Little Steel strike

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The Little Steel strike of 1937 was a strike conducted by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) a branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that ended up crossing over eight different states throughout the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States of America, affecting a total of thirty different mills belonging to three Little Steel industry powerhouses, Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, and Inland Steel Corporation. Before the strike had ended up to 100,000 workers would eventually walk out of their mills.

The strike is characterized as one of the most violent strikes of the 1930s, with thousands of strikers arrested, three hundred injured and eighteen dead from police brutality and company harassment. The Little Steel[clarification needed] companies eventually defeated the strike, which lasted just over five months time. However groundwork for the unionization of the Little Steel industry was set and the goal to unionize Little Steel occurred five years later in 1942 as World War II began to ramp up.

Background for the strike[edit]

Early in the year 1937 the Big Steel Industry was facing union pressure. Success of several sit down strikes in the automobile industry and the rising strength of unions had U.S. Steel chairman Myron C. Taylor very hesitant to raise any sort of union drama within his organization fearing the worst.[1] It was due not only to this outside pressure from other union successes throughout the industry, but also due the persistent work of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) that Taylor eventually decided to sit down with CIO president John L. Lewis and agreed to recognize the newly created branch of the CIO, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) as the sole agent for his company on March 2, 1937. After Taylor signed the contract recognizing the newly created union, a domino effect immediately took effect in the Big Steel Industry, companies began signing union contracts in succession with very little fight, many just at the slightest rumor of a strike. Several companies who held a very strong anti-union, anti-labor stances such as Jones & Laughlin also known as “Little Siberia” within the steel workers community [2] eventually signed union contracts following in the steps of U.S. Steel, helping sending a message through the nation and giving the SWOC legitimacy within the steel industry. These contracts had greater benefits than simply turning these mills from free for all hiring’s to “closed shops” simply meaning that only members of the union could be hired, whether employees already be members, or join after hiring. Workers at these mills received slight pay raises, forty-hour workweeks and a week vacation along with three guaranteed holidays .[3] These were huge steps compared to where the steel workers had been before and gave SWOC and the ICO the confidence to expand into the smaller market Little Steel Industry.

After getting Jones & Laughlin to sign union contracts, which was roughly the same size company as the Little Steel Companies with a much rougher reputation, the Little Steel Industry immediately fell into the cross hairs of the CIO. The three main targets were decided to be Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, and Inland Steel Corporation, which held mills all over the Midwest and Northeast region of the United States, with close to thirty mills between the three of them. These three companies became the focus of the ICO due to status that they held within the Little Steel industry, similar to that of U.S. Steel in the Big Steel industry, powerhouses of their industry. After Big Steel unionized John L. Lewis immediately turned around and attempted to convince these Little Steel companies to sign SWOC union contracts almost exactly the same as the ones signed by U.S. Steel just weeks earlier, hoping to ride the momentum created by the earlier success for quick results. The hope was to hit the powerhouses early in the movement in order to send a message throughout the nation and hopefully get the ball rolling for negotiations with smaller companies. The three companies refused the contracts without hesitation; having withstood unionization before and refused to be bullied and hassled by the SWOC and with that one of the most lethal and vicious strikes of the 1930s began brewing.

Organizing a strike[edit]

After the contracts were rejected, ICO and SWOC immediately began planning the best route of action to organize the smaller steel companies. The SWOC had two major ideas behind their organizing drive: “overcoming, by successfully organizing all groups of workers, the racial and ethnic conflicts that had crippled earlier efforts to organize steel workers; and infiltrating and co-opting the company unions.” [4] The ICO immediately began placing union representatives within the mills of the companies. These representatives were often met with harassment and beatings by spies placed within the union by the companies with for the purpose of preventing unionization. As word of unionization spread The SWOC was able to quickly gain the support of many black steel workers mainly in the Chicago mills due to their openness and willingness to accept black steel workers into the union.[5] It was due to this black support that the SWOC was able to gain momentum so quickly, allowing whole mills to be involved in the movement. As the month of May approached it was clear that things within the companies were escalating into a strike at a rather quick pace. Republic Steel, made the first move; firing massive amounts of union supporters from mills and conducted lockouts at several other locations across the Midwest as a way to keep the union out and to weaken its support.[6] It was at this point that the IOC and SWOC decided they must take action. A deadline of May 26 was given to the steel companies to sign the union contracts or else action was going to be taken immediately. As May 26 rolled around with still no response from Little Steel, John L. Lewis made an official strike call and workers walked away from their positions just hours after the deadline, shutting down almost every mill of the three largest Little Steel companies.

Corporate opposition[edit]

A common tactic to resist unionization was to plant company informants within organizing committees to identify union supports and then fire or beat them. Employers also held captive audience meetings disparaging SWOC and encouraging membership in company unions.[7] As the strike began to pick up support struck steel companies started stockpiling weapons, such as rifles, hand guns, shotguns and other weapons, they also began increasing their own police force by buying local officers for personal use. Some mills forces nearly doubled in numbers and housed them at the plants.[8] By the time the strike ended Republic Steel had two thousand and four hundred paid men in their militia and held one of the largest arsenal in the United States at the time.[9]

Early phase[edit]

Within hours of the strike call things were already off to a quicker start than most people could have possibly predicted. Even with large amounts of interference from strike breakers, propaganda and intimidation, union representatives were able to lay down enough groundwork and spread the word well enough for a seamless beginning to the strike across a total of eight states. Workers began picketing, marching and holding rallies outside their respective mills trying to gain the support of those workers not already involved with the union, along with their local communities to add pressure on the companies by adding supporters. The majority of the mills were empty after the massive walk out on May 26 unable to continue production, however two Republic Steel mills in Youngstown, Ohio and the Southside of Chicago remained open, using around two hundred to three hundred workers who disapproved of the strike to keep the mills up and running.[10] SWOC officials and steel workers alike immediately targeted the mill in south Chicago with massive amounts of picketers and rallies, hoping to bring national attention and make keeping the mill open a nightmare for Republic Steel. It is due to these mills remaining open that the Little Steel Strike took a drastic turn from peaceful picketing to one of the bloodiest strikes of the 1930s.

Memorial Day massacre[edit]

The Republic Steel mill in South Chicago was home to largest arsenal and police force involved in the labor dispute. Police maintained a line in front of the gate to keep strikers at a safe enough distance that the mill could still be productive and run smoothly. On May 30 of 1937 an event known as the Memorial Day massacre occurred, changing the Little Steel Strike completely. Since the South Chicago mill had been the subject too many picketers and rallies the service beginning of the strike four days prior the militia guarding the mill had been on high alert twenty four hours a day just waiting to see if the strikers would try to rush the fence to shut down production of one of the last running mills. On this particular Memorial Day over 1500 SWOC members and their families were gathered at a park just a few blocks from the front gate of the mill for a march planned for the day, As Steelworker Jesse Reese of Youngstown Sheet and Tube recalled ‘Republic Steel was scabbing. So we went to South Chicago with truckloads of people, working-class people’.[11] Because of the sheer number of protesters an additional two hundred police officers were called in to help protect the mill by cutting the crowd off a block away from the mill by creating a line cutting access to the gate. With no access to the plant more and more angry protesters began crowding in front of the line of officers arguing to let them pass and continue as they meant no harm, just simply wished to continue their planned march. As the protesters and police continued to argue the conversations soon became heated, and shoving began to ensue. Some report that protestors from the back of the crowd began throwing sticks and stones and whatever else they could get their hands on, hitting several officers.[12] The officers panicked and opened fire on the unsuspecting crowd, as the dust settled ten protesters lay dead and 100 more struggling to compose themselves after receiving gunshot wounds. One steelworker later recounted, "I was in the war and I fought in France, but I never heard so many bullets as those coppers fired. Women and children were screaming all over the place. They were like a herd of cattle panic stricken. I ran till they got me. I saw one woman shot down and a policeman dragged her away."[13]

After the incident, Little Steel’s public relation team sent out multiple reports justifying the actions of the Chicago police force. Reports began coming in claiming that the protestors were armed and planned to raid the mill and that the protestors were led by marijuana-smoking communists.[14]

The strike post Memorial Day massacre[edit]

With both local police forces and the National Guard in the pockets of Little Steel things went down hill fast for the Little Steel Strike after the events of the Memorial Day massacre. The events of the massacre turned what seemed to be a peaceful strike made up of picketing and the occasional rally march into an incredibly long five months of arrests, beatings and several more deaths that spread across the Midwest and Northeast as more conflicts emerged between Little Steel (mostly Republic Steel) and the SWOC protestors.

The Republic Steel mill located in Youngstown, Ohio, one of the two mills to remain open had a conflict just less than a month later. On June 19, 300 officers were working at the mill; on this particular day there was a large number of picketers outside of mill property. After a woman made a comment that embarrassed one of the officers on patrol duty about how to do his job correctly, things escalated quickly, leading to gas canisters to be fired directly into the crowd of protestors. A massive riot then ensued, leading to a gunfight between the heavily armed officers and the protestors that lasted well into the night leaving dozens injured and two dead. Many were arrested after the event, many of which were through home raids of those who were prominent in the strike in the area.[15]

An even more ridiculous example of sheer violence by the hands of Little Steel was an event that occurred on July 11 in Massillon, Ohio when a company agent somehow came into the control of the local police force and rallied to attack the local union headquarters using brute force. The police force completely destroyed the building, two unionists were killed and one hundred and sixty five were brutally arrested, some still in their pajamas and held for several days with no cause.[16]

These are just a few examples of how Little Steel used brutality to help break up the strike on their own terms, with what seemed like zero consequences. Each new set of victims from brutal violence was labeled as a troublemaker, communist or someone with disregard for the law. Officers of the companies simply claimed that deadly force was needed to protect themselves and they got off scotch free. Several governors finally stepped in and tried quell the senseless violence being caused by the Little Steel Strike by calling in the National Guard to several of the strike hot zones, however the presence of the National Guard only helped the cause of Little Steel. With the sole job of preventing violence, strict regulations were placed on the picketers, such as only ten individuals were allowed to be picketing at any given time. With the strike being undermined at every turn, people were beginning to lose faith and the strike ended in short order.

Failure of the strike[edit]

With so many of the unionists on strike being killed, beaten and arrested in such meaningless ways the protesters were quickly losing morale and motivation to continue with the strike. Protesters knew that even on a day that seemed quiet, violence could explode at any minute over the most insignificant cause and many could no longer keep risking their lives for the cause of the SWOC. As one protestor put it “They imported weapons, bombs, and what-have-you and had them all set though the plants with mounted machine guns, threatening, in case something would happen that they would kill thousands of us.” [17] As police and the National Guard began acquiring court orders to vacate, the weakened and demoralized picket lines began to crumble and after five months of senseless violence the Little Steel Strike finally came to an end.

However the failure of the strike was not solely due to Little Steel’s senseless violence or well organized public relations, or the failing morale of the strikers. The bureaucrats of the SWOC are much at fault for the failure of the Little Steel strike. So eager were they to ride on the coattails of their success with Big Steel that the IOC and SWOC did not stop for a minute and take in the situation that they were plunging head first in as they proclaimed the strike against Little Steel. SWOC assumed that since they had brought Big Steel to come to terms with unions that Little Steel would be a comparative walk in the park. The officials heavily underestimated the amount of resistance that they would receive from these anti-union veteran companies. Right before the Little Steel strike began the U.S. economy had slipped back into a slight depression, causing steel to be in less demand and the cost to decrease. Because of this market dip the reality for the companies was that fewer employees were needed, which is why Republic steel was able to keep their larger mills open with only two hundred workers. The strike ended up putting less economic pressure on the companies than had originally been predicted and SWOC was not able to use profit loss as a strong bargaining tool. The figurative "cherry on the sundae" for the failure of the strike was SWOC attempting to unionize the entire Little Steel industry all at once, an extremely tough task even with unlimited resources and top notch organization. They may have had much more success if they focused on mills where they could infiltrate easily then spread outwards after having a solid foothold in the industry. It was with both aggressive strike breaking tactics from Little Steel, lack of organization from SWOC, and demoralized unionists, that by the end of the summer of 1937 the strike had concluded and Little Steel was victorious.

Results of the failed strike[edit]

Immediately after the collapse of the strike Little Steel reopened all mills that were affected, sending a message that they had clearly one and were returning to business as usual as if nothing had happened. The Little Steel companies then went through and began firing and black listing any worker that was associated with the strike without notice. Youngstown striker Danny Thomas, a leader at one of Sheet & Tube’s plants there, recalled: “There was a group of us that was blackballed to the point that we couldn’t secure any positions or work anywhere. No one would give us a job, credit, or anything.”[18] It was through this black listing that the strikers were placed in an even worse situation, as many could not find work anywhere, and even if they did they were soon fired when their employers were made aware of their position. For several years the individuals involved in the strike were placed in a much worse position than they had before attempting to unionize, with no jobs, in the midst of a depression things were looking quite bleak for the SWOC.

Even with the bleakness of the situation SWOC officials refused to give up and continued to work behind the scenes to try and unionize Little Steel. SWOC officials were eventually able to get in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and argued that using unlawful force against strikers was breaking several labor laws, and were “unlawful” as many SWOC officials put it. The argument was that due to the fact that Little Steel companies used these unlawful tactics to provoke protesters, arguing that they should be reinstated and able to work freely, unhindered by their false accusations of provoking police. Little Steel argued that any crime against their company was unforgivable, and demanded that the black list stay in place. The NLRB found itself in a tough spot, trying to be fair to both sides and attempting to be balanced in their decision. Eventually the board came to a decision that split the two parties needs, those accused of crimes during the strike were freed from the black list except for those found guilty, or in the process of being trialed.[19]

For several years the Little Steel conflict seemed to settle down, workers returned to work, however SWOC was not satisfied with the results of all their effort and eventually took their case all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then upheld the NLRB’s ruling and told Little Steel to collectively begin bargaining.[20] In the year 1942 the economy recovered with the start of World War Two, in fact the demand for steel was higher than it had been in years, leading to Little Steel to begin hiring workers by the thousands and SWOC saw its opportunity to pounce on the desperate Little Steel industry. Rumor of another strike began to circulate, making Little Steel owners extremely nervous due to the fact that they had high government pressure to maintain production for the war effort and slowing down would cost heavy profits and loss of contracts. Little Steel management surrendered instantly. Republic Steel was even forced to pay twenty million dollars worth of back pay to those black listed in 1937. At long last Little Steel finally became unionized.


  1. ^ Blake, Benjamin. "Steelpage2content." Steelpage2content. Western Reserve Historical Society, Web
  2. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 15. Selected Works. Web.
  3. ^ "Pay Rises in Steel Go to 38,900 More." New York Times 13 Mar. 1937: 1. Print.
  4. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 14. Selected Works. Web.
  5. ^ Dennis, Michael. "Building toward Rebellion." Chicago and the Little Steel Strike. Nova Scotia: Acadia University, 2012. 171. Print.
  6. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 20-21. Selected Works. Web.
  7. ^ Turrini, Joseph. "The Newton Steel Strike: A Watershed in the CIO's Failure to Organize “Little Steel." Labor History. Vol. 51. : Taylor and Francis, 2010. 241. Print.
  8. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 17-18. Selected Works. Web.
  9. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 17-18. Selected Works. Web.
  10. ^ Blake, Benjamin. "Steelpage2content." Steelpage2content. Western Reserve Historical Society, Web
  11. ^ Dennis, Michael. "Building toward Rebellion." Chicago and the Little Steel Strike. Nova Scotia: Acadia University, 2012. 179. Print.
  12. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 1-2. Selected Works. Web.
  13. ^ Blake, Benjamin. "Steelpage2content." Steelpage2content. Western Reserve Historical Society, Web.
  14. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 21-22. Selected Works. Web.
  15. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 21-22. Selected Works. Web
  16. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 22. Selected Works. Web.
  17. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 29. Selected Works. Web.
  18. ^ White, Ahmed A. "THE DRIVE TO ORGANIZE STEEL." The "Little Steel" Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal. Page 46. Selected Works. Web.
  19. ^ Leab, Daniel J. "The Memorial Day Massacre." Midcontinent American Studies Journal. 2nd ed. Vol. 8. N.p.: Mid-America American Studies Association, 1967. 14. Print. American Studies.
  20. ^ Leab, Daniel J. "THE MEMORIAL DAY MASSACRE." Midcontinent American Studies Journal. 2nd ed. Vol. 8. N.p.: Mid-America American Studies Association, 1967. 15-16. Print. American Studies.

Further reading[edit]

  • Baughman, James L. "Classes and Company Towns: Legends of the 1937 Little Steel Strike," Ohio History (1978) 87#2 pp 175–192.
  • Dennis, Michael, “Chicago and the Little Steel Strike,” Labor History (2012), 53#2 pp 167–204.
  • McPherson, Donald S. "The 'Little Steel' Strike of 1937 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania," Pennsylvania History (1972) 39#2 pp 219–238.