On May 30, 1937, Memorial Day, Chicago police opened fire on unarmed workers demonstrating against Republic Steel in one of the bloodiest events in our nation’s labor union history. Earlier in the year the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) had worked out a union deal with U.S. Steel, which workers had hoped would push the smaller steel companies to recognize their own unions. Instead, many of the smaller steel companies fought bitterly against union organization.
That Memorial Day, the workers at Republic Steel organized a mass demonstration to establish the right to have a peaceful picket line and be recognized as a union. As the crowd marched toward Republic Steel mill, on Chicago’s southeast side, they were stopped by a police blockade, supplied with weapons and tear gas from the steel company.
In this video, we present a firsthand account of the subsequent massacre, shot in the early 1970s. Boris Ross was a Russian immigrant to Chicago who was heavily involved in the labor movement. He talks about his memories of the Memorial Day steel workers strike, Mayor Edward J. Kelly, and what happened when he went with his children to distribute literature to the strikers.
“Republic Steel wanted to break the strike so they hired Mayor Kelly, they gave him a $10,000 payoff to call out the police and Mayor Kelly’s police opened up fire… shooting all over the workers who were on the picket line and they start dropping like flies.”
This footage comes from the “Documenting Social History: Chicago’s Elderly Speak” oral history series, which was project of Communications for Change, an early Chicago video group focused on providing a forum to people who ordinarily didn’t have one. Media Burn recently preserved and transferred fourteen half-inch reels by Communications for Change with a grant from BAVC Preservation Access Program, including this one.
At least 10 people were killed in the massacre and several dozen were seriously injured by police. The police claimed to have been acting as peacekeepers against dangerous rioters. However, the event was documented by a Paramount reporter for a newsreel, and the film showed otherwise.
Paramount executives refused to release it under the justification that the violence and brutality it contained would set off riots.
This footage was eventually obtained by Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette, Jr., and viewed by the Civil Liberties Committee. It released a scorching report, damning Republic Steel Corporation’s use of the police force and coercion of government. The LaFollette report led to a dramatic shift in public opinion and sympathy for the steelworkers unions.
The newsreel footage of the Memorial Day Massacre is featured below, in alabor/work-focused episode of Image Union. This footage is a disturbing and graphic depiction of brutality. It also reminds us of the important role media has played in bearing witness to abuses of power.