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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Book makes point about labor's role here

By Len Barcousky
Published: November 19, 2008

George Westinghouse vs. Andrew Carnegie?

No contest in terms of respect for labor, says historian Charles McCollester.

Although not a friend to unions, Westinghouse was a lifelong inventor and hands-on manager, according to Dr. McCollester. "He respected work and especially skilled workers, and that makes him a much more sympathetic capitalist."

On the other hand, Carnegie, called the richest man in the world, soon forgot his Scottish working-class roots. Determined to make his Pittsburgh steel-making operations the most competitive in the world, Carnegie ruthlessly drove down wages in efforts to cut production costs, he said.

Westinghouse, best known as the inventor of the railroad air brake and supporter of alternating current, is one of the heroes of Dr. McCollester's new local history, "The Point of Pittsburgh."

Subtitled "Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio," the book concentrates on the role of labor in the region's development over the past 250 years. Featuring illustrations by Bill Yund, the 456-page book has been published by the non-profit Battle of Homestead Foundation.

Local celebrities will read from the book as part of a "Peoples' Pittsburgh 250th" commemoration at 7:30 p.m. Friday in Oakland.

A professor of industrial and labor relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Dr. McCollester is a former president of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society. His varied background includes working as a machinist shop steward at Union Switch & Signal Co. in Swissvale, a business founded by Westinghouse.

In a recent phone interview he joked about spending 40 years researching the topic and three years writing it.

"For 50 or 75 years this city was one of the most productive places in the world," he said. "Just as production was impressive -- in diversity and amount of goods -- the labor struggle was just as intense."

His book includes many of the lesser-known violent labor disputes, including the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, during which at least two dozen people died in Pittsburgh; and the two-month strike in McKees Rocks against the Pressed Steel Car Co. during the summer of 1909. August 22 was known as "Bloody Sunday," after a battle between state police and strikers ended with at least 11 deaths.

"These were tough people living in tough times," Dr. McCollester said. "They were going up against some of the country's most powerful capitalists -- Andrew Carnegie and the two Mellon brothers -- R.B. [Richard Beatty] and A.W. [Andrew William].

"R.B. ran Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh, while the line about Andrew was that he was the secretary of the treasury under whom three presidents served.

"Capital was so powerful and the GOP machines were so powerful that in 1928 there was not a single Democratic congressman in Pennsylvania," he said.

That situation changed during the Great Depression.

In the mid-1930s, labor leaders like Philip Murray were able to organize workers in the steel industry. Union contracts led to higher living standards for workers as well as more worker productivity, Dr. McCollester said.