The Memorial Day Massacre You May Not Know About

A black and white frame of a crowd of police confronting strikers - beating them with batons

Police clash with striking workers outside Republic Steel during what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago on May 30, 1937. (Chicago Daily News/Chicago Museum of History/Getty Images)

After years of decline – in some industries, of inactivity – union organizing in many areas is resurfacing. Once associated with blue-collar companies such as General Motors, labor unrest is now growing at Amazon, Apple and Starbucks. A strike shut down Los Angeles schools for three days in late March, led by the Service Employees International Union. Now members of the Writers Guild of America are marching on picket lines as their strike against the Alliance of Film and Television Producers, which began May 2, continues.

Decades ago, union protests, pickets and strikes often led to violent clashes between activists and local police, although this almost never happens today. This is in part due to lessons learned by both sides 86 years ago in Chicago, after police shot and killed 10 trade unionists in what became known as the Memorial Day Massacre.

In 1937, not a single policeman or supervisor was punished for his part in the Chicago violence, a fact that resonates often today. And because the only filmed footage of the confrontation was suppressed by a major news outlet, the allegations of “fake news” and “media cover-up” could also have applied at the time.

While the economy was still reeling during the Great Depression, it was a time of labor turmoil in the United States. The largest steel company, US Steel, avoided a strike by offering workers what have become industry benchmarks: the eight-hour workday, time and a half overtime and more. But smaller — albeit barely small — steel companies in the Midwest and Pennsylvania, such as Bethlehem Steel, refused to budge. More than 70,000 workers in these factories went on strike at the end of May.

When workers picketed outside Republic Steel in South Chicago, they were met by baton-wielding police. To mobilize wider support, they held a picnic near the Republic factory on May 30. When as many as 1,500 supporters showed up, including women and children, organizers called for a march to the heavily guarded factory gates where they planned to legally picket.

Halfway to their objective, they were stopped by hundreds of Chicago police officers, all armed with pistols and some wearing ax handles provided by Republic. Protesters and police engaged in a heated discussion. It looked like nothing more serious was afoot, but suddenly police threw tear gas canisters – also supplied by Republic – and pistol shots rang out.

Accounts would vary depending on what triggered the deadly assault. Some protesters threw rocks and a tree branch, and police may have simply lost patience with a crowd that did not disperse as ordered.

About 40 walkers were downed within seconds. Doctors later determined that the majority of them had back or side injuries. Dozens more were sent to hospitals with serious head injuries after police chased, grabbed and clubbed retreating marchers. Ten died that day and in the days to come.

For three weeks, newspapers across the country almost invariably described the trade unionists as “rioters” who left the police no choice but to use lethal force to prevent them from attacking the factory. Then it emerged that a major movie news company, Paramount News, had a cameraman on the scene who filmed almost the entire confrontation and its aftermath.

Paramount did not release the newsreel it had prepared, saying the footage could spark riots in theaters but more likely to protect Chicago police and officials.

This prompted a Senate subcommittee to subpoena footage from the film, leading to sensational hearings in late June and early July, where the star witness was an injured Mexican-American activist. During the hearings, the footage was released publicly for the first time.

Paramount was left with no choice but to issue a news item dedicated to the incident. The Senate report blamed the police entirely for the massacre. Yet no one would be punished for their actions that day except the dozens of trade unionists who had been arrested, jailed or fined.

Small steel mill workers returned without contracts. But there was this positive outcome: No labor confrontation in the United States would ever come close to matching the death toll in the 1937 massacre, as strike leaders tried to avoid violent conflict at all costs. and that the police were determined to control labor actions without the use of firearms.

Of course, police shootings against unarmed citizens remain all too common and often go unpunished today. But the legacy of the 1937 massacre prompted early calls for police to be equipped with cameras to document arrests – anticipating the dash cams and body cameras that reveal so many unjust shootings today.

Greg Mitchell is the director of “Remembrance Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Is Buried”, which can be viewed on the KCET website, and is the author of a companion book with the same title.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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