Memorial Day Massacre

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Memorial Day Massacre

Chicago, Illinois, United States 1937


In March 1937 the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) signed an agreement with U. S. Steel Corporation, the largest American steelmaker, that warranted an eight-hour workday and a 40-hour workweek. A group of smaller steel companies, the so-called Little Steel group, refused to sign the same agreement. This refusal led to bitter confrontation and violence. On Memorial Day 1937 strikers and their families joined with sympathizers in a demonstration in front of the Republic Steel plant in Chicago. In the violent riots that ensued, 10 strikers were killed and 40 were wounded. The police claimed that they had been attacked by demonstrators with clubs and bricks and that they had to respond with reasonable force to defend themselves and break up the mob. Accounts in newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, fostered paranoia of an imminent communist revolution, describing the strikers as a trained military unit. To the contrary, the strikers argued that the police had started to shoot the peaceful demonstrators with no reason. Their version was validated by the investigation conducted by the La Follette Committee.


  • 1922: Published this year James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land will transform literature and inaugurate the era of modernism.
  • 1927: American inventor Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrates a working model of the television, and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proposes the Big Bang Theory.
  • 1932: In German elections, Nazis gain a 37 percent plurality of Reichstag seats, raising tensions between the far right and the far left. On a "bloody Sunday" in July, communists in Hamburg attack Nazis with guns, and a fierce battle ensues.
  • 1937: Italy signs the Anti-Comintern Pact, signed by Germany and Japan the preceding year. Like the two others before it, Italy now withdraws from the League of Nations.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1937: In the middle of an around-the-world flight, Amelia Earhart and her plane disappear somewhere in the Pacific.
  • 1937: Crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, kills 36 and ends the brief era when rigid airships promised to be the ocean liners of the skies.
  • 1937: Pablo Picasso paints his famous Guernica mural dramatizing the Nationalist bombing of a town in Spain. Thanks to artists and intellectuals such as Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, the Loyalists are winning the battle of hearts and minds, even if they are weaker militarily, and idealistic young men flock from America to join the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Yet as George Orwell later reveals in Homage to Catalonia, the lines between good and evil are not clear: with its Soviet backing, the Loyalist cause serves as proxy for a totalitarianism every bit as frightening as that of the Nationalists and their German and Italian supporters.
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1947: Marshall Plan is established to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Event and Its Context

The Political Context of the Massacre: New Deal Labor Policies and the Steel Industry

The violent struggles of Memorial Day 1937 in Chicago cannot be understood separately from the more general tensions between labor and capital that characterized the historical period of the Great Depression. The New Deal industrial legislation tried to address these tensions. The massacre was itself part of the larger national strike against the Little Steel industries for the recognition of the workers' right to unionize and bargain collectively. The massacre had a crucial impact on the process of increasing unionism in American steel industries. Although the unions eventually called off the national strike of 1937 because of the demoralizing effect of the Chicago massacre and the death of other six union members in pickets throughout the country, the Little Steel companies finally surrendered in August 1941 under legal pressure and signed a contract that allowed collective bargaining.

The legal and political roots of the Memorial Day Massacre are in the legislative acts of the first New Deal, which attempted to cooperate with business in order to foster economic recovery. The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), passed in 1933, tried to strike a balance between the requests of industrialists and workers. The act is the embodiment of the New Deal belief that national planning should replace individualistic and competitive business action. According to the act, the government would be the arbiter of economic competition between different industrial groups, thus relinquishing a key principle of laissez-faire economy: minimal intervention by the state in economic matters. Under the patronage of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) set up by the act, rival companies decided to end ruthless competition and met with representatives of consumers and workers to draw up a code of fairer competition that raised prices by limiting production. To balance the allowances made to industries, section 7(a) of NIRA guaranteed workers their right to form unions and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.

This atmosphere of cooperation between business and workers, however, was short-lived. In 1935 the Supreme Court unanimously declared the NIRA unconstitutional, claiming that it granted the federal government excessive authority to control businesses. This, together with joint attacks on other acts passed during the first New Deal, prompted Roosevelt and Congress to adopt a more aggressive stance toward industries that stood accused of putting their interests above national well-being. In the summer of 1935 Congress passed the Wagner Act (also known as the National Labor Relations Act), which reestablished the rights of workers as outlined in section 7(a) of the NIRA. The new act also gave the NLRB the task of ensuring democratic union election and denouncing unfair labor practices carried out by industrialists, such as the firing of union members.

As a result of the Wagner Act, recruitment of union members increased steadily. The establishment of industrial unions led to a split between craft and industrial workers within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), which until then had been dominated by craft unions of skilled workers. The vice president of the AFL, John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, resigned and, together with other industrial unionists, formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) in November 1935. Because of the difficulties of advancing their demands experienced under the AFL, steelworkers were eager to defect and try the new approach to unionism that was espoused by the CIO. This approach urged all workers to organize in a single union and negotiate with management collectively rather than separately. Under CIO guidance, steelworkers were among the first to organize themselves in a union: the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) formed in 1936. A year later, the United States Steel Corporation, the leading producer of steel (also known as "Big Steel"), recognized SWOC. The two parties signed an agreement recognizing SWOC as the bargaining agent for its members and establishing a common labor wage of $5 a day, with an eight-hour working day and paying workers time and one-half for overtime work.

Despite the fact that many companies signed the same agreement, a group of Little Steel firms that included Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel, Inland Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube refused to sign. Tom Girdler, the chairman of the board of Republic Steel, was particularly influential and vocal in his antiunion views. Confronted by this refusal, on 26 May 1937 SWOC called a strike against three of the Little Steel companies: Republic Steel, Inland Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube. SWOC had just won a short strike with another steel company, Jones and Lauglin, and its leaders believed that they had the strength to close down the three companies. Most of the plants stopped production during the strike, and strikers set up picket lines to prevent any effort to reopen them. However, Republic Steel challenged strikers and refused to close down all its plants, going as far as housing nonunion workers within some plants, including the Republic Steel South Chicago Plant, so that the workers would not have to face the picket lines when going to work.

The Massacre to Stop Bolshevism: A Chronicle of the Memorial Day Massacre

Half of the 2,200 employees of the Republic Steel South Chicago Plant joined the strike on 26 May when the walkout began just after 3 P.M. The police intervened to stop the strikers' attempt to persuade other noncommitted workers to join the cause. When SWOC members tried to form a peaceful picket in front of the plant entrance, the police, led by Captain James Mooney, divided the demonstrators and arrested 23 people who had refused to obey their orders. The police action of breaking up this picket and forcing the activists to move to another location two blocks away from the plant clearly showed police support for Republic Steel.

Strike headquarters were established in Sam's Place, an abandoned tavern and dance hall six blocks northeast of the plant gate. The police further identified with the cause of Republic Steel by eating and sleeping in the plant. Meanwhile, Chicago mayor Edward J. Kelley announced in the Chicago Tribune that peaceful picketing would be permitted. Accordingly, strikers attempted to march again to the plant gate to strengthen the picket lines. The police confronted the strikers several blocks from the plant, and the strikers turned back without incident.

On 27 May demonstrators made another attempt to reinforce the pickets. Harsher police opposition confronted the marchers, a warning of what was to happen in the immediate future. At about 5 P.M., a group of several hundred strikers began to march to the plant gate. They encountered a stiffened police line that included reinforcements. The workers continued their march, and fighting broke out as a result. During the struggle several policemen took out their guns and discharged them into the air. This was a warning of the tragedy that was to occur on Memorial Day.

On 29 May, a Saturday, limited picketing took place at the plant. Nick Fontecchio, a local trade-unionist, called for a mass meeting at Sam's Place for Sunday in response to the violent behavior of the police. Strike leaders encouraged other local SWOC unions, in particular those from nearby closed-down plants, to send members to the meeting. The same day police captain James Mooney received an anonymous report that strikers would attempt to occupy the plant and throw out the nonunion workers the next day. Mooney took for granted the truthfulness of the report and ordered almost 300 policemen to be on duty at the Republic Steel plant on Sunday afternoon, thus setting the background for the unfolding of the massacre.

By 3:00 P.M. on 30 May, a crowd of around 1,500 strikers had gathered. It was a warm day, and many of the strikers and their supporters had brought along their wives and children to join in this almost festive gathering chaired by SWOC organizer Joe Weber. Speakers included Leo Krzycki, the regional director of SWOC, Nick Fontecchio, and Weber himself. They all addressed crucial labor issues of the day, especially the right to organize and picket. The workers approved some resolutions to send to government officials concerning police conduct at the Republic plant and decided to march to the plant and establish a mass picket.

When the march was agreed to, about 1,000 people went into formation behind two American flags. Instead of marching south down Green Bay Avenue, they turned onto a dirt road across an open prairie chanting, "CIO, CIO!" When the police realized the direction of the parade, they moved their position to across the dirt road. About 200 policemen stood in double file with their clubs drawn and watched the approaching marchers. The Republic mill had armed some of the officers with non-regulation clubs and tear gas.

The marchers met the police line and demanded that their rights to picket be recognized and that the police let them through. They were ordered to disperse, but the strikers persisted. The violent struggle was captured on a Paramount newsreel of the event, although the film was not released to the public at the time "on the grounds that such an unrelieved record of blood and brutality was liable to touch off more riots." Before the La Follette Committee investigating the responsibility for the massacre, cameraman Orlando Lippert testified that he was changing lenses when violence broke out. The reconstruction of events in the moments preceding the massacre relies on evidence presented during the hearings of the committee chaired by Senator Robert La Follette. The police were trying to prevent marchers from outflanking their line. As some strikers began to move back, a stick flew from the back of the line toward the police. Immediately, police threw tear gas bombs at the marchers. The next few moments were complete turmoil. Marchers threw more objects at the police. Acting without formal instructions, several policemen in the front line drew their revolvers and fired point blank at the marchers' ranks, the majority of whom were beginning to withdraw. The actual shooting only continued for 15 seconds, but the violence lasted for much longer. Using their clubs, the police beat anyone in their paths, including women and children. During this time, arrests were also made, and several injured were not even taken directly to local hospitals. As a result, four marchers were fatally shot and six were mortally wounded. Thirty others suffered gunshot wounds. Thirty-eight were hospitalized as a result of injuries from the beatings and 30 more required other medical care. It is noteworthy that all but four of the 54 gunshot wounds were to the victims' sides or backs; one was shot four times. There were minor police casualties with 35 reported injuries (no gunshot wounds), and only three needed overnight hospital care.

Although the immediate outcome of the massacre was negative for the demonstrators' cause, as the strike was called off, the SWOC filed a complaint with the NLRB that eventually led Republic Steel and other Little Steel Companies to give up unjust labor practices. Also, the La Follette Committee investigation of the massacre yielded several important conclusions. The committed stated that the police had no right to limit the number of peaceful pickets and that the march was not aimed at the invasion of the plant. The role played by the police was censored, and the report argued that the police should have stopped the march with limited violence: the force used by the police "was far in excess of that which the occasion required." "The provocation for the police assault," the report stated, "did not go beyond abusive language and the throwing of isolated missiles." Moreover, the report of the La Follette Committee found that the "treatment of the injured was characterized by the most callous indifference to human life and suffering. Wounded prisoners of war might have expected and received greater solicitude." Because of all this evidence, historians Bud and Ruth Schultz have argued that the "Memorial Day Massacre was the culmination of sixty years of assaults by the armed forces of the government" on labor organizations.

Competing Representations of the Memorial Day Massacre

After the riot, sympathetic strikers strongly objected to the police violence. On the other hand, the press, especially the Chicago Tribune, portrayed the marchers as communist conspirators who had essentially attacked the police and attempted to drive out nonunion workers. The conservative and antilabor Tribune distorted the demonstrators' decisions to cultivate paranoia of an imminent communist revolution: the next day's edition claimed that several "agitators went among the strikers convincing them that they were within their rights in invading the company's property." This was paired with a front-page article tellingly entitled, "Soviets Told CIO Leads To Bolshevism," which claimed that the CIO was just a front organization for the Communist Party to recruit members. Quoting a pamphlet produced by communists the previous January, the newspaper claimed that "the communist party is mobilized behind the CIO and aims at a soviet dictatorship in America." The cartoon on the front page was also revealing of the indictment of strikers as dangerous revolutionaries willing to destroy the nation for their own selfish interests. Entitled "The Psychopath," the cartoon showed a fattish drunkard smashing to pieces "America's Household" together with its precious items, such as the "American Private Property" fish bowl, a "U.S. Constitutional Guarantees" cupboard, and a "U.S. Industry" door. The drunk is holding an axe called "Frenzy Against American Wealth," and his madness is provoked by the mirage of a dollar sign in the form of a snake. The Tribune thus gave the police an excuse for the massacre: as brutal as their act had been, the policemen fighting the demonstrators were to be considered as fighting dangerous Bolsheviks.

This landmark event in the history of unionism proved inspirational also for the American radical imagination. The events of Memorial Day Massacre were fictionalized in Meyer Levin's radical 1940 novel Citizens and were the subject of Philip Evergood's painting American Tragedy and of Frontier Film's Native Land. This artistic interest in the events of the Memorial Day Massacre clearly illustrates the connection between labor struggle and cultural representation typical of the 1930s and the early 1940s. As Michael Denning put it in The Cultural Front, his study of American Popular Front cultural politics, the many radical representations of the Memorial Day Massacre as well as of other labor struggles of the era "sought to inform and engage an audience and to memorialize the events as a mythic narrative." The events of Memorial Day Massacre may not have reached the mythic status that the "grapes of wrath" story attained in American popular culture. Yet, those events and their consequences are certainly crucial for an understanding of American trade unionism.

Key Players

Girdler, Tom M. (1877-1965): President of Republic Steel at the time of the Memorial Day Massacre, Girdler stated that he would close his mills and retire to tend the apple trees on his farm rather than meet with union representatives.

See also: Committee for Industrial Organization; National Industrial Recovery Act; U.S. Steel Recognizes Steel Workers Organizing Committee; Wagner Act.



Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. London and New York: Verso, 1997.

Levin, Meyer. Citizens. New York: The Viking Press, 1940.

McDonald, David. Union Man. New York: E. P. Dutton &Co., 1969.

Schultz, Bud, and Ruth Schultz. The Price of Dissent: Testimonies to Political Repression in America.Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2001.

Sweeney, Vincent D. The United Steelworkers of America: Twenty Years Later, 1936-1956.

United Steelworkers of America, 1956. United Steelworkers of America Education Department. Then and Now: The Road Between. United Steelworkers of America, 1974.


"4 Dead, 90 Hurt in Steel Riot." Chicago Tribune, 31 May1937, p. 1.

Day, Donald. "Soviets Told CIO Leads to Bolshevism."Chicago Tribune, 31 May 1937, p. 1.

"Five Chicago Steel Plants Shut; Ford CIO Fight." Chicago Tribune, 27 May 1937, pp. 1-2.

"Police Repulse Mob Attack on S. Chicago Mill." Chicago Tribune, 31 May 1937, pp. 1-2.

"South Chicago Mob Battles Police; 24 Hurt." Chicago Tribune, 29 May 1937, pp. 1-2.


Bork, William. Massacre at Republic Steel. Illinois Labor Society. 1975 [cited 14 October 2002]. <>.

Illinois Labor History Society. Film strip. The Memorial Day Massacre of 1937. 1975.

—Luca Prono

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Memorial Day Massacre

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