Question of the Week
Mexican Labor at Bethlehem Steel
In 1923, Bethlehem Steel president Eugene Grace negotiated a contract labor agreement with the Mexican Consulate for the recruitment of a Mexican labor force. The issues surrounding this event echo many of the same arguments and problems of the modern-day immigration debate.This unit explores the circumstances surrounding Bethlehem Steel’s recruitment of Mexican labor.
Mexican immigration stirs widespread public debate, fuels political tension, and triggers reexamination of a nation’s history and cultural identity. In addition to the perceived threat to American culture posed by a rise of non-English-speaking immigrants, defenders of immigration restrictions argue that American workers are negatively impacted by foreign laborers who drive down wages or replace the native-born workers. On the other side, businesses plead that fields will lay in ruin or industries will need to scale back production due to labor shortages if immigration is restricted.
When federal restrictions in 1921 limited the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans, many businesses, including Bethlehem Steel, sought to tap into the largely unrestricted labor source that the agricultural sector of the southwest had relied upon for many years. Congress and big business engaged in a tug-of-war over immigration policy with respect to Mexican immigrants. Businesses pushed for leniency due to widespread labor shortages, while those in favor of limits lashed out claiming that businesses undermined laws for the sake of a cheap labor supply. Ultimately, businesses won the battle and obtained a temporary suspension of immigration laws for Mexican laborers. Bethlehem Steel’s Eugene Grace even obtained a suspension of an 1885 contract labor ban so that he could negotiate his contract with the Mexican Consulate.
These lesson plans serve as a way for students to understand, connect, and critique issues surrounding early 20th-century and current Mexican immigration. Placed in the larger historical context, Bethlehem Steel’s recruitment of Mexican labor sheds light on early immigration laws, explores the changing role of Mexican laborers in the United States, and provides valuable perspective that allows students to better understand and assess contemporary Mexican immigration. Worthy of further exploration is how issues raised in this lesson such as global conflict, national security, and economic necessity shaped and continue to shape American immigration policy.
- Learning about the past and its different contexts shaped by social, cultural, and political influences prepares one for participation as active, critical citizens in a democratic society.
- Textual evidence, material artifacts, the built environment, and historic sites are central to understanding United States history.
- Long-term continuities and discontinuities in the structures of United States society provide vital contributions to contemporary issues. Belief systems and religion, commerce and industry, innovations, settlement patters, social organization, transportation and trade, and equality are examples of continuity and change.
- Articulate the context of a historical event or action.
- Analyze a primary source for accuracy and bias and connect it to a time and place in United States history.
- Apply the theme of continuity and change in United States history and related the benefits and drawbacks of your example.
Background Material for Teacher
- "La Prensa and the Mexican Workers of Bethlehem Steel" by Melissa Mandell, from Pennsylvania Legacies
- “Bethlehem Steel,” from Mexican Labor in the United States
- Progressive agricultural economist, Paul Schuster Taylor, conducted extensive research on Mexican immigration while teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. Influenced by progressive sociologist and head of the Social Science Research Council, Edith Abbott, Taylor traveled extensively from 1927-1930 collecting quantitative and qualitative data on Mexican migration and employment. Taylor’s research was unique in that not many individuals allocated the time or the resources for the study of early 19th century Mexican immigration. His approach was innovative in that he integrated his background in economics with cultural studies to generate thirteen informative sketches of Mexican and Mexican-American communities in this early period. For his research, he learned to speak Spanish so that he could conduct interviews with employers and laborers. He also collected and documented popular corridos. During the 1930s, Taylor focused his work around agricultural studies. He became particularly interested in using his economic research to shape public policy and influence state and federal funding for the rural poor suffering during the Great Depression. Taylor married the famed Depression-era photographer, Dorothea Lange, in 1935 and the couple worked together documenting the plight of sharecroppers and migrant laborers throughout the 1930s. The following excerpts are from his 1931 study of Mexican labor in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
End of Unit Assessment
Teachers may have students draw upon their research to develop a corrido that reflects the change and continuity within Mexican immigration from the early 20th to the early 21st centuries. Areas to cover include:
•The conditions of the contract between Bethlehem Steel and the Mexican laborers
• Economic opportunities typically available to Mexican workers in the United States
• Perceptions of Mexicans within the workforce then and now
• Experiences of the 1920s Mexican steelworker compared to contemporary Mexican immigration?
Plans in this Unit
PA Core Standard
This lesson was created as part of a series about immigrations that was placed on an older HSP website and was not created in the format we presently use. Therefore, please excuse some discrepancies in formatting and lack of fully digitized sources.
About the Author
This lesson was created by Jennifer Coval. Updated for SAS by Amy Seeberger and Eden Heller, Education Interns, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.