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 National Guard and Martial Law

For the union, the "Women's Day Massacre" was not only a tragedy, but it once again illustrated how peaceful protest could unexpectedly explode into to violence. For John Steuben and Bob Burke, SWOC's two most important Youngstown organizers, it was a bitterly frustrating experience. After twenty-five exhausting days of maintaining disciplined and highly effective mass picket lines, the two militant unionists, both Communist Party members, were unable to contain the rage of the rank and file in the face of an unanticipated police provocation. While the steelworkers fought the police to a standoff, it was a pyhrric victory. Republic was not trying to move strikebreakers or supplies into the mill at the time of the battle. Moreover, while sympathy for the strikers may have increased within Ohio's steel communities, management's case that SWOC was a violent organization gained more credibility downstate, and Little Steel was in a stronger position to lobby the governor for National Guard intervention to reopen the mills. Little Steel pressed its advantage by announcing that it planned to reopen the Youngstown mills.The National Guard at Youngstown's Struthers Plant, June 22, 1937/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library

With a massive battle brewing, Governor Davey placed a last minute telephone call to President Roosevelt to discuss deployment of the National Guard. According to Davey, FDR approved the action as "very fair and proper." Immediately, the Governor mobilized 5,000 Ohio Guardsmen. In justifying this action, the Governor issued a proclamation declaring that "minor riots have occurred and a most serious riot is threatened." He went on to assert that "local peace officers will be wholly unable to cope with the situation." Therefore, "in order to prevent riots bloodshed and possible loss of life," the National Guard would be deployed to maintain the "status quo." This amounted to a declaration of martial law in Youngstown.

On the morning of May 25th, the first contingent of National Guard troops began arriving in the city. To their surprise, the Guardsmen were welcomed with open arms by most of the union's ranks. A Guard intelligence report even noted a "consensus of feeling, all very friendly to O.N.G. troops." On the surface, it appeared as if Davey was keeping the mills closed to the benefit of SWOC. In this situation, the Governor's proclamation severely limiting SWOC picketing did not concern the union. In fact, John L. Lewis personally requested the withdrawal of pickets from the mill gates. This impression of an apparent pro-union stance by Davey was reinforced by Little Steel's furious public reaction to the Governor's order. Youngstown Sheet and Tube's Purnell indignantly asked, "What right has the Governor to keep men from going to work?"

However, a series of actions by the Guard did not bode well for the union. A limit of ten pickets per gate was strictly enforced, and the martial law forces arrested at least 160 Youngstown unionists. Night raids were conducted on the homes of union supporters resulting in the jailing of both husbands and wives. On the picket line, one striker was even arrested for carrying a concealed fork. As John Steuben later recalled, "I don't know one organizer who was not arrested three or four times during that period." Many were detained indefinitely, incommunicado and without arraignment on specific charges. The union's lawyers were even having trouble initiating habeas corpus proceedings.

Despite the antiunion actions by the National Guard, Phil Murray declared that Governor Davey's "timely intervention to maintain peace, I know is appreciated by all right-thinking citizens." Murray continued, "The governors of three states and the President of the United States have stated that they believe the corporations have a moral obligation to sign contracts. The issue has been beclouded by filthy poppycock and ballyhoo about violence. People who propagate such talk have the purpose of throwing a smoke screen over the issue. Why is blood spilled? Why are people murdered and children gassed? Because these corporations are brazen in their efforts to frustrate a federal statute. They precipitated the strike. We resorted to every possible means, conferences and the application of reason and intelligence, in the hope of composing our differences without need of a strike."THe National Guard arrests picketers in Canton, Juny 1, 1937/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library

While Murray was trying to get a message out to the public on the reasonableness of SWOC's approach, Little Steel management staged a walkout of federal mediation efforts. An official management statement to the board fired a new volley of rhetoric against the union, declaring, "Clearly no responsible business concern should be expected to enter into contractual relations with an organization whose record shows persistent disregard of contracts and flagrant violation of the laws of the land and intimidation of public authorities to prevent the enforcement of those laws." Moreover, "if the public authorities will in the discharge of their duties, use their power as they are in good faith bound to do, and will afford protection to those of our employees who manifest a desire to work under the established working conditions, the strike will be over tomorrow."

The next day, that was exactly what happened. When Little Steel management refused to further participate in the federal mediation efforts, the last chance for a settlement was exhausted. In fact, the management walkout prompted Davey to immediately order the reopening of the mills under National Guard protection. The Governor justified his action with this official declaration, "Government must not abdicate its sovereign powers and responsibilities to any who challenge its existence. The right to work is sacred.... Those who want to return to their employment shall enjoy that privilege without being molested... The safeguarding of our liberties individually and collectively is a priceless heritage for our children and the millions of future Americans yet unborn."

Davey's sudden reversal caught the SWOC leadership completely by surprise. As one angry picket declared, "That guy Davey certainly gave us the double-cross."' Consequently, the strike rapidly disintegrated as the SWOC leadership was unable to mount an effective counter response to Davey's action. With the picket lines too small to be effective, the rock solid face of the strike collapsed as thousands of steelworkers returned to work. As one immigrant steelworker firmly observed, "The CIO, she blow up."

The Strike's Revival