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They Remember Girdler

Labor cannot forget his brutal record; the union-busters want to bring back his pattern of open-shop rule. The story of Little Steel's boss.

By Howard Fast


This is the second and concluding installment of Mr. Fast's article on the 1937 Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago.

   Matthew Josephson's fine book, The Robber Barons, should be read as background to any study of Tom Girdler. He is a latter-day Morgan, a Jim Fisk, a John D. Rockefeller--but operating at a time when the tactics of these financial pirates were supposed to be outdated and hopeless. Perhaps in some new edition of Josephson's book Girdler will be included, along with a few other of his worthy contemporaries, as a sort of appendix.
   Girdler is a farm boy, and he likes to think of himself as a part and a little more than a part of the good old Log Cabin tradition. He was fond of saying, in those days of steel trouble, that he liked a good rough and tumble fight; he talked tough and tried to look and act tough. But his toughness was the toughness of the rear-echelon general, the armchair two-gun man. It was never his lot to face even a small reflection of the violence he created.
   In the Twenties, Cyrus Eaton, a Middle-Western manipulator, formed Republic, out of four small steel companies. Eaton, too, had dreams of becoming an Andrew Carnegie; but his skill did not measure up to his ambition. He tangled with a very hard-boiled customer, Bethlehem Steel, and in the ensuing struggle Republic's shares fell from 80 to 2. At that time Girdler was making a very local name for himself in Jones & Laughlin Steel; Eaton pulled him out, promised him an arm and a leg, and told him to save Republic. In that case, anyway, Eaton's judgment was not at fault, for Tom Girdler not only saved Republic but turned it into the most up and coming steel company in the land--and in doing so he took just a little more than the arm and leg; he eased Eaton entirely out of the picture.
   There is no doubt that Girdler made the most of what he stepped into. Republic was light steel, specializing in steel for furniture, boilers, automobiles, light trains, various types of metal containers. Nor could this kind of production be changed; the plants, too, were specialized. Reluctantly, Girdler worked with what he had. His own fancy was for heavy stuff: girders, plates for warships--the kind of work Bethlehem did. He looked to a future alliance with Bethlehem, but in the meantime he worked with what he had. He hired scientists and picked their brains in the traditional fashion. He forced the development of more and better alloys, until his stainless steel had gained a national reputation.
   The plants were old and inefficient, so he began to replace them. Cyclical depression usually winds up with a replacement of fixed capital which has become outdated, and the fact that Girdler's action was being duplicated all over the nation in the middle Thirties set at least a part of the wheels of industry in motion. At this point, Girdler was not too interested in profits; profits could be assured for a later period if he was successful in replacements and in mergers.
   He worked for control of Republic by chasing down small holdings of shares wherever he could locate them. He begged proxies. Because his Ohio plants were a good distance from the ore deposits of Minnesota, he planned and executed a merger with Corrigan-McKinney of Cleveland. When this went through he had a lake port to operate from, and a modern steel plant to add to his growing empire. For four years he worked to get proxies and control, until at last he was sitting firmly in the driver's seat, with plant after plant coming into the growing orbit of Republic.
   He went after Truscon Steel, the largest fabricator of building-shapes, doors, lockers and window-frames in the Middle West, effected a merger and built up Truscon until it was the largest plant of its kind in the world. All this cost money, and from 1930 to 1935 Republic lost something around $30,000,000. This did not affect Girdler; he drew his income from his own huge salary. He did not own the combine--he merely had control. No single stockholder held more than six percent of the total stock, but by 1935 Girdler was so firmly in the saddle that no one could challenge his rule--and since the financial-industrial empire was growing, in spite of some 2,000,000 additional shares of watered stock, no stockholder or group of stockholders made serious efforts to challenge or unseat him.

   For all of this drive and his large talk about "free enterprise," Girdler's tactics were toward monopoly. He interlocked with Youngstown Sheet & Tube; he interlocked with Jones & Laughlin. He thought and talked combine--and he operated in that direction with a ruthlessness that bowled over his competitors like tenpins. And when it came to dealing with his 50,000 workers, he chose the same tactics of ruthlessness and direct aggression.
   He liked to refer to himself as a worker, but that was an out-and-out fiction; from his very beginnings in the industry he had been an ally of management, and then, very soon, he became a part of management.
   He entered the industry as a salesman for Buffalo Forge. Then he was employed by the Oliver Iron Company. He was an assistant superintendent with Colorado Rail, and he held similar jobs elsewhere. But always it was over labor or apart from labor. It was Tom Girdler getting ahead and using his brains in the best Horatio Alger tradition, while all around him heavy-set, heavy-muscled men by the thousands worked long hours to turn the ore into metal and to shape it, forge it, tool it. One would surmise from his later actions that he had never held anything else but contempt for those who worked with their hands.
   He was well schooled for the battles of 1937. Jones & Laughlin's Aliquippa mills were known as the "Siberia of America." Their company town was a place where the few brave union organizers who dared to enter faced beatings and even death, literally, at the hands of the goon squads. The town was also called "little hell," a fitting name.
   Apparently it was a place that suited Girdler excellently, for in a space of four years he rose from an assistant to president. After that he continued to climb steadily on the irreproachable ladder of success. As he climbed, his technique of dealing with the men he employed became progressively more ruthless. When the Memorial Day Massacre occurred, he was earning $130,000 a year. One might consider his statement that he would go back to hoeing potatoes before he bargained collectively with his employees as a piece of not-too-original verbiage. At the same time, he never gave any indication that the dead men and wounded women and children strewn over the Chicago prairie disturbed either his sleep or his equanimity.

   Yet it would give a very false picture of the industrial situation in 1937 to single out Tom Girdler as industry's bad boy. Nor could the dreadful occurrence of Memorial Day be understood from that point of view. From that point of view alone, the Chicago massacre becomes an isolated instance of one man's callousness--but it was by no means such an isolated instance.
   Half a century before, the Haymarket affair, also in Chicago, became the labor cause celebre of the nation and the world. The four labor leaders who were then framed and put to death in Chicago became martyrs or devils, according to the reaction of one class or another. But they could not have been so framed and murdered had there not been complete accord on the part of the most powerful forces in American finance. The same accord operated in the case of Girdler and the Chicago massacre.
   Girdler was the front, the testing ground, the trial balloon of the most reactionary forces in American capitalism. This is not a matter for speculation. Girdler never owned more than a tiny fraction of Republic's stock. The big stockholders in Republic--and among them were some of the most powerful finance blocs in America--willingly allowed him to climb into the saddle, and once he was there they made no effort to unseat him. It should be historically noted that the Chicago dead did not arouse either the ire or the disgust of these same shareholders. They smiled behind their palms and quietly let Girdler bear the brunt of the storm. Also, Girdler all during that period was responsible to a board of directors. This board represented, in its composition, far-reaching and important interests; but at no point is there any record of their reprimanding Girdler or disagreeing with his action. Other factors can be cited. A handful of key men in Wall street could have picked up their phones and ordered Girdler to call a quick halt to his bloody battle with labor--but they didn't, and there was every reason to believe that they silently backed Girdler in his policy.
   Following this line of thought, it is interesting to observe the general press reaction to the Memorial Day Massacre. Although brief, the description of events on that day given earlier in this account makes a fairly good picture of what happened. Further documentation, hundreds of pages of detailed testimony, is included in the Senate Report, S. Res. 266, 74th Congress, Part 14, US Government Printing Office, 1937. Exhibits presented also run into hundreds. The testimony is explicit; it goes into minutiae, as may be gathered from the following extract, page 4939. John William Lotito, one of the strikers, is being examined by Senator La Follette:

    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: All right. Did you see Captain Mooney while you stood there in front of the police?
    MR. LOTITO: I think Captain Mooney was standing on a side where the other flag was--that is, to my left.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: Did you see what he was doing?
    MR. LOTITO: Well, he had his hands up like this here. He was talking to the strikers. His lips were moving anyway. I couldn't hear what he was saying.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: You could not hear what he was saying?
    MR. LOTITO: No.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: About how long would you say you stood there?
    MR. LOTITO: Oh, maybe five minutes.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: All right. Now, tell me exactly, from your own knowledge, what happened at the end of this five-minute period.
    MR. LOTITO: At the end of the five-minute period? Well, I was talking to this policeman there, and the first thing I knew I got clubbed, while I was talking to him.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: And then what happened?
    MR. LOTITO: I got clubbed and I went down, and my flag fell down, and I went to pick up the flag again, to get up, and I got clubbed the second time. I was like a top, you know, spinning. I was dizzy. So I put my hand to my head, and there was blood all over. I started to crawl away, and half running and half crawling and I didn't know what I was doing, to tell you the truth. After I got up, why there was shots, and everything I heard, I didn't know which way to run. Anyway, I retreated back that way.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: You mean back toward Sam's Place?
    MR. LOTITO: And then I got shot in the leg.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: How far away were you from the place where you had been standing talking to the police when you were shot in the leg, would you say?
    MR. LOTITO: Oh, I got quite a ways from there, all right.
    SENATOR LA FOLLETTE: Can you approximate how far?
    MR. LOTITO: Maybe thirty or forty yards away I got.

   This is just a page of testimony, chosen at random. There are far more harrowing details that might be listed, but the point is this: all the details necessary are in that record. There are reports of thousands of eye-witnesses. Newspaper reporters on the scene saw what happened. And if that were not enough, in addition to the still photographers, the Paramount News people took down a detailed photographic record of the whole affair.

   In other words, the newspapers knew the facts of the case. They could not plead ignorance, even the carefully conditioned ignorance which allows them to interpret events abroad as they please. With all that, they too acted, with very few exceptions, as if they were part of the combine behind Tom Girdler. They lied about what had occurred outside the Republic Steel plant. They lied hugely and in unison, although they departed from the truth on many different levels.
   The Chicago Tribune, for example, was overt and completely unabashed. It described the unarmed men and women and children as "lusting for blood." It raised a Red-scare which was sedulously promoted by the rest of the "carrion press," by the Hearsts, Pattersons and their fellow hate-mongers. The more respectable journals doubted that the police had indulged in provocation and pointed out that force was a necessary ingredient to the preservation of law and order. One looked in vain in such papers as the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune for editorials describing Tom Girdler, or his private police, as murderers--or even editorials reproaching them in much milder terms. No criminal action was ever taken to seek justice for the men who had died in Chicago--or for the men who died in Youngstown in the steel disputes which followed. Only the few independent newspapers and the labor press kept the issue alive and fought for justice--and there too is a remarkable parallel to what happened before in the Haymarket Affair.

   Some of the background to the Memorial Day Massacre has been presented here. It was shown that the massacre itself was both a part and a focal point in the pattern of open-shop violence. The strange, wild, tragic and disordered years of the third decade of the twentieth century, here in America, were not unproductive. Out of depression and despair came the greatest organization of labor this country ever knew--the industrial unionism of the CIO.
   The America of today is not and cannot ever be the America of a decade ago. And those who would turn back the clock to the days of open-shop violence will have to reckon with the new power of organized labor. The CIO is not the organizing-infant it once was. The AFL is learning, if slowly, the value of labor unity. Even though the press is no more faithful, by and large, to the truth today than ten years ago, the American people have learned a good deal. And if such an incident as that in Chicago occurs again, it is wholly possible that those responsible will have to face the anger of millions instead of thousands.


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