Pennsylvania Representative Matthew A. Dunn stood in front of the strikers, wearing dark sunglasses inside the Pittsburgh plant. The Pennsylvania Association for the Blind workers’ strike had already slid into its second week in the late winter of 1937 when a whistle rang out, calling the room to order. Quieting the radio, the strikers turned toward the sound of Dunn’s voice. “I am with you on your strike,” the Representative said, “except I don’t think you are asking enough.”
Dunn lost the sight in his left eye at 12 after being hit by a snowball, and in his right eye at 20 through a wrestling accident. A photograph from the House Collection shows the Representative speaking on the first day of the strike. He stands a few steps above the crowd on a platform. He wears a dark suit, as do the two men behind him, and the workers wear aprons, overalls, and hats. Dunn’s face appears tense, and his hands gesture as if he is enumerating the first of several important points.
The Pennsylvania Association for the Blind employed men and women with visual impairments to make brooms, mops, rugs, and other household products. Frustrated by poor working conditions and wages as low as three dollars per week, workers began striking on March 1, 1937. The nonprofit association responded that it relied on charity and couldn’t afford to pay higher wages. Dunn served on the association’s board of directors while representing Pittsburgh in Congress. When the strike began, four years into the Congressman’s term, he tried to mediate between the 107 blind factory workers and their employers. “Representative Dunn supported the demands, but advised the strikers against disorder,” the New York Times reported.
Dunn had moved into politics after selling newspapers and brokering insurance early in his career. He served in the Pennsylvania state house of representatives for six years before voters sent him to Washington for four terms. Dunn persistently used his political voice to advocate for the blind and for unemployed workers during the Great Depression. He introduced legislation to provide jobs and pensions for citizens with visual impairments, and to reduce the cost of postage for magazines, periodicals, and sound recordings for the blind.
In the Capitol, Dunn's jovial nature contrasted with his businesslike determination on behalf of his constituents. Reporters considered him “one of the best–natured, happiest members,” always joking, dancing, and playing piano. But when it came to the serious business of the House, he interrupted appropriations debates, solemnly interjecting, “It seems to me that we should consider balancing people’s stomachs with good food before we consider balancing this mythical thing called the Budget.” In 1935, he introduced an unsuccessful bill asking for $100 billion to end poverty and fund jobs for all. According to the Washington Post, Dunn proposed this massive appropriation on the House Floor “as nonchalantly as though he were asking funds for a bird fountain.”
The Representative’s devotion to his constituents and their cause was unsurprising, but throughout his time in Washington, Dunn frequently astonished others with his appreciation for the visual. On St. Patrick’s Day, he carried a green cane and sported a golden shamrock pin around the Capitol. Boxes of flowers decorated his window ledges. And when Dunn first arrived at the House, he told his secretary, “I hope they give me an office with a nice view; I like nice scenery.” The Baltimore Sun explained that although Dunn couldn’t see the view, “he rejoices that if you, not he, stand at his window you can look out at a fountain in the green courtyard of the House Office Building.”
In Pittsburgh, the strike stretched out through March 1937 without a deal. At the factory on South Craig Street, workers slept on hard benches, fashioning cushions out of rags, corn, and straw. During the day, the strikers played with a deck of cards embossed with Braille and competed at checkers by feeling pieces on the board.
Despite the games, tensions grew between the two sides. Wearing signs with information about the strike, 40 workers took to street corners, holding out tin cups to ask for spare change and draw attention to their cause. At one point, workers caught association officials in an attempt to smuggle hidden records out of an upstairs window to a getaway car, but they surrounded the vehicle to prevent it from leaving. One mediation meeting ended “in confusion,” wrote the New York Times, when Dunn “threatened legal action if the association did not grant the wage demands.”
After a month, the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind and its strikers settled. Employees received the same pay rate, but the association agreed to better compensation for vacation and sick time, an audit of its records, and collective bargaining. Even though they did not achieve higher wages, workers considered it a “moral victory.” Dunn called the agreement “a declaration of independence,” and asserted that, as a result, blind people would be able to control their own destinies.
Sources: Baltimore Sun, February 17, 1935; Washington Post, January 27, 1935 and March 22, 1936; New York Times, March 2, 8, and 14, 1937, and February 14, 1942; Huntingdon Daily News, March 30, 1937; and Congressional Record, House, 76th Cong., 1st sess. (March 16, 1939): 2877.Follow @USHouseHistory