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MEMORIAL DAY MASSACRE

By Howard Fast

It was a day for parades, picnics and boat-rides--and tear-gas, bullets and death.

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. For this is what is meant by today's headlines, by today's sessions of Congress: this is what will happen again if the Taft-Hartley anti-labor bill is enacted. This is the program of the NAM and the Chamber of Commerce. This is what they want to do to America--to you. They're moving fast--are you?
--The Editors

Memorial Day in Chicago in 1937 was hot, humid, and sunny; it was the right kind of day for the parade and the holiday, the kind of a day that takes the soreness out of a Civil War veteran's back makes him feel like stepping out with the youngsters a quarter his age. It was a day for picnics, for boating, for the beach or a long ride into the country. It was a day when patriotic sentiments could be washed down comfortably with Coca-Cola or a Tom Collins, as you preferred. And there's no doubt but that a good deal of that holiday feeling was present in the strikers who gathered on the prairie outside and around Republic Steel's Chicago plant.
Most of the strikers felt good. Tom Girdler, who ran Republic, had said that he would go back to hoeing potatoes before he met the strikers' demands, and word went around that old Tom could do worse than earn an honest living hoeing potatoes. The strike was less than a week old; the strikers had not yet felt the pinch of hunger, and there was a good sense of solidarity everywhere. Because it was such a fine summer day, many of the strikers brought their children out onto the prairie to attend the first big mass meeting; and wherever you looked, you saw two-year-olds and three-year-olds riding pick-a-back on the shoulders of steelworkers. And because it was in the way of being their special occasion as well as a patriotic holiday, the women wore their best and brightest.
In knots and clusters, the younger folks two by two, the older people in family groups, they drifted toward Sam's place on South Green Bay Avenue. Once, Sam's place had been a ten-cent-a-dance hall; now it was strike headquarters, which meant, in terms of the strike, just about everything. There, the women had set up their soup kitchen, and there the union strategy board planned the day-to-day work; food was collected at Sam's place, and pickets used it as their barracks and headquarters.
Today, several thousand people gathered around the improvised platform set up at Sam's place, to listen to the speakers and to take part in the mass demonstration. How serious an occasion it was, they knew well enough; rumors circulated that the police were going to attempt something special, something out of the run of clubbing and gassing which had marked the strike from the very first day; rumors too that a mass picket line was going to be established today. It was a serious occasion, but somehow something in the day, the holiday, the sunshine and the warm summer weather made the festive air persist. Vendors wheeled wagons of cold pop, and brick ice cream, three flavors in one, was to be had at a nickel a cake.
For the young folks, it was the first strike; they sat under the trees with the girls, grinning at the way the strike committee worked and poured sweat; and the women, cooking inside the hall, reflected, as a hundred generations of women had reflected before, that man's work is from sun to sun, but women's work....
A group of girls sang. Strike songs were around, a new turn in the folk literature of the nation. First shyly, hesitantly, then with more vigor, with a rising volume augmented by the deep bass and rich baritone of the men, they sang the deathless tale of Joe Hill, the song-maker and organizer whom the cops had killed; they sang, "Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong...." They sand of the nameless IWW worker, tortured into treason, who pleaded, "Comrades, slay me, for the coppers took my soul; close my eyes, good comrades, for I played a traitor's role."

The meeting started and came down to business. The chairman was Joe Weber, who represented the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee. Outlining the purpose of the mass meeting, he flung an arm at the Republic plant, a third of a mile down the road. Twenty-five thousand men were on strike; their purpose was to picket peacefully, to win a decent raise in wages so that they might exist like human beings. But there had been constant, brutal provocation by the police. Well, they were gathered here, as was their constitutional right, to protest that interference.
Dozens of strikers had been arrested, beaten, waylaid; strikers' property, as for example a sound truck, had been smashed and destroyed. Even women had been beaten, dragged off to jail, treated obscenely. The National Labor Relations Act guaranteed them their rights; today they were going to demonstrate in support of those rights.
Other speakers backed up Weber. When the audience cheered some point, the children present gurgled with delight and clapped their hands. As soon as the meeting had finished the strikers and their wives and children began to form their picketline. After all, this was Memorial Day; the thing took on a parade air. Some of the strikers had made their own placards; also, a whole forest of them appeared from inside the union hall, made by committees. The slogans were simple, direct, and non-violent: "REPUBLIC STEEL VIOLATES LABOR DISPUTES ACT." "WIN WITH THE C.I.O." "NO FASCISM IN AMERICA." "REPUBLIC STEEL SHALL SIGN A UNION CONTRACT."
The signs were handed out, many of them to boys and girls who carried them proudly. At the head of the column that was forming, two men took their place with American flags. The news reporters, who had come up by car only a short while before, were hopping about now, snapping everything. For some reason that has never been analyzed, news photographers and strikers get along very well, even when the photographers come from McCormick's Chicago Tribune. There was a lot of good-natured give and take. When the column began to march, down the road from Sam's place first, and then across the prairie toward the Republic Steel plant, the news photographers moved with it, some walking, some by car. This fact later turned into a vital part of American labor history.
Republic Steel stood abrupt out of the flat prairie. Snake-like, the line of pickets crossed the meadowland, singing at first: "Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong..."; but then the song died as the sun-drenched plain turned ominous, as five hundred blue-coated policement took up stations between the strikers and the plant. The strikers' march slowed--but they came on. The police ranks closed and tightened. It brought to mind how other Americans had faced the uniformed force of so-called law and order so long ago on Lexington Green in 1775; but whereas then the redcoat leader had said, "Disperse, you rebel bastards!" to armed minutemen, now it was to unarmed men and women and children that a police captain said, "You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!"
About two hundred and fifty yards from the plant, the police closed in on the strikers. Billies and clubs were out already, prodding, striking, nightsticks edging into women's breasts and groins. It was great fun for the cops who were also somewhat afraid, and they began to jerk guns out of holsters.
"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."

Even if a modern man's a steelworker, with muscles as close to iron bands as human flesh gets, a pistol equalizes him with a weakling--and more than equalizes. Grenades began to sail now; tear gas settled like an ugly cloud. Children suddenly cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling, cursing, gasping for breath. Here and there, a cop tore out his pistol and began to fire; it was pop, pop, pop at first, like toy favors at some horrible party, and then, as the strikers broke under the gunfire and began to run, the contagion of killing ran like fire through the police.
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. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything as brutal as this.

Now, of course, this brief account might be passed off as a complete exaggeration, as one-sided and so forth--the same arguments might be used that are constantly thrown up whenever it is a case of labor versus capital or labor versus the police. It might be said, as the Chicago Tribune said the next day, that this was the doing of Reds who were plotting to take over the plant, and the police had only done their duty.
But the photographers were on the spot, and everything I have described here and a good deal more was taken down with both newsreel and still cameras. The stills and the moving pictures were placed on exhibit during the hearing on Republic Steel held by the subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor; and I recommend to the special attention of anyone interested in checking this bit of labor history Exhibit 1418, Exhibit 1414, Exhibit 1351, and the morbid chart of gunshot wounds--in the back--known as Exhibit 1463.
That, in brief--and most brief, since the space here is limited--is a summary of what happened in Chicago on May 30, 1937. These events, which came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre, shook the nation as did few other acts of anti-labor violence since the Haymarket Affair of the 1880's. Later, the Senate Committee's investigation highlighted them, and brought home to the American people the full savagery of the police and the men who ran Republic Steel. But then the war washed the memory out for a time, and to understand fully today what happened then in Chicago, certain other facts must be noted.

Let us look at the situation of the steel industry after the worst part of the depression. Taking United States Steel as an example, we find that by 1935 the firm was well on the way over the hump, with a net profit of $6,106,488. Wheels had begun to turn again in America, and the next year's profit took an enormous jump upwards, a net of $55,501,787 in 1936. Then the graph inclined even more sharply, and in the first three months of 1937 the company recorded a net profit of $28,561,533.
This was big steel. Republic, a light steel industry, was a part of what was known as little steel, and while the profits there were smaller--$4,000,000 in 1935 and $9,500,000 in 1936--they were part of the upward spiral.
It was within this framework of hot furnaces and mounting profits that the C.I.O. began to organize. And as they built their industrial unions, the steel companies built their armed goon squads. It was in 1936 that the C.I.O. began to make real progress in organizing the steel industry, and by the middle of 1937 half a million steelworkers had joined the union. Over 750 union lodges were formed, and by now most of the steel manufacturers had realized that it was a most destructive kind of insanity to fight organizaion. Again, by June 1937, some 125 companies had signed union contracts. Among these firms, which employed 310,000 workers, were Carnegie-Illinois and several other subsidiaries of US Steel.
But the big independents, the Little Steel combine, still held out. Let us name them as they stood on that Memorial Day of 1937. There was Tom Girdler's Republic Steel, employing 53,000 workers. There was Bethlehem Steel, with 82,000 workers. There was Youngstown Sheet & Tube, with 27,000. Then there were the smaller firms, National Steel, American Rolling Mills and Inland Steel. All together, these firms employed almost 200,000 workers and they accounted for almost forty per cent of the steel produced in America.
They were lined up for a knock-down, drag-out fight; no quarter asked, no quarter given. Tom Girdler was granted nominal leadership; a latter-day "robber baron," to use Matthew Jospehson's phrase, he was a natural for such a position, and we shall see later how his tactics led to the Memorial Day Massacre.
But he did not introduce the concept of violence; it was not necessary for him to do so. As far back as 1933 the steel companies were arming themselves for the coming struggle. For example, the following order was shipped to Bethlehem Steel. The invoice entered on the books of Federal Laboratories, and signed by A.G. Bergman, is dated September 30, 1933:

       12 blast type billies
      100 blast type billies, cartridges
       24 Jumbo CN grenades lot No. X820
       24 military bouchons
       48 1½" cal. projectile shells (CN)
       24 1½" cal. short range shells (CN)
         4 1½" cal. riot guns, style 201 sr. No. 337, 386, 390, 403
         4 riot gun cases
That makes for quite a sizable armament, but Youngstown Sheet and Tube went in for more and deadlier protection against unarmed strikers and their dangerous wives and children. On June 6, 1934, this firm was billed for the following order:
       10 1½" cal. riot guns 201, $60 ea.
       10 riot gun cases 211, $7.50 ea.
       60 1½" cal. long range projectiles, $7.50 ea.
       60 1½" cal. short range projectiles, $4.50 ea.
       60 M-39 billies, std. barrel no disc, $22.50 ea.
      600 M-39 billy cartridges, $1.50 ea.
      200 grenades 106M, 10% disc., $12 ea.

These are only two examples of widespread gun-toting by the steel companies. Nor were these the only techniques they used. They hired spies and special agents. They organized goon squads composed of thugs, professional gangsters, and assorted degenerates. They bribed police chiefs and sheriffs.
And under their natural leader, Tom Girdler, they set themselves for violence.
That was part of the background to the Memorial Day Massacre. Another part was Tom Girdler himslef, and it is worthwhile to look into that gentelman's history.

The second and concluding installment of Mr. Fast's article will appear next week.

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