A Massacre on Memorial Day

Originally published in Who Built America? From the Great War of 1914 to the Dawn of the Atomic Age in 1946, a multimedia CD-ROM, Worth Publishers, 2001.

When members of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) decided to strike the “Little Steel” companies in May 1937, they could hardly be blamed for anticipating an easy victory. Union activity, led by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), had erupted following passage in 1935 of the Wagner Act, which seemingly ensured the workers’ right to organize. The CIO’s creativity, energy, and militancy quickly won victories in industrial communities across the country, as workers everywhere affirmed their newly won prerogatives. At the Republic Steel mill in South Chicago, workers were elated when, in the last week of May, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Illinois state law that permitted peaceful picketing. With the protest rights of workers at Republic, a SWOC-targeted company, now secured, labor leaders were sanguine about organizing “Little Steel.”

Confrontations with Chicago policemen, however, had marred the first few days of the strike at Republic Steel, sending more than one thousand workers to SWOC headquarters on Sunday afternoon, Memorial Day, to discuss their next move. As the meeting closed, strikers cheered a proposal to establish a mass picket line in front of the mill. In the afternoon, a flag-waving, ethnically diverse group set out for the company’s main gate. Two blocks north of their destination, however, a large contingent of policemen stopped the marchers.

When one of the policemen suddenly and inexplicably fired his revolver into the front of the crowd, “children … cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling cursing, gasping for breath,” according to novelist Howard Fast’s compelling description of the massacre, which was based on numerous first-person accounts. After the police’s shooting spree ended, they hauled beaten workers to patrol wagons and dragged unconscious and seriously injured strikers across the ground.

In Lupe Marshall’s testimony before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor (known informally as the La Follette Committee for its chair, Senator Robert La Follette, and charged with investigating the incident), she bitterly recalled the harsh treatment. The police “piled [injured marchers] one on top of the other,” she told Senator La Follette. “There were some men who had their heads underneath others. Some had their arms all twisted up, and their legs twisted up, until they filled the wagon up.” In the end, Chicago’s police killed ten fleeing workers, shooting seven in the back and three in the side. Thirty more workers suffered gunshot wounds, and an additional fifty-five required hospitalization for beatings. No police were killed, but a handful required medical attention.

That hostile political forces had ambushed the strikers was clear to anyone familiar with Tom Girdler, Republic Steel’s leader and the industry’s most ruthless strikebreaker. Heartened by a public tiring of seemingly endless CIO work stoppages, Girdler was more than willing to flout the law and use violence to stop the union. To that end, in early May, he spent nearly fifty thousand dollars for munitions for Republic’s private police force, amassing an arsenal larger than that of the Chicago Police Department itself. Girdler expanded his company’s espionage network and hired a public relations firm to handle propaganda. He also strengthened Republic’s already close relationship with the Chicago police. After learning of SWOC’s Sunday meeting, for example, a local precinct captain ordered extra policemen to report for patrol, bringing their total number to more than 250—far more than necessary. Indeed, while Mayor Edward Kelley spoke calmly to the press, promising on May 26 to respect the workers’ right to picket, the corporate—police alliance that would brutally crush the marching strikers was already in place.

Newspaper accounts in the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere blamed “strike rioters” for the carnage. “The police stood their ground and made no effort to harm the attackers until pelted with brickbats and bolt,” reported the Tribune, which claimed in the face of contrary facts that only after “the rioters resorted to firearms” did the police open fire. Although several marchers indeed carried sticks and bottles, none carried a gun—a fact corroborated by every reliable piece of evidence gathered by the La Follette Committee.

Despite the best efforts of Republic Steel and cooperative newspaper editors to suppress the truth of the Memorial Day Massacre, evidence of unprovoked police brutality quickly emerged. In addition to numerous eyewitness accounts and documents gathered by congressional investigators, a newsreel vividly captured the grim details of the assault. Filmed by a cameraman for Paramount Newsreels, the clip was suppressed by Paramount ostensibly due to fears that it would incite riots. A “word picture” of the Paramount newsreel describes in great detail what was captured on the film. (Ironically—given the effort at suppression—the company that today owns the “rights” to the film now charges an exorbitant fee of seven thousand dollars for its use, which is why it is not included here.)

As these sources suggest, Republic Steel’s fierce response to its workers’ organizing drive signaled a renewed effort by businesses across the country to stop the CIO campaign. In the Midwest, SWOC’s attempts to secure workers’ legal rights at other Little Steel companies were met by tear gas, armed police, physical confrontation, and more arrests. Ultimately this violent counterattack proved effective. Nineteen thirty-seven, one of the ugliest years in modern American labor history, ended with SWOC’s defeat. Conservative forces again had seized the momentum.