B. Labor Conditions

       American industry exploited the masses of unskilled immigrant laborers. The newcomers were handicapped by language barriers and unfamiliar with labor conditions. The one dollar a day wage seemed unbelievable when compared to what they were earning in their native land. Because of the seemingly high wages, they were willing to work long, strenuous hours under hazardous conditions to save money. A Hungarian worker in a Pittsburgh steel mill noted: "Wherever the heat is most insupportable, the flames most scorching, the smoke and soot most choking, there we are certain to find compatriots bent and wasted with toil."29

       Safety standards for mines and steel mills were virtually non-existent around the turn of the century. Numerous mine cave-ins and steel mill explosions occurred, causing the death of countless immigrant workers. The enormous loss of life generated impetus for the enactment of safety legislation and improved industrial safety standards.

       Szabadság, in its twentieth anniversary issue, printed in 1911, documented some of the Hungarian immigrant deaths attributed to steel mill and mining disasters in the United States:


December 19

Pittsburgh Steel Mill explosion
12 Hungarians dead


January 25

Harwick Coal Mine disaster in Cheswick, Pa.
51 Hungarians; 180 total deaths


Arnold City mining disaster
24 Hungarians dead



Monangah mining disaster
100± Hungarians; 362 total


August 8

Youngstown Steel Mill explosion 14 Hungarians; 17 total 30





       The Bluefield Mine fire in 1911 and the Johnstown Mine explosion in July 1902 were other mining disasters where the number of Hungarian immigrants killed was significant.

       The families of the men who were maimed or killed in these industrial accidents became destitute. There were no state-sponsored programs of insurance to assist the widows and orphans of such casualties. The immigrants soon realized this and to provide some measure of protection, formed self-help and mutual benefit societies.

       The grueling, unsafe working conditions had to be tolerated, there was little other alternative. The Hungarians were handicapped by language barriers, by a large number of other newcomers eager for employment opportunities, and by the fact that the next job may be just as bad if not worse. Putting their sorrow and yearning into music sometimes helped. The theme of the following folk song may be found in countless other Hungarian-American poems and short stories as well:


The coal powder absorbs our tears, Our laughter is drowned in smoke, We yearn to return to our little village Where every blade of grass understood Hungarian.31


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       Central and East European immigrants were frequently brought to the United States as strikebreakers. Large industrial firms, unwilling to cede to the strikers' demands of fewer hours, increased wages and/or safer working conditions, simply brought a shipload of immigrants from Europe to fill the striking workers' jobs. The agents recruiting such workers were usually instructed to choose immigrants of many different national origins, so that it would be difficult to organize the newcomers because of language barriers.





The newcomers were bewildered by the situation, and could not understand the reason for the hatred and violence directed against them by the strikers. For many Hungarians coming to the United States in the early 1900s, this was their first encounter with organized labor.

       The first Hungarian-American labor organization, seeking to inform Hungarian immigrants about labor conditions and workers' rights, was established in 1902. The movement separated in 1904, and two distinct groups were formed: the American Hungarian Socialist Federation and the American Hungarian Socialist Workers' Federation. Both groups provided sick benefits and maintained newspapers. They were instrumental in encouraging Hungarian immigrants to join the American labor movement and to participate in the strikes organized by the movement.

       It would be impossible to list all the strikes in which Hungarian immigrants were involved, however, the following were significant: the Homestead strike in July 1892, the Pullman strike in June 1894, the Rochester strike in July 1901, the coal strike in Pennsylvania in May 1902, the strike of 1908 in Perth Amboy, New Jersey and the 1910 steel strike in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.32 According to one author, of the 113 strikes which were organized between 1905 and 1910, Hungarians participated in seventy-seven.33

       The demonstrations and strikes frequently ended in tragedy. In 1897, a labor protest was caused by a foreman's imposition of a new work rule at Honey Brook Colliery near Hazleton, Pennsylvania. In quick succession, the ethnic communities in the entire region went off the job in support of the striking Honey Brook workers. At one meeting held near McAdoo, it was estimated that some 9,000 striking workers, "mostly Hungarians and Italians,





gathered...to await the management's response to their demands."34 Two days later, when the miners marched on the Lattimer Mines, the local sheriffs, leading a group of about seventy armed men, followed them and gave orders to shoot into the unarmed assembly, killing eighteen and leaving more than forty wounded. Most of the strikers were shot in the back. Among the dead: four were Hungarian immigrants, of the wounded, nine.35 This tragedy became known as the "Lattimer Massacre."

       Over fifty-six churches, built by Hungarian communities in the mining and heavy industrial sections of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia attest to the magnitude of the number of immigrants who worked there at one time. The records of these churches document through the years the staggering death rates which were so common in these regions of the United States. A Hungarian miners' sick benefit society, named for the Hungarian millenium, was already established in 1896 ("Milleniumi Magyar Bányász Betegsegélyzo Egylet"). By 1911, fifteen chapters were organized, scattered throughout the mining towns of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia. Benefits paid over the first fifteen years of its existence totalled: $41,895.77.36


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       "A man is a man even if he is Hungarian"-unidentified journalist.37 Resentment and discrimination were experienced by each new wave of immigrants and Hungarians proved to be no exception. Hungarian immigrants were handicapped from the start-they spoke a strange language and even if they learned English, the easily detectable accent was obvious. They were resented because they took the lowest paying jobs and lived on next to nothing, saving everything to return to their native land.





       The phenomenal influx of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe triggered widespread fear and hatred of foreigners. The immigrants suffered grave injustices-in cases of civil disturbances, local police, judges and authorities: "...generally levied stiffer sentences against aliens than Americans, while newcomers victimized by native criminals often watched helplessly as their antagonist was let off with a mild reprimand."38 This was true especially in the hinterland or backwoods regions of the United States. In one incident which took place in the town of Jasonville, Indiana in 1909, anti-immigrant sentiments heightened to such an extent that the "native" residents took up arms and forced the Hungarian immigrant community to evacuate Jasonville, leaving most of their valuables, homes and properties behind.39

       Individual examples of injustice were widespread. Peonage is defined as the practice of holding a person in partial slavery to work off a debt. Though illegal in the United States, peonage was widely practised. A Hungarian who tried to escape from a Georgian lumber camp was horsewhipped and tied to a buggy on the way back to the camp. Later when charges were brought against the owners of this particular camp, the Hungarian immigrant observed the "peculiar kind of justice enacted":


...nothing was too strange as to find that the bosses who were indicted for holding us in peonage could go free on bail, while we, the laborers, who had been flogged and beaten and robbed, should be kept in jail because we had neither money nor friends.40


       On several occasions unjustified newspaper campaigns were launched against Hungarians. Often the newspaper writers and editors had no conception of who Hungarians actually were, or why they were being accused of wrongdoings. The stories were usually based on rumors alone and anyway the Hungarians, commonly referred to as "Bohunks," proved to be defenseless scapegoats.





Photo from immigrant family album





       One such incident, which took place in the early 1890s was known as the "Powderly Affair," named after a secretary of the Miners' Union.41 Powderly waged a campaign against newly-arrived immigrants who were hired as strikebreakers, referring to them in newspaper articles and speeches as "Hungarians." In fact, the strikebreakers were of many different nationalities-the Hungarians comprised only a small percentage of the group. Powderly waged a propaganda campaign against the immigrant strikebreakers, who were classified as Hungarians. The striking miners directed much hatred and violence towards the unfortunate immigrants. After one day of bloody violence alone, more than a hundred dead were counted in the mining town of Homestead, Pennsylvania.

       The Hungarian immigrants were helpless. There was no organization to protect them and no one to defend their rights, until a series of articles appeared in the Chicago Tribune, refuting Powderly's allegations. The articles documented that only a small fraction of the strikebreakers were Hungarians, and protested such statements as defamatory of all Hungarian-Americans. The series for the Chicago Tribune was written by a native Hungarian, Miklos Komlossy, who later became a prominent newspaper journalist in this country. Due to his efforts, the allegations were dropped. The damage incurred by the Powderly Affair was, nevertheless, not easily forgotten.

       In another case, during the flood of Johnstown, Pennsylvania in January 1889, rumors of "Hungarians" pillaging the town and looting graves became widespread. Hungarian-Americans all over the United States, infuriated and incredulous, set up an investigative committee to find out the facts. The results of their findings are contained in the following document:





Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Adjutant General's Office

       Johnstown, Pennsylvania, June 20, 1889

       This is to certify that the report of the conduct of the Hungarians living in Johnstown has been grossly exaggerated.

       They have given me no trouble whatever. They have been obedient to authoritative directions and are on the whole a very well-behaved class of people.

       I have no knowledge whatever of the robbing of dead bodies, nor of any lynching of any person in Johnstown by any class of people.

John A. Hiley, Brigade General and
Chief of Department of Public Safety.42

       Around the time of the First World War, fear and hatred of the millions of immigrants entering the United States became uncontrolled. The foreigners became scapegoats for the strikes, social unrest and, above all, the war. Tragic incidents of outright persecution took place, such as Attorney General Mitchell Palmer's Justice Department roundup of suspected foreign "agitators" in thirty-six cities. Some 6,000 were arrested and detained in concentration camps while five hundred alien "communists" were deported. As it turned out, the raids were coordinated with steel industry efforts to crush the 1919 strike.

       Large scale "Americanization" programs instituted in the schools, prompted the "melting pot" solution to the immigrant problem. To attain promotions and enter the professions, the second generation Americanized, or more correctly, anglicized their names and altered their mannerisms. As a result, Hungarian immigrants endured resentment and rejection not only from the strangers around them but often from their own children as well, who were made to feel ashamed of their past.