by Sharon Smith
Originally posted May 27, 2011, written in May 1989
May 31, 2021
The presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt changed the reputation of the Democratic Party from the party of the Southern slaveholders to that of “friend of the working people”—a reputation that the Democratic Party, undeservedly, continues to enjoy.
Roosevelt himself became nothing less than a legend, with his campaign promise of a “New Deal for the American people” and his signing of the National Recovery Act in 1933, which opened the way for the mass union organizing drives of the Depression era.
But on the heels of the great wave of sitdown strikes in auto and steel in 1936-37 came the Little Steel strike in the spring of 1937—a strike that showed the hypocrisy of Roosevelt, alongside the sheer brutality of the capitalist class faced with a swelling working-class movement. Little Steel taught workers a bitter lesson about the true class loyalties of the New Deal Democrats, as Sharon Smith explains in an article that appeared in the May 1989 edition of Socialist Worker.
ROOSEVELT’S NEW Deal itself was nothing less than an attempt to save American capitalism—which was no easy task in 1933, with 15 million unemployed, an estimated 1.5 million homeless and wages halved from their 1925 level.
Roosevelt’s first act as president was to freeze bank withdrawals and provide other emergency measures to save the big banks, while the small ones never opened their doors again.
The National Recovery Act (NRA) provided that private corporations would be exempt from prosecution under the anti-trust statutes, even if they fixed prices and allocated markets. In exchange, they had to adopt codes that establishing minimum wages and maximum hours, eliminated child labor and recognized the rights of workers to organize unions and bargain collectively.
Roosevelt thought that he could tread a fine line, providing the measures necessary to help the big capitalists back on their feet and, at the same time, offer a series of concessions to ward of potential rebellion among American workers.
The New Deal itself was never fulfilled for most workers and the NRA was soon nicknamed the “National Run Around,” and by Black workers, the “Negro Removal Act,” for failing to challenge the institutionalized job segregation and lower wages for Black workers.
But the signing of the NRA coincided with a slight upturn in the economy; unemployment levels dropped slightly and workers began to rebuild the self-confidence that has been lost in the first years of the Depression.
Beginning in 1934, the mood of American workers began to shift—and in the course of the next few years, literally millions of workers moved into struggle. When the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) opened its doors in 1936, workers virtually flooded in. Before long, the CIO could claim a membership of nearly 4 million—bigger than the conservative American Federation of Labor.
Roosevelt’s popularity swelled. His administration received the credit for shifting the balance of class forces, when in reality it had been the struggles of workers themselves that had made the right to organize into unions more than a paper technicality, and made the right to a decent wages and food on the table more than a campaign promise.
Nevertheless, the entire CIO apparatus threw their weight behind the president in the 1936 elections—followed closely by the Communist Party, whose uncritical support of the CIO’s top officials like John L. Lewis extended to their tacit endorsement for Roosevelt.
THE HONEYMOON between the Roosevelt administration and the labor movement continued, even as the wave of sitdown strikes swept across America in 1936. In the spring of 1937 alone, 400,000 workers were involved in sitdown strikes.
When the CIO launched a massive union drive in the steel industry in 1937, it expected to do battle with the traditionally anti-union U.S. Steel, which controlled some 40 percent of the steel industry. But in March, only one week after the long United Auto Workers sitdown in Detroit had been settled, U.S. Steel signed its first CIO contract—they were clearly anxious to avoid the spread of sit-downs from auto and rubber into the steel industry.
Most of the smaller companies followed suit—by the end of 1937, 450 steel firms had been unionized.
But the group of companies known as “Little Steel” banded together, determined to form a block of resistance to unionism within the steel industry, and in the process, to deal a sharp blow to the confidence of the working-class movement. And by May 1937, another factor was coming into play: the economy was beginning to show signs of a downturn.
The Little Steel companies were only “little” in comparison to U.S. Steel. In fact, they controlled a large bulk of the steel industry. And the Little Steel executives were extremely right-wing and viciously anti-union: they made a principle out of union busting and were prepared to go to great lengths and expense to do it.
Only one Little Steel company, Jones & McLaughlin, signed a union contract. The others, led by Republic Steel’s Thomas Girdler, prepared themselves to force a strike.
Girdler once said that rather than deal with a union, he would “shut down and raise apples and potatoes” instead.
Girdler alone spent $50,000 on munitions in May. By May 25, Republic Steel’s security police department had 370 officers, 552 pistols, 64 rifles, 245 shotguns, 143 gas guns and 2,707 grenades.
Girdler ran a huge spy network to weed out the troublemakers. And he bought 43,800 copies of a pamphlet called “Join the CIO and Help Build a Soviet America.”
Once each Little Steel firm was similarly prepared, one by one they refused to sign a contract—even though they were willing to follow the wage concessions made by U.S. Steel.
The strike was being forced on the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), but SWOC wasn’t ready. They had anticipated a fight at U.S. Steel, so most of SWOC’s organizing had gone into areas where U.S. Steel had plants.
Except for Youngstown Sheet and Tube and Inland Steel, where the strike was almost completely effective, the strike was weak from the very beginning. At the Republic Steel plant in Monroe, Mich., only 150 of the 1,350 workers honored the strike, and Girdler actually locked out the workers at Republic’s Massillon mill.
The Little Steel barons organized armed vigilante squads to attack picket lines—enlisting the help of New Deal Democrats in sending in the National Guard to reopen the plants with scab labor.
Gov. Martin Davey of Ohio, elected on a New Deal slate, send the National Guard to Youngstown to “maintain the status quo,” following the killing of two workers on the picket line by police. Union organizers convinced Youngstown workers to leave the picket line and go home to wait for the National Guard—who were coming to help keep the plant shut peacefully.
Instead, when the National Guard appeared the next morning, their first act was to raid workers’ homes, arresting the strikers. They then proceeded to union headquarters, where they confiscated all union records. By the evening, all the strikers were in jail and city was under martial law—everything was set for the plant to reopen.
THE “CHICAGO Massacre”—the cold-blooded killing of 10 unarmed strikers and supporters at a peaceful rally on Memorial Day of 1937—is the best example of the ruthless terror the companies were willing to inflict upon the strikers, with the unswerving cooperation of their allies in government.
Of the 10 strikers killed, seven received bullets in the back, and three in the side. Some were not killed by bullets, but were beaten to death. Thirty others, including an 8-year-old boy, were wounded by gunshot. Countless others were severely beaten.
No police were killed, and only 35 reported any injuries at all.
The next day, the Chicago Tribune headline read, “Chicagoans Led in Steel Strike by Outsiders,” and failed to even list the names of the dead. Instead, they named leading “outsiders” and “communists.”
By the end of May, the strike had become desperate: Little Steel with local governments fully backing its efforts, had succeeded in physically beating back a steelworkers’ union movement that had been unprepared to even fight, much less face the armed forces of the state head on.
John L. Lewis appealed to Roosevelt, who had remained silent throughout the strike, to intervene—to take a decisive stand on the side of the workers in the face of this brutal and clearly illegal attack from the employers.
But Roosevelt responded with the phrase, “A plague on both your houses.” By failing to come to the aid of the steelworkers, the “friend of labor” had sided decisively with the capitalists. The honeymoon was over.
In fact, Roosevelt was under tremendous pressure: corporate capital had begun a mass desertion of his administration in 1935, and he re-established his alliance with big capital as he began the military buildup that would lead into the Second World War.
So the Little Steel strike ended, not all at once, but one by one as workers drifted back into the mills.
The defeat of the Little Steel strike marked the end of the working-class upsurge of the Depression years—between mid-1937 through 1941, CIO organizing was driven to a crashing halt. By August, the recession was in full bloom, and it wouldn’t be until 1941 that the Little Steel companies would sign union contracts—this time, without a strike.
But it was not a foregone conclusion that the working-class upsurge of the 1930s should have ended the way it did, or that the Little Steel strike of 1937 should have gone down in defeat.
Much of the responsibility rests with the Communist Party—the largest and most influential left organization at the time, which would have been the one force capable of building an alternative to the Democratic Party in the 1930s.
But instead of arguing that Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats would turn their backs on workers, and that workers needed to prepare themselves to take on the National Guard when this happened, the Communists marched right behind the CIO officialdom into the Democratic Party.
These politics helped disarm the workers’ movement—effectively preventing the creation of a workers’ party in the U.S.
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Labor History: Chicago Memorial Day Massacre 1937 Part 1
ruggedouttechnicians on Jul 8, 2011
Illinois Labor History Society video discussing the Little Steel Strike of 1937, and the massacre at the gates of Republic Steel in south Chicago.
Labor History: Chicago Memorial Day Massacre 1937 Part 2
From the archives:
The Dawn of Labor: Commemorating May Day, by Yanis Iqbal
The Brief Origins of May Day by Eric Chase
The War at Home: Part 2: Blacklist
The War at Home: Part 1: Rebellion
The Proletariat In Search Of A Class by Gaither Stewart