“We Had Two Religions at My House—the Catholic Church and the USWA”: Polish American Catholic Workers and Union Consciousness at Wheeling Steel in the 1930s and 1940s

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:50 PM
Columbia 5 (Washington Hilton)
William Hal Gorby, West Virginia University
For Polish immigrants, their children, and other ethnic communities in the Upper Ohio Valley, the Wheeling Steel Corporation served as a common locale for work and protest against arbitrary workplace conditions. For them, the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) mobilized collective power to build communities and give a powerful voice to the working class. For these ethnic steelworkers at Wheeling Steel, the USWA gave them a sense of shop-floor democracy through structures that never existed at the company—collective bargaining agreements that provided security and the formalized shop floor steward and grievance system.

This paper examines how Polish-American Catholic workers fostered a CIO union consciousness among the multi-ethnic workforce at Wheeling Steel. Key to this examination will be applying Max Weber’s concept of “elective affinity.” For Polish Catholics, there was an “elective affinity” between the Catholic parish and the CIO. Both forced a form of subordination of the individual’s will to the common good of others. Polish-American workers fostered ties of solidarity from working and living in the same neighborhood and parish. Likewise, this period witnessed ethnic Catholic steelworkers becoming increasingly involved in region-wide political efforts. Thanks to Americanizing activities promoted through St. Ladislaus parish, regional meetings and celebrations of the Polish National Alliance, and the political activities of the Polish-American Club, Wheeling’s Poles were drawn into the New Deal coalition by 1936. Polish immigrants and their children learned about leadership and organizing from their experiences with parish lay organizations, ethnic social clubs, and youth groups attached to the parish. Finally, Polish-Americans reached out to other Catholic ethnic groups and parishes during the 1930’s within the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. Encouraging a wider “elective affinity,” this Polish-American organizing voice provided clear leaders and organizing spaces for the CIO unions to succeed in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s.