Pearl Bergoff

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Pearl Louis Bergoff (1876 – 1947) was an American strikebreaker, the most notable professional strikebreaker of the mid-1930s.

Early career[edit]

Bergoff was born in Michigan as the son of an itinerant fish-trader and land speculator, and was abandoned with $50 by his father at age 13. [1] He began his strikebreaking career in New York City, working as a spotter on the Metropolitan Street Railway in Manhattan. His job was to watch conductors to verify that they recorded all the fares they accepted.

Bergoff was in the employ of strikebreaker James A. Farley (1874-1913) in 1906, working as the bodyguard to Stanford White, when White was murdered by Harry Kendall Thaw at Madison Square Garden. By selling his diary of the sensational crime to the New York World, Bergoff raised the money to fund the company founded with his brother Leo, the Bergoff Brothers Strike Service and Labor Adjusters. [2]

The company's early strikebreaking actions were characterized by extreme violence. A 1907 strike of garbage cart drivers resulted in numerous confrontations between strikers and the strikebreakers, even when protected by police escorts. Strikers sometimes pelted the strikebreakers with rocks, bottles, and bricks launched from tenement rooftops.[3]

Pressed Steel Car Strike of 1909[edit]

In 1909, the Pressed Steel Car Company at McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania fired forty men, and eight thousand employees representing sixteen nationalities walked out under the banner of the Industrial Workers of the World. The company hired Bergoff's agency, who in turn hired strikebreaking toughs from the Bowery, and shipped vessels filled with unsuspecting immigrant workers directly into the strike zone. Other immigrant strikebreakers were delivered in boxcars, and were not fed during a two-day period. Later they worked, ate, and slept in a barn with two thousand other men. Their meals consisted of cabbage and bread.[4]

At the end of August a gun battle erupted, leaving six dead, six dying, and fifty wounded. Public sympathy began to swing away toward the strikers. There were violent confrontations between strikers and strikebreakers, but also between strikebreakers and guards when terrified workers demanded the right to leave. One Austro-Hungarian immigrant who managed to escape informed his government that workers were being held against their will, resulting in an international incident. In addition to kidnapping, strikebreakers complained of deception, broken promises about wages, and tainted food.[5]

Early in September the company acknowledged defeat and negotiated with the strikers. Twenty-two had died in the strike. But Bergoff's business wasn't hurt by the defeat; he boasted of having as many as ten thousand strikebreakers on his payroll. He was getting paid as much as $2,000,000 per strikebreaking job by large industrial clients.[6]

Even before the strike was over, [7] and then in more detail in 1911, the strikebreakers appeared before federal panels to describe their own living and working conditions after they were brought to the conflict.[8] Held inside the plant or in boxcars against their will, fleeced, stolen from, physically threatened, and given rotten food, one hearing witness collapsed and was diagnosed with ptomaine poisoning. [9] By August 28, 200 of the strikebreakers had responded by banding together in their own improvised union. They'd quit work and were camping on the nearby banks of the Ohio River in an attempt to collect back wages, naming Chief of Police Farrell of the Coal and Iron Police and Pearl Bergoff's lieutenant Sam Cohen as those most responsible. Lawyer for the strikebreakers was the ambitious William N. McNair, who alleged that this treatment amounted to peonage. (McNair would later serve one term as Mayor of Pittsburgh in 1934.)

During these hearings, Bergoff explained that "musclemen" under his employ would "get... any graft that goes on", suggesting that was to be expected "on every big job." Other testimony indicated that Bergoff's "right-hand man", described as "huge in stature, weighing perhaps 240 pounds", surrounded himself with thirty-five guards who intimidated and fleeced the strikebreakers, locking them into a boxcar prison with no sanitation facilities when they defied orders.[10]

At the death of his former boss James Farley in 1913, Bergoff assumed the self-proclaimed title "King of the Strikebreakers". In those years he settled in Bayonne, New Jersey, built the biggest office building in the city (which still stands), and sent strikebreakers to the Bayonne refinery strikes of 1915–1916.

Later career and legacy[edit]

Bergoff's business declined around 1923. He went into the land business in Florida, then returned to New Jersey and strikebreaking around 1930 with renewed success. [11] A sympathetic article in the January 1935 Fortune lists a few of the "172 strike jobs" Bergoff's firm had handled, with notes such as "1907, Munson Steamship Line stevedores. First fatality" and "1910, Philadelphia Rapid Transit, motormen, conductors. Streetcar strikes are most fun; strikebreakers pocket fares."

In December 1935 Bergoff was the subject of a book-length expose by the labor editor of the New York Post, Edward Levinson. The book was called I Break Strikes!. Labor leader Walter Reuther credited this examination of Bergoff's practices as a major impetus to the creation of the La Follette Committee. [12]

Bergoff's involvement in the violent Remington Rand strike of 1936–1937 resulted in his program of anti-union activities, the "Bergoff Technique", being republished and repackaged as the Mohawk Valley formula. [13] It also resulted in the federal indictments of James Rand, Jr. and Bergoff for violation of the 1936 Byrnes Act prohibiting the movement of strikebreakers across state lines.

Both men were acquitted on November 18, 1937. But it would be his last major engagement. With his business model outlawed, and his private detective license subsequently revoked by the state of New York, Bergoff retired from public view. He died in 1947.

References[edit]

  1. ^ From Aristotelian to Reaganomics: A Dictionary of Eponyms With Biographies ... by R. C. S. Trahair, page 54
  2. ^ Strikebreaking & Intimidation: Mercenaries and Masculinity in Twentieth ... by Stephen Harlan Norwood, page 66
  3. ^ From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, pages 55-56.
  4. ^ From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, pages 58-59.
  5. ^ From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, pages 59-60.
  6. ^ From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, page 67.
  7. ^ "Tell Stories of Brutality - Strikebreakers Complain of Bad Treatment at Schoenville". Evening Review, East Liverpool, Ohio. 28 August 1909. Retrieved 30 March 2016. 
  8. ^ Peonage in Western Pennsylvania: Hearings Before the Committee on Labor of the House of Representatives, Sixty-second Congress, First Session, on House Resolution, Issue 90. U.S. Government Printing Office. 1911. Retrieved 30 March 2016. 
  9. ^ "Tell Stories of Brutality - Strikebreakers Complain of Bad Treatment at Schoenville". Evening Review, East Liverpool, Ohio. 28 August 1909. Retrieved 30 March 2016. 
  10. ^ From Blackjacks To Briefcases — A History of Commercialized Strikebreaking and Unionbusting in the United States, Robert Michael Smith, 2003, page 62.
  11. ^ From Aristotelian to Reaganomics: A Dictionary of Eponyms With Biographies ... by R. C. S. Trahair, page 54
  12. ^ Labor and Liberty: The La Follette Committee & the New Deal, by Jerold S. Auerbach, pages 49-50
  13. ^ From Aristotelian to Reaganomics: A Dictionary of Eponyms With Biographies ... by R. C. S. Trahair, page 54