Labor’s bloody battle in steel

June 30, 2016

Joe Richard reviews a new book that recounts one of the most famous--and fiercest--battles in all the pages of U.S. labor history: the Little Steel Strike of 1937.

STUDENTS OF labor history now have a fantastic new book on the history of the Little Steel strike in 1937. Ahmed White's The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America is an excellent introduction to the period, and engages with a wealth of rich material from different primary sources.

As a law professor at the University of Colorado, White approaches the story from a unique angle and convincingly lays out the precedents set by the newly created legal machinery of the National Labor Relations Board, and the legacy that continues to carry today.

At the same time, the book is also a portrait of the emerging bureaucracy in the pre-war Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) leadership, and a gut-wrenching examination of the violent anti-union tactics of some of the most powerful captains of American industry. It's essential reading for any socialist or union militant.

THE STORY itself is heartbreaking. The date was 1937: After the dark years of the Great Depression and the annihilation of entire sections of the labor movement throughout the 1920s beforehand, the U.S. was in the throes of probably the greatest working-class rebellions to erupt in U.S. history.

Police move in against strikers in the opening stages of the Memorial Day Massacre
Police move in against strikers in the opening stages of the Memorial Day Massacre

The CIO was a brand-new dissident union federation that had been freshly expelled from the American Federation of Labor and had begun winning dramatic mass strikes in the citadels of basic industry: auto, rubber, electrical goods, food processing, transport and now, finally, steel.

The steel industry had long been the powerful leader of the viciously anti-union "open shop" movement among employers in the U.S. The bosses controlled private armies of armed gunmen, private police, spies and entire armories of weaponry and tear gas. Across the strike zone, the steel bosses had local and state governments in their back pockets, as well as legions of bought-and-sold small town preachers, newspaper editors and "concerned citizens."

But in early 1937, U.S. Steel, the industry leader, scared of sit-down strikes and watching as the clouds of war gathered over Europe, signed a first contract with the CIO's Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC).

The remaining independent companies--which were collectively referred to as "little steel," although as giant industrial corporations, they were anything but "little"--drew tighter together, more vulnerable and perhaps even more dangerous.

Arrayed against them was the CIO, deploying an army of shop-floor militants and organizers, drawn largely from the ranks of the millions of immigrant families, who lived and toiled in the strike zone across what is now referred to as the "Rust Belt." The Communist Party assigned dozens of organizers to help run the strike, and SWOC's payrolls were full of radicals and fellow travellers.

The unionization of the steel industry had long been viewed as a crusade by the labor left. It was the backdrop of Marc Blitzstein's 1937 Federal Theater Project musical The Cradle Will Rock, which featured a tough worker protagonist, Larry, going up against "Mr. Mister" in "Steeltown, USA."

FRANKLIN DELANO Roosevelt had just been reelected in the fall of 1936 in a massive landslide that heavily featured working-class union voters participating in record numbers. The United Auto Workers had just brought General Motors to its knees, signing the first contract a few months earlier. The United Rubber Workers had just done the same in Akron, Ohio, at Goodyear and Firestone.

The UAW's successful sit-down strike set off a wave of "sit down fever" across the country, as workers everywhere immediately adopted the tactic and began their own sit-downs.

The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), passed in 1935, was finally upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Act first became law, thousands of employers refused to abide by it, betting that the NLRA would be ruled unconstitutional like its predecessor, the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933.

One of the Little Steel companies, Jones & Laughlin, led the legal challenge. In a landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in National Labor Relations Board vs. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation that Congress did in fact have the power to regulate industrial relations and protect workers' right to organize.

The CIO looked like a juggernaut, moving from victory to victory and toppling the captains of industry from their strongholds. Yet powerful currents were also beginning to flow against the steelworkers.

The economy had begun to slow down again at the beginning of the "Roosevelt Recession," and orders for the steel companies started to dry up, blunting the impact of a potential strike. After being handily reelected, Roosevelt and the Democratic Congress began to distance themselves from the CIO, and the sit-down strike wave renewed fears of communism and class conflict among the middling and business classes.

The stage was set for an explosive confrontation. In late May, it began. Hundreds of thousands of steel workers poured out of the mills in answer of SWOC's call to strike for union recognition. In response, the steel barons unleashed a wave of violence across the entirety of the strike zone, with their hired guns and local and state police cooperating to attack SWOC picket lines and force the steelworkers back into the mills.

IT WAS a hard-fought and brutal strike, and the book does an excellent job depicting the struggle. White meticulously documents the drama of the strike, the picket-line battles, the injunctions and the collaboration between the Little Steel companies and the media to attack the strikers.

Using the detailed documentary records of the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee, which investigated employer resistance to the strike throughout the strike zone, White amply depicts the ferocious resistance put up by the steel companies.

He also delves into the internal debates within the CIO, and the developing tensions between the leadership of Phillip Murray, a devout Catholic and centrist, and the Communist Party, which played a heavy role throughout the strike.

White analyzes the aftermath of the strike, and his legal knowledge shines when discussing the sanctions and remedies finally decided by the NLRB in response to the company's violent resistance during the strike.

Thousands of strikers were arrested, hundreds beaten and injured (many by gunshot wounds) and more than a dozen killed during the course of the strike. Additionally, thousands more were fired and blacklisted for their activity during the strike in flagrant violation of the NLRA.

Years later, when the companies finally were ordered to offer remedies to the affected workers, the NRLB set a series of precedents that offered little justice to blacklisted workers and strikers. Some strikers were ordered to be reinstated back into the mills, and returned to their old jobs after years on the blacklist. Some won back wages, after it was determined the companies illegally fired them. But the monetary awards were pathetic compared to the lost wages and years of lost employment.

Reinstating workers and paying puny amounts of lost back wages to blacklisted strikers was a small price to pay for companies after they successfully crushed the strike and averted unionization. But this practice became enshrined as the NLRB formula to "punish" employers who violated the NLRA.

The families of victims brought suit as well: receiving tiny sums of money from the companies for the deaths of their loved ones, oftentimes just a few thousand or even a few hundred dollars. In a familiar story for the rich and powerful, no steel company executives or managers were ever punished for the shockingly high body count that piled up over the course of the strike.

White damningly portrays the strike's aftermath and draws out what it has meant for the system of U.S. industrial relations that have been in place ever since. Readers interested in U.S. labor history or labor law or both should buy and read this book.

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