Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Teachers' Guide: During your visit

Making a Living

During your visit

Materials for this lesson
Readings Activities Primary sources

Museum exhibit labels



     ** Referenced PA Standards **

  • Documents
  • Photographs
    • Newspaper photo from the 1937 steel strike in Johnstown (large reproduction at museum -- not available for online viewing)
  • Exhibit materials

Activity: Which Side Are You On?

NOTE: Docents may be available at the JHDC to lead the "Which Side Are You On?" activity. If not, a recording of "Which Side are you On? will be set up at the museum and a large reproduction of the 1937 steel strike photo will be available in the gallery. Email to confirm details if you wish to do this activity on your visit.

The story behind the song

In 1931, a coal strike in Harlan County, Kentucky broke out in violence between mine owners and hired police on one side and coal miners on the other. Armed company deputies roamed the Kentucky countryside, looking for union leaders to beat, jail, or kill.

Sheriff J. H. Blair and his men went to the house of union organizer Sam Reece hoping to arrest him and bring him to jail. Sam wasn't there. His wife Florence was alone with their seven children. Not long after that terrifying experience, she wrote the words to this song to the tune of an old hymn.

[Play the song. Invite students to join in on the verse, as if they are on a picket line.]

Even though it was written in Kentucky about a particular coal strike, the song doesn’t bother with a lot of details about the strike or its bloody aftermath. Instead, it gets right to the point, "Which side are you on?"

Because it expressed the feelings of workers organizing unions so well, "Which Side Are You On?" spread quickly all over the country. Folk singers like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger would travel around and teach this and other union songs to workers. Singing strengthen the feeling of banding together and encouraged strikers when times got tough. Soon Florence's song became popular with all kinds of unions and all kinds of places.

"Which Side are you on" shows that strikes didn't just affect workers and company owners. They involved the families, other workers, stores, bars, restaurants and other businesses in town.


  • Strikes tend to make people take sides even if they don't want to. Why is that so?
  • How are stores and other businesses affected by strikes? [Their businesses suffer when workers don't have income to buy.]
  • How are families affected? [No income, fears of violence, evictions from company housing or loss of credit at company stores during a strike.]
  • How do strikes affect other workers? For example, if coalminers are on strike, what happens to railroad workers? If steelworkers have a picket line at the entrance to the mill, what happens to a teamster who needs to make a delivery? [Union members are expected to honor the picket lines of other unions. But if the teamster doesn't cross the picket line, he may get into trouble with his boss.]
  • The song says "there are no neutrals here." Do you agree? Are there only two sides in a strike? Where might there be some "middle ground"?
  • Which side are strikebreakers ("scabs") on, according to the song? How do strikebreakers feel during a strike? Which side are they on?
  • Which side are the police on (assuming they aren't Coal and Iron Police!)? What conflicts might a police officer feel during a strike? [they might be friends or neighbors of striking workers; they might sympathize because they were paid low wages, too; they would be concerned about violence or property damage, etc.]

Reading a photograph

Take a look at this photo taken in Johnstown during the 1937 steel strike. You can sure see people taking sides, but are there only two sides?

Pick out one of the people in this photo.

Listen to the song again

This time pretend you are in the picture and listening with the ears of the person you chose. Think how they might react to the words of the song and what emotions they would be feeling. If your "character" wouldn't sing along with the chorus, don't sing. Instead say or do what you would do if you disagreed with the song.

[Play the song again]

Organizing, Muckracking, and Legislating, Part 1: The Inspection

Download the activity sheets for this lesson (PDF file). You will only need to make about 10 copies of each of the four worksheets. Students should have read the student reading, "The World of Workers: Working 9 to 9" before their museum visit.

Things changed finally for workers. But it wasn't easy. Many people had to speak up for what they believed was right. And do what they could to fix it.

The reformers looked at the same problems, but found different ways to tackle them. Their efforts often worked together. Union organizers and social workers were in close contact with workers and families, so they saw the problems first. They might go to a reporter for help getting the word out. When the news hit, concerned citizens pressured their lawmakers to change the laws.

Just as the reformers did, students will use various means to get their message across and change things. Their end-products will depend on the role they played:

Union organizer projects

  • Write up bargaining points (demands) in the form of a contract;
  • Write slogans for picket signs to explain to others what changes you are striking for;
  • Write lyrics to a song union members can sing to help them remember why they are striking.

Investigative reporter projects

  • Write an article illustrated with photos from the galleries exposing the issues;
  • Draw a political cartoon.

Social worker projects

  • Write a report about working and living conditions illustrated with photographs from the galleries;
  • Draw up a plan for a settlement house and the programs it will run to help immigrants improve their lives.

Lawmaker projects

  • Draft a bill introducing new workplace laws to Congress;
  • Write a newspaper editorial to gain public support for the new laws.

This activity begins at the museum, though it will continue back in the classroom.

Activity directions at museum

Assign roles (randomly or not -- you may want to choose who gets to play what role or let students choose) and distribute the appropriate "Inspection Report Form." Explain their task, recalling to them the role of reformers in improving workers' working and living conditions.

Student directions

  1. Take on the role of one of the reformers
  2. Collect evidence of things that need to be changed throughout the museum visit.
  3. Gather as much evidence as possible now to make your job much easier later.

Teacher key

For your convenience at the museum, the following chart summarizes the roles, what types of evidence they might find, and their final project options.



Possible evidence at museum or web site

How will you make a change?


Part 1 - During visit.
Inspection form worksheet

Parts 1-2 - During and after visit.
Inspection form worksheet

Part 2 - After visit
Any media appropriate for chosen project

Union organizer

Gather evidence to rally workers, decide bargaining points, what to negotiate for

Low wages, long hours, unsafe work conditions, no accident or death benefits, no health benefits or pensions. No right to bargain collectively

Write up bargaining points (demands) in the form of picket signs, a contract, or lyrics to a song union members can sing to keep morale up

Investigative Reporter ("Muckraker")

Find and publicize bad behavior of government or mill and mine owners

Child labor, unfair wage and benefit policies, unsafe working conditions that should be regulated, company town/company store monopolies

Article or political cartoon
Pick photos from the galleries to illustrate your article

Social worker

Find out what workers and their families need to stay healthy and enjoy a minimum quality of life

Infant mortality rates, child labor, poor nutrition, overcrowded housing, bad sanitation,

Report on conditions.
Plan for a settlement house to help families stay healthy, get an education, and adjust to life in the USA


Find out what laws are needed to keep workers safe and wages fair

Child labor; ethnic discrimination, unfair wage and benefit policies, unsafe working conditions that should be regulated, owners take law into their own hands to suppress union activity

Recommend new laws to congress and regulations to government agencies. Make sure government only buys from companies who treat workers ethically

Collect the Inspection Reports to make sure they make it back to the classroom.

Continued "After your Museum Visit"


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