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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 245

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This is the grave of Tom Girdler, a terrible horrible no good American and a name you probably do not know at all.

Born to a farming family in Indiana in 1877, Girdler had a wealthy aunt who made sure he could go to college. He went to Lehigh, believing that his wealthy patroness meant that he had earned his way to success and anyone else could too. He graduated from Lehigh with a degree in mechanical engineering and went to work in the steel industry, putting his single-minded obsession on production to the service of the big steel capitalists. He rose rapidly in the industry. He became a millionaire when he became president of Jones & Laughlin Steel Company, leaving that position in 1929 to become chairman of the board of the newly created Republic Steel.

Girdler hated unions with a white hot passion. He considered them un-American. This was a man of the Gilded Age. And even if it was the 1930s and conditions were rapidly changing, Girdler and many other capitalists felt nothing should be changing from the way things were in 1895. During World War I, he busted a union in an Atlanta plant by importing strikebreakers from Pittsburgh, an unusual reversal in the geographical norm of strikers and scab recruitment. He created a company town at Aliquippa, Pennsylvania while heading Jones & Laughlin, a ploy to keep unions out entirely by allowing the company to control all aspects of life. He later bragged about this: “I became an unofficial caliph, an American Haroun al-Raschid obliged to consider a whole community as my personal responsibility.”

When the National Industrial Recovery Act passed in 1933, Girdler formed a company union at Republic that followed the letter of the law, but of course gave zero power to workers. But workers were demanding real unions. Girdler’s response was to create a police force in his factory and buy weapons to defend his factories and to give to the policy. When the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, Girdler felt justified. Sure, Congress passed and FDR signed the National Labor Relations Act, but he felt confident that the Supreme Court would throw it out too. So he and the rest of steel ignored it.

In 1935, workers at the Republic factory in Canton, Ohio went on strike for an independent union. Republic’s police force engaged in a wholesale campaign of terror against the population, not only the strikers but anyone else around the factory. Enough beatings and intimidation and three days later, the strike collapsed. This was Girdler’s view of labor relations. The company later paid out $46,000 in civil suits from the violence people suffered, but justified its behavior by saying the Canton police was ineffective. Still, the costs and bad publicity did lead Girdler to order his police forces to at least stay on company property instead of roaming the streets like the gangs of vigilante thugs they were. Girdler and Republic gave generously to the National Association of Manufacturers and other industry organizations to lobby against unions while also investing heavily in labor spies in the factories to fire any union organizers.

Meanwhile, the CIO formed in 1935, splitting from the AFL in 1937, and the Steel Working Organizing Committee formed to organize that industry. Girdler had as little interest in negotiating with SWOC as he had with the weak unions that already existed in steel: none. Claiming that unionization would destroy any recovery from the Great Depression, he announced his refusal to cooperate. He called John L. Lewis a communist. But then, U.S. Steel, the nation’s largest steel company, read the writing on the wall and capitulated, signing a contract with SWOC in March 1937.

Girdler was furious that U.S. Steel capitulated. He wrote in his 1944 autobiography Boot Straps: The Autobiography of Tom M. Girdler (subtle!) of he and his fellow Little Steel executives “we were convinced that a surrender to the CIO was a bad thing for our companies, for our employees, indeed for the United States of America.” Based on that subtle analysis of the situation, Girdler went all out to oppose unionization, with maximum violence if necessary. Or not if necessary but just because unions should be repressed. Now, Girdler claimed he didn’t a mind a union. Rather, his opposition was to a union contract. When one senator asked him “You would deal with the CIO and you would have collective bargaining, but you would not have a contract with the CIO,” Girdler confirmed that was his belief. But of course without a contract, the rest of it meant nothing. Girdler knew this and so did the CIO. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court ruled the National Labor Relations Act constitutional. For Girdler, this was just more evidence of the conspiracy destroying American freedom and he needed to resist.

So SWOC looked to take on Republic and the other Little Steel factories. Girdler again responded with violence. Girdler locked out his Massillon, Ohio employees when organizing at that factory increased. Finally, SWOC called a strike affecting the Republic plants in Massillon, Canton, Youngstown, Cleveland, Niles, and Warren, Ohio; Monroe, Michigan, and most notoriously, Chicago.

Girdler really would stop at nothing. He locked his strikebreakers in the factory. But they had no food. The Roosevelt administration wouldn’t let him bust the picket lines violently (requiring police enforcement) to feed those workers. So Girdler hired airplanes to make drops over the factory grounds. FDR appointed a federal mediation board to try and solve the problem. Girdler flatly claimed that he didn’t care what the president thought, he would not sign a contract with SWOC. Girdler hired the Chicago police as a private army, paying for their guns and ammunition. The LaFollette Committee later 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.

On May 26, 1937, steel workers and their supporters decided hold a major event on Memorial Day outside the Republic plant in Chicago. 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.

In the aftermath, Girdler sent a letter to Republic employees reading, in part, “Must Republic and its men submit to the Communistic dictates and terrorism of the C.I.O.? If America is to remain a free country, the answer is NO!”

Even though Girdler completely devastated the strike, time was not on his side. First, because his actions were against the new regime of labor law, the government began fining the company. On April 8, 1940, the courts ordered Republic to pay $5 million in back pay to its workers and reinstate 5,000 blacklisted workers, while forcing it to finally end its company unions, which had been outlawed in by the NLRA, but which, again, the company had ignored. Girdler laughably claimed “Some of my best friends are in organized labor” in response, while calling for the significant revision (or elimination) of the Wagner Act. Finally, the lure of massive defense contracts that would only happen if companies accepted the Roosevelt’s administration National War Labor Board and maintenance of membership union contracts in exchange of a no-strike pledge left Girdler with no option except to accept a union contract in 1942. He left active involvement Republic that year, at least in part, although this had nothing to do with it. He moved to become the chairman of the board at Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Consolidation Board.

However, Girdler remained technically in charge of Republic and returned to it by 1946, when he played a big role in resisting any concessions to unions in the steel strike of that year, hoping that labor could be crushed at the end of World War II like had happened in 1919.

The apple didn’t fall from the tree, as Tom Girdler, Jr. not only followed dad into the steel industry but received a profile in Life for thinking Lyndon Johnson was a huge wuss on Vietnam and that greater escalation of the war was necessary. The old man finally died in 1965.

Not only is Girdler not well-known by most of you, but information on his life isn’t actually that easy to come by. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, despite being a critically important figure of the era. Much of this post is therefore drawn from Philip L. Cook’s “Tom M. Girdler and the Labor Politics of Republic Steel Corporation,” published in the January 1967 issue of Social Science. The recent and very good Ahmed White book, The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America, is the real source on all things about this, but I didn’t have a copy of it near me while writing this post. You should buy a copy.

Tom Girdler is buried in Walnut Ridge Cemetery, Jeffersonville, Indiana.

This travel required to visit Girdler’s grave was supported by LGM readers, as I don’t routinely have reason to go to southern Indiana. For that I am tremendously grateful. If you would like to see help this series continue, you can help defray the necessary expenses here. There are plenty of more horrible capitalists that you’ve never heard of that could be included. For example, there’s the railroad executive Thomas Alexander Scott, who begged the Hayes Administration to send in the military to crush the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and who is buried in Philadelphia. I’d love to pay that guy a visit. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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