Killed For Going On Strike: The 1937 Memorial Day Massacre

Posted by Pete on May 30th 2019

82 years ago today, ten striking steelworkers were shot dead on Memorial Day by police acting on the orders of a Chicago steel manufacturer. They also deserve a place in our memory. 

A few days ago Americans again celebrated Memorial Day – a time to think on those who’ve sacrificed their lives to uphold those revolutionary principles of the nation’s founding – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

But on this date in 1937 (when Memorial Day fell on the 30th of May), a gang of Chicago policemen made a cruel mockery of this by firing on an unarmed gathering of striking steelworkers who had dared to exercise one of those basic rights.

Photo Credit: US National Archives and Records Administration
Above: Chicago, Memorial Day 1937

Trade Unionism in the 1930s

In the 1930s, trade unionism was on the advance in the US, having – in FDR and his administration – the first government to show it any real sympathy.

The 1935 Wagner Act – a centerpiece of the New Deal – had guaranteed workers in the US their right to bargain collectively and go on strike without threat of dismissal (or worse) by their employers.

But the American ruling class did not plan to accept this attack on their hitherto unlimited power.

‘Little Steel’ against the New Deal

For all their endless talk of ‘law and order’, many rich American conservatives, in their efforts to destroy the New Deal, showed a capacity for lawlessness far beyond anything that’s ever come out of labor or civil rights agitation in the US.

In particular, an evil coalition of smalltime steel manufacturers – dubbed ‘Little Steel’ – refused to abide by the Wagner Act, sacking trade union members as they pleased.

These businessmen were refusing to let go of the total domination of labor which they had enjoyed in the 19th century – FDR’s new laws be damned.

Against Little Steel’s reactionary rebellion, the federal government did nothing, killing any hope that FDR’s support for organized labor could be counted on against the resistance of powerful bosses.

With no support from anyone else in a position to do anything about this, the steelworkers took things into their own hands.

On 26th May 1937, over 70,000 workers across the Little Steel businesses – most from the newly-established Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) – went on strike.

Republic Steel Corporation – one of the most powerful manufacturers in the Little Steel cartel – had one of its main plants in Chicago’s East Side, and on Memorial Day, over 1,500 of its workers marched on the factory, making the most of their legal right to picket.

But as they approached the gates, they were met by a line of 250 Chicago policemen – fed and armed not by the police department, but by Republic Steel itself.

These cops were not there on 30th May 1937 to enforce the law – they were there to violate it in the bloodiest way imaginable.

The Memorial Day Massacre

Unprovoked, Republic Steel's hired goons opened fire on the unarmed trade unionists – some of whom were accompanied by their wives and children.

Over a hundred rounds were fired in total – most after the crowd of workers had begun to run away.

Then, when the gunfire was done, they moved onto the next phase of their assault.

The police holstered their pistols, unsheathed their truncheons, and ran bloody riot among the dazed survivors and stragglers.

Workers, already wounded, were dragged from their hastily improvised ambulances and beaten mercilessly on the ground by these barbarians-in-uniform.

When the dust at last settled on this carnage, Chicago – the city of the Haymarket Affair – had once again staged a massacre of the labour movement by the forces of the reactionary status quo.

Anarchists of Chicago Tea Towel
Above: Our tea towel design inspired by Walter Crane's famous woodcut honoring the Haymarket Eight - martyrs of another shameful crackdown on Chicago organized labor

10 strikers lay dead – most of them shot in the back – and over 100 were wounded.

Disgracefully, the federal government never held anyone involved in the Memorial Day Massacre to account. No one from Republic Steel was prosecuted for this cold-blooded mass murder, nor any of the policemen. Newsreel footage of the massacre was even suppressed for fear (probably accurate) that it would provoke a labor revolt across the country.

Far from being punished, the guilty bosses of the Little Steel cartel were back making handsome profits within a few years, benefitting from the World War II manufacturing boom.

Meanwhile, many of the steelworkers who’d managed to survive the Memorial Day Massacre were overseas, doing most of the heroic fighting and dying on the European and Pacific frontlines, for which they are rightly revered today.

We Shall Never Forget

The victims of the Memorial Day Massacre received no legal justice for what was done to them by the Republic Steel Corp and the Chicago police.

But we can still do them the justice of remembrance and commemoration this week, and on all the Memorial Days to come.

We’d do well to remember that it’s not only the men and women who’ve worn the uniform of the Marines, or the backpacks of US Airborne divisions, who have given their lives for freedom – but also those who’ve worn the overalls of steelworkers, the helmets of miners, and the suits and ties of the Civil Rights Movement.

The America we know today would be a much crueler place without them.

We're inspired by history's untold stories and underappreciated heroes - read on for more stories of civil rights activists, labor agitators, and other righteous radicals who have shaped our world