The Little Steel Strike was spearheaded by men and women who put their livelihoods and lives on the line for the cause of fairness, safety, and respect in the workplace. This page summarizes just a few of their stories.
Gus Hall. Arvo Kusta Halberg, who later renamed himself "Gus Hall," was born in a log cabin in 1910 in the mining hamlet of Iron, Minnesota. As a young adult, having been weaned on the rigors of mining and logging camps, he joined the Communist Party; as he put it, "Working in the lumber camps in those days would make a communist out of anyone." In his twenties, Hall worked at Republic Steel's Youngstown, Ohio mill. He was a handsome and likeable fellow, a boyish but burly six-footer who, judging from a famous mug shot taken after an arrest for sabotage, had a face that was configured into a permanently mischievous expression. At twenty-three years old, Hall became a recruiter for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and a leading figure in the Little Steel Strike. Tactically, he was one part rascal and three parts warrior. At one point during the Strike, Republic Steel was flying supplies into one of its mills, where loyal workers and scabs were holed up. Unionists shot at the planes and Hall later described the situation, seeming to have intimate knowledge of it, but, at the same time, denying direct involvement: "Some of the strikers were hunters and had guns. I don't know anything about it, . . . but I'm told that they were pretty good at hitting moving targets—and a plane is bigger than a bird." In the summer of 1936, Hall was tasked with organizing Warren, Ohio. And the question on everyone's mind was "Could he do it?"
Jesse Reese. In 1937, Jesse Reese was a union supporter and unapologetic member of the Communist Party. He was president of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers at a Sheet & Tube plant in Chicago, Illinois. The workforce there was integrated and Reese, a black man, had earned the respect of his peers. He was even part of a delegation sent by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to meet with Sheet & Tube officials in an effort to come to an agreement about working conditions. Unfortunately, that meeting ended without an agreement and, shortly thereafter, on Sunday, May 30, 1937, Reese found himself outside Republic Steel's gates, at the site of what later become known as "the Memorial Day Massacre." Reese was no stranger to brutality and injustice, but what he witnessed on that day stunned even him.
Black Unionists. At the time of the Little Steel Strike, about ten percent of steelworkers were black. Nearly three-quarters of them were common laborers who performed the roughest work in the hottest, dirtiest, and most dangerous departments. That meant that they bore the brunt of capricious workplace policies. Not surprisingly, then, they found the idea of rationalizing employment policies, through unionism, attractive. This was true despite their justifiable skepticism of unionism based on the unions' history of discrimination against and outright exclusion of blacks. Ultimately, blacks and whites alike recognized that an integrated union was an imperative, that black steel workers deserved to be part of the union, and that an industrial union that excluded them did not warrant the name. Many unions made a point of reaching out to black-dominated institutions, recruiting blacks to their cause, and insuring that they had blacks in leadership positions within their organizations. With that backdrop, black union supporters—including Ben Careathers, a veteran organizer who had agitated on behalf of the "Scottsboro Boys," Hosea Hudson, an Alabama steelworker later renowned as a civil rights pioneer, Henry Johnson, the college-educated son of a union man, George Kimbley, the first full-time black person on staff with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, Leondies McDonald, an organizer in the steel and meatpacking industries who had the ability to recruit people of all races to the union, Jesse Reese, discussed above, and Eleanor Rye, a journalist for a prominent black newspaper and one of a handful of black women organizers—became important players in the 1937 Little Steel Strike.
Women in the Trenches. The Little Steel Strike unfolded at a time when few married women held regular jobs outside the home. Nevertheless, women played a meaningful role in the conflict. They walked picket lines, led marches, and risked life and limb to press the union's cause. Three days before the Memorial Day Massacre, for instance, a woman was one of three people leading a column of some 700 to 1000 people to a Republic Steel plant in Chicago, Illinois. On the day of the Massacre, moreover, ten to fifteen percent of the marchers were women. Two of them were shot in the legs by company agents. And the very next month, at Republic's "Stop 5" gate in Youngstown, Ohio, on "women's day" on the picket line, some fifteen women were demonstrating when a belligerent city police captain reproached them, as women, for doing so. Moments later, this same officer started a violent confrontation that ultimately turned deadly. At least seven women were injured, four of them by gunfire. These are just a few of the stories of the courageous women who joined the cause of industrial unionism in the midst of the Little Steel Strike.