“Blood on Steel”: Book remembers 1937 Steelworkers strike

On Memorial Day, 1937 thousands of steelworkers, their families and allies, marched on Republic Steel in Chicago’s southeast side demanding union recognition. In what would soon come to be known as the ‘Memorial Day Massacre,’ peaceful protesters assembled just yards from the mills entrance, were fired upon by local police – killing ten strikers and wounding over one hundred more.

While the massacre received voluminous media attention, it was actually just one battle in a larger war fought by an accumulative 85,000 steelworkers from Pennsylvania to Illinois against what was then known as the ‘Little Steel’ companies.

Michael Dennis, in his short – though insightful – book Blood On Steel: Chicago Steelworkers And The Strike Of 1937 has not only documented in grisly detail the events of that fateful day, but has also added historical and political context.

According to Dennis, the strike “…vividly symbolized the larger movement for industrial unionism and social democracy that occurred in the 1930s.” Additionally, “In place of despotism, workers imagined a system of democratic representation for industrial laborers in the mines and mills,” thereby “express[ing] the egalitarian themes of the era.”

In the mid-1930’s the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations, headed by Mine Workers’ president, John L. Lewis, formed and financed the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, or SWOC, which by January, 1937 had signed a groundbreaking union recognition agreement with U.S. Steel, the largest steel manufacturer in the country. By April, 1937, 200,000 steelworkers had joined the new union.

Excited by the recent victory – as well as the recent upsurge in labor organizing, strikes and sit-ins, especially in the auto industry, spurred by the passage of the Wagner Act – SWOC went after the smaller steel mills. Republic Steel became a target, as steelworkers organized for higher pay, better benefits and more safety regulations.

However, Tom Girdler, Republic Steel’s president, expressed the sentiment of all of the ‘Little Steel’ companies. He was “convinced that a surrender to the C.I.O. was a bad thing for our companies, for our employees; indeed for the United States of America.” To him, SWOC and the CIO were both “racketeering, communist-dominated outfits…,” which he refused to negotiate with.

It is true that Communists organized for both the CIO and SWOC. As “tough, skillful, and implacable organizers…” they “provided vital leadership, fostering a sense of class awareness and political coherence among workers.” In fact, during this time over 60 Party members organized full-time for SWOC alone throughout the mid-west. However, that does not mean the Party dominated the CIO or SWOC, as Lewis was careful to keep Communists at arm’s length – though he respected their work ethic and courage – and quickly removed them after steel had been consolidated.

Girdler, had no way of knowing the extent of Communist influence within the CIO or SWOC. He did, however, know that red-baiting was a useful tactic and he employed it liberally. Furthermore, the Chicago police had had numerous run-ins recently with Communist-led Unemployed Council which had organized marches, demonstrations and actions demanding relief. They were also eager to blame the ‘Reds’ and finger anyone protesting for unemployment benefits or unions as dangerous radicals.

In preparation for the “imminent confrontation,” the planned march, Republic “spent more than the city of Chicago on tear gas and sickening, or vomiting, gas.” It stockpiled weapons, including four submachine guns, 525 revolvers, 64 rifles, 245 shotguns, and “enough clubs and ammunition to hold off the Illinois National Guard.” The steel company also employed 370 police guards.

It is within this context that the ‘Memorial Day Massacre’ occurred.

Dennis recounts: As the march proceeded towards Republic’s front gates “Without warning, the police had torn into the demonstrators’ ranks…Tear gas canisters fell rapidly…One crack [a gunshot] was followed by a cluster of shots, which were soon consumed in a torrent of small arms fire that engulfed the marchers…What had appeared to be almost a staged event only a minute before now dissolved into wild terror and confusion…”

Bloodied and bruised bodies ran for cover. Women and children weren’t spared the police rage, as Billy-clubs and batons were swung wildly. The injured were refused medical attention, while the dying were thrown into paddy wagons – groaning and bleeding – and taken for the “long journey” to police headquarters – not to a hospital – where many were beaten again. 

Ten strikers, or supporters, would die due to the wounds inflicted by an unprovoked police attack, including Party member, Joseph Rothmund. Party leaders, like Joe Weber, the SWOC sub-district organizer, and Hank Johnson, a leader in the Party-led National Negro Congress and SWOC organizer, were instrumental in laying the groundwork for the strike.

While Dennis castigates Republic Steel and the Chicago police, he also claims that Lewis’s unwillingness to “support a larger protest [movement] hastened the failure of the strike. “Responsible” adherence to contracts, not industrial democracy, was becoming the defining feature of [late 1930’s] labor unionism,” he added, which separated the steelworkers from the broader movement for workers’ rights and limited the possibility for more radical change.

Blood On Steel is a good, little book, captivating and grisly. It adds historical and political context objectively. I highly recommend it this Memorial Day weekend.

Blood On Steel: Chicago Steelworkers And The Strike Of 1937

By Michael Dennis

John Hopkins University Press, 2014, 140 pages

Photo: Workers are struck and beaten by police during the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937.  | University of Oregon archive


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.