Remembering the Memorial Day Massacre

“Few people think of unions or the plight of the working class when they think of Memorial Day,” Ahmed White wrote in Jacobin magazine four Memorial Days ago.

“But they should,” he added. That goes double for those of us who pack union cards.

Here in Kentucky, and nationwide, thousands of union members and their families and families will enjoy the holiday. Few, if any, will pause to remember the “Memorial Day Massacre” of May 30, 1937, in which Chicago police, at the behest of a fiercely anti-union steel company, fired on and beat up a crowd of peaceful strikers and their families and supporters. The cops killed 10 and wounded more than 100.

“Autopsies showed the bullets had hit the workers in the back as they were running away,” Howard Zinn wrote in A People’s History of the United States.

In my neck of the deep western Kentucky woods, people who have Memorial Day off might go boating or fishing on Kentucky Lake or Lake Barkley, play a round of golf at Paducah’s Paxton Park or maybe have a picnic in Columbus-Belmont State Park.

Rainy weather is about all the only fun spoiler they’ll have to worry about. They almost certainly won’t have to run for their lives from from rogue cops shooting, clubbing and tear-gassing them.

The “Memorial Day Massacre” is not well known today, even among many union members. But the atrocity is a stark reminder of corporate America’s often violent resistance to organized labor.

Two years before the massacre, Congress passed the Wagner Act. The landmark legislation triggered an unprecedented wave of union organizing, especially in mining and industry.

The act gave workers the right to unionize and required employers to recognize the union when a majority of workers voted the union in. As a result, millions of working men and women flocked to unions.

Despite the Wagner Act, many companies refused to accept unions. Ferociously anti-union, Henry Ford hired and armed a private army to keep the United Auto Workers out of his plants. Other industrialists did likewise. They included union-despising Tom Girdler, president of Republic Steel.

United States Steel, dubbed “Big Steel,” signed a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, part of the Committee for Industrial Organization, later the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Republic and seven other smaller steelmakers, nicknamed “Little Steel,” would not accept the SWOC. As a result, the union called a strike at Republic and two other “Little Steel” companies.

On Memorial Day, 1937, union sympathizers and members of other Chicago unions joined the Republic strikers and their families for a rally outside a tavern across the prairie from the Republic plant. The tavern doubled as SWOC local headquarters.

“Because it was such a fine summer day, many of the strikers brought their children…and wherever you looked, you saw two-year-olds and three-year-olds riding pick-a-back on the shoulders of steelworkers,” wrote historian Howard Fast. And because it was in the way of being their special occasion as well as a patriotic holiday, the women wore their best and brightest.”

Before marching to the plant, the crowd, estimated at 1,500, listened to rousing speeches. An SWOC representative explained: “Twenty-five thousand men were on strike; their purpose was to picket peacefully, to win a decent raise in wages so that they might exist like human beings. But there had been constant, brutal provocation by the police. Well, they were gathered here, as was their constitutional right, to protest that interference.”

Midway across the prairie, the throng, carrying American flags, union signs and placards praising President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. met a cordon of about 250 Chicago police who “had been fed, housed, and armed by Republic,” White wrote.

The unarmed strikers and their supporters protested that they had a right to proceed. The officers refused to budge, cursing the crowd as “Red bastards.”

Mollie West, a member of Typographical Union Local 16, remembered that a lawman warned her, “Get off the field, or I’ll put a bullet in your back.”

The police kept up a barrage of curses and threats before ordering the gathering to disperse. “And then, with no real provocation, the police suddenly opened fire on the crowd,” White added.

Everybody fled in terror, the police in close pursuit, shooting and clubbing at will. Fast wrote: “Grenades began to sail now; tear gas settled like an ugly cloud. Children suddenly cried with panic, and the whole picket line gave back, men stumbling, cursing, gasping for breath. Here and there, a cop tore out his pistol and began to fire; it was pop, pop, pop at first, like toy favors at some horrible party, and then, as the strikers broke under the gunfire and began to run, the contagion of killing ran like fire through the police.

“They began to shoot in volleys. It was wonderful sport, because these pickets were unarmed men and women and children; they could not strike back or fight back. The cops squealed with excitement. They ran after fleeing men and women, pressed revolvers to their backs, shot them down and then continued to shoot as the victims lay on their faces, retching blood. When a woman tripped and fell, four cops gathered above her, smashing in her flesh and bones and face. Oh, it was great sport, wonderful sport for gentle, pot-bellied police, who mostly had to confine their pleasures to beating up prostitutes and street peddlers–at a time when Chicago was world-infamous as a center of gangsterism, assorted crime and murder.

“And so it went, on and on, until ten were dead or dying and over a hundred wounded. And the field a bloodstained field of battle. World War veterans there said that never in France had they seen anything as brutal as this.”

Wrote White:  “[The police]…fired over one hundred shots from their service revolvers and discharged gas they had been given by Republic. They set upon their injured and stumbling victims with hatchet handles — also given them by Republic. They beat grievously wounded people. They dragged dying men along the ground and out of improvised ambulances. And they arrested scores of people, including mortally wounded men in hospitals.”

The police claimed they acted in self-defense. They said the crowd was high on marijuana and Communism and threatened their lives, White wrote.

Movie camera operators and newspaper photographers recorded the slaughter; their terrifying images offering conclusive proof that the cops lied. “The stills and the moving pictures were placed on exhibit during the hearing on Republic Steel held by the subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Education and Labor,” Fast wrote.

The committee found that the police used force “far in excess of that which the occasion required.” The panel also reported that “treatment of the injured was characterized by the most callous indifference to human life and suffering. Wounded prisoners of war might have expected and received greater solicitude.”

Even so, a coroner’s jury ruled the slayings “justifiable homicide.”

A statue marks the massacre site today. Republic and the rest of “Little Steel” eventually signed union contracts. The SWOC became the United Steelworkers of America, Jeff Wiggins’s union.

“We should be thankful every day for the people who stuck their necks out and shed blood to give us the union and a better way of life, which some people take for granted,” said Wiggins, secretary-treasurer of the Kentucky State AFL-CIO and a former president of USW Local 9447. “Young members especially need to understand that the company didn’t give them good wages and benefits. The union did.”

–30–

Cross-posted from the KY AFL-CIO web site..

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Berry Craig of Arlington, Ky., is a professor emeritus of history at West Kentucky Community College in Paducah and an author of seven books and co-author of two more, all on Kentucky history. His latest book is Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy, published last fall by South Limestone Books, an imprint of the University Press of Kentucky.

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