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Big Steel Signs Historic Agreement, Guarantees Steelworkers Basic Rights

Seventy-nine years ago, in early March, 1937, U.S. Steel Corporation signed a historic collective bargaining agreement with the nascent Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). The agreement provided for a standard pay scale, an 8-hour work day, and time and a half for overtime. Legend has it that company men removed a portrait of U.S. Steel's director, Henry Frick, from the room where the agreement was signed because they “did not think he could stand it.” At the time, U.S. Steel was so massive that it gave rise to the moniker "Big Steel" for itself and "Little Steel" for its four competitors, Republic Steel Corporation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, and Inland Steel Company. However, "Little Steel" is in some ways a misleading term, as each of the four companies just mentioned ranked among the hundred largest firms in America. The agreement was momentous, and the SWOC and the CIO held it up as a harbinger of successes to come, predicting that steelworkers were on the verge of an overwhelming, industry-wide triumph. And so it might have seemed for, only a few weeks later, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Wagner Act—a landmark decision that essentially validated the entire New Deal. But the predictions of an industry stepping into line and following Big Steel's lead were wrong, as the Little Steel Strike, which began later that May, was to make painfully clear.

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