In November of 1921 negotiations between the president of the Andrews Steel Company, William N. Andrews, and union representatives broke down. Andrews told the union to “go to hell” and on November 30th delivered an ultimatum: workers would have their pay cut down to 28 cents per hour and the company would be organized as an open shop, functioning under what we now know as Right to Work rules. Anyone not agreeing to these terms would be fired. A thousand workers walked out on strike and management started hiring scabs.
Events rapidly escalated. Of the 10,000 working men in Newport at the time the strike involved about one in every five. Factory management purchased thirty six machine guns. Strikers formed checkpoints around the perimeter of the plant to head off scabs, demeaning and insulting anyone who crossed the picket line. Workers took to shooting out the windows of the factory from a distance while Andrews supposedly returned fire with his own rifle. Sporadic gunfire in the West End became a common feature of the 1921-22 winter.
The company pressured Governor Edwin P. Morrow to send in the Kentucky National Guard. On December 4th 200 guardsmen arrived to take up their stations, commanded by Colonel H.H. Denhardt. As they patrolled their routes they were subjected to taunts and curses from the strikers’ wives. Governor Morrow proceeded to increase the deployment to 330 guardsmen.
The militia proved trigger-happy, blasting machine-gun fire into the hills of Kenton County to quell reports of union snipers. Denhardt issued “shoot to kill” orders. Nervous guardsmen opened fire on two civilian boats which they suspected of mining the Ohio River. The only known death from the entire strike consisted of Private Robert Deaton, who was accidentally shot on patrol by a fellow guardsman.
Renewed negotiations started by the governor in January failed. Management began evicting any strikers living in company-owned properties and transferred the leases to scabs. Rumors spread of infiltration by heavily armed Wobblies. On February 1st there was another prolonged gun battle, lasting from 1:00 in the afternoon to 4:00 in the morning. The governor escalated, this time sending in machine guns and tanks. The appearance of the tanks triggered a riot that lasted twelve hours and Newport was placed under martial law.
Colonel Denhardt cracked down. Convinced the widespread public support for the strikers meant every resident of Newport was an enemy he announced that he “meant business” and ordered his men to “get rid of undesirables.” A strict curfew was enforced. Anyone violating it, including children, were marched home at gunpoint. Numerous civilians testified to guardsmen breaking up union meetings, arresting and beating people randomly, and firing without provocation. One man was thrown out of a window, twenty feet above the ground.
The military occupation of the West End lasted for months, despite repeated pleas from the mayor and petitions signed by thousands of Newport residents, only ending in April. The union was effectively broken, with many members forced to move to other towns to feed their families. Though the Andrews steel empire had been hurt financially, pro-industry newspapers in Pittsburgh hailed the results as company victory, strengthening the bargaining hand of factory owners across the country.
Our own movement is fledgling, but events such as these remind us that if we get anywhere close to where we want to be, forces like this will be brought to bear against us.