The Steel Strike of 1937

The Memorial Day Massacre was only the beginning of the bloody “Little Steel Strike,” where unions and laborers protested the companies that refused to acknowledge their rights under The New Deal.

| July 2016

  • Forceful intervention on behalf of the steel companies who thought themselves above The New Deal resulted in the death of sixteen strikers and the injury or arrest of thousands more.
    Photo by Fotolia/maxcam
  • “The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, The CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in new Deal America” by Ahmed White
    Photo courtesy of University of California Press

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.

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