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Little Steel Strike Taught Workers
Whom Not to Trust

Never Put Any Faith in the Government and Its National Guard;
Trust Only in Labor’s Power – That’s the Lesson of 1937

(22 March 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 12, 22 March 1941, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

At this time, every steel worker should remember the lesson of the 1937 strikes.

* * *

Borne forward on the relentless upsurge of industrial unionism which started to sweep the country in 1933–35, the steel workers began to assail the fortresses, of Big and Little Steel.

Several abortive attempts to organize were made through the machinery of the decrepit, craft-ridden, dues hungry AFL Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers.

Then, in 1936, the Committee for Industrial Organization, based on industrial union principles, was formed. In July of the same year, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (CIO) began its campaign.

Whereupon the companies dusted off their “employee representation” plans. Overnight hundreds of company “unions” began to flourish “contracts.” The Iron and Steel Institute spent millions on publicity and full-page ads to attack the SWOC and denounce the CIO as a “red menace.” But to no avail.

The Union’s Growth

By January 1937, the SWOC numbered 150,000 members. In a score of leading steel plants, the SWOC took over the company unions bodily. The company union system of Carnegie-Illinois, largest U.S. Steel subsidiary, with 130,000 workers, fell to pieces.

Insurgent industrial labor throughout the country was smashing at the bulwarks of the open-shop. The embattled auto workers of the giant General Motors Corporation forced signed contracts from the Morgan-DuPont financial coalition by their militant sit-down strikes.

Seeing the hand-writing on the wall, the heads of the U.S. Steel Corporation, the greatest aggregate of industrial capital in the world, began to get jittery.

The nations of Europe were on an armaments spree, in preparation for the impending war. Great Britain wanted to put through a contract involving hundreds of millions for armor plate ant steel products with U.S. Steel. But it wanted guarantees of unimpeded production. The United States government had passed appropriations for $650,000,000 for new battleships, and also wanted prompt delivery for steel.

Greedy to seize these profitable war orders, fearful of the tremendous sweep of the CIO organization drive and the power of the workers as demonstrated in the auto sit-down strikes, U.S. Steel after secret negotiations with John L. Lewis and other CIO heads, announced that it would sign an agreement with the SWOC.

Union Growth Continues

In May 1937, Murray, head of the SWOC, was able to announce that the union had 350,000 members, 600 new lodges, and contracts with 90 companies, including all U.S. Steel subsidiaries and many important independent companies. On May 20, after a 36 hour strike, Jones & Laughlin, employing 27,000 workers, signed up with the CIO.

The tide of steel unionism seemed irresistible. And then came the battle with Little Steel.

* * *

“Little Steel” includes the Bethlehem Steel Company, second largest steel corporation in America, Republic Steel, Inland Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube Corporation and the National Steel Corporation. The combined production and profits of these five corporations usually equal or excel that of U.S. Steel.

Big Steel’s Game

But contrary to the general impression, Little Steel and Big Steel are very closely aligned. Bethlehem Steel is controlled by the House of Morgan through interlocking directorships, just as is U.S. Steel. In the same fashion, interlocking directors tie the other Little Steel companies to the giant steel trust.

If expediency forced U.S. Steel to sign up with the SWOC, that didn’t mean it yielded an inch on its former open-shop designs. It was planned to smash the union in Little Steel, thus preserving a large open-shop field as a future springboard for a direct attack on the union in Big Steel.

When the SWOC demanded union recognition from the Little Steel corporations, it was met with a flat turn-down. Instead the companies began firing union men, putting up barbed wire fences about their plants, importing hundreds of gunmen and thugs.

It was an open challenge to the union. As the LaFollette Senate investigating committee later disclosed, these companies purchased no less than $50,000 worth of guns, munitions and tear gas in May.

The Strike Begins

Late in May and early in June 1937 70,000 steel workers were called out on strike from the mills of Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, Inland Steel and the Johnstown plant of Bethlehem Steel.

The focal point of the strike was in the Ohio Valley, ranging from Youngstown, Warren, Niles. Massillon, Canton to Cleveland.

Youngstown was the key point of this area, with Youngstown Sheet and Tube and Republic Steel dominating the city. At the start of the strike, the plants were shut down tight.

Murder for Profit

The local authorities in Youngstown supported the companies. On Monday night, June 21, the companies announced they were going to open the Youngstown plants the next day.

From scores of miles away, all through the night of the 21st, thousands of workers began to pour into Youngstown to aid the Youngstown steel workers. By morning, they represented a huge army, determined to fight and prepared to fight. Rubber workers from Akron, men from Canton, miners from Pennsylvania, steel workers from Sharon, Newcastle, Pittsburgh, Aliquippa.

The companies did not attempt to move as planned that morning. All day the strikers and sympathizers hoped for word from tbe mediation board or the government demanding that the companies obey the labor laws. None came.

Armed deputies roamed the streets, terrorizing isolated workers, murdering several, wounding scores, including women. But they could not break the picket lines.

A “back to work” movement was started, under an “independent’’ union label. The one paper in town, the Youngstown Vindicator, opened up a vicious propaganda barrage on the strikers. But the strikers would not break.

In the midst of negotiations with a government-appointed mediation board, on June 19, a group of armed deputies opened fire on a group of pickets, including women with babes in arms. A number of workers were killed, 50 wounded.

Government – Strikebreaker

At midnight, the word came that Governor Davey, “New Deal” representative elected with the support of Labor’s Non-Partisan League, was sending in the National Guard to “prevent disorder” and “keep the plants shut.”

In the councils of the strikers were a number of Stalinists who had supported Davey to office – those were the “Popular Front” days. These, together with several other leaders, urged the workers to disband and return home, assuring them that the National Guard was being sent in to protect the interests of – the workers!

Trust in Davey and Roosevelt was being insisted upon throughout the strike by Philip Murray. John L. Lewis, and the other CIO leaders.

Reluctantly, the workers dispersed. The sympathizers returned to their home towns.

Smashing the Strike

When the National Guard moved into Youngstown, it did what it has always done: it opened up the plants. Then began an unparalleled reign of terror, up and down the Ohio Valley. The strike leaders were arrested in their homes and held incommunicado. Individual union militants were picked up off the streets. Dispersed and disorganized, the workers could not fight to protect their leaders and active members.

From Youngstown, to Warren, to Canton, Massillon, Cleveland, moved the troops, systematically beheading the strike, shooting, beating, bayoneting the isolated workers. In a short while, the workers became demoralized. Their local leaders in jail, no new strategy coming from the top CIO leaders, the backbone, of the strike was broken.

The Johnstown Formula

The isolated strike of the Bethlehem workers in Johnstown, Pa., was smashed by a combined propaganda and back-to-work movement financed by the company and organized by the officials of the town who were in the pay of the company, and supplemented by vigilante gangs.

Mayor Daniel J. Shields, once convicted and jailed for attempted bribery of a federal official, led the drive. He was given $31,456 by Bethlehem Steel to finance his efforts.

The workers hung on grimly in Republic Steel. But late in June, the strikes at Bethlehem and Youngstown Sheet and Tube were called off. The strike at the Republic plants slowly dwindled. By October, although the strike was not officially called off, all but a few thousand workers were back to work.

But. the SWOC was not smashed. It continued to live and, after a while, to grow again. Once more, throughout Little Steel, the workers are sweeping into the union.

The Simple Lesson

And this time, the steel workers are bound to win, if they have mastered the lesson of the Little Steel defeat of 1937, the same lesson learned by their fathers in the 1919 strike and their grandfathers back in 1892 in Homestead.

The steel workers can trust only in their own organized strength and power. The government is a bosses’ government, it is on the side of the steel corporations. To win, the steel workers must be prepared for militant resistance and bitter struggle.

The workers of Lackawanna have just shown it can be done. The auto workers, the Minneapolis teamsters, the West Coast maritime workers, all have met the armed thugs of the bosses and government and come out victorious.

United in fighting action, the workers can tear down the open-shop banner from the ramparts of Little Steel. They can make 1941 the year when the union banner began to fly over Little Steel!

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