Lessons from the 1937 Republic Steel Memorial Day Massacre

\

By Susan Hirsch

Earlier this month, on the South Side of Chicago, members of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) and its retirees commemorated the 80th anniversary of the Memorial Day Massacre. In 1937, as the Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC) attempted to unionize the steel industry, ten strikers were killed and scores wounded when Chicago police opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Republic Steel Plant. Both the reasons the massacre occurred and the response to it suggest to me the magnitude of what has to be done today to reverse the decline in our nation’s minimal protections for the life and well-being of our citizens.

Steel workers had tried for decades to establish unions to address the low pay, long hours, and terribly dangerous conditions of their jobs. The power of their employers, who united within the industry to fight union drives, always undercut their efforts until the 1930s. Then, workers sought to match this level of organization by forming industrial unions that took in all workers in an industry. Previously they had formed a myriad of craft unions that split workers within an industry but linked them to workers practicing the same craft in other industries.

Another new factor in the 1930s was the support workers received from the federal government. The New Deal’s 1935 Wagner Act put oversight by the National Labor Relations Board behind their efforts. In 1937 SWOC seemed to be headed to victory when the largest steel company, United States Steel, agreeing to engage in collective bargaining.

Republic, on the other hand, was one of the smaller companies (known as Little Steel) that refused to abide by the provisions of the new Wagner Act. When its workers struck, Republic turned to Chicago’s Democratic machine under Mayor Ed Kelly. Although local Democrats always relied on working-class support, these politicians also accepted and solicited the monetary support of Chicago’s employers. Not surprisingly, the machine often provided city police to help break strikes under the guise of keeping the peace. During the latter part of May, the police effectively stopped mass picketing at Republic’s plant so that the minority of workers who had not joined the strike, along with replacement workers, could keep the factory operating.

On Memorial Day, May 30th, 1,000-2,000 strikers and their supporters rallied and then marched across a large empty field toward the plant. They were met by a line of police, and as march leaders argued for their right to assemble and to picket, the police opened fire. The crowd turned and ran; most of those who died or were wounded were shot in the back. The police then chased the marchers and clubbed anyone they captured. Many marchers were arrested, but no policemen were ever prosecuted for their use of force. The local media, also beholden to the city’s businesses, called the event a “labor riot” and lauded the use of force by police. Critically, newsreel footage taken during the massacre was suppressed.

Yet local workers knew what had happened and they insisted on making their voices heard. SWOC and the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), of which it was a member, pushed to get the truth out. One reporter who had seen the film footage publicized its contents, revealing the police violence and aggression against a peaceful crowd. A Senate subcommittee, chaired by Wisconsin’s Robert LaFollette, Jr., was investigating how companies were resisting unionization by engaging in activities deemed illegal by the Wagner Act. They took testimony and viewed the film, thereby publicizing the workers’ story. Both national and local media recognized, albeit slowly, that a massacre had occurred. Fearing that he and other Democrats would lose working-class support and hence their offices, Mayor Kelly reversed himself to become a champion of unions and to rein in the police.

Yet the strike was lost, and the union drive was unsuccessful until 1942, when the U. S. Supreme Court upheld a National Labor Relations Board ruling in the union’s favor. Only then was Republic Steel forced to come to the bargaining table. Once the USWA unionized the entire industry, jobs in steel became the much-vaunted good manufacturing jobs of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although the massacre happened decades ago, understanding why it occurred and how defeat turned to victory can help us create a public opinion more receptive to socialism. For decades, conservative businessmen and their media have told people in the U.S. that unions and government are the problem, not the solution. Too many people believe this, and part of our task is educational.

We need to get out the word that manufacturing jobs were not good jobs until union contracts, which workers put their lives on the line to attain, made them so. Merely tossing out free trade agreements, as President Trump suggests, will not bring back good manufacturing jobs. Any jobs that are created will be good ones only if workers have the power to make them good.

Workers and their unions cannot do the job alone, however. Now, as then, they need support from all levels of government and from the courts. Too many people in the U.S. today do not understand what the majority did in the 1930s — government matters. If you don’t vote or actively support politicians who promote your interests, you leave power in the hands of those who would exploit you. The recognition of workers’ right to organize and the first steps toward a U.S. social safety net occurred in the 1930s, because people who previously had not voted and not come together to press for what they wanted changed their behavior. They voted and they organized. Now, when the attack on the Affordable Care Act may be successful, many people in the U.S. are suddenly realizing what they gained from government action. To extend that understanding to support for a much expanded government effort in a socialist direction, we need to publicize every example of the positive role government can play in people’s lives. 

Perhaps the most unexpected “lesson” of the Memorial Day Massacre is the importance of media to any progressive movement. Historians often point to the role of the visual images that television news provided in the 1960s in shaping public opinion for the Civil Rights Movement and against the Vietnam War. The newsreel footage of the 1937 massacre, though an old technology, had the same effect. Today we see how videos made on cell phones and then posted on the Internet have changed popular understanding of police behavior toward black men. The Black Lives Matter movement has credibility with the general public, just as steelworkers did, because of visual evidence. We on the Left need to harness the power of cell phones, websites and social media to transmit our progressive message. 

Chicago DSA member Susan Hirsch retired from teaching labor history at Loyola University Chicago. She is the author of After the Strike: A Century of Labor Struggle at Pullman (2003).

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

DSA Queer Socialists Conference Call

July 27, 2017
· 58 rsvps

Join DSA's Queer Socialists Working Group to discuss possible activities for the group and its proposed structure. 9 pm ET/8 pm CT/7 pm MT/6 pm PT.

 

Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
· 20 rsvps

Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
· 20 rsvps

 

Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.