Big and Little Steel
Little Steel Strikes
The Memorial Day Massacre
The Struggle Intensifies
The Women's Day Massacre
Martial Law
The Strike's Revival
Conclusion

By Benjamin Blake, Western Reserve Historical Society

 

Big Steel and Little Steel

By this time, CIO rank and file activism by the rubber and autoworkers had led to major union gains in these industries, culminating in the sit-down strikers' victory over the notoriously anti-union General Motors in February, 1937. The steel industry was clearly the next theater of conflict in the CIO's campaign for industrial unionism. However, the rising strength of the CIO unexpectedly convinced the traditionally anti-union United States Steel Corporation, singularly known as Big Steel, that compromise was a wiser course of action than an all-out war with the new union movement. Thus, to the great surprise of the union ranks, US Steel avoided a strike by signing a contract with SWOC on March 2, 1937. As news of the agreement spread, steelworkers celebrated throughout the nation. In Cleveland, a parade of several hundred automobiles drove through the Flats' steel mill district loudly proclaiming victory over Big Steel.

Labor Leaders Phil Murray and John Lewis in Cleveland, June 21, 1937/ Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University LibraryThe first SWOC written contract with US Steel was quite modest. It guaranteed for six months the wages, hours, benefits and limited seniority rights which were already in effect within the corporation. It confirmed a base wage rate of 52 cents an hour (adjusted for inflation, $6.80/hour in today's dollars), a 40-hour week, three holidays, a one week vacation after 5 years, and departmental seniority rights. However, formal recognition of the union by management meant that union stewards were now official shop floor representatives of workers. It also meant that the company agreed in writing not to harass or victimize union members. In addition, mill workers had a genuine grievance procedure for the first time. Consequently, after seven brutal years of the Depression, steelworkers now had hope for a better future.

Big Steel's surrender meant that SWOC gained instant credibility among the rank and file steelworkers throughout the industry. As membership cards poured into SWOC's Pittsburgh headquarters, Phil Murray was confident that the other steel companies would follow US Steel, their national leader in industry policy. However, just as it looked as if Murray's vision of peaceful industrial cooperation was about to be realized, it became increasingly apparent that the rest of the industry rejected US Steel's new approach to labor relations.

Tom Girdler, President of Republic Steel, 1943/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University LibraryLeading these companies collectively known as Little Steel, was Tom Girdler, President of Cleveland-based Republic Steel Corporation. Girdler personified the tough cadre of steel managers who had transformed America's 19th century craft-based iron industry into the 20th century's most technologically advanced center for steel production. Trained as an engineer at Lehigh University, Girdler viewed unions as a deadly threat to the ability of steel management to run their business as they saw fit. For Girdler, unions had no right infringing on management's perogatives. Without absolute control, employers would not have a free hand to perfect the process of production and sustain technological innovation. This would in turn not only undermine the industry's leading position in the world, but it would also put an end to American technological progress. Consequently, American steel makers must rule their labor force with an iron hand. In Girdler's words, "You can't relax authority and hope to keep it; neither in a home, a schoolroom, on a ship, in a factory, or a country."

From World War I through the 1920s, this philosophy guided Girder's management of the Jones and Laughlin Company's steel mill in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. In fact, Aliquippa was a company town, which Girdler later admitted he ruled as a "benevolent dictatorship," regulating all aspects of the lives of its steelworkers. Aliquippa's Slavic residents even dubbed Girdler the "czar" of "America's Siberia." Union organizers were banned from Aliquippa, and any that dared to show their face were beaten by company police and summarily expelled from the city. Girdler also maintained a large number of steelworker informants and undercover agents, who reported any union activity to management. Workers who persisted in union activities were fired from their jobs and expelled from company housing. The success of Girdler's iron-hand strategy was proven when Aliquippa was the only major northern steel center that did not join the national 1919 steel strike. A decade later, Girdler brought this hard line management strategy over to the newly formed Republic Steel. As president of Republic, Girdler became nationally known for his favorite antiunion manifesto. "We won't sign a contract. I have a little farm with a few apple trees and before spending the rest of my life dealing with unions I [will] raise apples and potatoes."

Little Steel Strikes