By Michael Dennis

The John Hopkins University Press. 140 pages. £13. ISBN 978-1-4214-1018-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

On the 30th May, 1937 (Memorial Day in the USA) hundreds of striking steelworkers gathered at Sam’s Place, located not far from Republic Steel whose management had taken a hard-line position with regard to recognition of  the Steel Workers Organising Committee (SWOC) as representing union members at its factories. An agreement had been signed with US Steel, the major operator in the industry, but Republic Steel and some other relatively smaller operators (collectively known as Little Steel) had refused to negotiate on the matter, so a strike had been called. The workers who came together at Sam’s Place, many of them with their wives and children, intended to march to the gates of Republic Steel to assert their right to picket, protest against police brutality in earlier encounters, and perhaps persuade non-striking workers to join them outside the gates. The exact number of people present isn’t know, but Michael Dennis says it was possibly between 1,500 and 2,000. By the end of the day four strikers had died, six more succumbed to their injuries later, and over one hundred were injured, some of them seriously.

Violence during strikes in America in the 1930s was frankly not unusual, but what singled out the Memorial Day encounter for major attention was not only the level of deaths involved, but also the fact that a newsreel unit had been present and film was shot of the encounter between police and demonstrators. It’s perhaps misleading, in fact, to suggest that the “battle” was anything but one-sided. The police were heavily armed and there is little evidence that the great majority of the strikers did more than turn and run when they came under fire. All ten of those who died had been shot in the back or the side which appeared to indicate that they had been fleeing or turning away from the police.

It’s necessary to look at the general situation in American industry to fully appreciate what was at stake in 1937. The economy was showing some signs of recovery, and major industries like autos, steel, and rubber were again employing large numbers of people. As circumstances improved there were energetic drives to unionise workplaces. A newly-formed organisation, the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO), had broken away from the craft-based American Federation of Labour (AFL) and had set out to recruit union members in industries like the auto-plants, rubber, and steel, which were labour-intensive. At the same time laws had been passed as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal which established the rights of workers to join unions and be involved in collective bargaining. Employers were frequently unhappy with this state of affairs and some continued to refuse to negotiate and sign agreements. Strikes erupted, with sit-down techniques often effectively giving workers temporary control of their workplaces. There was a tradition of anti-union activity in the steel industry going back many years to the Homestead strike of 1894 and the major walk-out in 1919. When SWOC started to recruit in steel in the 1930s the management at Republic Steel took a particularly tough stance in refusing to meet union officials.

As mentioned previously, the Chicago police force had been active from the start of the strike in breaking-up earlier demonstrations. They refused to allow picket lines with more than a token number of pickets, and were known to be disposed to use force against anyone infringing the arbitrary rules they set or otherwise opposing their authority. There was evidence to show that the police acted in collusion with Republic Steel management to the extent that the police operated from company premises and some, at least, used batons supplied by Republic Steel. The company, in addition to any assistance they could expect from the official police force, also had its own security men, though they primarily functioned inside Republic Steel premises. But let me quote Michael Dennis on the subject of how the company prepared to face up to the strikers:

“While SWOC organised, Republic Steel stocked weapons and armaments for an imminent confrontation. The company had spent more than the city of Chicago on tear gas and sickening or vomiting, gas. Its inventory included 4 submachine guns, 525 revolvers, 64 rifles, 245 shotguns, and enough clubs and ammunition to hold off the Illinois National Guard. Republic’s contingent of 370 police guards stood ready to use them. The company’s escalating layoffs, harassment, and anti-union espionage aggravated an already drum-tight situation.”

SWOC, for its part, could count on those workers on strike, along with assistance from some others from different areas who saw the struggle against Republic Steel as part of a wider war to not only obtain union recognition, but also improve working conditions and “humanise” the workplace. Too often people were treated as if they had no rights and could be dismissed at the whim of a foreman or supervisor. Some local churches supported the strikers, as did groups of university students, liberal elements in Chicago, and, of course, the Communist Party. Dennis refers to an agit-prop theatre group which performed plays like Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty and Albert Maltz’s Black Pit in union halls and similar locations. On Memorial Day one of their number stood on the back of a truck and sang songs such as “The Ballad of Joe Hill” and “Solidarity Forever” to raise the spirits of the strikers. But support like that didn’t alter the fact that the march on Republic Steel did not have overall CIO backing and that little or no help came from other unions. Some United Automobile Workers Union (UAWU) members did want to strike in sympathy with the steelworkers, but were stopped from doing so by their union leadership which threatened them with disciplinary action if they broke the contracts the UAWU had agreed with management in the automobile factories.

When the march to the Republic Steel premises began it’s unlikely that anyone anticipated what would later happen. But was it significant that certain key members of both the local Communist Party and the union leadership were not present? Did they realise that a showdown with the police was on the cards and that it would inevitably end in violence? Dennis doesn’t investigate this angle (did no-one at the time think to question the absentees about their failure to be there?) but he does say that several rank-and-file activists among the strikers had to hastily assume some sort of leadership of the demonstration.

Who or what triggered the police into drawing their guns and firing into the crowd when the marchers came face to face with them was inevitably a bone of contention later. The police naturally claimed that they’d been attacked and had acted in self-defence. But there appears to be no evidence that any of the striker were carrying weapons, though it’s possible that one or two missiles may have been thrown from the back of the crowd and hit the fence around Republic Steel. And a few demonstrators might have tried to fight back once the shooting and clubbing started, though most, as noted earlier, simply turned and ran. The newsreel from that day appeared to show this quite clearly, as did statements from observers at the scene. And the fact that I referred to - that people were shot in the back or side – likewise points to them moving away from the police.

Michael Dennis devotes several pages to a detailed account of the actions of the police as they used their guns and clubs indiscriminately. Women, including one who was pregnant, and children were among those hurt.  What is still shocking is not only the initial shooting but the way in which injured people were viciously clubbed and kicked as they lay on the ground and obviously presented no threat to the police. Demonstrators attempting to help fallen comrades were attacked and requests for assistance for the badly-injured were ignored. When some strikers tried to take one of their friends to hospital in a car the police forced them away and threw the man in the back of an already-crowded police van where he died. It seems clear that certain policemen deliberately delayed driving badly-hurt people to hospital. When someone complained they were told to shut up and that they had got what was coming to them. I’ve pulled out only a few examples from Dennis’s account but they indicate the extent to which the police can be said to have run wild. Four strikers died at the scene and six from their wounds later.

Needless to say, conservative elements in Chicago rallied to the defence of the police and supported their claims that the strikers were armed and determined to break through the police lines. Were any of the police injured in any way? Dennis doesn’t look into this question, and I suspect that the answer would be have been “no,” even if he had. But the Chicago Daily Tribune, the city’s leading right-wing newspaper, claimed that communists were behind the violence and named one of the dead strikers as a Party member. It was a fact that a handful of the demonstrators belonged to the Communist Party, and it would have been surprising, given the time and place, if they hadn’t. But, as noted, Party leaders were noticeable more by their absence. And is it likely that they would have had a planned policy of violent confrontation for the demonstration if they had been present?

In the aftermath of Memorial Day there were mass meetings, an enquiry, and though the newsreel did briefly sway public opinion in favour of the strikers, around the country as a whole there was a growing anti-union mood among many middle-class people. It wasn’t that they were necessarily anti-working class, but violence during strikes and the mass sit-ins in the automobile factories tended to worry them. Aggressive union tactics seemed to lead to confrontation in which the rights of property-owners were challenged and some militants wanted to widen their actions to include political as well as purely workplace-based demands. Union leaders responded by becoming more-cautious in their tactics. Dennis quote steelworkers’ union leaders as saying: “We are dealing with organising steelworkers & this only, forget about Spain situation, auto situation, & all other world problems.” He also discusses how President Roosevelt took an increasingly detached approach to labour issues as Southern Democrats allied with Republicans to challenge aspects of his New Deal policies. Workers may have seen Roosevelt as on their side, but out of necessity he usually played an impartial role in labour disputes and preferred to let other people deal with issues like that.

The strike for union recognition at Republic Steel was lost and it was only in 1942, when the demands of war production, union activity, and pressure from the federal government, determined how management needed to react, that an agreement was signed with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA). In the post-war years there were less demands from the grass-roots for radical social or economic change.  Members largely left it up to the union leadership to negotiate favourable terms relating to pay and conditions. A union’s purpose was, for many people, to help them participate in American consumerism. The start of the Cold War and the onset of McCarthyism further reduced the activities of militants in the unions who wanted to shape wider policies. Most American unions purged their ranks of communists and other left-wingers. As Dennis puts it: “By the 1950s, the CIO had lost the sense that it belonged to a larger united front that still had to address fundamental issues of political and economic inequality.”

The story of the Memorial Day Massacre is interesting in itself, but Michael Dennis widens his account to consider matters pertaining to the role of unions today. But the fact of it being about unions in the United States needn’t limit its relevance for British readers. After all, our unions have similar problems relating to their activities. And they face restrictions on how they go about looking after the immediate interests of their members while attempting to play a role in influencing larger social and economic matters.