Southsider’s series focused on the Women of Bethlehem Steel Collection from the Beyond Steel Archives, gives our readers the opportunity to explore the stories of women in our community who worked in the steel industry. Each article in the series will feature an introduction to one oral history, a link that allows our readers to listen to her oral history, and analysis of the major themes that the speaker addresses. This week we are honoring Mary and Lewis Kozo, who were interviewed together.
Mary and Lewis Kozo: Early Years in Bethlehem
Mary and Lewis Kozo married in 1934. Lewis was born in Bethlehem PA in 1908, to parents who had come to the U.S. from Hungary seeking economic opportunity. Mary Kozo, nee Hock, grew up on 4th Street in Bethlehem. Her father worked as a stonemason for Bethlehem Steel, and she also grew up with a strong sense of her Hungarian ancestry, as she went to a Hungarian school for 8 years and learned to read and write in Hungarian. Both Mary and Lewis entered the workforce straight out of school. Lewis started out as a weaver at the age of 17, though he had wanted to go to college. However, since it was the Great Depression, there were not many options that were consistent and paid well, and eventually at the age of 19, Lewis started working for Bethlehem Steel, which he said was the best available option. Mary started working full time at the age of 16, but had worked before and after school at a confectionary store, due to the pressures of the Depression. Mary and Lewis’ oral history is testimony to the importance of unions, organizing, and strikes in their own lives, and reveals strategies and histories that labor movements should capitalize on in our present moment.
Mary Kozo: One Woman Strike for Silk Mill Workers
While Mary Kozo was working at Laris Silk Mill around 1937-1938, she tried to organize the silk girls to go on strike. Before she had married, Mary had worked in the spinning department of the Laris Silk Mill, and was aware of the poor working conditions these women endured. She had switched from the spinning department to a department that sewed women’s undergarments because the working conditions in the preliminary department had been so bad. In particular, she had been worried about her health. Mary described the spinning department as claustrophobic; no windows were ever open and the space was constantly full of thick, humid air. Mary Kozo knew that the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was trying to organize the women, but they weren’t having much luck. Mary took it on herself to pass out literature and talk to the girls, but she found that most of the women who worked at the silk mill were too afraid of losing their jobs to risk going on strike for better working conditions. Ultimately, she ended up designing a one-woman strike of her own, going out on her lonely picket line because even though she wasn’t working in the spinning department, she knew that it still mattered to fight for the labor rights of other women.
Though she didn’t succeed in organizing the other silk mill workers, Mary’s one-woman strike still caught the attention of the community, and the managers of the mill. Mary recalls:
My own friends that knew me from school and the same church, they were criticizing me for daring to do that. So when it was over and it didn’t materialize, I was going back to my job, and I had a police escort, escorting me into my job. As I walked in, all the other girls that knew me and I worked with, they were horrified. They thought that they were after me, the police, but they were protecting me. It seemed after that, the bosses and the floor ladies would come to me and cater to me and ask me if I liked my job and if I liked my machine.
For Mary, this level of attention on a single lonely woman on the picket line proved that “we didn’t need the union…. We were thinking of our fellow people, our friends that didn’t dare to ask for raises and ask for what was due them…. I felt good because I tried to help them as well as myself.” To Mary, though it didn’t actually make the change she hoped to see, there was something deeply significant in the agency of speaking up for herself and others by exercising her right to engage in civic discourse. These reflections imply that Mary Kozo believed the labor organizing should come from within the silk mills rather than from union organizers not familiar with regional workers. Because she handed out fliers meant to organize women workers, her comments above are less about a wholesale critique of unions and more about the import of workers banding together to identify their needs and to fight for better working conditions and wages within their mill and region. Because of her support for her husband’s union organizing, she ultimately saw firsthand the benefits and rights that were gained at Bethlehem Steel explicitly through union involvement. Despite the power of her one woman strike, Mary’s comments here may lead listeners to wonder if the impact of her strike may have been stronger had more women joined her and a union to support their cause.
Bethlehem Steel Strikes: A View from the Ground
Throughout Lewis’ work at Bethlehem Steel, he was very involved in the union, its leadership, and various strikes. During their oral history interview, Lewis reveals some of the details of what it was like to fight for workers’ rights in the particular context of the Great Depression and the Steel industry, and the methods and strategies workers used to make strides towards safer and more equitable working conditions.
Lewis worked in the tool steel department, which he argues was the first shop in Bethlehem Steel to get organized. In 1937, the workers, despite not being fully organized by a union, went on strike to get equal work opportunities for part-time workers. The workers at this time were all part-time, but according to Lewis, different men got more or less time at work, a range between two and four days of work a week, depending on the bias of the foremen and superintendent. The 1937 strike was ultimately a success. The Bethlehem Steel workers received unbiased time distributions for part-time workers. More importantly, Lewis argues that this first success greatly impacted workers’ morale and the belief that other shops and departments could make change through union activity. Lewis saw this strike as paving the way for more organized strikes that would continue during his long career at the Steel.
Lewis served as part of the leadership for the Steelworkers Union at the Bethlehem plant. Reflecting on the impact of the union, Lewis described the union as one of the best things that happened to Bethlehem. He and Mary told stories about the horror and success of the workers’ strikes, but Lewis also cites wins such as gaining 13 weeks of vacation. For Lewis, more than anything else, the union won the workers “dignity.” Before the union was embedded in the Steel, Lewis remembers the rigidness and uncaring nature of their supervisors. For example, one man couldn’t get off work to attend his wife’s funeral. After the workers unionized, rigid policies like refusal for time off due to death or illness changed.
Mary describes the 1939 plant-wide strike at Bethlehem Steel, the first after fully organizing the union, as positively “dreadful.” The workers were of course out of work in order to go on strike, and the effects of the Great Depression were still being felt. But Mary’s description also speaks to the government response in order to break the strike: they sent state policemen mounted on horses. Mary remembers: “they would run you down. I remember my one sister was hit with a switch [riding crop] because you were in their way.” Another anecdote that reveals the level of violence that the strikers experienced from cops came from Lewis. Lewis remembers talking to a New York Times reporter who said to Lewis: “‘Hey, son, it’s not worth risking your life for, you know. Take care.’” The specific practical aims of the strike haven’t stuck with Lewis or Mary, but they remember it was a success, and that they marched away with new recognition for the union. Mary recalls that the strikers had overturned 1,000 cars, and whether that astonishing number is accurate or not, this strike was clearly a significant turning point in their memories for when their union activity started ensuring that Bethlehem Steel addressed what workers wanted and needed.
Then and Now
As I listened to Mary and Lewis discussing the 1939 strike and the bravery of Mary’s one-woman strike, I began to see the powerful resonances between labor strikes then, and the importance and impact of strikes, protests, and other types of civil disobedience today. Lewis and Mary’s experiences highlighted for me the necessity of protecting protests and strikes as a form of civic engagement, especially as they come under threat or are dismissed as violent or disruptive, accusations that we have seen inaccurately leveled at the current Black Lives Matter movement. Forms of disruptive civic engagement, such as strikes and protests, are important as democratic actions, because, among other things, they work.
Other insights from Lewis and Mary resonate as well. Lewis was an active recruiter for the union, but he found that those who decided to stay away from the union were often of two types. The first type that he identifies includes people that believed in the value of unions, but were afraid of losing their jobs. The second type includes “self-seekers,” people that were interested in preserving their own potential raises and promotions at the expense of fair working conditions for all. Lewis’ insights about self-interest and fear are clearly a directive in today’s political climate. In light of the economic impact of the Covid pandemic, workers are afraid to risk their jobs in order to fight for better wages and working conditions. In a similar way, the existence of massive corporations like Amazon that are deeply anti-union yet have extensive reach further the perception of paralysis and fear, despite the real need for labor organizing. I see parallels between these two types of people and the resistance by many white people to the Black Lives Matter protests. Some are afraid, and others cling to the status quo and condemn the protests because they fear losing their own comfort and privilege. Lewis and Mary’s testimony in the context of 1930s and 40s labor organizing points current labor and justice organizers towards tactics that can be utilized to ensure that our contemporary movements can be effective today.
Like today, Mary and Lewis Kozo striked in a precarious economic climate, but they persisted anyway, because of how important it was to fight for their rights. Like today, the strikers faced a culture that considered the destruction of property and the disruption of industry production as deeply threatening and deserving of excessive force from the police. Like today, Mary and Lewis used tactics like strikes and other forms of protest because civil disobedience does lead to change. Mary and Lewis’ story, then, highlights the success of disruptive civic engagement through union organizing and strikes, and points us toward the power and dignity that these can afford us as workers and seekers of justice.
Great story, and a reminder that union-busting is nothing new.
(In fact, I believe the PA State Police force was organized specifically to prevent and disrupt strikes in the coalfields and because local police weren’t always willing to use such violent tactics against their neighbors.)