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

 

Little Steel Strikes

When SWOC's campaign at Republic began to gain momentum in the wake of the US Steel agreement, Girdler acted swiftly. Over 1000 union supporters were expelled from Republic's Canton and Massillon, Ohio mills. One Republic supervisor bluntly told the locked-out workers that management intended to "starve them into submission." In response, local SWOC leaders hastily called union meetings. In no mood to delay action, the union ranks voted for an immediate strike aimed at shutting down all local Republic operations in solidarity with their locked-out union brothers. After the vote, and without gaining authorization from SWOC's national headquarters, hundreds of workers moved to set up picket lines at all Canton and Massillon Republic plants. Within a few hours, 13,000 Republic workers had downed their tools, beginning the latest steel strike since 1919. As one union official commented to the press, Canton and Massillon steelworkers simply "took it upon themselves to call the strike," in a "spontaneous protest because of discrimination a against [union] men in Republic plants."

In response to the unauthorized Canton and Massillon walkouts, Philip Murray called a "war board" meeting of the union's two hundred Little Steel representatives. Going into the meeting, Murray faced the dilemma of how to present a cooperative attitude toward steel management, while at the same time being democratically responsive to the militancy of the rank and file. Inside the conference hall, Murray faced union organizers demanding a national strike against the major Little Steel companies. They saw no reason for delay, given that Big Steel had signed a union contract. Moreover, the scale of Republic's attack on the union at Canton and Massillon made an immediate response virtually inevitable. As Clinton Golden, SWOC eastern regional director, later recounted, "We had tried to avoid getting involved in strikes. We were, on the other hand, mindful of the spirit of the members, their attitude about these things, and I think we agreed that in the absence of any contract, and particularly with the knowledge of the Republic Steel Corporation's methods and policies toward the organization, that if some sort of action was not taken, the organization would be destroyed. I think that the members felt very strongly that way themselves." One Youngstown SWOC representative candidly put the situation this way, "We've had a hell of a time holding the men in. If I go back without word to go out at 11 o'clock tonight, I will get my throat cut." Fortunately for this delegate, the conference voted unanimously for an immediate national strike at three major Little Steel companies, Republic, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, and Inland Steel Corporation.

By June 22, the mill entrance in Youngstown would be guarded  by not only Republic Steel's armed forces but also by the National Guard./Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University LibraryThat night, May 26, 1937, thousands of steelworkers, their families and supporters crowded around the mill gates of northeastern Ohio to cheer the second shift workers as they came off the job. At the main gate of Republic's mill in Cleveland, over six hundred workers maintained a mass picket through the night. By daybreak, the huge mill, which normally employed 6500 workers, was a ghost town. As the first day of the strike continued, the tense atmosphere of the picket line eased into a holiday spirit as the success of the strike became apparent to the rank and file. In Ohio's steel towns, the strike was nearly one hundred percent effective. Only at the large Republic mill in Warren did a significant number of workers cross the picket line. In Youngstown, the city police chief even tried to dampen the strike's holiday mood when he issued an official statement asking citizens to avoid the picket lines, advising, "'This is no time to go sightseeing."

As the strike became a reality, Republic Steel hurriedly mailed off a pamphlet to its 55,000 workers that reiterated the company's traditional support for an "open shop." Under this policy, individual workers could join a union, but the organization would have no formal recognition, or bargaining rights with management. Entitled The Real Issues, the pamphlet accurately argued that SWOC's ultimate goal was a "closed shop" and a dues check-off system in which all workers would be required to join the union and the company would deduct union dues from workers' paychecks. The pamphlet also accurately noted that Republic matched the wages and benefits of other steel makers. However, Republic's rather vague claim that it maintained "collective bargaining" with its employees was not accurate. Management refused to negotiate with SWOC representatives at any level of the organization, and employees had no formal grievance procedure. In fact, Republic's company union, or employee representation plan, had ceased to function by 1937 and is not even mentioned in the pamphlet. Also absent is any discussion of the central issue of a federally supervised election to detain the question of union representation. This is not surprising, given that Republic's lawyers were challenging SWOC's petition for just such an election on the very same day the pamphlet was mailed out. In any event, The Real Issues had little impact as the vast majority of Republic workers who were quietly voting for the union with their feet."

Peaceful Protest and the Memorial Day Massacre