By Benjamin Blake, Western Reserve Historical Society

"The day of gunmen is ended." This declaration by Phil Murray expressed the confidence felt by many labor leaders in the power of the new industrial union movement emerging in mid-1930s America. Murray's statement reflected both his experience with management violence against unions and his hope for a new future of peaceful collective bargaining. As an Irish Catholic immigrant coal miner in the early twentieth century, Murray knew firsthand the brutal methods employers could use against the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). However, as he rose through the ranks of the United Mine Workers to become President John L. Lewis' most important lieutenant, Murray accepted the union's peaceful collective bargaining methods. For the UMWA, the purpose of collective bargaining was securing a written contract with management covering wages, benefits and working conditions. However, both Murray and Lewis also shared a belief that national "bread and butter" bargaining could lay the basis for broader labor-management cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the regulation of industrial competition and the introduction of new technology. Moreover, they believed that there was no inherent connection between the interests of management and labor. Higher wages and better working conditions could go hand in hand with higher profits. In fact, through joint regulation of industry, management and labor could reverse the decline of the Depression and return America to prosperity. Moreover, Murray believed, "If American political democracy is to survive, we must succeed. We must have democracy in industry."

On June 17, 1936, Murray brought this perspective with him when Lewis appointed him chairman of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC), a new union dedicated to organizing America's 550,000 steelworkers. This effort was part of the broader initiative aimed at creating a new federation of unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO's objective was to unionize all industrial workers, regardless of their skill level. This goal was at odds with the existing American Federation of Labor, which retained a traditional approach focused on organizing highly skilled workers. In pursuit of CIO objectives in the steel industry, Murray faced three major challenges: controlling a rank and file prone to militancy; a federal government that wanted to encourage unions, but discourage strikes; and a group of steel companies who sought to destroy SWOC. In May, 1937, all of these forces came together in a battle that would determine the future of the labor movement in America. The epicenter of this struggle was northeastern Ohio, with its major steel production centers of Cleveland, Canton, Massillon, Youngstown and Warren.

 

Big Steel and Little Steel