In 1959 union members at the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I) in Pueblo participated in a nationwide strike for better job security. The strike led to a nationwide shortage of American-made steel, while the suspension of mining operations and steel production at CF&I caused Pueblo to enter an economic depression. After 110 days, President Eisenhower invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to order steelworkers to return to their jobs for an eighty-day cooling-off period. On January 15, 1960, the United Steel Workers of America (USWA) reached an agreement that met union demands, and CF&I resumed normal operations.
The Ludlow Massacre of 1914 shocked the nation and forced CF&I to alter some of its labor practices. Owner John D. Rockefeller, Jr., brought in Canadian labor-relations expert MacKenzie King to improve working conditions and develop one of the first company-dominated trade unions to combat the negative publicity generated by Ludlow. The company union they created, called the Employee Representation Plan (ERP), aimed to avoid the emergence of outside union formation—a strategy later outlawed by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935. In the meantime, the ERP gave the company’s coal miners and other workers a voice but with company oversight. This was a step forward for workers, but CF&I employees still wanted to unionize throughout this period, leading to two decades of minor labor disputes.
The ERP remained a dominant force and voice of the workers until CF&I’s mine employees gained the power to organize themselves under the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the act created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to encourage collaboration among industry, labor, and government to create fair labor practices and set fair market prices. The act also allowed employees to bargain with unions without the fear of company retaliation or bullying. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) took advantage of this new law by starting to organize at CF&I mines. Within a month, 95 percent of company miners joined the UMWA, effectively ending the ERP. The company’s steelworkers unionized a decade later, joining the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) in 1942.
Colorado Fuel and Iron 1959 Strike
Despite unionization, occasional labor disputes continued at CF&I. Nothing grew out of these frequent scuffles until 1959, when CF&I steelworkers took part in a nationwide strike. The USWA wanted a work-rules clause in its contracts to keep companies from introducing new machinery, rules, or practices that would result in a reduction in the number of steelworkers or their hours. When a deal could not be reached, the USWA authorized a nationwide strike on July 15, 1959.
The strike closed CF&I for 110 days, affecting all aspects of production from mining to the forging of steel. Because CF&I was central to Pueblo’s economy, the city entered an economic depression. Nationally, other industries suffered, too, especially the automobile industry, because the strike caused a steel shortage at a time when many things were still made of steel. Many companies that needed steel to manufacture their goods started to look to foreign producers to meet their steel needs.
As other industries faced layoffs, the uncompromising attitude of both parties in the strike led President Dwight Eisenhower to intervene. Invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, a 1947 law designed to restrict the power of unions, Eisenhower forced striking steelworkers to return to work for an eighty-day arbitration period, commonly known as a cooling-off period, intended to bring the parties together to reach an agreement within a set timeframe. CF&I employees returned to work on November 7, 1959. In response, the USWA challenged the law in the Supreme Court and lost.
Since 1960 was an election year, however, both political parties were worried that a resumption of the strike might lead to a recession that could harm them with voters, and they proved unwilling to support the steelmakers. With the backing of Vice President Richard Nixon, who planned to run for president that year, the USWA pressured steelmakers to concede to union demands. On January 15, 1960, the USWA won, and the union received wage increases, a cost-of-living adjustment clause, and better health and pension benefits. There would not be another significant strike at CF&I until 1997.
For workers, the successful strike of 1959 demonstrated unity and accentuated the bargaining power the steel union possessed. For the American steel industry as a whole, however, the strike marked the start of several difficult decades. By causing a shortage of domestic steel production, the strike led many American companies to start to import steel from foreign competitors. This had a lasting influence on all US steel producers. In the years after the strike, American companies such as CF&I had to rely on their steel quality to maintain a competitive edge against lower-priced foreign steel. Foreign competition, continual modernization of equipment, increasing environmental regulations, and rising labor costs caused the US steel industry to struggle in the latter half of the twentieth century. CF&I eventually declared bankruptcy in the early 1990s and was bought by Oregon Steel in 1993.