In 1937, after decades of antiunion repression, seventy thousand workers walked off their jobs at the four companies known as collectively as “Little Steel” to demand that their employers abide by the federal labor laws enacted by The New Deal. For two months they protested, and the combined force of company agents, police, and National Guardsman were ruthless in quelling the riots that ensued before the strike ended in failure. Traditionally this Little Steel Strike has been seen as a modest setback for steelworkers, but in The Last Great Strike (University of California Press, 2015), Ahmed White tells a different story, one where the contradictions of the industrial labor movement are laid bare and the limits of New Deal liberalism at this vital time in American history are brought to light. This strike became a pivotal moment in the creation of the modern labor movement and the origins of industrial unionism in America.
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Labor, Little Steel, and the New Deal
“I’d never seen police beat women, not white women,” Jesse Reese marveled as he crawled through the grass under the afternoon sun on a desolate field in the southernmost reaches of the city of Chicago. It was Memorial Day — Sunday, May 30, 1937. All around Reese, scores of club-wielding police were beating people, men and women, black as well as white, and firing gas weapons and firearms, striking down dozens. Reese, a black man and a fugitive from a Mississippi chain gang years earlier, was no stranger to brutality and injustice. And yet he was stunned as he beheld victims of this onslaught, running and stumbling and crying out in shock and pain.
Moments earlier Reese had been firmly on his feet, one of at least fifteen hundred demonstrators who had marched to within a couple hundred yards of the gate of a steel mill owned by the Republic Steel Corporation. The demonstrators’ cause was industrial unionism. Earlier that afternoon they had rallied at an old tavern that served as local headquarters for the union that had called a strike against Republic. Reese himself, a union organizer in a nearby steel plant, had arrived with truckloads of other strikers. From the tavern he and the other demonstrators had walked down the street five or six blocks and then marched across an open field toward the mill’s gate. It was just after 4:00 p.m. Along with strikers from Republic and their families, the demonstrators’ ranks included workers from other steel companies as well as an assortment of sympathizers who supported the union’s cause. Ethnically and racially diverse, the demonstrators were mostly men. But there were many women, too, and also a few children, brought along by some who anticipated a festive outing.
As they made their way across the field, the throng of demonstrators fanned out into a ragged column. Led by two strikers bearing American flags, the crowd chanted slogans, the main refrain an affirmation of the labor federation that sponsored their efforts: “CIO! CIO!” The demonstrators’ aim that afternoon was certain, at least to themselves. They intended to assert their right under federal law, as they saw it, to establish a large picket line at Republic’s gate. Some held signs denouncing the steel company or proclaiming their right to picket. A handful carried sticks and rocks, and many must have expected some kind of fracas with the police, at least when the crowd closely approached the steel plant. But few could have anticipated what awaited.
Stationed between the approaching throng and the mill gate were about 250 uniformed members of the Chicago Police Department, armed with revolvers, nightsticks, hatchet handles, and various gas weapons. Beyond the police, at the gate and behind the barbwire-topped fence bounding the mill, were dozens of Republic’s own police armed with gas weapons, billy clubs, and firearms. About one thousand workers at the mill had defied the call to strike and remained inside the plant. At least one hundred, and maybe many hundreds, of these men were stationed behind the company police, some wielding clubs and pipes.
When the demonstrators reached the police position, representatives on each side faced off while many others, police and demonstrators, bunched up behind, forming thick, ragged lines. Arguments erupted as the demonstrators demanded their right to picket the gate, and the police refused them passage, insisting that they disperse. After a few minutes, the standoff exploded in the flash of violence that left Reese crawling in the grass. With little provocation, the police fired their revolvers and gas weapons into the gathering of strikers and supporters, mortally wounding ten men and inflicting nonlethal gunshot wounds on some thirty men, women, and children.
The demonstrators fell like wheat before a scythe, one victim recalled. Films and the testimony of numerous witnesses document a horrific scene as the demonstrators’ raucous shouting, smiling faces, and relaxed, upright demeanors were reduced in an instant to overwhelming expressions of shock and fear and contortions of panic and agony. Those who could, ran for their lives. But many were unable because they had been seriously injured or, like Reese, had been knocked to the ground. Others, showing great courage, went to the aid of shocked or wounded comrades. Still others from the broken crowd simply stood in place.
The police rushed forth into this mass of people, firing more shots from their revolvers, beating the demonstrators, men and women, wounded and able-bodied, and manhandling dozens, wounded included, into waiting patrol wagons. Some of the police exulted as they attacked the helpless and compliant unionists, or were consumed by rage. Some went about this business in a workman-like fashion. A small few were themselves shocked by the mayhem. When after several minutes the violence waned, about two hundred gunshots had been fired, all by the police, and approximately one hundred demonstrators had been hurt, including those fatally shot. The police suffered only about thirty injuries, none very serious.
Little Steel, The CIO, and the New Deal
A signal moment in the history of labor and class conflict in America, the “Memorial Day Massacre,” as it came to be called, was but one of many violent chapters in a bitter and prolonged strike during the summer of 1937. The “Little Steel” Strike pitted steel workers aligned with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO; later renamed the Congress of Industrial Organizations) against a group of powerful steel companies. The companies — Republic Steel Corporation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, and Inland Steel Company — were dubbed “Little Steel” only to distinguish them from the enormous U.S. Steel Corporation, or “Big Steel,” as every one of them ranked among the hundred largest firms in America. Acting in concert, they were also interlinked with other capitalist interests, including powerful trade groups and business organizations. This coalition of capitalists was intent on using the strike to mount what one commentator went so far as to call an “armed rebellion” against the movements for economic reform and industrial unionism that surged with such strength in that era.
The SWOC launched the strike against Little Steel on May 26, 1937, after a year’s struggle to organize the companies’ workers. The striking steel workers asserted the right to build an independent union, to provoke meaningful collective bargaining, and to protest by striking and picketing. Although for decades denied most American workers, these rights had been enacted into federal law two years earlier, via the Wagner Act, a legislative centerpiece of the Roosevelt administration’s “Second” New Deal that was held constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court only weeks before the strike began in the landmark decision NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel. But as the men who ran the steel companies saw things, the letter of the law could not trump their prerogatives as industrial capitalists. True to the industry’s tradition of violent and effective opposition to organized labor, Little Steel aggressively resisted the SWOC’s organizing efforts and refused the union’s demands. The companies defied the Wagner Act and the authority of the agency charged with enforcing it, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). And they bucked a trend among other large industrial employers during that same period, including U.S. Steel, which had begun to retreat from decades of absolute opposition to basic labor rights.
The Little Steel Strike played out across seven states and involved around thirty mills. At its height in June 1937, over eighty thousand steel workers, along with at least ten thousand CIO miners and other sympathy strikers, were off the job. Although many steel workers were passive participants and thousands opposed the strike, tens of thousands embraced the union’s cause. Aided by sympathizers, these men picketed plant gates for weeks and even months in the face of widespread threats, provocations, and assaults. They tried desperately to inflict economic damage on the companies and to sustain support for their cause among fellow workers, with the broader public, and among politicians and other elites. And they took the offensive against the companies and their allies, organizing sympathy strikes as well as acts of sabotage and violence and intimidating picket lines.
By the end of that summer, at least sixteen people, all unionists, had lost their lives; hundreds of people had been badly injured; and as many as two thousand had been arrested in confrontations between union people, on the one hand, and public and company police, National Guardsmen, and loyal employees, on the other. But the mills reopened and the strike was crushed. Afterward, the companies effectively fired upward of eight thousand strikers, and the SWOC and CIO stood in disarray. It would take years of litigation as well as changes in political economy wrought by the Second World War before the companies acceded to the rights the workers had demanded.
Reprinted with permission from The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, The CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in new Deal America by Ahmed White, published by University of California Press, 2015.