Industrial Unions and the Little Steel Strike
The nature of American labor unions evolved in the 1930s. Prior to that time, a union consisted of skilled laborers of a particular trade. The American Federation of Labor(AFL), a powerful association of unions since 1886, was comprised of these craft unions. The Congress of Industrial Organizations(CIO), founded in 1935, led the way in creating unions that united all workers in an industry, both skilled and unskilled. When companies provided dangerous working conditions or low wages, these larger unions allowed all workers at a company to work together to confront their employer. Industrial unions soon replaced most craft unions, transforming the labor movement.
One of these new CIO unions was the Steel Workers Organization Committee (SWOC). When Little Steel, a group made up of some of the smaller steel manufacturers in the United States, refused to improve wages and working conditions for their workers, SWOC called for a strike. On May 26, 1937, steel workers all over the country walked out of their jobs, including those at the Republic Steel plant on the south side of Chicago.
Memorial Day Massacre of 1937 ILHS
Police officers charge into the crowd of supporters of the Little Steel Strike in front of the Republic Steel plant in Chicago on May 30, 1937. Photo courtesy of the Illinois Labor History Society.

 

Mollie at the Memorial Day Massacre

Mollie and the young members of the “Current Events Club” stayed informed not only on world events and the Communist Party, but also about social issues and labor disputes taking place in Chicago. Through their interest, they learned about the Little Steel Strike. Mollie helped gather a group of people to join a Memorial Day rally to support the striking Republic Steel workers.

On May 30, 1937, Memorial Day, a large and diverse community of supporters came together in a field near the steel plant to show Republic Steel, and the nation, that they stood behind these workers. Mollie described the atmosphere as celebratory, as she led the crowd in singing labor songs. After singing and speeches, the crowd walked towards the gate of Republic Steel. As they approached the gate, they found 200 Chicago police officers waiting for them. The scene quickly turned from one of joy and camaraderie to one of fear and violence. Ten people died and approximately 100 were injured when police officers released teargas and began shooting into the crowd. Some officers beat men and women with clubs, adding to the chaos and bloodshed.

Those present on Memorial Day gave differing accounts of the chain of events, with officers and Republic Steel representatives claiming protestors carried sticks and rocks as improvised weapons and provoked police officers, while union supporters disputed these claims. Despite this uncertainty, the deaths and injuries that resulted from the confrontation raised awareness of the workers’ cause and served as a rallying cry for the labor movement to this day.

Watch the video below to hear Mollie’s memories of this unforgettable event.

*This video clip was converted from a VHS video of an interview Mollie gave in the 1990s.

Header image: Memorial Day Massacre

 

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