Depression-Era Strike Violence Long Forgotten

A part of American history that seems to have been lost are the conflicts that arose during the Great Depression. It seems the history many Americans know about that time is limited to FDR and the New Deal which, of course, was significant, but it is only one piece of that era’s rich, controversial and sometimes violent history.

One of those controversial moments was captured on film in 1937.

It was May 30, a hot, humid and miserable day in Chicago, but the real concern wasn’t the weather but rather the tension in the air between strikers and Republic Steel. Republic Steel’s CEO Tom Girdler made no bones about the fact that he was not interested in negotiating with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) a branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union.

Girdler and other members of ‘Little Steel’ were expected to follow the lead of U.S. Steel — i.e. “Big Steel.” Two months earlier U.S. Steel signed a contract with the CIO guaranteeing workers benefits like an eight-hour workday, time-and-a-half overtime pay, 40-hour work week and one week vacation for five years of service.

But it was not to happen.

The incident

It has been called a riot by some and a massacre by others, regardless of which side you fall on the May 30, 1937 incident at Republic Steel in Chicago left 10 people dead with as many as 100 wounded. Cementing the event into American history were film crews and photographers who captured bits and pieces of the event on tape and film.

Earlier that day, members of SWOC met at Sam’s Place just blocks from Republic Steel in support of a nationwide strike being conducted against the Little Steel companies. Once the meeting and speeches ended, the union sympathizers began walking to the Republic Steel. When they were about halfway there the group of about 1,000, were met by a line of 200 to 400 police officers (reports vary).

Viewpoints differ on what happened next — as in who initiated the conflict — but within 10 minutes five at the scene were shot dead and five more would later die of gunshot wounds.

What was at stake

About two months before the incident, U.S. Steel — i.e. “Big Steel” — signed a contract with the CIO guaranteeing its workers benefits like:

  • an eight-hour workday
  • time-and-a-half overtime pay
  • 40-hour work week and,
  • one week vacation for five years of service.

It was expected that other steel companies would follow suit including those known as Little Steel. (the term is a misnomer because they were not small — only small in comparison to U.S. Steel.) This group of like-minded businesses led by headed by Girdler espoused an open-shop concept and refused to recognized any union.

Formal testimony

Due to the backlash of the brutality, President Franklin D. Roosevelt set up a committee to investigate the event. The committee, informally known as the La Follette Committee listened to testimony of those at the event, including testimony from the 4’11” 97-pound Lupe Marshall, a housewife and volunteer social worker in South Chicago. She was among those beaten by police. In this excerpt she describe what she witnessed happening to a man who had been beaten and who was on the ground.

…this individual dragged himself a bit and tried to get up, when the policeman clubbed him again. He did that four times. While he was trying to get up. Every time he tried to get up the policeman’s club came down on him. Then he took him by the foot and turned him over. When the man finally fell so he could not move, the policeman took him by the foot and turned him on his back, and started dragging him…

Newpaper coverage

One of the somewhat surprising facts about the story is despite cameras rolling and taping much of the melee, the film footage was not released in the U.S. (although it was being seen in Britain). The local paper, the Chicago Tribune, even opined, that the incident (which they called a riot) was caused by “a murderous mob … inflamed by the speeches of CIO organizers.”

Of the 40 people with gunshot wounds — four were shot in the front of their body, nine were wounded in the side while the majority — 27 people — were shot in the back. Despite this evidence suggesting the victims were running away, officers were not investigated for excessive use of force — and the coroner stated the “killings were justifiable.”

Who won?

Little Steel successfully broke the strike, but the CIO changed it methods due, in part, to the strike. The union began using legal maneuvers instead of picket lines to garner more positive results for its members. Utilizing this method, by 1943 nearly every fabric steel company in the U.S. was unionized.

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Categories: American History, Labor History

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