[At this year’s commemoration of the Memorial Day Massacre, an annual event sponsored by steelworkers who help us remember the history of our working class, high school student Christian Sullivan read his award-winning, very perceptive essay. What I found particularly useful was the author’s consideration of what is different today. Things are indeed different, fundamentally different, and it is exciting to see young people grappling with what this change means. — Lew Rosenbaum]
Memorial Day Massacre by Christian Sullivan
“On Memorial Day, May 30, 1937, police opened fire on a parade of striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company, in South Chicago. Fifty people were shot, of whom 10 later died; 100 others were beaten with clubs,” a quote by Dorothy Day from her book Selected Writings summarizing the events of the Memorial Day Massacre. There is no doubting that date was one of the worst tragedies in Chicago history, and nothing can justify the actions of the police officers, press, and steel companies involved during, and after, this horrific incident occurred. There were a number of causes and aftermaths of this event, and these valiant steelworkers should be an example to workers of the modern day of how important and powerful labor unions truly are.
To understand the causes of the Memorial Day Massacre, one must understand the way businesses think. When it comes to the production of a product, the profit of the company is based on how much money and resources are put into making said product versus the amount of money they bring back selling said product; the smaller the production fee, the larger the profits. One large production fee is the salary of every worker and employee who help in the making of the product. In the business world, the smaller their employees’ salaries are, the better the company’s profits. At the same time, as executives at higher pay, they don’t want to lower their own, regardless of how gross or unfair it may be. The only other way for them to increase profits would be to raise the prices of their goods and risk upsetting the consumer, which could potentially lead to lesser profits and loss of business to lower priced competition. With that being said, we can now better understand the cause of this massacre that took place outside of the Republic Steel Company.
The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), previously known as the Committee of Industrial Organization, was an organization that heavily encouraged and aided the unionization of workers in industrial jobs such as the steel industry. CIO was quickly succeeding in the creation of a steel workers union, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), even being recognized by one of the largest companies in the steel industry, U.S. Steel, which was notoriously anti-union beforehand. They signed a contract with SWOC, promoting the act of “collective bargaining,” the negotiation of terms and treatment between companies and employees. Many other large and small steel companies signed this same contract, recognizing the union and agreeing to negotiation; yet, six companies, known as “Little Steel” still refused to accept the unionization of steelworkers, one of these companies being Republic Steel.
In the business world, unionization equals less profit. If companies are to maximize profit, they must be in full control of wages and treatment of their workers, otherwise, they must sacrifice profit for the health, well-being, and fairness of their employees; therefore, collective bargaining was out of the question for any company looking to make the most money they possibly can. Allowing collective bargaining and unionization forces a company to recognize the power and say its workers have in its business, disallowing them to continue taking advantage of them.
As such, Republic Steel continued to refuse any dealings with SWOC, resulting in mass protest in order to hurt production to the point of forcing Republic Steels hand into union acceptance, as done with many other opposing steel companies before it. SWOC planned a march to the Republic Steel company and a peaceful picket; however, Republic Steel, already knowing about the picket, set up a police blockade outside of its company gates. When the march reached its destination, they were immediately confronted by the police. With the peaceful picketers refusing to give in, several officers drew their guns and began firing into the crowd, killing 10 innocent civilians and injuring 30 others whilst they were fleeing. Other police officers drew their clubs and brutally beat several other protesters, permanently disabling nine of them, and severely injuring another 28. That was the Memorial Day Massacre.
Press and media tended to be completely bias, supporting the police side. Any footage of
The New York Times called the demonstrators a “mob.”
the massacre was held from the public in order to prevent “mass hysteria.” Not a single police officer was convicted of a crime and any evidence that could have shown the use of excess force was hidden from the public eye. The story was even morphed by police and media, claiming that the protesters carried weapons and were under the influence of drugs.
As aftermath, protest was completely changed for the future. As mass gatherings and pickets often lead to violence, injury, and sometimes death, it became a lesser focus of organized unions. Instead, unions began focusing a lot more on legal action and communication with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in order to make safer, more concrete change. After just five more persistent years, those who had given their lives that fateful day in front of the Republic Steel company no longer did so in vain. Legal actions with NLRB caught the attention of the Supreme Court, and all remaining steel companies included in Little Steel were forced by national law to unionize, showing that unions can succeed and can do so through the system. It showed that unions had the power to change things for the better, whether it be through protest in a field or plea in the courtroom.
As years went on, that feeling of power was reduced. The decline in labor unions in the past 50 years is in no way a natural one. Companies, as well as the government, have been purposely trying to decrease the popularity of labor unions. Companies have armies of lawyers looking for loopholes in contractual obligations, and government, mostly those of the Republican Party, have been doing what they can through congress to legally decrease the amount of power labor unions withhold. On top of all of this, companies who do not want to deal with the fair pay and treatment of union workers are simply outsourcing their jobs to other countries where unions have no power and displacing American citizens from jobs in the process. All of this is adding to a mental effect on American citizens that unions are no longer powerful enough to change anything. People no longer believe in unions’ abilities to protect them from the unfairness of large companies, some even blaming them solely for the loss of jobs in America. Even though our problems remain the same, the unions protecting us from those problems have grown weaker and less numerous.
Today, people are still facing the exact same problems the steel workers were back in 1937: unfair wages, unsafe working conditions, and unfair pensions; however, unlike back then, companies and government know what to do to get around labor unions. Labor unions game has not changed, but the companies’ has. At the same time, union support as fell so greatly, that even old tactics are not being implemented for change. No one believes they can make a difference, so they often do not try. Places where simple picketing and court actions would work are not even making the attempt. Taking a lesson from the steelworkers of the 1930s may not fix some of the more complex issues in bigger businesses nowadays, but it still has untapped power in some work places. People are just simply too disheartened to use them.
None of this means organized labor is beaten, defeated, dead, or gone; simply outdated.
Roman Villarreal’s sculpture, a tribute to Chicago steelworkers, dedicated in 2015 in Steelworkers Park
Union power needs a revamp. They need to come up with new ways to picket, new ways to negotiate, and new ways to combat unfairness. As companies update their ways of avoiding union power, unions need to update their ways of checking companies. All of this is made even harder by the fact that sometimes even our own government is suppressing the unions and the public is losing faith in organized labor. Unions need to update their ways, show people they have the power to equalize employer/employee relations again, and show them that becoming an active union member can make a difference. All of this could be made much easier by having a government that will also support union power and push bills in their favor rather than against. None of this is possible overnight. This is a process that will take years to happen and, as with all things, will not happen at all without people taking action to make happen.
In all, the fact that unions have power at all is a thing to be thankful for, and we owe a great debt the CIO, SWOC, NLRB, and every group, union, and national association that keeps workers from unfair treatment and pay as best they can today. Sure, we may not ever be as successful as our predecessors who worked toward work force equality and fought and even died for us, not only in the Memorial Day Massacre, but in every protest, movement, or event. The Memorial Day Massacre was a tragic incident, and from it came one of the most important strength our generation need to make it in this country, a stronger, more active labor union. Now it is time to rejuvenate it and strengthen it just as they did. How? We will not know until we make the effort to figure it out as a whole, together, as a union.