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This Day in Labor History: May 30, 1937

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On this date in 1937, Chicago police opened fire on strikers in front of the Republic Steel mill, killing 10 workers. Part of the “Little Steel” strike, where smaller steel corporations refused to follow U.S. Steel into signing contracts with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (later United Steelworkers of America), the Memorial Day Massacre was one of the last great spasms of organized, lethal state violence against labor in American labor history.

The Steel Workers Organizing Committee was a central part of the CIO’s industrial union strategy. Successfully targeting U.S. Steel, they convinced that company to sign a contract on May 2, 1937. This contract standardized pay, granted the 8-hour day, and instituted overtime pay. However, the smaller steel companies were if anything more vociferously anti-union that U.S. Steel and they refused to sit down with their workers. SWOC and the CIO therefore made them the next target. On May 26, 1937, 25,000 people walked off the job in plants in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. By the 28th, 80,000 were on strike, 46,000 of whom worked for Republic Steel, headed by anti-union die hard Tom Girdler. Girdler later recalled how bitter he and his fellow Little Steel leaders were after U.S. Steel’s capitulation. He said, “we were convinced that a surrender to the CIO was a bad thing for our companies, our employees, indeed for the United States of America.”

Things got worse for Little Steel when workers at Jones and Laughlin, the fourth largest steel company in the nation, went on strike for 36 hours and force a National Labor Relations Board poll of its employees. When over 2/3 of the workers voted for the union, it caved, as well as a couple of other companies. Six major steel companies resisted: Republic, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Bethlehem, National, Inland, and American Rolling Mills. These were the hold out and Girdler would guide their violent path. Girdler hired the Chicago police as a private army, paying for their guns and ammunition. The committee found that the companies had spent $40,000 on weapons for the police. Between 1933 and 1937, the Little Steel companies purchased more poison gas (nausea-inducing rather than fatal) than the U.S. military.

The steel workers and their supporters decided hold a major event on Memorial Day. Hundreds of supporters gathered to picket in front of Republic’s main gate. A line of policemen met them. After a brief, confused conversation about letting the workers pass, the police opened fire on the strikers, both with live fire and gas bombs. Mollie West, a member of the Typographical Union remembered the cops yelling at her, “Get off the field, or I’ll put a bullet in your back.” The cops began beating the strikers as well. In addition to the 10 workers who died (4 on site, 6 in the hospital), another 30 suffered serious injuries, 9 of which were permanently disabled through gunshot wounds or police beatings.

The Memorial Day Massacre is perhaps most notable for being caught on film. News cameras caught the whole thing. Here it is for you to watch. Actual footage starts at about 4:30. If you ever wanted to watch the police kill strikers, now is your opportunity.

No one was prosecuted for the massacre.

The cops and Republic Steel talked about the violent protestors, etc., but the footage showed peaceful people being massacred by the police. It was shown before a Senate committee on civil liberties led by Robert LaFollette, Jr. His committee concluded that the police were “loosed to shoot down citizens on the streets and highways.” And while Republic’s massacre of workers in Chicago was the big event, 6 additional strikers had been murdered outside of various Republic plants in Ohio. Girdler and the Chicago police remained defiant in the face of the public outrage. Captain James Mooney said the march was led by communists. Sergeant Lawrence Lyons, testifying before the LaFollette committee, when asked whether a policeman on the tape had drawn his gun, impudently replied, “I don’t know. He may be drawing his handkerchief.” Despite the filmed violence, SWOC lost the strike.

Little Steel defeated the SWOC. The bravery of strikers could only go so far without state intervention. Roosevelt wanted to level the playing field, not unionize the nation. He responded to the Memorial Day Massacre and the strike that had led to it by saying to the union and the companies “a curse on both your houses” to reporters. The unwillingness of Roosevelt to back the union devastated the strikers and infuriated John L. Lewis. At the barrel of a gun, whether from Republic Steel’s private army or the National Guard, the strikers had to give up. Whereas state support made the difference in Flint, state indifference left Little Steel unorganized.Continued violence combined with financial pressures to force the workers back in without a contract.

Yet time was on the steelworkers side. Some of the companies signed contracts in 1938. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt, not wanting any labor issues during the war, put major pressure on the Little Steel companies through the National War Labor Board to recognize SWOC as the legitimate bargaining agent for their workers, which finally forced Girdler and the other steel magnates to cave.

This series has also discussed Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676 and the founding of the Knights of Labor in 1869.

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