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

 

Peaceful Protest and the Memorial Day Massacre

The peaceful beginning of the strike was only marred by two incidents of violence, both by Republic Steel police. In Cleveland, a Republic police lieutenant, unfamiliar with the type of shotgun he was loading, accidentally fired it, narrowly missing his commanding officer. In Canton, a more serious incident occurred when a Republic policeman shot and seriously wounded a man whom he thought was a union militant leading an attack on a police guard shack. As it turned out, the man was a foreman who was running away from a group of angry pickets.

These incidents illustrated the degree to which Republic had armed itself in preparation for the strike. Republic's management most feared a repetition of the auto and rubber workers' sit-down tactic in which company operations would be shutdown by union supporters occupying the mills. Shortly before the strike, in a speech given in Warren, Ohio, Tom Girdler had denounced the CIO's "labor racketeers," who were organizing stoning parties," which were then traveling around America conducting sit-down strikes. In this way, according to Girdler, "a small militant group of workers, aided by outsiders, already close a plant and throw the majority of employees out of their jobs." For Girdler, these strikes had nothing to do with wages or working conditions, but were "conducted for political purposes."'

Patrolman W.D. Moore and Major H.O. Curley, in charge of Republic's police and guards, Massilon, Ohio, July 13, 1937/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University LibraryConsequently, to prevent Republic mills from being occupied and to prepare for any possible violence during a strike, the company amassed one of the largest private arsenals in America. It was later revealed that the Republic Steel police force purchased the following munitions in the period leading up to the strike: 7855 tear and sickening gas grenades and shells, 105 guns for firing gas shells, 247 revolvers, 142 shot guns, 75,650 rounds of ammunition, plus 400 magazines for rifles. In addition, high-powered Springfield and Winchester rifles were usually part of each Republic mill's magazine, and a corps of "4 special men" were even equipped with Thompson machine guns. When asked by reporters about the company's stockpile of munitions, Girdler simply responded, "Sure we got guns."

Republic's arms buildup, along with the Canton incident, did not bode well for Phil Murray's hope for a peaceful strike settlement. In fact, Murray publicly charged that Republic was preparing a "reign of terrorism" against union members, and had given its police "shoot to kill" orders. However, Murray's alarmist warning and call for the disarmament of Republic was ignored by public authorities given the fact that peace prevailed on the picket lines.

However, the quiet calm of the first few days of the strike was abruptly shattered on Memorial Day. In Chicago, over 1500 SWOC members and their families gathered to rally in a park a few blocks from Republic's south side mill. The crowd was in an angry mood given the support Republic was receiving from the Chicago police, a fact stressed by a number of union speakers. Toward the end of program, someone in the crowd yelled out a suggestion that the group should march to the mill. When the SWOC leader at the podium hesitated to respond to the question, someone else shouted out that a vote should be taken. Caught off guard, the union speaker called for a voice vote and the crowd roared its approval. Soon, union supporters were forming up four abreast to march on the mill.

The goal of the SWOC marchers was to establish the right to mass picket in front of the mill. This question was critical for the Chicago SWOC because Republic had been able to sustain partial operations at their mill with 200-300 workers who opposed the strike. These workers were able to easily get to and from work because Chicago police had limited picketing to a handful of union men. In fact, Republic provided room, board, tear gas equipment and extra pay for a contingent of fifty Chicago police, who were permanently stationed inside the mill. As the SWOC march approached, this force, which was augmented by an additional 200 officers, formed a line across the marchers' path a short distance from the mill. With their route blocked, the marchers soon began piling up into a larger and larger crowd in front of the police. At first, the protesters argued with the police, trying to convince them to let the march proceed. Soon the heated arguments degenerated into scuffles, and a few members of the crowd began throwing sticks and stones at the police. Suddenly, the police panicked and opened fire. One steelworker later recounted, "I was in the war and I fought in France, but I never heard so many bullets as those coppers fired. Women and children were screaming all over the place. They were like a herd of cattle panic stricken. I ran till they got me. I saw one woman shot down and a policeman dragged her away."

In the wake of the "Memorial Day Massacre, ten workers lay dead and over sixty were struggling to recover from gunshot wounds. For the union, this tragedy illustrated how difficult it was to maintain a peaceful, disciplined organization, while at the same time, remain democratically responsive to the militancy of the rank and file. In addition, this incident posed the question of how to counter public authorities that openly sided with management's efforts to break the strike. The Chicago police order limiting picketing was effectively defeating the strike. Moreover, the claims by the Chicago police that deadly force was justified because the marchers intended to invade the mill and attack the strike breakers working inside, and that their officers only opened fire in self-defense in response to gunfire coming from the union ranks, further worked to undermine SWOC's strike effort.

In banner headlines immediately following the "Memorial Day Massacre," the police version of the event was prominently featured in the news, despite the fact that there was no independent evidence to support the police claims. Republic Steel even prepared a public relations pamphlet that reproduced a collection of newspaper editorials condemning the union protesters and praising the police action. For example, one Chicago Tribune editorial labeled the SWOC marchers a "murderous mob," and congratulated the police, who were able to "control the situation with relatively little loss of life." Complementing the journalistic reaction to this incident, Tom Girdler expressed little sympathy for the dead. When asked by a reporter whether or not he thought the marchers actually intended to enter the mill, Girdler sarcastically responded, "Maybe they were out to catch butterflies."

The Struggle Intensifies