May 25, 2016
By Bill Hohlfeld
The Memorial Day Massacre of 1937
Chicago, Illinois – While great celebrations were taking place in San Francisco because of that city’s newest accomplishment – the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, something quite different was taking place on the outskirts of Chicago on the Memorial Day weekend of 1937. Workers were being shot to death in what has come to be known as “The Memorial Day Massacre of 1937.”
Though the Wagner Act, giving workers the right to organize and strike, had been in effect for nearly two years, Mr. Tom Girdler, Chairman of the Board of Republic Steel, then the third largest steel company in the nation, refused to negotiate with the CIO in their organizing efforts. In fact, he viewed them as nothing more than “communists and racketeers.” So, when on the Memorial Day weekend of 1937 union members marching beneath an American flag and singing union songs, arrived at the gates of Republic Steel with children and picnic baskets in
tow, they were greeted not with civil discourse, but with a hail of bullets.
Rather than sink one dime into wages or benefits, Girdler chose instead to authorize sizable expenditures to provide Chicago police with additional armament and weaponry with which to greet the protestors. (The receipts for those expenditures are today a matter of record.) Be assured that they were put to use. The policemen fired upon the crowd of 1,000 striking United Steelworkers and their wives and children, killing 10 workers—each one shot in the back or side. Their attempt to flee the violence of the day was unsuccessful. An additional 30 people were wounded by gunshot and blows from truncheons. Many were crippled for life.
With the absence of today’s cell phone technology, which has placed ability to capture events in real time in the hands of virtually everyone, initially, the truth was successfully suppressed. In fact, all the major newspapers of the period, including the New York Times reported the incident as a rioting mob viciously attacking police who valiantly defended themselves. Even FDR originally heaped scorn on the union, because of how events had been portrayed. It seemed dark day for labor and a major setback to the cause.
But the dawn of truth slowly began to break thanks to the efforts of a reporter on staff at the St. Louis Dispatch, Paul Anderson. He uncovered newsreel footage taken by Paramount Pictures who were purposely blocking its release. When Anderson viewed the footage of what had actually happened, he said: “Those of us who saw it were shocked and amazed by the scenes showing scores of uniformed police firing their revolvers pointblank into a dense crowd of men, women and children, and then pursuing and clubbing the survivors unmercifully as they made frantic efforts to escape.”
Anderson took his new found evidence to Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette, Jr., who was then chair of the nascent Civil Liberties Committee. After viewing the newsreel The LaFolette Committee reported: “The Republic Steel Corporation has a uniformed police force of nearly 400 men whom it has equipped not only with revolvers, rifles and shotguns, but also with more tear and sickening gas and gas equipment than has been purchased…by any law-enforcement body, local, State or Federal in the country. It has loosed its guards, thus armed to shoot down
citizens on the streets and highways.”
Though the record was set straight at last and public sympathies were now in sync with the union, neither Girdler nor any of his executives were ever prosecuted. No police were ever indicted for brutality and no striker (or his survivor) was ever compensated for injuries sustained or loss of life. The long term justice that was achieved came in the form of a hard won union contract between the USW and Republic Steel that remains in force to this day.
Had it not been for the efforts of one intrepid newspaper reporter and one United States Senator brave enough to square off with America’s wealthy and powerful corporations and media outlets of the day, the truth might never have emerged.