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The Strike That Changed The Rules

Published: Sun, May 20, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

By William K. Alcorn | alcorn@vindy.com

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.

And deadly.

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.


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.


1Ypboy(64 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Unions were once very much needed and now they have out lived their usefulness. Today they are destroying our economy.

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2chuck_carney(499 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Now those were union members, not the panty waste types now calling themselves "brothers and sisters'.

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3NoBS(2845 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

"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."

That's all that needs to be said. Unarmed men were shot in the back by these zealots, or at their hands. Did they go to jail? They should have.

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4Klink(36 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Ypboy - Yes, the unions caused the wall street collapse that destroyed our economy. A worker making enough money to pay their mortgage is a bad thing for the economy.

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5operator(2 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

kling is a 29 year old , living in his parents celler, eating 3 meals a day playing vidio games on a tv his fathers tv bought working a union job ,grow up and smell the roses r , if you can read , a history book would maybe change your view on orgainized labor--

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6Freeatlast(1991 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Thank you to all the Men and Women and most of all those who lost their lives to bring the middle class to America

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7VINDYAK(1824 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Ah, the good ole days...

gas was 24 cents a gallon

bread was 9 cents a loaf

and a box of bullets ... $1.29

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8kensgirl(1067 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Unions kept food on many a table. Collective bargaining at least let's both sides negotiate. Prior to that a worker would get his pay and a pink slip. Bring THAT home to a wife and 6 kids!

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9JJPirko(13 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

@Operator: Klink gets it; he is responding with sarcasm to Ypboy's comment "Unions were once very much needed and now they have out lived their usefulness. Today they are destroying our economy."

The reality is that our economy has been destroyed because We The People have allowed the overwhelming proportion of our nations' wealth to be concentrated into the hands of a global aristocracy that owes no allegiance to the USA. They have bled our economy with trade deficits from OPEC oil and imported manufactured products from Communist China, etc.

The bloody conflict sacrifices of the late-19th and early-20th Centuries will have to be relived again if we lose the Unions and the basic workers' rights that were won in those battles.

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10Freeatlast(1991 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago


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11redvert(2240 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Now the new rules pertaining to getting enough votes (not secret ballot) to force a company to recognize a union are all part of the move to socialism.

With a union, the worker has no individual rights, they just do as they are told by their superiors. Yes, I know, they may vote on stuff but if the vote does not agree with their masters wishes, it doesn't fly. Case in point, a friend of mine that was with Ohio Edison told me about a vote they had a few years back where it was known how the majority of the local felt. After the ballots were taken to Cleveland for counting, it appears that the majority of the local changed their mind. Funny how that happens.

Remember, a union allows a few to control a bunch and you do not advance until bubba who has one day seniority on you dies or moves up. Personally I can think for myself.

Sit! Sit!, good boy, goood booyyy!!!

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12redvert(2240 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

May I add that, at least with unions you never have to worry about strong arm tactics!!!

Along with the lib vote, it has worked quite well for the Ytown area for the last 50-60 years, hasn't it?

Ytown, "the armpit of Ohio"

Boo, big business! Boo rich people! No problem, lots of poor people out there hiring......

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13Freeatlast(1991 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Ytown Raised Remember

“Never argue with a stupid person for they will only bring
you down to their level and then beat you with experience

Also known as the coolaid drinker by some

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14rocky14(840 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

redvert doesn't have a pot to pi$$ in,but he will always stick up for the super rich--like they would actually talk to him!

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15Freeatlast(1991 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

They are talking about the workers
They must put them down

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16Mooneygrad72(42 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

I am confused !! When did the name of the situation chnange?? My parents ALWAYS called it the BIG LITTLE steel strike, as did Atty Paul Dutton whom I had for History at YSU. Even our text called it BIG LITTLE, My dad and grandfather were kept inside the mill for several days working, Srories of wives, daughters walking down Loveland Rd, hill to see them at a distance or to give them food, over the fence were related to me often.

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17misterlee(118 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Don't bother arguing with Utica, he talks out of his @$$ and throws insults but doesn't have facts or science behind anything he says. If you put him in his place though, he'll start ignoring you and won't respond on any things you post on. He's an Internet tough guy who likely spends half his paycheck on "male enhancement" pills.

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18redvert(2240 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Gee, I went out to enjoy myself after my early morning comments and come back to find that I must of struck a few nerves. Old YoungstownBornRaised tickled me the most, blamed the republicans for everything but forget to explain why none of the "problems" were corrected during the times that the libs had control of the White House and Congress, most recently, obowser's first two years. Why was that? Now let us get back to the old Mahoning Valley's perpetual lack luster existence for the last 50-60 years.

Now would I like to see a change to Republican policies around here? Of course i would for the short term followed up by a nice balance between the two parties. Will it ever happen, probably not since I don't think the mentality around here will ever change. Why change something that hasn't worked very well for the last 50-60 years? Wow, I am sounding like a democrat!!! Time to call it quits for the day.

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19joebag09(354 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Ypboy.....unfortunately some of us have gone through experiences with bad management/ supervision that union involvement would have helped tremendously. Until business recognizes that there are times, even when it's rare, that managers/ supervisors do not always walk on water, people will and need union representation. I'm sorry, but I've seen too much "blind" faith in supervisors to ever trust a company's administration.

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20NewportNewsRE(4 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

I agree with you 100% UticaShale!

Who are these people who think that I don't have a right to neglect my own property in Youngstown for over 10 years to the point that the city then demolishes them on the tax payer's dime and drags me through court on the tax payer's dime and issues judgments against me in the tens of thousands of dollars!

I mean, I never even paid any property taxes in the first place! I'm not even a homeowner here, and the bottom feeders of this society still think that they are entitled to some standard of property maintenance in their neighborhoods. Unbelievable! Take your Marxist standards and inject them with the fracking fluid!

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21misterlee(118 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

I rest my case

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22redvert(2240 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Yea Joebag09, You can always trust the union reps 100% so all is good!!!

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23republicanRick(1743 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

In the 1930's business leaders had too much power and they abused it, thus the rise of the unions.

NOW, the shoe is on the other foot and unions have too much power and they are bankrupting communities and taxpayers. Now you are witnessing a movement to curtail UNION power.

The pendulum swings both ways.

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24fd6636(289 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Those of you who wish to discard unions should ask those who are left from generations before us if they think we would be better off without unions. Unions are, like it or not, a balance. If you out there think that we would be better off with out unions (balance), think again. Does the word "Fat Cat" and "machine" ring a bell? Maybe some of you "entitled" people out there who have wealth should research how your family had the oportunity to obtain some of that wealth. Our parents busted their asses to obtain wealth, and yes, like it or not, some was with the aid of UNION jobs, and the chance to make a better life for their families. Those who feel that unions are not needed and the scales would tilt to the middle are just fooling themselves.Corporate greed and unchecked abuse of power won't alow that! Alot of families out there have reaped the benefit of good paying union jobs, and so have generations of families out there, Don't bite the hand that feeds you, like it or not! Hey, wasen't heir Kasich's dad a mail man?? ........... See.

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25southsidedave(5199 comments)posted 4 years, 2 months ago

Unions have played a significant role in the development of modern industry. If corporations treated its workers fairly and paid a living wage, there would be no need for unions. Think about that next time you shop at a discount store - I won't mention any names.

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