THE LAST GREAT STRIKE
LITTLE STEEL, THE CIO, AND THE STRUGGLE
FOR LABOR RIGHTS IN NEW DEAL AMERICA
University of California Press
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"I'd never seen the police beat women, not white women."
-Jesse Reese on the Memorial Day Massacre
Jesse Reese marveled as he crawled through the grass under the afternoon sun on a desolate field in the southernmost reaches of the city of Chicago. It was Memorial Day, Sunday, May 30, 1937. All around Reese, scores of club-wielding police were beating people, men and women, black as well as white, and firing gas weapons and firearms, striking down dozens.
A signal moment in the history of labor and class conflict in America, the "Memorial Day Massacre," as it came to be called, was but one of many violent chapters in a bitter and prolonged strike during the sumer of 1937. The "Little Steel" Strike pitted steel workers aligned with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee of the Committee for Industrial Organization against a group of powerful steel companies. The companies -- Republic Steel Corporation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company, and Inland Steel Company -- were dubbed "Little Steel" only to distinguish them from the enormous U.S. Steel
Coporation, or "Big Steel," as every one of them ranked among the 100 largest firms in America. Acting in concert, they were also interlinked with other capitalist interests, including powerful trade groups and business organizations. This coalition of capitalists was intent on using the strike to mount what one commentator went so far as to call an "armed rebellion" against the movements for economic reform and industrial unionism that surged with such strength in the New Deal era.
At the outset of the Little Steel Strike, 70,000 workers walked off their jobs at the four companies that comprised Little Steel. The strikers wanted the companies to retreat from decades of anti-union repression, abide by the newly enacted federal labor law, and recognize their union. For two months, a grinding struggle ensued, punctuated by bloody clashes in which police, company agents, and National Guardsmen ruthlessly beat and shot unionists. At least sixteen died and hundreds more were injured before the strike ended in failure. The violence and brutality of the Little Steel Strike became legendary. It was in many ways the last great strike in modern America.
Traditionally, the Little Steel Strike has been understood as a modest setback at most for steelworkers, one that actually confirmed the potency of New Deal reforms and did little to impede the progress of the labor movement. But The Last Great Strike tells a different story, contending that, more than any other strike, the Little Steel Strike laid bare the contradictions of the industrial labor movement, the resilience of corporate power, and the limits of New Deal liberalism at a crucial time in American history.