The 1937 Memorial Day Massacre: ‘We don’t want fascism in America’ – by Chris Mahin

The 1937 Memorial Day Massacre:

‘We don’t want fascism in America’

by Chris Mahin

[Chris Mahin is an independent scholar and historian who concentrates on labor history.  His essay on the Bread and Roses Strike of 1912 can be found on this blog. – editor]

The policeman wearing Badge #7181 pulled Earl Handley out of a car marked with a Red Cross sign, a makeshift ambulance. The 37-year-old carpenter for Inland Steel was

Labor Violence (1937) “The Memorial Day Massacre” — police battle strikers at the Republic Steel Plant in Chicago. SOURCE: Library of Congress.

bleeding profusely, but the cop dragged him along like a drunk. Handley died because his wounds were not treated.

Meyer Levin saw the police prevent Burnside Hospital ambulances from taking the wounded to the hospital. Patrolman Walter B. Oakes attacked Joseph Rothmund and then killed him, shooting Rothmund in the back as he fled.

May 2010 marks the 73nd anniversary of “the Memorial Day Massacre.” Ten people were killed and 90 wounded that day when the police attacked a peaceful march outside the Republic Steel plant in South Chicago . All the dead were shot in the back or the side.
The march came just days after the beginning of a strike called by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) against Republic Steel and two other companies. During the 1930s, Republic Steel was known as one of the worst places to work in the steel industry. The company paid low wages, drove its workers hard, and provided no medical care or pension plan. Republic Steel fought unionization even after the largest employer in the steel industry – the U.S. Steel Corporation, known as “Big Steel” – agreed to unionization in early 1937.

The Republic Steel Corporation spent tens of thousands of dollars to stockpile machine guns, rifles, revolvers, tear gas, and bombs in the weeks before the strike began. It also established a private police force of close to 400 men.

The strike involving 85,000 steelworkers began at the 11 p.m. shift change on May 26, 1937. Confrontations between workers and the police began even before the official start of the strike, as police prevented mass picketing in front of the main entrance of Republic’s South Chicago plant. The union called for a mass meeting at Sam’s Place, an abandoned tavern serving as union headquarters, for Sunday, May 30 — Memorial Day.

Memorial Day 1937 was a hot, sunny day with temperatures reaching 88 degrees. By about 3 p.m., some 1500 strikers and their supporters had gathered at Sam’s Place. About 15 percent of the crowd was made up of women and children. After two CIO leaders spoke, union organizer Joe Weber read several resolutions to be sent to government officials protesting  police misconduct at Republic Steel. The resolutions were approved by acclamation. A member of the crowd then made a motion that a march be undertaken to the plant gate to establish mass picketing. The motion carried.

About 1,000 people formed up behind two American flags and began to march south toward the main entrance to the plant, chanting, “CIO, CIO!”

As the marchers approached the plant, they found about 400 cops waiting for them, in double file, with their billy clubs drawn.

The marchers urged the police to let them through to set up their picket line. A stand-off ensued for several minutes. Some marchers were beginning to move back toward Sam’s Place when a stick rose from the rear of the marchers’ line and flew toward the police. Almost simultaneously, tear gas bombs were thrown by police at the marchers. Then the police drew their revolvers and fired point blank into the retreating marchers. Within 15 seconds, about 200 shots were fired.

The police literally threw the wounded into patrol wagons, stacking them like firewood on top of each other. None of the wounded received first aid before being tossed inside.

Reasonable Force? Source: NEIU archive

Patrol wagons designed to hold eight prisoners were filled with twice that many. The most seriously wounded were taken to a hospital at least 30 miles away.

The Chicago police department, the Republic Steel Corporation, and anti-union publications like the Chicago Tribune tried to justify the killing, claiming that the strikers were armed and attempting to seize the plant. A Paramount News camera was mounted on a truck directly behind the police. The Paramount film clearly shows the peaceful nature of the march and the police responsibility for the violence.

Within weeks of the tragedy, a U.S. Senate committee issued a scathing report which placed responsibility for the violence squarely on the shoulders of the Chicago police.

While the strikers were forced to return to work in mid-June 1937, they ultimately succeeded in their campaign to unionize Republic Steel. The company was eventually   forced to sign a union contract just months after the United States entered World War II.

The anniversary of the Memorial Day Massacre should remind us how much sacrifice was required to win labor rights in this country. One of the key lessons of that struggle was expressed well that day by a talented organizer from the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America who was assisting in the long, bitter campaign to organize the steel industry. He was an ACWA vice-president named Leo Krzycki. By 1937, Krzycki had earned his reputation as an eloquent “labor orator” and he addressed the rally which preceded the march to Republic Steel. In a prophetic speech given only about an hour before the massacre began, Krzycki told the strikers, “Violence against peaceful picketing must stop. Republic Steel must abide by the Wagner Act. We don’t want fascism in America.”

The most anti-union leader of the group of steelmakers called “Little Steel” was Tom M. Girdler, the Chairman of Republic Steel.

Fascism is a system of government in which workers are denied any rights. That’s what Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy had become before World War II. Back then, there were forces who wanted to turn America into a fascist police state too. These forces wanted to crush the union organizing drives which swept across this country during the 1930s.

Today, the working class is again faced with the challenge of standing up to a systematic attempt to deny us our most basic human rights. After years of plant closings and anti-union legislation and court rulings, the percentage of American workers organized into unions is lower today than during the 1930s. It’s a very sad state of affairs when a smaller portion of the work force is in unions than it was when workers in a big city could get shot in the back for demonstrating near a plant gate!

The seriousness of the current situation should remind us that Leo Krzycki’s message still rings true: We don’t want fascism in America !

Further Reading:

Ohio’s Steel Mill War

NEIU archive

Economic Populist: The Memorial Day Massacre

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way: The Energy Industry and the Future — from the editors of the People’s Tribune

[Note: The following editorial will appear in the June issue of the People’s Tribune.]

People’s Tribune Editorial: Nationalize the Energy Industry
May 25, 2010

The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes more clear than ever that we have to nationalize-take over-the giant corporations, including the energy industry, in the interests of the people before the corporations destroy the earth itself with their lust for profits. To do this the people are going to have to get control of the government.

Estimates of the amount of oil pouring into the Gulf each day have ranged from 210,000 gallons up to 2 million gallons. It reportedly takes only one quart of motor oil to make 250,000 gallons of ocean water toxic to wildlife. Scientists say that if the spill is left unchecked it could destroy the world’s oceans and thus threaten all life on earth.

How is it that one corporation is allowed to have such power over the rest of us? Clearly the corporations have merged with the state-the government is nothing more than an instrument in the hands of the corporations. Evidence of this abounds. Countries like Norway and Brazil require deep-sea oil drillers to have in place a $500,000 piece of equipment that helps prevent blowouts like the one that produced the catastrophe in the Gulf. The U.S. government has exempted firms drilling in American waters from this requirement. And in the month following the spill, the government has granted to firms wanting to drill offshore 27 exemptions to the requirement that an environmental impact study be conducted. And when the U.S. Senate recently tried to consider a bill that would have increased the maximum liability for oil companies after an oil spill from the current $75 million to $10 billion, a single senator from an oil-producing state-Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)-was able block the bill.

The oil companies could easily have afforded the $10 billion limit. In the first three months of this year, the top five oil companies amassed $25 billion in profits. (BP, the company in charge of the rig that exploded in the Gulf, had $6 billion in profits in the year’s first quarter.) These oil companies are on the road to make perhaps $100 billion in profits this year. It’s no wonder that they jealously guard their ability to make money, and no wonder that they have the influence that they do.

BP, Halliburton and the banks and investors that finance them have made clear by their actions that they don’t care about their impact on the environment or the future of humanity. All they care about is money and power. The production and distribution of energy is too important and too potentially dangerous to be in private hands. The energy companies cannot even guarantee a reliable supply of energy to us at a price we can afford.

The energy industry has to be nationalized in the interests of the people. Of course this implies that the people must assert their control over the government. With the bailout of the banks and the auto industry, we have already seen that the corporate government that rules our lives is fully ready to nationalize or partially nationalize industries in the interest of the corporations. We need nationalization in the interests of the people. The question that is more and more coming to the fore is, whose interests will the government serve-the corporations or the people?

In the long run, we are fighting to build a new society free of corporate domination, where no one is denied what they need to live and prosper. Nationalization of the giant corporations in the interests of the people-and the related fight to get our government out of corporate hands-is the next step along the path to that new society.

This article originated in the People’s Tribune, PO Box 3524, Chicago, IL 60654, 800-691-6888, Feel free to reproduce unless marked as copyrighted. Please include this message with reproductions of the article.

The Gulf (The World) in Crisis: The BP Index

[Note: since this index was published 10 days ago, the figures are much worse.  Still, the figures are staggering enough.]

INSTITUTE INDEX – Gulf in crisis

Estimated gallons of oil that have spilled into Gulf of Mexico from the BP/Transocean disaster, in millions: 5 to 25

Estimated gallons of oil that spilled in 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, in millions: 10.8

Barrels of oil used in the U.S. every year, in billions: 7.6

Amount of known oil reserves known to exist in U.S. ocean areas now prohibited from offshore drilling, in billions: 18

Number of years of U.S. oil supply that opening these areas to offshore drilling would provide: 2 years, 5 months

Amount that rig owner BP says it had spent to contain and clean up the spill: $450 milion

Number of days it takes BP to make that much in profits: 5

Number of years ago that Congress passed the Limitation of Shipowner’s Liability Act, which holds that a company is only responsible for liability up to the value of their vessel, including an oil rig: 151

Amount that Transocean has valued its failed Deepwater Horizon rig and therefore the maximum liability they claim responsibility for from oil spill damages: $27 million

Amount Transocean had valued the rig before the spill: $650 million

(Click on figure to go to original source.)

The Memorial Day Massacre

[The last Monday in May is celebrated to commemorate those who died in war.  What most Americans overlook is that for the working class Memorial Day has a special significance.  It commemorates the battle against “Little Steel,” in which Chicago police killed 10 workers at Republic Steel.  Here is the brief account and a link to a more complete one, from the Illinois Labor History Association:]

Memorial Day Massacre of 1937

Ten demonstrators were killed by police bullets during the “Little Steel Strike” of 1937. When several smaller steelmakers, including Republic Steel,

The sculpture was created by Ed Blazak, a former employee of the Republic Steel company. It was originally sited on the property of Republic Steel near Burley.Ave. The sculpture, with its ten steel pipes, represent the smoke stakes of the ten steel mills within the area, now closed. They can also be Representative of the slain ten demonstrators.

refused to follow the lead of U.S. Steel (Big Steel) by signing a union contract, a strike was called by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

As a show of support, hundreds of SWOC sympathizers from all around Chicago gathered on Memorial Day at Sam’s Place, where the SWOC had its strike headquarters. After a round of speeches, the crowd began a march across the prairie and toward the Republic Steel mill. They were stopped midway by a formation of Chicago police. While demonstrators in front were arguing for their right to proceed, police fired into the crowd and pursued the people as they fled. Mollie West, a Typographical Union Local 16 member and a youthful demonstrator at the time, still recalls the command addressed to her: “Get off the field, or I’ll put a bullet in your back.”

Here is the article by William Bork that gives the background information on this strike and massacre:

Massacre at Republic Steel

by William Bork

The 1930’s was a period of great economic hardship for the American people, a period of upheaval in the social and political structure. Streets were filled with hungry people waiting in breadlines. During the Great Depression, workers also walked the picket lines demanding their rights under laws passed during the New Deal.

The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), passed in 1933, contained a section guaranteeing to workers a right to organize for the purpose of collective bargaining. Several large and sometimes violent strikes occurred in 1934 involving unions struggling for recognition as collective bargaining agent under the NIRA. Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco were scenes of three of the best known strikes.

The level of strike activity was the highest in American history. Between May, 1933 and July, 1937, 10,000 strikes took place involving some 5,600,000 workers. It was a period of bitter conflict between Capital and Labor.

In May 1935, the NIRA was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. Its labor provisions, however, were replaced on July 5, 1935 by the National Labor Relations Act, popularly referred to as the Wagner Act. Click here to read the entire article.

To get to the site of the 1937 battle, you can follow these directions, also from the ILHS site:

A single frame from the Paramount newsreel of the Memorial Day Massacre. ILHS sells a video program containing the entire newsreel footage. See the ILHS bookstore link.

By automobile, from the Chicago Loop to the former USWA local 1033 headquaters at 11731 Ave. O, take I-90/94 (Dan Ryan Expy) South and merge with the I-94 (Bishop Ford Fwy). Then, exit at 103rd .St and turn East to Torrence. Ave, and turn South to 106.St and turn East to Ave. O. Then, drive South to 117th .St and stop at 11731 Ave O, enter the parking lot. Memorial sculpture is to the North at 117TH. St by the fire station (this was dedicated in 2008).

From here you can reach the Pullman community in ten minutes. Backtrack to 103rd and Torrence. Ave and trun West on 103rd. Then, turn South on Cottage Grove. Ave and 111.St, the Florence Hotel is in site to the East.

Planning to Change the World

Planning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers 2010-2011

Edited by Tara Mack and Bree Picower
Published by NYCoRE and the Education for Liberation Network in partnership with Rethinking Schools
ISBN: 0942961900

plan book 2010-2011 Planning to Change the World: A Plan Book for Social Justice Teachers 2010-2011 is a plan book for educators who believe their students can and will change the world. It is designed to help teachers translate their vision of a just education into concrete classroom activities.

Pre-order your copy through Rethinking Schools by June 30, 2010 for the discounted price of $14 ($13 for bulk orders), plus shipping and handling (Retail bookstore price $18). Your order will be shipped to you in mid-July.

The newest edition has all the things you would expect in a lesson plan book plus:

  • Weekly planning pages packed with important social justice birthdays and historical events
  • References to online lesson plans and resources related to those dates
  • Tips from social justice teachers across the country
  • Inspirational quotes to share with students
  • Thought-provoking essential questions to spark classroom discussions on critical issues
  • Reproducible social justice awards for students
  • and much more

The 2010-2011 edition is the third in the Planning to Change the World series. Click here to view samples pages from the 2009-2010 edition.

This year’s calendar features all new historical anniversaries and birthdays. How is it that Planning to Change the World has new events and birthdays each year? Learn more about the 10 Year Rule and get a sneak peak at some sample dates from the 2010-2011 calendar.

For more information, including a video presentation and comments from educators, click here.

Listen: A Video From Sacramento’s Safe Ground

I’m often asked about the connection between labor and art, and what is that.  Here is a concrete manifestation of that:

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing requested a statement from Safe Ground Sacramento. This is their statement, “Listen”, as presented to the U.N. in November 2009, a film by Costa Mantis, written by Mona Tawatao, Joan Burke and John Kraintz.

Chicago Public Schools Accounting 101: Less Is More – Ben Joravsky in The Reader

Less Is More at CPS

Schools CEO Ron Huberman says he’s cut 50 administrators from the central office. But records show he’s added almost as many—at higher salaries.

By Ben Joravsky

The Chicago Public Schools is a system so broke it can’t afford sophomore sports, wants assistant coaches to work for free, and has summoned hundreds of teachers to the principal’s office to let them know they’ll be laid off over the summer. But it can still afford to pay 133 central office officials more than $100,000 a year.


That’s what budget reform looks like to schools CEO Ron Huberman.

About two months ago, when Huberman and the Board of Education cut sophomore sports, they said the district, roughly $900 million in the red, could only afford to let freshmen, juniors, and seniors play after-school sports—even after laying off dozens of well paid administrators.

It irked me that a city so rich it could afford to shower subsidies on profitable corporations such as United Airlines and MillerCoors to the tune of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars couldn’t afford to let sophomores play. Click here to read entire article.