Memorial Day Massacre
Today’s entry is written by Rachel Schimke, an archives assistant at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.
On March 2, 1937, United States Steel signed a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC). SWOC, which would become the United Steel Workers of America (USW) in 1942, was an affiliate of the Committee for Industrial Organization, the precursor to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. U.S. Steel, founded in 1901 by J.P. Morgan and Elbert H. Gary, was at one time the largest steel producer in the nation, and the company’s acquiescence to collective bargaining shocked many of the steel industry’s leaders.Following suit, thirty steel companies of various sizes also agreed to collective bargaining in the weeks after the U.S. Steel contract was announced.
However, not all major steel companies signed with SWOC. One such company was Republic Steel, based in Chicago.The company and others of its size were known as “Little Steel” companies, though they were in fact large operations that were small only in comparison to giants like U.S. Steel. SWOC called for a strike against four of the Little Steel companies, including Republic Steel.
May 30, 1937 was Memorial Day. SWOC members gathered at the strike’s headquarters, a former tavern called Sam’s Place. Union members then marched down Green Bay Avenue from Sam’s Place and continued marching across a prairie toward the Republic Steel mill, where they met a line of policemen from the Chicago Police Department. The protesters argued their right to proceed, but the policemen continued to block the march. In the ensuing face off, police fired on the demonstrators, killing ten. An additional thirty demonstrators received gunshot wounds and dozens more suffered other injuries. Images from the Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives’ Daily Worker and The Daily World photographs and negatives collections document the event, as well as the memorial services held by the United Steel Workers of America in the ensuing decades.
The Little Steel strike ended in defeat in July 1937, with SWOC calling upon its members to return to work. Victory was not achieved until 1942, when the Supreme Court upheld a National Labor Relations Board ruling that forced Little Steel companies to allow collective bargaining.