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

 

The Struggle Intensifies

As the "Memorial Day Massacre" headlines faded away, both labor and management maneuvered to gain an advantage in the intensified struggle. While the strike had been peaceful in Ohio, Little Steel management used the Chicago violence to give credibility to its claims that only a small minority of union militants were using the threat of violence to keep the vast majority of workers from entering the mills. In typically blunt manner, Tom Girdler stated to the press that most Ohio operations were shut down because, "We feared it would lead to tremendous bloodshed if we tried to operate here. We want to avoid violence at any cost." Another high-level Republic official more candidly added, "When enough employees want to work, and can get to work safely," the company would reopen its mills. In the meantime, management did not want its workers to have to "wade through blood" to get to their jobs.

Behind Republic's strident rhetoric was the failure of the initial stages of its strike-breaking strategy. Unlike the 1919 national steel strike, management public relations efforts, aimed at winning over the middle class, had not generated significant active opposition to the strike. In Warren, Youngstown, Massillon and Canton, company-sponsored, ad-hoc citizens groups remained skeletal organizations, unable to mobilize a significant number of people to anti-strike rallies. In Cleveland, Republic did not even try to form such a public group. Similarly, Republic's efforts to revive company unions to promote a back-to-work movement proved unsuccessful. In Cleveland attendance at the meetings of the newly formed Republic Steel Corporation Employees Association actually declined as the strike progressed. At one of their meetings, typically packed with foreman and office employees, a resolution was even passed in sympathy with the victims of the "Memorial Day Massacre." This action could not have pleased upper-level Republic management.

More importantly, efforts to form squads of special deputies to escort workers through the picket lines also proved to be ineffective. In Youngstown. this armed force of mostly deputized, loyal company men grew to over three hundred and fifty, but it never directly challenged SWOC's mass pickets. In Cleveland, Safety Director Elliot Ness prohibited company men from being deputized as special police for strike breaking duty. In contrast, Cuyahoga County Sheriff Martin L. O'Donnell, a former Republic mill superintendent, did deputize a squad of over one hundred company loyalists, but they were never deployed against Cleveland picket lines.

The early failure of Republic's locally based strategy meant that management was forced to shift to the state level in its search for adequate forces to break the strike. While strike-breaking was not very popular in the state's steel communities, management knew that Ohio's Democratic Governor Martin L. Davey would be vulnerable to antiunion sentiment outside the state's strike zones. Calling out the National Guard to break the strike could be a shrewd political move for a governor who needed the votes of downstate moderate conservatives to stay in office.

With this shift in strategy, Little Steel management now wanted to meet with Governor Davey after having turned down earlier offers by the governor to arbitrate the dispute. In announcing his new mediation effort, Governor Davey presented a stance of neutrality: "The present developments and proposed actions by both sides are laden with grave possibilities with the ominous chance of rioting, bloodshed and loss of life. The state must be entirely impartial and respect the rights of all concerned. But we cannot risk the danger of preventable bloodshed in Ohio."

Safety Director Elliot Ness and Mayor Burton meet with the SWOC protest committee, July 28, 1937/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University LibraryRecognizing the new situation, SWOC attempted to turn the governor's initiative to its advantage. Speaking publicly for the first time since the "Memorial Day Massacre," John L. Lewis denounced Tom Girdler in typically graphic fashion as a "heavily armed monomaniac, with murderous tendencies, who has gone berserk," who must be "disarmed and restrained by the government before he turns the steel districts into a bloody shambles and looses all the pent-up forces of human passion." In effect, this was a call for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Governor Davey to send in the National Guard to protect the strikers, keep the mill shut down, and force Little Steel management into a settlement.

In this atmosphere of militant posturing and maneuvering on both sides, it came as no surprise that Davey's mediation efforts collapsed. With no hope for a settlement at the state level, Davey requested federal intervention. President Roosevelt responded by ordering the establishment of a Federal Steel Mediation Board "to provide an additional means of accomplishing a reasonable solution to this controversy" in "the interests of industrial peace." From the bully pulpit, FDR also put pressure on the companies, telling reporters that common sense dictated that the companies should sip a contract. The next day, SWOC ran full page newspaper advertisements headlined, "PRESIDENT ROOSEVELT SAYS: 'The Strikers are Right.'"

In response to FDR's jaw-boning, Little Steel management stiffened its stance in the Federal mediation sessions. U.S. Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins' plea for a maintenance of the "status quo" was summarily rejected. It also quickly became apparent that management viewed the Steel Board as a public relations platform from which it could call for an investigation of the "reign of anarchy" and the "breakdown of law enforcement in the steel communities, rather than a forum for an actual strike settlement." Girdler further turned up the rhetorical duel with Lewis with by explicitly red-baiting the union for the first time: "Must Republic and its men submit to the communistic dictates and terrorism of the CIO? If America is to remain a free country, the answer is no."

The Women's Day Massacre