At its roots, the battle — launched 75 years ago on May 26, 1937 — began as a conflict over union recognition.
In the end, the face of labor-management relations in the United States was changed, though exactly how is still debated.
The confrontation pitted thousands of steelworkers in the Midwest against the so-called Little Steel companies.
In Youngstown, considered the strike’s epicenter, confrontation was intense and personal.
In 1977, longtime Vindicator reporter and political writer Clingan Jackson described a confrontation between strikers and police in Youngstown that left two strikers dead.
“I was there,” said Jackson in interviews about the strike for the Youngstown State University Oral History Program and a Vindicator story.
Jackson was a 30-year-old general assignment and labor reporter covering the strike for The Vindicator. He and Vindicator photographer Edward Salt were on Poland Avenue on June 19, 1937, when “all hell broke loose,” Jackson said.
Two strikers were killed, and many others including women and children were injured in a clash with Youngstown police, Mahoning County sheriff deputies and Republic Steel private police at the company’s Stop 5 on Poland Avenue.
Salt was one of those wounded.
Jackson, who died in 1997, said he and Salt were in a crowd near the Republic Steel gate when a shotgun blast “took off every leaf of a bush right in front of us.”
Jackson retreated to the relative safety of a nearby fire station, but when he learned Salt had been wounded, he risked gunfire to go back and get Salt and take him to a hospital, where he was treated for flesh wounds.
Returning to the picket line during the riot, Jackson went down the hill to Poland Avenue in his car, and everybody was carrying clubs and crowbars, he said.
The next night, Jackson was at the steelworkers’ hall covering the strike.
“Every time you stuck your hand out the door, somebody shot at it. I didn’t get out of there until the next day,” he said. “It was a pretty tough time.”
Accounts of how many strikers were killed vary.
According to the U.S. Senate’s La Follette Civil Liberties Special Committee, which investigated the strike, 16 died and 283 were injured. In addition, one policeman received a bullet wound and two birdshot wounds.
Donald G. Sofchalk’s doctoral dissertation on “The Little Steel Strike of 1937” in 1961 at Ohio State University reports 17 deaths.
Sofchalk’s death toll: 10 killed by uniformed Chicago police on May 30, 1937, commonly referred to as the Memorial Day Massacre; three killed in Massillon; two in Youngstown; one in Cleveland when hit by a car on the picket line; and one in Beaver Falls, Pa.
What is not in dispute, said Dr. Thomas Leary of YSU’s history department specializing in industrial and labor history, is that all the fatalities occurred at Republic Steel facilities.
In Chicago, strikers, accompanied by wives and children, marched toward the Republic Steel plant intending to picket. They were met by 250 uniformed police. A scuffle ensued, and police opened fire, killing 10 unarmed demonstrators and shooting and beating many more with clubs and ax handles, according to reports.
It was later learned during the La Follette hearings that seven of the 10 killed were shot in the side or back while running from police.
Despite the violence in Chicago, the Youngstown-Warren area, with several Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. mills scattered along the Mahoning River, was considered the origin of the brief but brutal battle.
The Little Steel Strike began May 26, 1937, when about 900 local steelworkers pushed Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC) president Philip Murray into calling the strike at a meeting at Moore Auditorium on West Boardman Street. More than 20,000 stayed away from their jobs here and an additional 90,000 struck steel plants across the Midwest.
The Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee was affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), a new labor movement that took on both employers and the established American Federation of Labor (AFL) during the Great Depression, said Leary.
“The Little Steel Strike didn’t just come out of nowhere,” said Dr. Donna DeBlasio, director of the Center for Historic Preservation in Youngstown State University’s history department.
The National Recovery Act of 1933 encouraged collective bargaining in an effort to minimize labor strikes, keep people working, and keep production going during the recovery from the Great Depression, Leary said.
The nation’s largest steelmaker, U.S. Steel, in March 1937 recognized SWOC as representative of its union employees.
But a number of companies — including Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, Inland Steel, and Bethlehem Steel and National — collectively known as Little Steel because of their relative small size individually compared to U.S. Steel, resented U.S. Steel’s action and refused to recognize laws that gave workers the right to organize and bargain with employers.
While Little Steel companies preferred employee-representation committees, the Wagner Act and creation of the National Labor Relations Board in 1935 allowed that if a majority of workers voted for union representation, the company had to recognize and bargain with that union.
During the time leading to the Little Steel Strike, national legislation favoring union rights was passed and the economy was improving. This led the CIO to invest $500,000 to organize the steel, auto and rubber industries.
“But, I don’t think the union realized how tough it was going to be to organize the Little Steel companies,” DeBlasio said.
There was miscalculation on both sides, Leary added.
Companies such as Republic and its anti-union chairman of the board, Thomas M. Girdler, were willing to defy the law and use force to intimidate their employees. Their mills became armed camps, Leary said.
In anticipation of the strike, the Little Steel companies had formed and armed their own private police forces with ammunition and weapons, including machine guns. Republic and Youngstown Sheet & Tube purchased 160,300 rounds of ammunition for the Youngstown district, according to reports.
Labor underestimated the extent to which the Little Steel companies would go to fight unionism, and the companies misread the determination of their employees, Leary said.
Not only did the steelworkers and steel companies face off, community leaders and organizations also got involved.
Committees were formed — including the Mahoning Valley Citizens Committee, the Citizens’ Law and Order League of Canton, and the John Q. Public League of Warren — that weighed in on the strike.
A citizens committee’s full-page newspaper ad on June 19, titled “The Individual’s Right in the Strike,” in part read: “Not only do those who are employees in the mills suffer, the well-being and happiness of thousands of other homes” are threatened.
On June 20, the day after two strikers were killed at Stop 5 on Poland Avenue, and on several other occasions, Republic Steel ran an ad offering a $500 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone threatening families of employees of the company or destroying property of employees at its Warren or Niles plants.
Even the boys in Warren complained that pickets had bought all the baseball bats, according to a story published in The Vindicator on June 15, 1937.
Planes were used to drop food to management and steelworkers who stayed inside the plants. One of the planes crashed while attempting to land on Republic Steel property in Warren, an event caught on camera by Vindicator photographer Lloyd Jones.
Whether the plane malfunctioned or was shot down by pickets was long debated, too; but Republic Steel offered a $1,000 reward in a Vindicator ad for information leading to the arrest of anyone shooting at their planes.
Other organizations, and even some businesses, helped feed the strikers and their families.
Harold Milligan Sr., 101, was in his mid-20s during the strike helping his father, Arthur “A.D.” Milligan, operate the family dairy business in Struthers.
“We delivered milk to mill supervisors and strikers alike and never had any trouble,” he said.
Coal miners came in during the strike and upset some bread trucks, but the Teamsters union said they would “take care of our trucks because during the Depression my father gave milk to families with children if they couldn’t pay,” said Milligan, a four-term mayor of Struthers from 1952 to 1963.
BREAKING THE STRIKE
The strike was broken when Ohio Gov. Martin L. Davey deployed thousands of National Guard troops to protect workers entering the plants.
On the face of it, the strike failed.
Strikers went back to work without union recognition or contracts, pay increases or better working conditions. Many were blackballed until a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1940 reinstated 5,000 Republic workers with back pay. Republic finally signed a union contract in 1942, but Girdler did not attend the signing ceremony.
Historians, scholars and union leaders debate the long-term effect of the Little Steel Strike of 1937.
In the large picture, the strike was a “decisive battle in the struggle to define the meaning and legacy of the New Deal, one which industrial workers simply lost, albeit for no lack of courage and sacrifice,” wrote Ahmed A. White, associate professor of law at the University of Colorado in his paper “The ‘Little Steel’ Strike of 1937: Class Violence, Law, and the End of the New Deal.”
Another viewpoint, made by John Sargent, a union organizer at Inland Steel in the 1930s, is that the Little Steel Strike was a short-term victory and a long-term loss for organized labor.
Interviewed for the book, “Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers,” edited by Alice and Staughton Lynd of Niles, Sargent said that immediately after the strike, unions were run from the bottom up and were never more effective.
At Inland Steel, Sargent said that, unhampered by a national contract, “we secured for ourselves agreements on working conditions and wages using wild-cat strikes, shutdowns and slowdowns to get what we wanted. Believe me, we never had it so good.”
He said that when companies became smart and realized they had to recognize labor unions and their national and international leadership, it took the affairs of the union out of the hands of local elected officials, and the union became a watchdog for the company, Sargent said.
The Little Steel Strike of 1937 was a huge short-term defeat for the union in that it didn’t get union recognition a contract, said Charles McCollister, retired professor of labor/management relations at the University of Pennsylvania.
It did, however, prove the steelworkers’ tenacity and toughened labor law, he said.
“Collective bargaining became the law of the land, and company-dominated ‘workplace groups’ were outlawed,” McCollister said.