Place of Protest: Chicago's Legacy of Dissent, Declaration, and Disruption

Republic Steel Plant, 1937

Striking Steel

Police violently confront factory workers and their supporters on the picket line.

SINCE THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, CHICAGO'S STEEL FACTORIES PRODUCED railroad tracks, pipes, and beams—the material foundation of the railroads, bridges, and skyscrapers that transformed the city into a booming and contested industrial metropolis. Concentrated in southeast Chicago and northwestern Indiana, companies like Republic Steel employed thousands of employees into the twentieth century. By 1937, steel workers had gained important labor rights like an eight hour work day, but continued to bear the brunt of financial downturns like the Great Depression. As part of the New Deal's attempted overhaul of America's struggling economy, the Wagner Act protected workers' rights to unionize in 1936. Republic Steel, however, refused to acknowledge its employees' union. Workers walked out on May 26th and picketed outside the plant's gates.

LAUNCHING A SUCCESSFUL STRIKE required mobilizing not just workers but an entire network from families to business owners. For example, a local restaurant served as the strike headquarters and women took the lead on equipping strikers with food and supplies. Meanwhile, Republic Steel fed and possibly armed the police. Once again, executives defended their property with police while workers asserted the value of their labor and right to organize. When union leaders held a mass meeting on Memorial Day—five days into the strike—tensions between police and protestors were already high. As men, women, and children departed the meeting to establish a picket line, many carried signs and possibly makeshift weapons, but held no guns to match the police.

THE POLICE REFUSED TO ALLOW A PICKET LINE and quickly deployed clubs, tear gas, and gunfire against the crowd. Protestors, consisting largely of first and second generation immigrants from Eastern Europe and Mexico, began retreating but not without ten casualties before the violence ended. Paramount Pictures was on site to document the protest and captured the massacre on film. Although it was never released, a federal committee reviewed the tape and determined that the initial police gunfire was unprovoked. The violence succeeded in subduing the protests, and steelworkers did not form a national union until 1942. Meanwhile, memory of the Memorial Day Massacre perpetuated and deepened a lethal distrust between labor and police.


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