Little Steel strike

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The Little Steel strike was a 1937 labor strike by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (C.I.O.) and its branch the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), against a number of smaller steel producing companies, principally Republic Steel, Inland Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company. The strike affected a total of thirty different mills belonging to the three companies, which employed 80,000 workers. The strike, which was one of the most violent labor disputes of the 1930s, ended without the strikers achieving their principal goal, which was that the companies recognize the union as the bargaining agent for the workers.

On May 2, 1937 the Congress of Industrial Organizations and the larger American steel companies led by U.S. Steel, agreed on a contract providing a standard pay scale, an 8-hour work day, and time and a half for overtime. Although the "Big Steel" (The larger companies) signed the deal, there were smaller companies that refused to sign and that is why the strike is known as the "Little Steel" strike.

The "Little Steel" strike started on May 26, 1937 when the United States economy was just starting to recover from the Great Depression. The issue that sparked this conflict was over the recognition of unions by steel companies. The term "Little Steel ", refers collectively to many of the smaller steel companies, primarily Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, and Inland Steel. The strike was started over unionization of the steel workers working in these companies. Steel workers, represented by the C.I.O. as well as the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) participated in protests ranging from sit-ins to picket lines. The workers wanted better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

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. 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 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 confrontation within his organization.[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. By signing the union contract, Taylor started a domino effect, and other steel companies began signing union contracts in succession with very little fight, many just at the slightest rumor of a strike. Several steel companies who held a very strong anti-union, anti-labor stances, such as Jones & Laughlin,[2] signed union contracts following U.S. Steel, sending a message through the industry, and giving the SWOC legitimacy. These contracts had greater benefits than simply turning these mills from free-for-all hiring’s to closed shops. Workers also received pay raises, forty-hour workweeks, and one-week vacations along with three guaranteed holidays.[3] These achievements gave SWOC and the CIO the confidence to expand into the smaller-market Little Steel Industry.

After Jones & Laughlin signed union contracts, signing with the Little Steel Industry became the next goal of the CIO. The three main targets were decided to be Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, and Inland Steel Corporation, which owned mills across the Midwest and Northeast 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 tried to convince these Little Steel companies to sign SWOC union contracts similar to those signed by U.S. Steel just weeks earlier. The hope was to hit the powerhouses early in the movement in order to send a message throughout the industry, for negotiations with smaller companies. However, the three companies refused the contracts without hesitation, having withstood unionization before, and refused to sign with the SWOC.

Organizing a strike[edit]

After the contracts were rejected, CIO and SWOC immediately began planning 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 CIO 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 May approached, it was clear that the companies were preparing for a strike. Republic Steel fired many union supporters, and conducted lockouts at several other locations as a way weaken union support.[6] It was then 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 endure a strike. As May 26 passed with 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.

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,[citation needed] 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 running.[7] SWOC officials and striking steel workers targeted the mill in south Chicago with massive numbers of picketers and rallies, hoping to bring national attention and make keeping the mill open a nightmare for Republic Steel.

Steel workers show resistance[edit]

At the beginning of the strike, more than 50% of the striking employees were from Republic Steel.[8] Republic Steel Corporation was headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, and was among the top five steel producers in the country.[9] By 1942 Republic Steel housed 9,000[10] workers which made it one of the top employers in the city of Cleveland.

Confrontations at Republic Steel South Chicago mill[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 made up of 150 police officers in front of the gate to keep strikers at a safe enough distance that the mill could still be productive and run smoothly. The South Chicago mill was one of two steel mills still open.

On Memorial Day 1937, more than 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 violence soon followed. Some report that protesters 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] This incident later became known as the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937.

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 protesters were armed and planned to raid the mill and that the protesters were led by marijuana-smoking communists.[14]

With both local police forces and the National Guard on the side of Little Steel, the situation deteriorated for the strikers 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 five months of arrests, beatings and several more deaths across the Midwest and Northeast as more conflicts emerged between Little Steel (mostly Republic Steel) and the SWOC protesters.

Other confrontations[edit]

The Republic Steel mill 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, and a large number of picketers were 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 protesters. A massive riot then ensued, leading to a gunfight between the heavily armed officers and the protesters 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]

Another example of strike violence 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. 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 without cause.[16]

Ten days sooner there was a strike at Inland Steel Company as well on the east side of Chicago. This strike was not as violent. But ended just as abruptly.

In Monroe at the Newton Steel Plant, the SWOC decided to organize a strike that would hopefully shut down the plant. The Strike worked for a time. With a big majority of the workers on strike coming from one of the main departments of the plant, it made it impossible for the other areas of the factory to operate. Not only that, but workers not on strike refused to cross the pickets lines.

Victims of violence was labeled as troublemakers, communists or people with disregard for the law. Officers of the companies claimed that force was needed to protect the plants and the nonstriking workers. Several governors tried to quell the violence by calling in the National Guard. The presence of the National Guard helped the employers. With the job of preventing violence, strict regulations were placed on the picketers, such as limiting the number of picketers to ten. Strikers lost hope for success, and the strike ended quickly.

After the failed strike[edit]

With so many of the unionists on strike being killed, beaten and arrested, 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 protester 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 enforcing court orders to vacate, the weakened and demoralized picket lines began to crumble, and after five months the "Little Steel" Strike finally came to an end.

However the failure of the strike was not solely due to violence, or well organized public relations, or the failing morale of the strikers. 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. Fewer employees were needed to satisfy the decreased demand. The SWOC was not able to use lost profits as a bargaining tool. 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 ended with the companies victorious.

Results of the failed strike[edit]

Immediately after the collapse of the strike the Little Steel company reopened all the mills that were affected; sending a message that they had clearly won and were returning to business as usual. The Little Steel companies fired and blacklisted any worker associated with the strike. 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.

SWOC officials continued to work behind the scenes to unionize Little Steel. SWOC officials were eventually able to get in front of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and argued that the force used against strikers broke federal labor laws. The argument was that due to the fact that Little Steel companies used these unlawful tactics to provoke protesters, arguing that fired workers should be reinstated. Little Steel argued that any crime against their company was unforgivable, and demanded that the blacklist stay in place. The NLRB decided that those accused of crimes during the strike were freed from the blacklist unless they were found guilty or were in the process of being tried.[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 National Labor Relations Board’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.

The Effect of WWII[edit]

The strike failed and the SWOC as well as CIO fell back but only temporarily. The SWOC found their chance during World War II. In 1942 Little Steel was taken to the Supreme Court. Little Steel was ordered to negotiate new terms, especially because of the large number of workers coming in to help with the war relief effort. During the war, the steel industry boomed. With the increased need for steel workers to support the war effort the SWOC saw the perfect opportunity to act. Steel companies everywhere were hiring by the thousands. The National War Labor Board also pressured Little Steel into accepting the terms of unionization.


  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. ^ Blake, Benjamin. "Steelpage2content." Steelpage2content. Western Reserve Historical Society, Web
  8. ^ Roseberry-Polier, Alison. United States steelworkers strike for a contract and union recognition, 1937. N.p., 13 Feb. 2011. Web. 31 May 2015. <>.
  9. ^ Little Steel Strike Of 1937. N.p., 23 May 2013. Web. 31 May 2015.
  10. ^ Little Steel Strike Of 1937. N.p., 23 May 2013. Web. 31 May 2015.
  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.
  • Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2015. <>