Back in Time: Alco workers showed steely resolve, walking off job for better pay

During the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 21, 1946, Alco union members began picketing the big

Steelworkers at Schenectady’s American Locomotive Co. wanted another $2 a day. The company told them, in figurative terms, to take a walk.

So they did. During the early morning hours of Monday, Jan. 21, 1946, union members began picketing the big train engine plant.

They were not alone. Union steelworkers across the country were taking steps — literally — against employers on the wage issue. About 750,000 steel employees left their jobs on Jan. 21, a shutdown that affected people in 30 states.

In Schenectady, 9,000 Alco men were staying home. Workers at steel companies in Watervliet, Troy, Menands and Hoosick Falls also sat out the Monday commute.

The first Alco guys to express displeasure with the status quo were outside in biting cold — the day before, a record low of 10 degrees below zero had been recorded. They carried signs that read “Is This What We Fought For?” and “We Fight Again.”

Strikes had become national news and national events. Members of the meat packers and electrical appliances unions also were on picket lines. Transportation workers were thinking about walking out; in all, 1.6 million Americans were on strike.

In good spirits

The Alco strike was the first at the plant in 35 years.

“No other argument has influenced Alco to date. So it appears that brute force is the only language it can understand,” said Anthony F. Barbieri, president of the local union, shortly before men took their places outside.

“The morale of our people is very high and we are confident that our demands, which are not unreasonable, will eventually be won from Alco management,” Barbieri added.

Workers with a beef barricaded entrances with a line of men and signs.

“The Schenectady Police Department sent a special detail of city police to stand guard at the plant to prevent disorders,” wrote Larry Murray, a reporter for the Schenectady Gazette. “Picketing was slated to continue throughout the night and the regular picketing schedule will be started by the union at 7 o’clock this morning [Jan. 21].”

disputes piled up

Historians say the labor problems of 1946 were rooted in no-strike pledges many labor unions took during World War II. These agreements meant some labor disputes just piled up, and were due some sort of reckoning once the war ended.

The union was not pitching a shutout; executives, superintendents and foremen would be allowed inside the building. W.L. Lentz, vice president in charge of manufacturing, said the company had instructed nonunion employees to stay home, and “not to submit themselves to embarrassment by reporting for work.”

The steel gang listened to union leaders, walked picket lines and waited. By February, some had found temporary work cutting wood, repairing houses, washing windows and beating rugs. The strike ended Feb. 15, with workers receiving an 181⁄2-cent-per-hour wage increase and steel companies pocketing a government-approved $5-per-ton increase for their product.

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