Ohio's Steel Mill War: The Little Steel Strike of 1937
by Benjamin Blake
"The day of gunmen is ended."' This declaration by Phil Murray expressed the confidence felt by many labor leaders in the power of the new industrial union movement emerging in mid-1930s America. Murray's statement reflected both his experience with management violence against unions and his hope for a new future of peaceful collective bargaining. As an Irish Catholic immigrant coal miner in the early twentieth century, Murray knew first hand the brutal methods employers could use against the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). However, as he rose through the ranks of the United Mine Workers to become President John L. Lewis' most important lieutenant, Murray accepted the union's peaceful collective bargaining methods. For the UMWA, the purpose of collective bargaining was securing a written contract with management covering wages, benefits and working conditions. However, both Murray and Lewis also shared a belief that national "bread and butter" bargaining could lay the basis for broader labor-management cooperation on a wide range of issues, including the regulation of industrial competition and the introduction of new technology. Moreover, they believed that there was no inherent connection between the interests of management and labor. Higher wages and better working conditions could go hand in hand with higher profits. In fact, through joint regulation of industry, management and labor could reverse the decline of the Depression and return America to prosperity. Moreover, Murray believed, "If American political democracy is to survive, we must succeed. We must have democracy in industry.
On June 17, 1936, Murray brought this perspective with him when Lewis appointed him chairman of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC), a new union dedicated to organizing America's 550,000 steelworkers. This effort was part of the broader initiative aimed at creating a new federation of unions, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO's objective was to unionize all industrial workers, regardless of their skill level. This goal was at odds with the existing American Federation of Labor, which retained a traditional approach focused on organizing highly skilled workers. In pursuit of CIO objectives in the steel industry, Murray faced three major challenges, controlling a rank and file prone to militancy, a federal government that wanted to encourage unions, but discourage strikes, and a group of steel companies who sought to destroy SWOC. In May, 1937, all of these forces came together in a battle that would determine the future of the labor movement in America. The epicenter of this struggle was northeastern Ohio, with its major steel production centers of Cleveland, Canton, Massillon, Youngstown and Warren.
By this time, CIO rank and file activism by the rubber and autoworkers had led to major union gains in these industries, culminating in the sit-down strikers' victory over the notoriously anti-union General Motors in February, 1937. The steel industry was clearly the next theater of conflict in the CIO's campaign for industrial unionism. However, the rising strength of the CIO unexpectedly convinced the traditionally anti-union United States Steel Corporation, singularly known as Big Steel, that compromise was a wiser course of action than an all out war with the new union movement. Thus, to the great surprise of the union ranks, US Steel avoided a strike by signing a contract with SWOC on March 2, 1937. As news of the agreement spread, steelworkers celebrated throughout the nation. In Cleveland, a parade of several hundred automobiles drove through the flats' steel mill district loudly proclaiming the victory over Big Steel.
The first SWOC written contract with US Steel was quite modest. It guaranteed for six months the wages, hours, benefits and limited seniority rights which were already effect within the corporation. It confirmed a base wage rate of 52 cents an hour (adjusted for inflation, $6.80/hour in today's dollars), a 40 hour week, three holidays, a one week vacation after 5 years, and departmental seniority rights. However, formal recognition of the union by management meant that union stewards were now official shop floor representatives of workers. It also meant that the company agreed in writing not to harass or victimize union members. In addition, mill workers for the first time had an genuine grievance procedure. Consequently, after seven brutal years of the Depression, steelworkers now had hope for a better future.
Big Steel's surrender meant that SWOC gained instant credibility among the rank and file steelworkers throughout the industry. As membership cards poured into SWOC's Pittsburgh headquarters, Phil Murray was confident that the other steel companies would follow US Steel, their national leader in industry policy. However, just as it looked as if Murray's vision of peaceful industrial cooperation was about to be realized, it became increasingly apparent that the rest of the industry rejected US Steel's new approach to labor relations.
Leading these companies, collectively known as Little Steel, was Tom Girder, President of Cleveland-based Republic Steel Corporation. Girdler personified the tough cadre of steel managers who had transformed America's 19' century craft-based iron industry into the 20th century's most technologically advanced center for steel production. Trained as an engineer at Lehigh University, Girdler viewed unions as a deadly threat to the ability of steel management to run their business as they saw fit. For Girdler, unions had no right infringing on management's purgatives. Without absolute control, employers would not have a free hand to prefect the process of production and sustain technological innovation. This would in turn not only undermine the industry's leading position in the world, but it would also put an end to American technological progress. Consequently, American steel makers must rule their labor force with an iron hand. In Girder's words, "You can't relax authority and hope to keep it; neither in a home, a schoolroom, on a ship, in a factory, or a country.
From World War I through the 1920s, this philosophy guided Girder's management of the Jones and Laughlin Company's steel mill in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. In fact, Aliquippa was a company town, which Girdler latter admitted he ruled as a "benevolent dictatorship," regulating all aspects of the lives of its steelworkers.' Aliquippa's Slavic residents even dubbed Girdler the "czar" of "America's Siberia." Union organizers were banned from Aliquippa, and any that dared to show their face were beaten by company police and summarily expelled from the city. Girdler also maintained a large number of steelworker informants and undercover agents, who reported any union activity to management Workers who persisted in union activities were fired from their jobs and expelled from company housing. The success of Girder's iron hand strategy was proven when Aliquippa was the only major northern steel center which did not join the national 1919 steel strike.' A decade later, Girdler brought this hard line management strategy over to the newly formed Republic Steel. As president of Republic, Girdler became nationally known for his favorite anti-union manifesto. "We won't sign a contract I have a little far-m with a few apple trees and before spending the rest of my life dealing with unions I [will] raise apples and potatoes."
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 had 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.
That 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 processed, 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 an federally supervised election to detainee 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."
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 using to load, accidentally fired it, narrowly missing his commanding officer. In Canton, a more serious incident occur-red 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 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 4&stonning 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."'
Consequently, 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 mills maga2ine, 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 build up, 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 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 pilling 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 gun fire coming from the union ranks, further worked to undermine SWOC's strike effort."
In banner news headlines immediately following the "Memorial Day Massacre," the police version of the event was prominently featured, 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 marches actually intended to enter the mill, Girdler sarcastically responded, "Maybe they were out to catch butterflies."
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, 44 when enough employees want to work, and can get to work safely," the company would re-open its mills. In the mean time, 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. while this armed force of mostly deputized loyal company men grew to over three hundred and fifty, 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 state's steel communities, management knew that Ohio's Democratic Governor Martin L. Davey would be vulnerable to anti-union 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 gave 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."
Recognizing 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," and 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 shutdown, 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. US Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins's 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. 8 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."
Despite the extreme rhetorical battles between the SWOC leadership and Little Steel management, the strike in Ohio remained remarkably uneventful. In fact, to relieve the monotony of picket duty and demonstrate the continued support of the steelworkers' wives for the union, SWOC's women's auxiliary in Youngstown organized a "Women's Day" on the picket line. The event was not unusual in the steel communities. but marked a significant change from the past steel union practice of hiring women. At least part of the reason for this change in attitude was a product of the defeat of the 1919 national steel strike. In that strike, management had some success in appealing to steelworkers' wives to put pressure on their husbands to return to work. 'This time around, veteran steel unionists wanted to preempt any management sponsored back-to-work movement among steelworkers' wives.
However, SWOC's progressive attitude toward women did not sit well with Charley Richmond, a hard-nosed Youngstown city police captain who took command of that afternoon's picket detail. One SWOC member later recalled that shortly after coming on duty, Richmond stormed into SWOC's Republic office demanding, "I want them women off that picket line down there."' Unable to locate any union leaders, Richmond returned to the mill gate with a small contingent of police and ordered the women pickets to stop sitting on chairs and start moving in a circle. Richmond apparently peppered his command with comments to the effect that the picket tine was no place for women and that they should stay home where they belonged. Richmond's attitude did not go over well with the women pickets, who began arguing with the police captain. Richmond later claimed that the women refused to move and began "cursing at me, spitting at me, and screaming at me in their foreign tongue." In response, the police captain took the dangerous action of using tear gas on the pickets which included children, and at least one infant in his mother's arms. As the gas grenades exploded, the crowd of pickets scattered to escape the fumes.
In the ensuing melee, a growing crowd of angry union supporters gathered to confront the police. Outraged by the attack on the women and children, the crowd proceeded to beat a policeman who had become isolated from his fellow officers. Panicked by the crowd's violence, the main force of policeman opened fire from Republic's main gate. Immediately, several union supporters fell wounded, but surprisingly, the crowd did not flee the scene. It regrouped to reengage the police. From that point on, the confrontation escalated into an all out battle apparently fueled by a false rumor that the police had killed a pregnant steelworker's wife. As one union organizer later recalled, "When I got there I thought the Great War had started over again. Gas was flying all over the place and shots flying and flares going up and it was the first time I had ever seen anything like it in my life..." Captain Richmond later described the scene in these words, "Things would be quiet for a few minutes, and then spasmodic firing of pistols and revolvers and rifles would start up. The crowd would start for us, and we were forced to use gas to drive them back again."
As the battle continuing through the night, local SWOC leaders risked their lives in an attempt to restore order and protect union supporters, many of whom arrived on the scene As SWOC organizer, John Steuben, later recounted, "We made a series of attempts there - myself and others - to take the crowds up that hill on Powersdale, because it was a very dangerous situation; in fact, it just looked like civil war."' In addition, SWOC organizers frantically tried to get the authorities to call a cease-fire. However, their efforts met with no success, and the conflict continued to spiral out of control. As one SWOC member later recounted, "The shooting was going on, and I was standing right in front with bullets whizzing by my ears - - .. They were shooting the real stuff--bullets.... I said: 'Boys, we're all crippled up. Let's retreat.' Just then I saw a fellow reaching down for his handkerchief; the gas was bad. A bullet hit him. I heard him gurgle."' Two young strikers then carne to the aid of the wounded John Bogovich as blood poured from his neck. As they attempted to get him to safety, the men carrying Bogovich were forced to the ground three times to avoid new volleys of police gunfire. Unfortunately, their efforts were in vain. Bogovich died on the way to the hospital.
As word of the shooting of Bogovich spread through the neighborhoods surrounding Youngstown's steel mills, the battle intensified further. In fact, according to a police radio log, the strikers began returning police gunfire about a half-hour after Bogovich was rushed from the scene. By dawn, John Steuben was able to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal of the law enforcement forces. As the last officers left the scene, SWOC organizers gathered the remaining 200 union supporters for a debriefing. Addressing the assembled crowd, John Steuben declared, "Although we were completely unarmed, we stood our ground. Girdler can add one more to his bloody list. We are pledging ourselves to fight to the last drop of blood until we win this strike." The group of exhausted union activists then paused for a moment of silence for their dead."
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 Stueben 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 pyhric 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 state, 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 re-open the Youngstown mills.
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 supports 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 anti-union 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 becluded 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."
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 walk out prompted Davey to immediately order the re-opening 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."
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 US 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."
Ironically in the immediate wake of SWOC's defeat, Republic's main strategy for preventing a revival of the union actually backfired. By mid-July, as the National Guard finished withdrawing from Ohio mill towns, SWOC estimated that 5000 Republic workers were not being re-hired 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 re-establish 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.
After 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, Orecny 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."
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, turnover 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 re-grouped 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 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.
Surprisingly, this defeat of SWOC's last stand against Republic did not destroy the union's campaign in Little Steel. Even blacklisting and long-term unemployment did not break the spirit of many union men. Ed Beck, a blacklisted Youngstown SWOC organizer, remembered paying union dues out of the money he earned on a government relief job breaking "rock with a sledge along with hundreds of other young steelworkers." When the full force of the Depression returned in the fall of 1937, Beck recalled that workers who had crossed the picket line now faced a new situation, "a good many of those people had gone back to work with promises form the company that they were going to be the 'fair-haired' boys and the company was going to take good care of them. Then, [when the Depression returned] they came out to work and break rock along with the rest of us, they were ready to agree with us union people."
When the economy recovered under the impact of the World War II, SWOC emerged even stronger than it had been at the beginning of the Little Steel strike. In 1942, fearing a return of the spirit of 1937, and under intense government pressure to maintain war production, Little Steel management surrendered without the formality of a representation election. Republic was even forced to pay over $20 million in back pay for workers it had blacklisted in 1937. However, Tom Girdler did not retire to his potato farm, but rather to remain a captain of the steel industry.
In the end, SWOC won the war with Little Steel, but the cost was high. The CIO never regained the energetic spirit it had in early 1937, and was forced to divert huge resources into maintaining the Little Steel campaign rather than expanding into new areas of organizing. Within manufacturing, Republic's short ten-n success stiffened some employers' resistance to the CIO. At the same time, a number of AFL unions reinvented themselves as industrial organizations and gave the CIO new competition. Under these difficult circumstances, Phil Murray, now president of the CIO, would try in vain to use the leverage of World War H to rekindle his vision of industrial democracy. Facing these forces, the CIO would be critically reshaped back toward a more modest perspective of "bread and butter" unionism, which would become the mark of its success in the post World War II years.