Labor disputes are not uncommon in this country. There’s something romantic about it: marching with your fellow workers, carrying signs of encouragement, the smell of conflict in the air, singing protest songs. It’s an intoxicating feeling, one that can work as a force for good, or for violence.
Chicago has a sordid history with labor disputes like the Haymarket Riot or the Teacher’s Union Strikes. Lesser known is the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, a protest against U.S. Steel that turned very bloody very quickly.
On May 30, 1937, Memorial Day, members of a few small steel manufacturers, or “Little Steel,” protested an agreement made between U.S. Steel and several other steel manufacturers. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) called for a strike to protest what they believed to be a monopolization of U.S. Steel.
This crowd of 200 people marched across a prairie from Sam’s Place, SWOC’s headquarters, towards Republic Steel mill. They carried their flags, chanted and sang as they approached the mill. As they arrived, they found a long line of 150 policemen blocking their right to picket.
An already tense situation became strained as protestors threw rocks and bricks at the combative police officers. The strikers were determined to win their contract, and the police were determined to keep the protesters from breaking the line.
Soon enough, a gasket was blown.
“Get off the field or I’ll put a bullet in your back,” one police officer was reported to have yelled.
But the protestors persisted. They fought back, they pushed forward, and the police felt threatened. And that’s when gunfire broke out.
As the crowd fled the chaos, police fired their service weapons indiscriminately into the crowd. Some protestors fought back, some laid down on the ground and covered their heads, others ran away. Police beat as many protestors as they could find, beating them in a “business-like” manner.
Ten protestors died that Memorial Day. They were all shot in either the back or the side as they were trying to escape the police’s onslaught. Nine people were permanently disabled. Twenty-eight had serious head injuries from the police clubbing.
No police were killed or seriously harmed during the violence.
No police were charged in the killings. A Coroner’s Jury declared the massacre to be “justifiable homicide.” The murder of ten unarmed people was justified. Instead, a congressional investigation after the fact had Chicago police “condemned for using excessive force.” A slap on the wrist.
Just as quickly it began, it ended. The strike ultimately folded as workers made their way back into their jobs in Chicago and elsewhere. Photos and footage of the incident were captured by a Paramount photographer, but the company decided not to release it to the public out of fear it might incite riots.
The union eventually won their contract.