Remembering Nate Smith, Pittsburgh’s Prizefighting Labor Activist

Jan 8 '19 | By Ray

THE NATION - As the birthplace of both the precursor to the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, now the AFL-CIO, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is sometimes remembered as the cradle of the American labor movement. But even unions can foster inequity, and did, a fact that is crucial to remember as a new generation of workers embrace unions. Nate Smith’s struggle for equality among union workers in Pittsburgh is a reminder: Organizers like Smith had to break entrenched, protected barriers before workers could achieve what they have today—and which we must also do for the future. Smith’s ingenuity, persistence, and unflinching demand for the integrity of all workers is the sort of spirit that should propel this work.


About Nate Smith:

Born: February 23, 1929, Pittsburgh, PA

Military/Wartime Service: U.S. Navy, 1940-42.

Selected: Operation PUSH/Rainbow Coalition, executive board member; Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, volunteer; Western Hospital, consultant. Career: Local 66 of the Operating Engineers' Union, Pittsburgh, PA, heavy equipment operator, 1944-1960’s; Operation Dig, Pittsburgh, PA, founder, 1968-; Nate Smith Enterprises, Pittsburgh, PA, founder, 1969-

Life's Work

From lying in order to enter the navy at the age of 12 to boxing his way into the union at 16, Nate Smith proved that he knew how to get what he wanted. What he wanted in the mid-1960s was to break the color barriers in the construction industry in Pittsburgh. To do so, he laid down in front of bulldozers to stop work at construction sites. He also formed an innovative training program that was emulated nationwide. For his efforts he received death threats and beatings. But he got what he wanted. Not only in Pittsburgh, but across the country, construction unions opened up to blacks. Smith told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that he estimated that he helped some 2,000 people get union cards over the years. The New Pittsburgh Courier placed that number closer to 17,000. No matter the final figure, Smith's legacy lives on daily in the black workers who now have steady work at solid union wages. "He is why I'm here," a 21-year old African-American union worker told the New Pittsburgh Courier in 2004. "I'm not here because of what I did. I'm here because of what Nate did."


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