Anti-Capitalist Meetup: "The right of the workers to work, against the right of the workers to live." Mary Heaton Vorse by JayRaye

First a small rant, please bear with me!

My study of the labor books written by Mary Heaton Vorse began due to a desire to read first-hand accounts of union members and labor activists who worked directly with Mother Jones. What I found out about the books written by these heroes appalled me. Most are out of print, and many are hard to come by, even from libraries. I fear that this problem will only get worse as austerity takes hold. Already, libraries are being defunded. Perhaps this problem can be examined at some later time, and solutions proposed. It is not the subject of this diary, but I do want everyone who cares about the history of the working class to be aware that we are losing easy access to the first-person stories of our Labor Heroes.

Mary Heaton Vorse, 1874-1966

Mary Heaton Vorse was a journalist who wrote for main-stream newspapers and magazines as well as for left-wing publications such as The Masses. She was well known for her reporting of labor struggles from 1912-1938. With great courage, she covered the labor struggles of the day straight from the front-lines of battle, sustaining injury more than once.

To other reporters on the job there is something a little startling about the way in which Mrs. Vorse manages to find herself in the thick of things. Calm, unhurried, she succeeds nevertheless in arriving at the right place at the right time. Perhaps it is because of the friendships that she has made through the years. While she is a first-rate reporter, she is more than that, more than an observer. Her sympathies are deeply engaged in the struggle that she has witnessed.
-Marquis W. Childs, from the 1938 Foreword to Labors New Millions.

The Labor Books

During her long career, Vorse published eighteen books, and more than 400 articles and stories in leading American journals of the day. Happily, I have been able to find and purchase her three labor books: Men and Steel, 1922; A Footnote To Folly, 1935; and Labor's New Millions, 1938. My copy of Men and Steel is full of black fingerprint smudges. In my mind, steel dust. Footnote is a memoir covering the heartbreaking years 1912-1922, the strikes of the day, as well as her travels, on assignment, to war-torn Europe.

While reading Labor's New Millions which covers the great CIO organizing drives of 1936 & 1937, we come upon Little Steel gallantly fighting for their "loyal" employees' right to work during a strike. "Right to Work" was the most cynical part of the Mohawk Valley Formula used by Little Steel to crush the 1937 SWOC strike. In light of recent events, I decided to narrow the focus of this diary, which brings us (at last) to the title of the piece.

The Right of the Worker to Work

"Right to work" was the clever turn of phrase used to enforce Little Steel's "back to work" movement. It was the heart and soul of the Mohawk Valley Formula, a brilliant new plan invented for strike breaking and union busting. Introduced by James H Rand Jr, the plan was outlined by the National Labor Relations Board in the Rand Hearings:

First: When a strike is threatened, label the union leaders as "agitators" to discredit them with the public and their own followers. Conduct balloting under the foremen to ascertain the strength of the union and to make possible misrepresentation of the strikers as a small minority. Exert economic pressure through threats to move the plant, align bankers, real estate owners and businessmen into a "Citizens' Committee."

Second: Raise high the banner of "law and order", thereby causing the community to mass legal and police weapons against imagined violence and to forget that employees have equal right with others in the community.

Third: Call a "mass meeting" to coordinate public sentiment against the strike and strengthen the Citizens' Committee.

Fourth: Form a large police force to intimidate the strikers and exert a psychological effect. Utilize local police, state police, vigilantes and special deputies chosen, if possible, from other neighborhoods.

Fifth: Convince the strikers their cause is hopeless with a "back-to-work" movement by a puppet association of so-called "loyal employees" secretly organized by the employer.

Sixth: When enough applications are on hand, set a date for opening the plant by having such opening requested by the puppet "back-to-work" association.

Seventh: Stage the "opening" theatrically by throwing open the gates and having the employees march in a mass protected by squads of armed police so as to dramatize and exaggerate the opening and heighten the demoralizing effect.

Eighth: Demoralize the strikers with a continuing show of force. If necessary turn the locality into a warlike camp and barricade it from the outside world.

Ninth: Close the publicity barrage on them that the plant is in full operation and the strikers are merely a minority attempting to interfere with the "right to work". With this, the campaign is over--the employer has broken the strike.


The Senate La Follette Civil Liberties Committee later revealed that between May and June of 1937, The Companies of Little Steel spent $43,901.88 on arms and munitions, more than half of that total supplied by Republic Steel. And, according to the complaint of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to the NLRB:

Company officers and agents...have followed SWOC organizers and have brutally attacked and beaten them. The company, both prior to and since the strike, has considerably increased the number of its police force for the purpose of interfering with the rights of its employees to picket the plants peacefully.
The company maintains at its plants in Youngstown, Niles, Warren, Canton, and Cleveland, in the state of Ohio, extensive arsenals, stocked with machine guns, rifles, revolvers, tear gas, and other bombs.." These charges were later confirmed by the NLRB.
-p. 137, Labor's New Millions

The Right of the Worker to Live (?)

Clearly then, Little Steel came prepared to battle, and not to negotiate. Preferring to win with a cynical propaganda campaign, but prepared to spill the blood of their employees, if need be. The strike was called on May 26, 1937. On Memorial Day, May 30th, Workers were massacred in front of the Republic Mills in Chicago. On the evening of June 19th, Workers were shot down in Youngstown.

Mary Heaton Vorse described one of the murders at Youngstown:

The press and that section of Congress that is so eloquent about the right to work, about a worker's right to remain alive, were quick to cry that the police shot in self-defense. Jim Eperjessi, the fifty-seven-year-old steel worker, was not shot in self-defense. He was fired on, pointblank, by deputies standing in a truck. I know because I was there. I stood beside the truck; I saw the flash and I heard the shots....
With Scotty O'Hara, I went down Poland Avenue toward Stop Five...The street was dark...A truck load of deputies passed, and stopped a little beyond us. Suddenly, without the slightest provocation, the deputies opened fire on the workers.Two men ran toward us and dropped at our feet. Scotty O'Hara also sprawled on the ground, ...the next I knew, I was lying on the ground myself near one man who was groaning and another who lay motionless.
An hour and half later, when I came from the hopital where my wound had been sewed up, the wounded were still arriving.
-p.143-4, Labor's New Millions

Vorse describes the tense days in Youngstown after the massacre. Strikers sent a telegram to the President asking him to intervene, to stop the opening of plants with scabs scheduled for June 22. 

The air was heavy with approaching disaster. Every striker felt there would be [another] massacre...Many private citizens sent telegrams of similar import. Ministers offered prayers that bloodshed might be averted. Knots of people gathered on street corners and quarreled over the issues involved: the right of the workers to work, against the right of the workers to live.
-p. 144 (cont)

But in the end, the right of the workers to live was not respected. The Mohawk Valley Formula, won the day and the Little Steel Strike was broken. 1937 was a year of great victories for the CIO, but Little Steel was a tough nut to crack. Vorse's book was written in 1938, and so the story of successful organizing at Little Steel is a story for another day.


Let the dead walk before you, and acquaint yourselves with their names.
-Mary Heaton Vorse

Chicago: Earl Handley
Otis Jones
Kenneth Reed
Joe Rothmund
Lee Tisdale
Anthony Tagliori
Hilding Anderson
Alfred Causey
Leon Francesco
Sam Popovitch

Youngstown George Bogavitch
James Eperjessi

July 11, 1937:
Fugencio Calzado
Nick Vadies

Beaver Falls: George Mike

Location Unknown: Chris Lopez

Unknown Worker A man in Cleveland

Woody Guthrie-Vigilante Man
my research links the
white armbands to the Citizens Committees.

From all over the country came a cry about this interference with the "right to work." It is interesting to note that all those protests came from the people who said not a word when, during the depression, employers dismissed thousands of workers. Nor have these same upholders of man's sacred right to work, spoken a word against the cutting of the W.P.A.
-Mary Heaton Vorse

Source: Labor's New Millions Chapters 11-15
by Mary Heaton Vorse
Modern Age Books, Inc, 1938

For Further Study: Men and Steel

Footnote to Folly

Labor's New Millions

Labor's New Millions

This diary is dedicated
To those who did not live to see Victory,
The Martyrs of the Little Steel Strike of 1937
Who lost their lives in Freedom's Cause.
In Solidarity,





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The actions of the owners of Little Steel

NY brit expat's picture

should sound familiar to people, this is the justification for lots of right to work laws in the states, we are seeing recruitment for strike breaking and hiring of scabs (take a look at the stop and shop stores in the US). If we refuse to learn from the past, we will be constantly repeating the same struggles. This is a brilliant piece that not only introduces us to a journalist that most of us never heard of, but also gives us an insight into labor struggles in the US before the great depression. An excellent piece of work!

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Thank you, expat!

JayRaye's picture

Enjoyed writing this very much!

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Great stuff. Thanks for this. It's important to remember what..

Ohio Barbarian's picture

working people went through to get the basic rights that have been under full scall assault by corporate interests since at least 1981. And I'm please to report that Mary Heaton Vorse's book is on the shelf at the Cleveland Public Library. 

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Thank you! &

JayRaye's picture

Great news to have her books available close by. I was so happy to be able to locate first editions of these 3 books!!!

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