Speaker's Corner on Eastern Avenue
In the 1930s, when the managers at Bethlehem Steel remained staunchly opposed to unionization, labor activists at Sparrow’s Point faced real challenges. According to Ellen Pinter, men couldn’t wear union buttons for fear of losing their jobs. During the struggles for unionization in the mills, several of the organizers were foreign-born residents of neighborhoods like Highlandtown in the southeastern section of the city along Eastern Avenue. These activists tried to organize their fellow workers by speaking to them in their native languages in places where ethnic workers would congregate.
For these activists, immigrant and native-born, public speaking became the best way to advance their cause. Nathaniel Parks, a retired steelworker and former resident of Sparrow’s Point, describes one way that activists exercised their right to free speech during the early 1930s:
“The company never did allow people to come in and talk union at Sparrow’s Point. It was an island…And it happened that the car pulled up a half a block from this corner…And a lady got out [of the car] and a man got out, and they walked over to this iron [street light] pole, and then she handcuffed him to the pole. And then he started putting in his spiel about union: what its advantages was, what they were trying to do. And then, the police, they were in a quarrel; they didn’t know what to do. They ran around trying to find a hacksaw or something to get him untied from this pole. And he got his spiel before they got him. And then when they put him in this patrol wagon and carried him on the other side of the bridge, he was still with his head out of the window…blasting out just about what the union was in for, what the people was in for. Oh, it was really nice to see what was going to happen the way the company was treating men on the jobs in those days…”
During the 1930s and 1940s, a traffic island at the intersection of Eastern Avenue and Lehigh Street became a hotspot for pro-union soapbox speakers. Many of these speakers were women, the daughters and wives of steel workers. Most of the work in the steel mills at this time was restricted to men. Male labor activists, therefore, faced the potential of unemployment and blacklists if they were caught organizing. Women, however, did not face this direct threat and used their voices to rally support for the union. Besides speaking in a public arena, like the traffic median on Eastern Avenue, women also went door-to-door and backyard-to-backyard, preaching to women about the union cause as they went about their housework.