Friday, May 31, 2019
Thursday, May 30, 2019
A WPA mural depicting the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago.
Eighty two years ago today it was hot and muggy in Chicago. But the sun was shining brilliantly. Due to a week old strike and the Memorial Day holiday, the giant steel mills nearby were not belching their customary heavy smoke. Maybe those unaccustomed dazzling skies contributed to the air of a holiday outing as steel workers, their wives in their finest summer dresses, and their children converged by bus, trolley, auto, and foot on Sam’s Place, an erstwhile dime-a-dance hall, turned into a makeshift soup kitchen and strike headquarters on the Southeast Side less than a mile from the Republic Steel mill.
It was May 30, 1937. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), the pet project of John L. Lewis’s Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), had shocked the nation earlier in the year by bringing industry behemoth U.S. Steel under contract by infiltrating the company unions and having them vote to affiliate. Faced with rising demand from an apparent recovery under way from the depths of the Depression on one hand and a popular, labor friendly administration in Washington on the other, the nation’s dominant steel company quietly surrendered.
A Steel Worker's Organizing Committee dues button from just before the Little Steel Strike was called.
Buoyed by the success, organizers turned their attention to Little Steel, the smaller, independent operators in Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Chicago and other grimy industrial cities. But the bosses of Youngstown Sheet and Steel, Republic, Bethlehem, Jones and Laughlin and others were a tougher bunch than the Wall Street stock manipulators that ran the huge rump of the old Steel Trust. In fact they had nothing but contempt for the monopolists, their old business enemies, and their “weakling” attitude toward unionization. Little Steel vowed to fight. Tom Girdler, President of Republic, had said that he would go back to hoeing potatoes before he met the strikers’ demands.
The ferocity of the opposition to unionization was not just empty rhetoric either. They had shown they meant business in blood on more than one occasion. Famously in Youngstown, Ohio back in 1916 strikers accompanied by their wives and children marched from the slums to the gates of the Sheet and Tube mill to keep strike breakers from reporting to work. Inside the gates a small army of private security forces responded by throwing dozens of tear gas bombs. As the thick, poisonous haze hung over the workers obscuring their vision, guards unleashed volley after volley of rifle fire directly into their ranks. The exact toll may never be known as workers were afraid to bring the wounded to medical attention. At least three were killed, probably twice that many including women. Twenty-seven injuries were confirmed, but strikers made oral reports of more than a hundred. Enraged as the dead and wounded lay bleeding on the ground the strikers attacked the guards with stones and bricks and perhaps a pistol shot or two before retreating to town.
The Youngstown Sheet and Tube Massacre and subsequent riot in 1916 was a reminder of how intense and violent the opposition of Little Steel operators was likely to be.
In rioting over the next two days, workers burned much of the town’s business district only to be eventually crushed by Ohio National Guard troops. The memory of those events was still fresh to workers more than twenty years later. Especially when Little Steel bosses quietly let it be known that they had been stockpiling armories for years and were ready, even eager to repeat the carnage.
The USWOC called their national strike against Little Steel a week earlier. In Chicago it had been marred by predictable violence, particularly on the part of the Chicago Police Department which had a long history of being used as armed strike breakers. Beatings and arrests on the picket lines were occurring daily. Some strike leaders had been kidnapped and held incommunicado. For their part senior police officers were “subsidized” by corporate bosses who also bought political clout with the usual campaign contributions and bribes to local officials. They also pledged to reimburse the city for police overtime during the strike. In addition the still largely Irish Catholic force was kept inflamed by homilies preached in their parishes deriding USWOC as “Godless Communists.”
Despite this, moral among the strikers was high. After only a week out, families had not yet felt the full pinch of lost incomes and strike soup kitchens kept them fed. Organizers made a point of engaging workers’ wives from the beginning, including them in planning and giving them important support roles. This was critical because many a strike had been lost in the past when families went hungry and the women urged their men to return to work.
As the large crowd gathered at Sam’s Place for the first mass meeting of the strike, vendors plied the crowd with ice cream, lemonade, and soft drinks. Meals were passed out from the soup kitchen. Other families munched on sandwiches wrapped in wax paper brought from home. Many of the men passed friendly bottles as they settled into a round singing—mostly old Wobbly songs including Solidarity Forever and Alfred Hayes’s I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night.
Then came the rousing speeches. Joe Webber, USWOC’s main organizer pointed his finger at the distant plant. The plan was to establish the first mass picket at the gates of the Republic Works. Some workers carried homemade signs. Organizers passed out hundreds of pre-printed placards stapled to lathing emblazoned with slogans.
With a sense of a gay holiday parade the strikers marched away from Sam’s Place behind two American flags singing as they went one block up the black top and then turned into the wide, flat prairie that separated them from the distant plant.
Chicago Police charge over the bodies of victims shot in the back.
Historian/novelist Howard Fast later described the scene.
…snake-like, the line of pickets crossed the meadowland, singing at first...but then the song died as the sun-drenched plain turned ominous, as five hundred blue-coated policemen took up stations between the strikers and the plant. The strikers’ march slowed—but they came on. The police ranks closed and tightened… now it was to unarmed men and women and children that a police captain said, “You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!”
About two hundred and fifty yards from the plant, the police closed in on the strikers. Billies and clubs were out already, prodding, striking, nightsticks edging into women’s breasts and groins. It was great fun for the cops who were also somewhat afraid, and they began to jerk guns out of holsters.
“Stand fast! Stand fast!” the line leaders cried. “We got our right! We got our legal rights to picket!”
The cops said, “You got no rights. You Red bastards, you got no rights.”
Even if a modern man’s a steelworker, with muscles as close to iron bands as human flesh gets, a pistol equalizes him with a weakling—and more than equalizes. Grenades began to sail now; tear gas settled like an ugly cloud. Children suddenly cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling, cursing, gasping for breath. Here and there, a cop tore out his pistol and began to fire; it was pop, pop, pop at first, like toy favors at some horrible party, and then, as the strikers broke under the gunfire and began to run, the contagion of killing ran like fire through the police.
They began to shoot in volleys. It was wonderful sport, because these pickets were unarmed men and women and children; they could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing men and women, pressed revolvers to their backs, shot them down and then continued to shoot as the victims lay on their faces, retching blood. When a woman tripped and fell, four cops gathered above her, smashing in her flesh and bones and face. Oh, it was great sport, wonderful sport for gentle, pot-bellied police, who mostly had to confine their pleasures to beating up prostitutes and street peddlers—at a time when Chicago was world-infamous as a center of gangsterism, assorted crime and murder.
And so it went, on and on, until ten were dead or dying and over a hundred wounded. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything as brutal as this.
A memorial card for those killed.
Because workers were afraid to bring their injured to hospital, the exact casualty count may never be known for sure. Ten men were confirmed dead. All shot in the back. More than 50 gunshot wounds were reported. At least a hundred were badly injured, many more with scrapes, bruises, and turned ankles from police clubs and the panicked stampede to escape.
The rabidly anti-union Chicago Tribune set the tone for most national press coverage accepting the police claim that they fired in self defense against attacking fanatics.
Many reporters and photographers were on the scene. Police confiscated most of their film. Newsreel cameras caught the action, but the companies were pressured not to show the footage. The next day, led by the rabidly anti-union Chicago Tribune, most of the press dutifully recorded that the police had come under attack by fanatic Reds and had acted in self-defense.
Although covered in the labor press, the nation as a whole was kept in the dark about what had happened. Even the workers supposed friend Franklin D. Roosevelt, pretty much accepted the official account and told reporters that “the majority of people are saying just one thing, ‘A plague on both your houses.’”
A Cook County Coroner’s Jury ruled the deaths that day as “justifiable homicide.” Not only was no action taken against any of the police involved that day, but senior officers were commended and promoted.
The truth about what happened was very nearly suppressed, as so many atrocities committed against working people had been. But a single newsreel cameraman saved the footage he shot from the roof of his car. Some of the photographers on the scene retained their shots. The stills and the moving pictures were placed on exhibit during the hearing on Republic Steel Strike held by a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor almost a year later. A shocked nation saw for itself the senseless, unprovoked brutality of the police.
The Memorial Day Massacre was followed by the Ladies Day Massacre at a Republic Steel plant in Youngstown on July 19 which led to the collapse of the Little Steel Strike.
As for the strike, it dragged on through the summer, as did regular violence on picket lines. Then on July 19th it was Ladies Day on the picket line in front of the Republic Steel mill in Youngstown. After company guards assaulted one of the women, they were pelted with rocks and bottles. Retreating into the plant, in an eerie replay of the 1916 violence, guards let loose with tear gas and then opened fire, many firing down on the crowd from virtual snipers’ nests. At least two were killed and dozens wounded. Once again the National Guard was called in and the town became a virtual occupied territory. The strike was crushed and workers went back.
But the Steel Workers turned to the new National Labor Relations Board for help. They complained of unfair labor practices by the Little Steel companies. The case took years to resolve. But in 1942, with another war on and the need for industrial peace, the NLRB ordered the companies to recognize what had become the United Steel Workers Union.
The Memorial Day Massacre commemoration in 2018.
Today a local union hall stands on the site of Sam’s Place. The Republic Mill and other Little Steel plants are closed and pad-locked eyesores. The City seeks desperately to find some way to redevelop what are now called simply Brown Fields. At one time the site was suggested as one possible future home for Barack Obama’s Presidential Library but it was passed over. USW members and the Illinois Labor History Society sometimes gather in remembrance of that terrible day. And the last aging survivors, including some of the children present, fade away one by one, their stories untold.
This year again there has been scant mention of the Memorial Day Massacre or coverage of commemorations. Seems like Chicago is still eager to forget.
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
A Federalist cartoon show Rhode Island, the last of the thirteen pillars of the new union, teetering on the edge of a fall.
Always contrarian Rhode Island had stamped its tiny foot and threatened to hold its breath until it turned blue. No, they would absolutely not ratify the tyrannical document known as the Constitution of the United States.
Sure, the moneyed interests in big states were for it—Virginia. New York, Pennsylvania. And not-quite-so-big Massachusetts and Connecticut had voted for ratification—but that was all the more reason to be suspicious. The big bullies were likely to swamp the sovereignty of the pipsqueak. And Massachusetts had been literally threatening the existence of the former Colony since Baptist Roger Williams and his followers escaped the clutches of Puritans and set up a refuge of religious toleration. Connecticut on the other side was now even more firmly in the hands of the highly orthodox Black Legion of Congregational ministers deeply suspicious of loose religious practices next door which included a thriving Jewish congregation, Quakers, and even—horror of horrors—Catholics.
Rhode Island, heavily dependent economically on its ports and merchants, had been such a hot bed of opposition to heavy handed British taxation and trade restriction policies that a mob of locals had done the faux Indians at the Boston Tea Party one better and burned the grounded revenue schooner Gaspee to the water line back in 1772. And it became the first colony, a mouse roaring at a lion, to sever its ties to the mother land, declaring its independence on May 4, 1776, two months before the Continental Congress got around to it. Its delegates at the Congress, Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery naturally cast Rhode Island’s single vote for Independence.
The Black 1st Rhode Island Regiment of Militia helped Continental General John Sullivan and the French recapture Newport during the American Revolution.
During the war the British easily occupied Newport, which became a major Royal Navy Base. Yet the tiny colony still managed to provide one of the most important and reliable Regiments of the Line for George Washington’s often beleaguered Continental Army. When the French entered the war as allies, American troops under General John Sullivan, including the all Black 1st Rhode Island Regiment of state militia in their smart and distinctive all white uniforms, in somewhat uneasy cooperation with French forces under Admiral the Comte d’Estaing dislodged the British.
Ruined Newport became the principle base of operations for the French and General Washington took up residence there planning to go on the offensive when their combined forces could be brought to bear in unison. It was from there that the General launched his long march to Yorktown to trap Lord Cornwallis’s army on a peninsula bottled up by the French fleet. You probably recall how that worked out.
But having played a critical role in the Revolution, Rhode Island’s post war economy was more devastated than most of the other colonies. Its merchant traders had trouble re-establishing old trade routes as the British cut off lucrative trade with the sugar and spice islands of the Caribbean. Instead they used their ships to turn increasingly to the Slave Trade and within a few years Rhode Island dominated between 60 to as much as 90% of that trade, tying its economy to the slave holding South.
When the Articles of Confederation failed to provide enough centralized government to retire war debt and facilitate trade, Rhode Island suspicious of the undertaking, never even sent delegates to what became the Constitutional Convention.
In the years following the adoption of the Constitution by the convention in 1787 there was a vigorous national debate aimed at encouraging the former colonies to ratify the Constitution and officially join the new Federal Union. The eloquent and elegant arguments of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay were countered by dire warnings of tyranny and the re-imposition of monarchy by wily political leaders like Edmund Randolph, George Mason, and New York Governor George Clinton who styled themselves Anti-Federalists. Rhode Island was firmly in the Anti-Federalist camp.
To assuage those fears, ten new Amendments to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights were added to the original document. Rhode Island, however, was still suspicious.
Rhode Island voters—property owning white men—rejected ratification in a popular referendum on March 27, 1778 by the lopsided margin of 237 to 2,708 after neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut had affirmed it.
One by one all of the other 12 former colonies fell into line isolating and surrounded the littlest state, which seemed determined to hold on to its own independence.
It is said that no state was forced to ratify the Constitution, but that might be a stretch in the case of Rhode Island. With her ports becoming havens for smugglers, gunboats began cruising menacingly off shore. Annual muster days of Massachusetts militia were marked by drills that hinted that a march against its neighbor might be in the offing.
George Washington had already been elected first President of the United States under the Constitution, and had taken the oath of office in New York City where Congress was also meeting. A new national government had become a reality.
Old Kings County Court House–now a public library in Kingston—where the ratification was defeated by a special Convention in March 1790.
On May 29, 1790 after the Constitution was again defeated at a special convention in March and a bruising debate in the legislature members finally ratified the Constitution by the narrowest of margins—34 for to 32 against.
Rhode Island became the last of the Original 13 to join the union.
Tuesday, May 28, 2019
Bill Buckner as I remember him.
Note—We got word from Chicago Cubs broadcasters Len Kasper and Jim Deshaies. The game from Houston was playing in the background while our family jammed into the living room for a rainy Memorial Day gathering. He passed away earlier in the day in his long-time adopted hometown of Boise, Idaho of Lewy body dementia, related to Parkinson’s disease.Most people remember Bill Buckner as a Red Sox first baseman—the Goat in the 1986 World Series for letting a ground ball skip between his legs scoring the winning run in Game Six. That one play haunted him for the rest of his life. And sure enough it was the only clip from his great career that was shown on the TV sports reports that I saw last night.
But I remember Billy Buck from his years as a Cub, back when a perpetually broke guy like me could decide in the morning to catch a game at Wriggly Field and walk up to the box office and get an upper grandstand seat for $5 with no trouble. Buckner was a star on the team during one of its many, alas, years in the doldrums. He was just a year younger than me. I would sometimes run into him after a game at the Neisse Lounge on Sheffield a couple of blocks south of the park. Cubs’ clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano would often bring players and coaches for a drink in an atmosphere more relaxed than the rowdy saloons by the ballpark. He was a nice, regular guy without pretentions.
In his honor I am recycling this entry in Heretic, Rebel, A Thing to Flout back in 2010 when the blog was still hosted on LiveJournal.
Today is Bill Buckner’s 61st birthday. The twenty-year Major Leaguer was born on December 14, 1949 in Vallejo, California. Buckner was a star first baseman most of his career, winning a National League Batting Championship in 1980, appearing in an Al Star Game as a Chicago Cub, and amassing more than 2,700 hits as an amazingly consistent contact hitter. His teammates will tell you that he was more than just solid at first base—playing 1,555 regular season games at the positions while making only 128 errors in 13,901 chances.
One error would haunt Buckner the rest of his life. Umpire Jim Kibler calls Mookie Wilson safe at first after a soft ground ball skipped between his legs in the 10th of game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
Despite this, he is best remembered as The Goat. No, not the damn Billy Goat of the legendary Chicago Cubs Curse. No, Buckner, whose bat and glove helped win the American League Championship for the Boston Red Sox against the California Angels in 1986, was blamed for the loss in the World Series against the New York Mets.
In the sixth game with the score tied in the 10th inning, two out, and a man at second, Buckner charged a slow ground ball by Mookie Wilson, one of the fastest runners in the game. In his haste, he did not get his glove all the way down and the ball rolled between his legs scoring the winning run. Buckner contributed two hits and scored in the eighth inning in game seven, the BoSox lost, continuing their long run of futility.
Despite Buckner’s solid contributions to the team and that the loss in game seven could just as easily be blamed on a collapse by reliever Calvin Schiraldi and a wild pitch by Bob Stanley, the Boston media hung the loss on Buckner. Always passionate Red Sox fans turned viciously on the ball player. The next year as the Team Goat, Buckner endured death threats and harassing telephone calls. He was booed and pelted with garbage at home, and endured the taunting of other teams on the road. Despite a more than solid .273 batting average, two home runs and 42 RBIs through 95 games, Buckner was given his unconditional release, both for his own safety and to assuage fan vitriol.
Buckner's contributions to the Red Sox is better represented in his reliable hitting and usually flawless defense.
The Angels quickly snapped him up, and he finished the season batting .306 and driving in 32 runs in just 57 games. The next year playing for Kansas City, Buckner returned to Fenway Park and went one for two with a walk against ace Roger Clemens.
Now in his late thirties with his bad ankles troubling him, Buckner spent the last days of his career as a utility man off the bench. In 1990 Boston re-signed him as a Free agent. The Boston fans must have mellowed. The press, which had crucified him, now saw that he had a raw deal. When he was introduced on opening day, he received a standing ovation from the capacity crowd. Despite the welcome, he could no longer produce his old numbers and retired for good on June 5, 1990.
Cubs fans recall Buckner’s seven years in Chicago with fondness. Buckner arrived in town as part of a deeply unpopular four player trade. Fan favorite Rick Monday and pitcher Rich Garman were traded to Los Angeles for little heralded journeyman outfielder Buckner, shortstop Ivan De Jesus, and another player. The consensus among Chicago’s fans was that the Cubs had been robbed again.
Buckner, who was recovering from a severe infection in his ankle, was shifted to first base in Chicago, a position he had played sporadically in Los Angles before Steve Garvey cemented his hold on the position. Buckner adapted quickly and was soon turning bang-bang plays at first off of quick tosses from De Jesus at shortstop. And despite his continuing ankle problems, he earned respect by playing through pain, and for the first two years in town he was still a speedy runner as well as a crafty base stealer. Eventually, his ankles did slow him down, but he could still fool a pitcher and steal a base from time to time.
Despite bad ankles, Buckner was an effective runner and base stealer for the Cubs.
More important was steady production at the plate. Few players had such a low strike-out to time at plate ratio. He was a good contact hitter. Twice he led the league in doubles, batted over .300 four times, leading the league hitting .324 in 1980, and was the Cubs’ sole representative at the 1981 All-Star Game. Buckner was a true star during an era when the Cubs struggled.
Boyishly handsome with a mop of black hair and one of the most impressive mustaches in the Game, Buckner was popular off the field as well. He often would visit neighborhood taverns near the ballpark and mingle casually with fans while other players were strutting their stuff on Rush Street.
Fans were genuinely sorry to see Buckner go in 1984 when Buckner was traded to Boston for pitcher Dennis Eckersley and utility infielder Mike Brumley. It was a good deal for Boston. In his first year he helped turn the team from a cellar dweller to a respectable 67-51 record for the balance of the season. He was a solid center of the team as it became a contender.
Redemption at last--Buckner was invited back to Fenway to toss out the first pitch in the 2008 season opener, the year after the Red Sox finally won the World Series.
At Fenway Park’s 2008 season opener, the year after Boston finally won the World Series, Buckner was invited back to throw out the first pitch. He received a four minute standing ovation. All, finally, was forgiven.
Buckner is now a successful businessman in Boise, Idaho. His son, Bobby, plays baseball for the University of Texas Longhorns.