SOAR honors immigrant strikers murdered at “Little Steel” strike
Massillon SOAR

MASSILLON, Ohio — Over eight decades ago 70,000 steelworkers, including many new to our country, walked out of Republic mills, in the tough, violent strike that became known as the “Little Steel Strike.” That fight was over the basic right of workers to form and be represented by a union of their choosing. Steelworkers won the right to unionize, but the sacrifices by workers were heavy. For some, their sacrifice was the ultimate one!

In Massillon, Ohio, one of the centers of that strike, three immigrant workers, Loghin Oroz, from Hungary, Nicholas Vathiaz, a Greek immigrant, and Spanish native Fulgenzio Calzada gave their lives for the worker’s cause. Vathiaz, 37 at the time, and Calzada, 47, were murdered, shot by police, on June 11, 1937, at a peaceful union rally that was attacked by cops. Oroz was gassed and badly beaten. He died a few days later.

For 80 years these working-class heroes laid in their graves in Massillon unnoticed, their sacrifices not celebrated. That was before Colorado University prof Ahmed White wrote a book, “The Last Great Strike,” about that struggle. White’s work brought these worker’s lives, and their murders by police, to the notice of Massillon Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) members.

“We had to find a way to honor these heroes,” stated Paul Santilli, president of Massillon SOAR. “Whatever rights we have are because these great men gave their lives to get them. We’ve had to fight for everything, nothing was ever given without a fight. Some of our folks think the company gave us benefits, rights. We have responsibility to show our young members how we won rights!”

Santilli had spearheaded a push that got an historic plaque put up on the Massillon town square memorializing the “Little Steel Strike” a decade ago.

Massillon SOAR

Along with Massillon SOAR Secretary-Treasurer Tom Triesch, they reached out and built a committee to help on this project. First they had to find the striker’s graves. Sue Burton, a pro-union poet who’d lived in the area, told them she’d heard stories of the fights as a child, that she had visited the grave sites, leaving flowers, gifts, and poems. The stones were in poor shape, missing in one, so the committee took up fund raising to upgrade and replace the memorials.

“Nobody turned us down, everyone wanted to help out when we explained what it was for,” Triesch said. “It took quite a while, but we got the sites cleaned up, new stones and a plaque honoring those martyrs put up on the square.”

Massillon SOAR

“There’s no way we could have succeeded without help: the library research genealogy specialist, Jill Wingard, who tragically passed away in February, did tremendous work. We could not have found them without her help. AFL-CIO brought us heavy equipment that made it possible to get in there and repair the sites.”

This work culminated May 5 with a gathering of hundreds at the Massillon library, addressed by USW International President Leo Gerard, Ohio USW District One Director Dave McCall and others, to honor the three immigrant martyrs to labor’s cause.

“As we come together here to honor these three heroes who sacrificed their lives, just stop and think, especially those who’ve worked in the mill, just what it would be like without our union, if you had no say and the boss was god,” said Gerard. He then asked for a sign-up list to be circulated,  and stated that the USW would order 100 copies of “The Last Great Strike.” “We owe everything to these three men. Thanks to SOAR here, they are no longer unknown.”

McCall, spoke about how, as a young worker, he was inspired to become more involved in the union. “It is never just about us personally,” he said. “Our struggles win the victories that all of us build on, that create the fighting union we now have. These men left their homes, like immigrants today, looking for a better life. Then, like today, they were called names, downgraded. But because of the many, united in struggles, we have created something much greater.”

Tiffany McKee, leader of the USW Ohio Next Generation group, was impressed, as well. “This has been a real eye-opener not just for me, but for a lot of younger workers. It really puts things in perspective. The torch is being passed, and now it’s up to us.”

For Tom Triesch, it was personal. “I remember having to struggle when dad died, the same age as Mr. Calzada, at 47. He had to work hard his whole life. Nobody gave us anything. But because of these fellow’s sacrifice, we have a chance to do better.”

For 94-year-old Erasmo Perez, who’d participated in the strike after fleeing his home in Spain to escape the fascist coup Franco launched against the elected popular front government, it meant a lot to have those struggles memorialized.

His grandson, Ray Perez, president of USW local 1124 in Massillon, was also present.  “I never thought I’d see this. Every time I go past the square now, I can see the appreciation of this entire city for our sacrifices,” he said. “This fight, for working people, is a family affair, it’s in our blood.

“We really didn’t know a lot about the strike when I was a kid,” Ray stated. “We lived in a neighborhood that literally was all, everyone, from another county, and they all worked in the mill. Russians, Slovenians, Italians, Greeks—we had to learn English to be able to speak to each other. I remember when I got a job in the mill, Grandma called me over and told me how happy she was that I got a good union job. It really just seemed natural to get active, run for union president.”

Massillon Public Library Director Sheri Brown said that since they’d gotten involved in this memorial, many people had expressed interest in learning more about unions and labor history. They’d begun working with a student group that is working on a documentary film on the area’s labor history, she said.

“We have thousands of retired steelworkers in this area. We forget that workers had to organize and protest, fight for things that workers take for granted now.”

“This isn’t the end, just the start,” said Fred Garrett, president of the Golden Lodge Local 1123 SOAR chapter. “We plan to use all this to help us build a coalition to fight for social justice for all.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and labor activist in Ohio.

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