Memorial Day in Chicago in 1937 was hot and sunny. On the prairie outside the Republic Steel's Chicago plant the strikers and their families began to gather for picnics. Women were dressed in their holiday best. Children could be seen riding on their father's shoulders.
Sam's Place was nearby. Once a dance-hall, Sam's was now the strike headquarters. Gradually the families drifted over to where a soup kitchen had been set up and where strike leaders gave speeches from a platform. A group of girls began singing IWW union songs, and the men joined in. Plans were being made for a mass demonstration, despite the rumors that the police had something big planned themselves.
The day seemed just too nice for anything bad to happen.
Ten years have passed since that blood-stained date, May 30, 1937. Many have forgotten; millions more have joined the labor and progressive movement since that time and do not know this story. But it is well that all of us remember--and in remembering, act.
- Howard Fast
After decades of bloody labor strikes, U.S. Steel finally caved in and agreed to recognize the Steel Workers Organizing Committee on March 1, 1937. Everyone expected "Little Steel" to follow the example, and in fact they did quickly agree to the same wage and hour provisions of U.S. Steel.
However, "Little Steel" absolutely refused to recognize the union and refused to sign a contract. This is despite record profits in 1936 by Republic Steel.
The "Little Steel" coalition included Bethlehem Steel Corp., Republic Steel Corp., Youngstown Sheet and Tube, National Steel Corp., Inland Steel Co., and American Rolling Mill Co. The most anti-union leader of this groups was Tom M. Girdler, the Chairman of Republic Steel.
Republic had built up a huge stockpile of guns, tear gas, and clubs in anticipation of the strike to come.
The SWOC decided to strike against Republic, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and Inland all at the same time. On May 26, 1937, 25,000 workers went out on strike.
Both Inland Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube shut down their plants and prepared to wait out the strike. Some of the Republic mills were closed, but several remained opened. One of those was the plant in south Chicago.
At this plant about half of the 2,200 workers went out on strike. Republic brought in food supplies and cots so the strikebreakers wouldn't have to brave the picket lines.
Unlike most other cities, the Chicago police took an active roll in the strike. On the day it started, the Chicago police entered the plant to clear out the union men. When a picket line formed the police broke it up and physically forced it two blocks away, arresting 23 strikers in the process.
The following day the police, who were now also eating and sleeping at the plant, began clubbing picketers and even discharging their revolvers in the air. On other occasions a sound truck had been destroyed, and women had been beaten and taken to jail. The police violence prompted calls for a mass meeting on Memorial Day to decide the next course of action.
When the meeting was over, the men, women and children formed lines to march towards the Republic Steel plant. Two men at the front carried large American flags. The whole event resembled a Memorial Day parade more than a strike.
As they marched across the field, several news photographers showed up and began snapping pictures. This was to be more important than anyone imagined.
Part way across the field the strikers and their families were met by 200 blue-coated policemen about 250 yards outside the plant. Their clubs were already out. Some carried non-regulation billy-clubs that Republic Steel provided and were equipped with tear gas from Republic stockpiles as well. A police captain yelled, "You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!"
"Stand fast! Stand fast!" the line leaders cried. "We got our right! We got our legal rights to picket!"
The cops said, "You got no rights. You Red bastards, you got no rights."
After a few heated words, a stick was thrown at the police from somewhere in the crowd. Almost immediately tear gas bombs were tossed from the police, and the strikers began moving away. A couple more things were thrown by both sides when an officer in the rear drew his gun and fired into the air.
Without a command or warning police on the front line drew their revolvers and fired point blank into the huge crowd of men, women, and children.
Approximately 200 shots rang out. Within 15 seconds the shooting had ended, but the violence was not over.
"Get off the field, or I'll put a bullet in your back."
- yelled by a policeman at Mollie West
They began to shoot in volleys. It was wonderful sport, because these pickets were unarmed men and women and children; they could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing men and women, pressed revolvers to their backs, shot them down and then continued to shoot as the victims lay on their faces, retching blood. When a woman tripped and fell, four cops gathered above her, smashing in her flesh and bones and face. Oh, it was great sport, wonderful sport for gentle, pot-bellied police, who mostly had to confine their pleasures to beating up prostitutes and street peddlers--at a time when Chicago was world-infamous as a center of gangsterism, assorted crime and murder.
And so it went, on and on, until ten were dead or dying and over a hundred wounded.
The entire police line moved forward swinging billy clubs. Marchers who had dropped to the ground to avoid the bullets were beaten where they lay. It didn't matter if they were grown men, women, or even children. The beatings went on until the marchers had either ran out of reach of the police, or they had been beaten into submission.
As one newspaper reviewer noted, "In several instances from two to four policemen are seen beating one man. One strikes him horizontally across the face, using his club as he would a baseball bat. Another crashes it down on top of his head and still another is whipping him across the back."
The film ends with a sweaty, fatigued policeman looking into the camera, grinning, and motioning as if dusting off his hands.
Once the beatings were over the mass arrests started. Police wagons designed for eight had sixteen put in them. The seriously wounded were thrown into the wagons without any effort to treat their injuries, and were not taken to a hospital until the wagons were full.
Four marchers had been fatally shot, while six were mortally wounded. 30 others suffered gunshot wounds, including three children. 28 required hospitalization from their beatings, while another 30 required medical treatment. The gunshot wounds for those that died were all from being shot in the back or sides. Only four gunshot wounds total could be counted as frontal.
35 police received some sort of injuries, but only three required some sort of hospitalization.
The Chicago Tribune knew exactly who was to blame for this tragedy - Communists. The headline was "Reds Riot At Steel Mill".
It seems the picketers and their families were all troublemakers out to destroy the mill. One Tribune editorial called them a "murderous mob," and congratulated the police, who were able to "control the situation with relatively little loss of life."
That was the story from the police department as well.
"Maybe they were out to catch butterflies."
- Tom Girdler, responding to a journalists question concerning the marcher's intentions
There was only one problem - all those darn photographers. But the authorities had an answer for that too.
Paramount cameraman Orlando Lippert actually had a motion picture shot of almost the whole event. You can watch it all, uncut, here (it starts about 4 minutes in). It was indisputable proof. So what did Paramount do? They suppressed the film.
The reason given by Paramount News for suppressing its newsreel of the Chicago Memorial Day steel-strike massacre is an obvious sham. Audiences trained on the Hollywood school of gangster films are not likely to stage a "riotous demonstration" in the theater upon seeing cops beating people into insensibility, and worse. Against whom would the riot be directed anyway? The Board of Directors or Republic Steel and the Chicago municipal authorities are hardly likely to be found in the immediate vicinity.
The real reason behind the film suppression is its decisive evidence that virtually every newspaper in the country lied, and continues to lie, about the responsibility for violence in the strike areas. The myth that the steel strikers have resorted to violence to gain their just ends is now the basis for the whole campaign of slander and misrepresentation against them. That is why Tom Girdler of Republic Steel refuses to confer with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and that is why 95 per cent of the press carries on a publicity pogrom against the strikers.
Even after the St. Louis Post Dispatch performed a genuine service to the American people in breaking the story of the film (for which, though it is Pulitzer owned, it is very unlikely to get the Pulitzer award), the venal press still continued to blast away at the strikers with the same old legend. Not a comma has been changed in the editorials which, day after day, have defended the steel tycoons on the ground that there can be no compromise with labor violence.
And all this time, the film record exists--and has been described--which would enable the public to make up its own mind on this very crucial point!
- New Masses, June 29, 1937
To give you an idea how the major news media reported the event, here's the New York Times headline of the following day:
4 KILLED, 84 HURT AS STRIKERS FIGHT POLICE IN CHICAGO, STEEL MOB HALTED
Other cities took the hint from Chicago. In Monroe, Michigan, ten days after Memorial Day, a negro C.I.O. organizer was beaten half to death near a Republic mill. When strikers got angry the police descended on the picketers and suddenly the local hospitals and jails were full of wounded strikers.
In Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, George Mike was not a picketer or a striker, but was a wounded war veteran who was selling tickets to a C.I.O. dance. That didn't stop a deputy sheriff from firing his gas gun into Mike's skull from close range and killing him.
In Youngstown it wasn't the strikers who "rioted", but the strikers wives. It seems these women, many of them walking with their children from a meeting of the Ladies' Auxiliary, had stopped near an embankment near Republic's property. The police ordered them to move. When they didn't move fast enough the police opened up with tear gas grenades. The screams of the women and children brought the men running. That's when the police brought out their guns. The results: two dead, thirty injured.
Massillon, July 11, and strikers holding a meeting outside C.I.O. headquarters. Again, the firing starts, and in a little while there are three dead strikers and five more on their way to the hospital. Then C.I.O. headquarters is surrounded, and for an hour lead is poured into the building. And in the building, there is not one firearm.
But the newspapers said, the next day: "STRIKING MOB ATTACKS MASSILLON POLICE."
By this time the number of strikers killed had reached 18, and the SWOC decided to call off the strike in order to save the lives of its members.
"Little Steel" had won.
Eventually the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee looked into the strike and discovered Orlando Lippert's film. The finding of the commission was clear enough:
First: the police had no right to limit the number of pickets in front of the gate as long as they were peaceful; and that the march would have resulted in peaceful picketing in front of the gate, not in a plant invasion.
Second: assuming that the police were justified in halting the march, it should have been done with a minimum of violence and not in the haphazard manner with which the confrontation was handled.
Third: the marchers’ provocation of the police did not be beyond the use of abusive language and the throwing of isolated missiles; and that the force used by the police to disperse the crowd was far in excess of that required.
Fourth: the bloody consequences were avoidable on the part of the police.
The Chicago city government actually outlawed Lippert's film from being shown because they were afraid that it would cause riots. The New York City police borrowed the film and used it as instruction for cadets of how not to behave when confronted with a protest.
As the truth began to seep out to the public, the government pressure on Little Steel increased. In 1938, because of arm-twisting from the FDR Administration, Little Steel caved in and signed a union contract with the new United Steelworkers union.