union badge strikers in Cleveland

You may recall that in this issue (Volume 4, issue 3, February 1938) Dwight Macdonald produced an idiosyncratic and powerful mournful satire on the Government institutions in  Washington, D.C.  I mentioned in my post on that piece that he was a friend of Rose M. Stein, who was a journalist writing for a number of left-wing papers, including The Nation. McDonald was becoming more political at this time, and was at first a CP supporter, before he moved to a Trotskyist position.   He and Nancy had left Cambridge in late 1936, and went to Pittsburgh to witness the world of the steel industry, which was resisting establishing a contract with the CIO-Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and its branch,  the Steel Workers Organizing Committee ( SWOC). There the Macdonalds met Rose Stein, who, according to Dwight, “writes for leftist papers and is a swell person, a small jewess with great qualities of vitality and a refreshing belief in the workers — refreshing because she sees them all the time.” (from Michael Wreszin, A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: the life and politics of Dwight MacDonald, 1994,p.58).

The hint of shame in Dwight’s tacit acknowledgement that he didn’t see workers “all the time,” let alone from time to time, may be part of his urging his fellows at PR to offer some space to Stein for an article about the Little Steel strike of May-July of 1937.  Two months earlier, US Steel (Big Steel) had agreed a contract with the CIO-SWOC including a standard pay-scale, an 8-hour day, and time and a half for overtime. But then there was “Little Steel,” a group of smaller steel mills which altogether employed another 80, 000 workers. The “Little Steel” that strike was unsuccessful, even though scabs and companies used violence against a number of workers : 300 strikers were injured, and eighteen killed.

Rose Stein took Dwight and Nancy to steel mills in West Virginia and to the town of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, which Stein writes about in her piece. But Stein wasn’t entirely impressed by Macdonald’s polemical writing because, she said, it was a waste of time without workers as readers. She wanted Dwight to focus his work on the masses. Worse, she said that the Trotskyists  “don’t amount to a tinker’s damn, nowhere are they sufficiently influential to affect the destiny of a fly– let alone the human race.” Macdonald didn’t like her comments at all, and in turn he described her as having the ‘usual American Philistine attitude…the great weakness of American liberalism and the labour movement’.

It wasn’t until 1942 that the Supreme Court made the little steel companies negotiate with the CIO, and when the US entered the War, the National War Labour Board insisted that the smaller steel mills recognise SWOC at all their branches.You might expect that Stein’s piece on the strike would sound more like a prolitcult discussion or overly-dramatised. In fact, and this is what makes it a good addition to Partisan Review, Stein isn’t anywhere near as anti-intellectual as MacDonald had come to consider her. Her account is straightforward, and  objective, and it also carries in it ribbons of the speech of the strikers,giving a picture of daily life in a strike town. The only part of it that annoyed me was her calling the lavender dress made by a striking steel-worker’s wife “a two-piece affair with shiny black buttons.”  Catty, I’d say. The piece is a better addition to the attempt by Macdonald to let in more light on politics as lived through the labour movement’s politics, than are some of the fictionalised ‘workers’ stories that pepper PR as it figured out what kind of literary-political career it desired.maxresdefault

Here is a link to the article: http://hgar-srv3.bu.edu/collections/partisan-review/search/detail?id=283908

p.s. Alas, I couldn’t find a photo of Rose M. Stein.