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 Strike's Revival

As the Youngstown mills rapidly geared up to full operation, the National Guard successively shifted forces to Canton, Massillon, Warren and then Cleveland, completely breaking the strike in all locations by mid-July. Stunned SWOC organizers could only stand by helplessly as the strike went down to defeat. Adding to this shock was President Roosevelt's Shakespearean verdict on the strike. A few days after the strike had been broken in Youngstown, FDR told reporters that his attitude to SWOC and Little Steel management amounted to, "A plague on both your houses."

However, SWOC's Little Steel defeat was not fatal. Unlike the devastating defeats of the 1892 and 1919 strikes, the rank and file did not return to the millls demoralized and divided among themselves. The 1937 strikers had not been divided by ethnicity, race or skill. They had struck together as a group and returned to work as a group. Moreover, they returned knowing that the union was not destroyed. but retained its base at U.S. Steel. They had fought and lost a major battle, but the war was not over. As one reporter noted, the returning workers showed "little sign of the 'whipped dog' attitude, and the repercussions from the strike, judging by comments, will last long."

A guard looks over the ruined offices of the union, July 13, 1937/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University LibraryIronically, in the immediate wake of SWOC's defeat, Republic's main strategy for preventing a revival of the union backfired. By mid-July, as the National Guard finished withdrawing from Ohio mill towns, SWOC estimated that 5000 Republic workers were not being rehired by the company and put on a blacklist banning them from employment in the industry. However, unlike the 1919 strike, when most blacklisted workers sought new jobs outside of the industry, SWOC militants in 1937 remained active in the union. Sustained by union soup kitchens and encouraged by CIO lawyers who battled in the courts to get their jobs back, blacklisted SWOC members continued to operate symbolic picket lines even as Republic's mills returned to normal operations.

A few days after the National Guard withdrew from the city, Cleveland SWOC even felt strong enough to attempt to "re-strike" the Republic mill. In a union meeting on July 21, workers voted to reestablish mass picket lines. On the following Monday morning, SWOC supporters gathered at Republic's main gate in an effort to turn back the day shift. Reinforced by CIO members from other Cleveland plants, the picket swelled to several hundred workers. Consequently, very few cars carrying day shift workers made it into the mill, despite a heavy presence of Cleveland police.

To counter this move, Dewey Jones, captain of the Republic Mill police, dispatched a squad car of patrolmen to escort a carload of African-American strikebreakers through the picket line. This was a provocative move, given that these black workers had been recruited in Alabama and brought up to Cleveland to help break the strike. This tactic by Republic's police contrasted sharply with SWOC efforts to keep racial tension out of the strike. Three weeks earlier, the Republic locals of SWOC and the Communist Party had jointly sponsored a meeting to reinforce African-American support for the union. At the meeting, black steelworkers were elected representatives to all major strike committees. The tone of the meeting was one of unity, with SWOC organizer James Quinn declaring, "steel bosses can no longer break strikes by playing white against the black in order to divide workers." Now, Republic's police force was making a concerted effort to instigate racial tension on the picket line as part of a larger strategy to counter SWOC's attempt to re-strike the company.

Republic policeman Jack Moran later remembered, "I told the colored fellows to go through them people [the pickets] regardless." As the carload of African-American strike-breakers headed for the mill, Bill Johnson, the driver of the lead car, later testified that, "All the way down to the plant the Republic police, who followed us in a Packard, kept honking the horn and urging us to go faster." As the car approached the Mill gate at a dangerously high speed, a crowd of a several hundred pickets scattered to avoid being hit. Moran later explained what happened next, "The colored fellows hit a fellow and knocked him at least 20 feet in the air, turning a complete somersault and coming down on his head and rolling about eight or ten feet, and I thought the fellow was dead." Although SWOC member Thomas Glowaclad was knocked unconscious with multiple injuries, including a broken kneecap, he survived.

The National Guard at the entrance to Cleveland's Republic Steel plant, July 6, 1937/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University LibraryAfter that early morning incident, tension on the picket lines remained high, with workers sporadically stoning the few dozen cars that entered the mill. However, this violence did not take on a racial character. Black workers participated in the battle on both sides of the picket line, and unlike the 1919 strike, African American strikebreakers were not targeted for special violence. For SWOC organizers like James Quinn, the real problem was how to regain control of the picket line. Quinn later remembered the difficulty he had maintaining discipline among the strikers. At a meeting, picket organizers "had explicit orders from me that day, twenty or twenty-five, not to do any rock throwing, but there were those people circulating through the picket lines and egging them on all the time." One such person was Carl DePaul, arrested by Cleveland police just as he was about to throw a large rock at car driving into the mill. DePaul, who had joined SWOC and attended many union meetings, was later identified as an undercover Republic policeman. This meant that Republic was not only encouraging carloads of workers to charge through the picket lines, but that its agents were actually leading some of the attacks on the workers trying to get into the mill.

As Quinn and other SWOC leaders continued their efforts to restore order, a major new clash erupted when company loyalists reported for the afternoon shift. After being released by the Cleveland police, DePaul returned to the picket line to help spark new attacks on cars entering the mill. Fueled by the genuine anger at the earlier incident involving Glowacki, pickets now pelted cars entering the mill with large stones and pieces of slag. Not surprisingly, tragedy struck a second time. As Republic foreman Fritz Swanson tried to run the gauntlet of pickets, he panicked and lost control of his car as it was being hit by various debris thrown by pickets. In an instant, he swerved into the picket line hitting SWOC member John Orecny. As a horrified crowd of pickets watched, Orency was dragged over 100 feet as his body was mangled in the front wheel well of Swanson's car. Orency died almost instantly.

From that point on, few company men tried to enter the mill. However, an angry Dewey Jones began revising his strategy for countering SWOC's re-strike. The Republic police captain concluded what was needed now was an all-out offensive to finish SWOC off. In the early evening, rumors began to surface that the company planned to attack the union soup kitchen a few blocks up Broadway Avenue from Republic's main gate. As this rumor drew pickets away from the mill gates, Jones assembled a combined force of about 200 strikebreakers and plain-clothed company police, and equipped with freshly machined clubs from the company's wood shop. Addressing the crowd, Jones told his paramilitary force what he had in mind for the SWOC supporters: "Try and take them by surprise and do it as quick as you can, and really lay the wood on." Jones added, "We are sending every God damn one of these guys to the hospital."This police cruiser was detroyed in labor riots in Youngstown on June 22, 1937/Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library

As contingents of Jones' force left the various gates of the mill, many SWOC pickets were caught off guard. One SWOC member recalled over hundred men marching out the main gate chatting, "LET'S KILL THE CIO!" Jones' force then proceeded to bum the SWOC tent, turn over a striker's car and beat everyone in sight. At another gate, one striker was beaten so badly, "They thought he was dead, so they rolled him down the embankment." Soon, the emergency room of the nearby St. Alexis Hospital began to fill up with dazed and badly beaten SWOC members.

As Jones' squads returned to the safety of the mill, the large crowd of SWOC supporters, who had gathered in front of the soup kitchen, now rushed down Broadway in a belated attempt to come to the aid the pickets at the mill gate. At this point, Jones regrouped his forces and diverted them through the mill to attack the soup kitchen from behind. James Quinn remembered standing in front of the kitchen, thinking how vulnerable it was to attack with virtually all of SWOC's forces down the hill toward the mill gates. Suddenly, he looked up a saw a large force of company men marching four abreast right toward him. While he managed to duck into a nearby garage, the handful of SWOC activists in the soup Kitchen were not as lucky. Nineteen-year-old Rosana Artino remembered that she was just about to serve coffee to a number of injured SWOC members, when the company men came smashing through the front door and picture windows. Artino heard someone yell and she started to run, but "Before I had a chance, someone picked me up by the hips and threw me out the window over sink." Luckily, she only sustained minor injuries. However, after the attack, the company force proceeded to beat anyone who got in their way as they marched back to the mill. Once inside, Jones told the men congratulated the men on a "nice clean job well done."

The next day, Cleveland's newspapers reported the scale of the violence. Eighty SWOC members or innocent bystanders were treated for injuries at St. Alexis. An additional fifty persons were injured, but not treated at the hospital. About a dozen union supporters were arrested, mostly for confrontations with city policemen. However, not a single company loyalist was arrested. Nonetheless, Safety Director Ness acquiesced to company requests to impose a new ban on mass picketing, effectively ending SWOC's re-strike effort. Within in three weeks, even symbolic picketing died out.

Conclusion