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  • Subcultures in Conflict in Polonia1: Class, Religion, and Ethnic Tensions in the Formation of Wheeling’s Polish Community, 1895–1917
  • W. Hal Gorby

Waking up to the sweltering heat of July 23, 1915, Wheeling’s Southside appeared ready to erupt, as five hundred workers of the Wheeling Can Company discussed a strike. Tensions finally reached their breaking point when management demanded that employees work added overtime and fired those refusing to comply. Angered by the unfair demands, the can workers organized themselves by passing out flyers to workers as they left the factory at 6:00 p.m. That evening, they held a mass meeting at Scherwinski’s Hall at Forty-sixth and Jacob Streets, just several blocks from the plant. Most of the strikers and hundreds of others listened intently as Walter B. Hilton, Socialist editor of the Wheeling Majority, and L. M. Greer and Smith Calvert of the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly helped the strikers draft their demands. They sought a nine-hour day, time and a half for overtime, a return to the wages of 1912, pay for lost time caused by machine breakdowns, recognition of their union, reinstatement of the fired employees, and the weekly payment of wages.2 The next morning, the strikers set up a picket line around the plant at 7:00 a.m., shutting down the plant for that day. Another mass meeting occurred that night at Polish Hall on Wood Street, below Forty-fifth. This “meeting was larger and more enthusiastic than the last one,” as the largely immigrant audience agreed to hold out against management. After management supported all of the demands, except for union affiliation, another meeting at Scherwinski’s Hall led to a “loud and unanimous demand for affiliation with the American Federation of Labor.” While members of the local Socialist Party and the Trades Assembly were present, “none of these spoke” so that the workers’ decision “could not be twisted by the Can Factory Management into a claim that ‘the agitators’ had influenced them against their will.”3

The role of recent Polish immigrants in this strike makes it all the [End Page 1] more intriguing. During the meeting at Scherwinski’s Hall, when the strikers sought AFL affiliation, Charles Ajmar of Bridgeport, Ohio, translated the demands and meeting minutes into “Polish for the benefit of a large number of girls” who worked at Wheeling Can. Enthusiastically, the women “flocked to the front and paid their initiation.”4 That these recent female Polish immigrants vigorously supported organizing efforts by the local Trades Assembly and prominent socialists surprised the local Catholic leaders, especially since they met in spaces usually reserved for Polish social functions and the Catholic religious festivals of the local Polish parish. The strikers also promoted a lawn fete to be held at “Pulaski Field” in expectation of selling over three thousand tickets for “probably the biggest [fete] ever held in the Eighth Ward.”5

The “radical” use of Polish Catholic social spaces contrasted greatly with the goals of the parish priest, Father Emil Musial, and much of his Catholic laity. For Musial, the successful formation of a thriving Polish community was tied to a vigorous Catholic populism, seen most vividly through Polish popular religious practices and Polish cultural nationalism. By disseminating and promoting these ideals through the parish, social halls, and the parochial school, Musial sought to unite the Poles to combat the trials of life in industrial America. This vision was particularly important because the Catholic Church and the immigrant working class felt embattled as nativists sought to limit their potential political voice by impeding their full rights of citizenship. But Musial was no reactionary. While rejecting socialism, his brand of Catholicism offered a moral critique of economic individualism, and reinforced a working-class activism based on the social teachings of Rerum Novarum (1891), nourished by Catholic culture and religious practices within ethnic parishes.6 Ultimately, these two visions of how to best promote the needs of the Polish community—one advocating class solidarity, the other Catholic ethnic solidarity—clashed in the streets of South Wheeling in 1915.

This article will explore the interaction of ethnic communities, Catholicism, and class formation...