finally compelled the company to sign a contract
In 1919 William Z. Foster led a national steel strike against the 12-hour day
that was drowned in police violence. Members of Troop D of the Pennsylvania
State Constabulary assaulted workers at Mellon’s Standard Steel Company
plant outside Butler, Pa.
As terrible as the conditions in these U.S. plants were, workers were treated
even worse in Mellon’s aluminum trust mines in Guyana, Surinam, Jamaica
Sources: “Mellon’s Millions” by Harvey O’Connor;
“Mellon” by David Cannadine; Report of the National Advisory
Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the “Kerner
Next week: Deindustrializing Pittsburgh
Part 1: Mellons over Pittsburgh and the planet
Part 2: Coal mines and machine guns
Part 3: Keeping Pittsburgh poor
Part 4: Blood, oil and profits
Part 5: Making people miserable with aluminum
Part 6: Tax-free hate & paintings
Part 7: Deindustrializing Pittsburgh
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