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.