An Occurrence at Republic Steel
By Howard Fast
Since the publication of his first novel, Two Valleys in 1932, Howard Fast has produced a steady stream of historical fiction and biography--fifteen books in all. The most noted of these are probably Citizen Tom Paine (1943), the story of the Revolutionary War pamphleteer, and Freedom Road (1944); the most recent is My Glorious Brothers (1948). During World War II he served overseas with the OWI, and as a correspondent. He has been a frequent contributor to New Masses and is generally regarded as a spokesman for the militant left-wing segment of the American labor movement.
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 day that takes the soreness out of a Civil War veteran's back and allows him to amble along 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 bottle of beer, 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 would meet the strikers' demands, and the 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 heavy-muscled 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, they drifted towards Sam's Place on South Green Bay Avenue. Once, Sam's Place had been a ten-cents-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, then with a rising volume, augmented by the deep bass and rich baritone of the men, they sang the mournful tale of Joe Hill, the songmaker and organizer whom the cops had killed; they sang, "Solidarity forever! The union makes us strong...." They sang of the nameless I.W.W. 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, wives, children too, began to form their picket line. 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 and direct. "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. Now 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; the equivalent would be a battalion of photographers leading a battalion of troops into battle.
Republic Steel stood abrupt out of the flat prairie. Snakelike, 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 policemen 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 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!"
Once there was an illusion somewhere that the police were gentle souls who helped lost children, but a striker put it afterwards: "A cop is a cop, that's all. He's got no soul and no heart for a guy who works for a living. They learned us good."
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. But the cops were also somewhat afraid, and they began to jerk guns out of holsters.
"Stand fast! Stand fast!" the line leaders cried. "We got our rights! 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 fat-bellied 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 at these unarmed men and women and children who could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing pickets, 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 her flesh and bones and face.
And so it went, on and on, until seven were dead and more than a hundred wounded. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything like this.
Now, of course, this brief account might be passed off as a complete exaggeration, one-sided and so forth. 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, as we noted before, the photographers were on the spot, and everything I have described here and a good deal more of the same was taken down with both newsreel cameras 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 Committee on Education and Labor, United States Senate; 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, is a summary of what happened in Chicago on Memorial Day of 1937. These events, which came to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre, shook the nation as nothing else had 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.
It requires, to begin, a brief review of the time between the two wars, in connection with the labor movement. We might remark that the immediate aftermath of the first World War saw the notorious Palmer raids--ostensibly conducted by the government, through Attorney General Palmer, against the infant Communist movement of the time, but actually a full-fledged offensive against all militant labor leaders. It drove the Communists underground; it waged bitter warfare against the I.W.W.; and it gave management freedom to dive headlong into the depression of the early twenties.
The battle cry of the I.W.W. (International Workers of the World), perhaps the most militant and native of all our labor movements, had been industrial unionism, as opposed to the narrow craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor. Craft unionism takes a specific craft as a line cutting through many industries and organizes it; for instance, the carpenters, one of the old A. F. of L. Unions, has members in over a hundred industries. Thus, a plant which employs a hundred thousand men, of whom one hundred are carpenters, would have those few carpenters as members of a separate union--and so with many of the other crafts down the line.
There were many effects of this kind of organization. For one thing, it had to concentrate on the skilled trades to have any kind of stability; floor-sweepers were too easily replaced to ever form into such a craft union; for another, it made a successful strike most difficult, since even if the hundred carpenters walked out, in most cases the plant could continue to operate. It left the bulk of the working class unorganized--and as long as it remained the only form of unionism, the American working class was prevented from taking any real mass steps forward.
The I.W.W.'s slogan was: "One big industrial union." They set out to organize whole industries into single unions embracing all crafts within those industries. And before World War I, in lumbering and in mining in western America, they were remarkably successful.
The early twenties marked savage raids against these organizers and as we climbed out of the depression into the shaky prosperity that lasted until 1929, labor made very few gains. Industrial unionism fought an erratic battle, here and there, but gained no very firm foothold.
It was not until the great depression of the thirties wiped out the puffball prosperity of the twenties that industrial unionism began to make itself felt as a really important factor in American life. It is an old saying, and a very true one, that depression benefits no one. Labor and capital both suffer; but labor's suffering is more acute, more personal, and more tragic. In times of depression, labor faces the very essential matter of staying alive, and starvation and cold are both good teachers. Labor learned basic lessons in the early thirties; and as American business slowly took a turn upwards, labor girded itself for a struggle for a decent level of subsistence and for an organization that really represented it. Out of that need and that consciousness arose the Committee for Industrial Organization, headed, in the steel industry, by Philip Murray, who was elected chairman of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.
Steel is the industry of industries, the most basic of all industries. In modern times, steel is the barometer of a nation's freedom; without steel industries, a nation is dependent on other nations. Steel is also a barometer of a nation's strength; all other modern industries pyramid up on the base of steel. When depression hits a nation, steel is the first to suffer; when the wheels start to move again, nothing can be started without steel.
Steel, also, has the longest tradition of both violence and organization of any American industry. The oldest American union of any strength and importance was William Sylvus's National Iron Molders Union.
And over a period of almost a hundred years, the record of labor's struggle in the steel industry reads like front-line reporting from a battlefield. It takes strong men to make steel, and their very work is constant close contact with mechanical violence. But it should be recorded that any careful study of the situation will prove that in almost all cases, the violence came originally from management, either by instigation or by provocation--not from organized labor. This statement will be further demonstrated.
Now let us look at the situation of steel 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 rose 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 concern, was a part of what was known as "Little Steel," and while 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. In 1936 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 realized that it was a most destructive kind of insanity to fight organization. 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 U.S. Steel.
But the big independents, the so-called "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, employing 82,000 workers. There was Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, which employed 27,000 workers. 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 40 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 Josephson'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:
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:
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
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.
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.
That was part of the background to the Memorial Day Massacre. Another part was Tom Girdler himself, and it is worth while to look into that gentleman's history.
Matthew Josephson's fine book, The Robber Barons, should be read as background to any study of Tom Girdler. Girdler 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; and 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 1920's, 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 and 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 not only did Tom Girdler save Republic: he 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 doubting 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 replacement 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 6 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 his drive and his large talk about free enterprise, Girdler demonstrated in action that he not only did not believe in what American business calls "free enterprise," but that he personally was working night and day to destroy it in the steel industry. His tactics were toward monopoly. He interlocked with Youngstown Sheet and Tube; he interlocked with Jones and 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 Fuel and Iron Company, 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 schooled well for the battles of 1937. Jones and Laughlin's Aliquippa Works was known as the "Siberia of America." Their company town was a place where the few brave union organizers who dared to enter faced death, literally, tar and feathers, or some of the more gruesome and less printable fates that goon squads specialize in. The town was also called "Little Hell," a more descriptive name.
Apparently it was a place that suited Girdler excellently, for in a space of four years he rose from an assistant to president. And 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 slaughter 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 the second half of the third decade 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 incident 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 célèbre 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 bloodshed.
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. Keen economic observers of the time analyzed the situation of Republic Steel in terms of the shareholders as well as the Wall Street moguls.
I pointed out before that Girdler never owned even a tiny fraction of Republic's stock. The big stockholders in Republic--and among them were some of the most powerful finance blocks in America--willingly allowed him to climb into the saddle and, once there, 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. Their attitude was that of smiling behind their palms, and quietly letting 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, called Girdler, and called a quick halt to the bloody, senseless battle with labor which he was promoting; they did not, and there is 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 in the meadows outside of Republic. Further documentation, hundreds of pages of detailed testimony, is included in the Senate Report, S. Res. 266, 74th Congress, Part 14, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1937. Exhibits presented also run into the 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 the 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 there. They are reports of thousands of eye-witnesses who saw what happened. 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 precisely as they please. With all that, they too acted, with very few exceptions, very much 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 who composed the picket line--none of whom were ever proved to possess a firearm during the march--as "lusting for blood." It raised a red scare, which was sedulously promoted by the Hearst and the McCormick interests and their fellow hatemongers. The more conservative 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 reproaching Tom Girdler, or his private police, even in the mildest terms. No criminal action was ever taken to seek justice for the men who had died in Chicago. 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.
You may wonder how it was that you do not recall seeing the newsreel which so graphically describes all that happened, and which was shown at the La Follette investigation. The following editorial from the New Masses of June 29, 1937, sheds a good deal of light on that:
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!
At this point, with the added emphasis of the above editorial, we begin to have a very different picture of the Memorial Day Massacre than that which popularly surrounds it. Not that Tom Girdler's responsibility is lessened, not that the brutality of his agents is mitigated one iota, not that the Chicago police bear any less the responsibility for murder; but the incident in whole becomes broader and more inclusive. We find that far from being an isolated case of managerial violence, it was a focal point for the theory and the technique of reactionary capitalism in the organizational struggles of the thirties. It was a test case; it was symptomatic. Steel is, as was said, the industry of industries, and in 1937 steel was chosen by the entrenched forces of the open shop as the battleground for the open shop--against industrial unionism.
It is the difficult and tedious task of the labor historian to document every statement he makes. There is a good reason for this, of course; the body of knowledge (press, magazines, most books, etc.) presented to the public, both currently and contemporaneously to the times of which he writes, contradicts almost every premise and almost every fact which he brings forth. Only the labor press, which has a limited readership compared to the commercial press, bears him out. This is not the case with other historians. For example, one could start a story about Lincoln with the accepted premise that we was a great and good man; in the case of Eugene Debs, one would first have to document his actions and prove his intentions.
In connection with that, the charge that labor promotes almost all industrial violence cannot be dismissed as a lie; it must be proved to be a lie--and once proved, this small account of the Memorial Day Massacre can be closed. I have shown some of the facts in the arms orders of the steel companies. After our account of what happened in Chicago, it might do to cite the New York Times headline for May 31, 1937:
4 KILLED, 84 HURT AS STRIKERS FIGHT POLICE
IN CHICAGO, STEEL MOB HALTED.
Technically, that is not a lie. Only four men had died then; eventually five more succumbed from wounds. If you called the picket line a mob, then there is no doubt but that it was halted--although some might prefer the word "slaughtered." And some of the strikers did fight for their lives against the police. But this is pettifogging; the sense and intent of the headline, which very much set the pattern for nonsensational headlines all over the country, is more than apparent for anyone.
Let's go on with the record. Monroe, Michigan--ten days after Chicago. There is a Republic plant which employs about 1,350 persons. The strike is called; the workers go out, and for two weeks picket lines are maintained in a disciplined fashion. There is absolutely no disorder.
Then, suddenly, there appears on the scene what we know familiarly as "the bloodthirsty mob of strikers," and the hospital wards are full, and the damage is reckoned in lives as well as thousands of dollars. But the records show that after due deliberation and planning, Police Chief Jesse Fisher swore in enough special police to form a small army--at an expense of $9,000 to the little town. Leonidas McDonald, a Negro C.I.O. organizer, was attacked by a mob and severely beaten. This incident, which members of the mob assured reporters was carefully planned, touched off the riot. Then Chief Fisher ordered his men to attack the picket line. They went to work with tear-gas shells and grenades. The next day, the hospital wards were full, but Chief Fisher, bursting with pride, set about organizing a shotgun brigade of six hundred men.
It had worked in Chicago. Why not Monroe?
Newspapers told us that in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, the same pattern of violence was being inaugurated by strikers of the Moltrop Steel Products Company. But George Mike was not a picket and not a striker. He was a crippled war veteran, who stood on a corner in Beaver Falls, selling tickets to a C.I.O. dance. A deputy sheriff leveled his gas gun at him and fired. The shell smashed his skull, and he died the next day.
Our newspapers, during the same weeks, described the frightful riot provoked in Youngstown by--not the strikers, but their wives. Women too can be a frightful menace to society, if you only see them in the proper perspective. Many of these women carried their small children on this particular day, and no doubt that added to their potential menace. They were coming home from a meeting of the Ladies' Auxiliary, and a few of them paused to rest on an embankment that was a part of Republic's property. The deputies on guard ordered them off. The women and children responded too slowly, and the deputies helped them along with gas shells. As the women fled, their screams brought men to the scene, and when the men appeared, the deputies switched to repeating rifles.
Result: 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." That was a Middle-Western paper, but most others bore variations of the same.
This sort of record could be continued indefinitely. One labor historian estimates that casualties suffered by the working class in organizational struggles outnumber total casualties suffered by United States Armed Forces in all of this country's wars up to World War II. Though the violence of Tom Girdler's Republic Steel was sharp and dramatic, it could be matched by the violence of any one of a hundred other corporations, over a period of half a century.
Some of the background to the Memorial Day Massacre has been presented here. It was shown that the incident itself was both a part and a focal point in the pattern of closed-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. Out of the broad united front against fascism, led by the C.I.O. and other organizations, came the strength and desire to resist Hitlerite Germany and to carry the world through its sharpest crisis.
The America of today is not and cannot ever be the America of a decade ago. History does not stage repeat performances. It is very likely that there will be violence in connection with future strikes; but 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.