The Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees is hosting a picnic and rally May 29 in Chicago to commemorate those who died for workers’ rights and for those continuing the struggle today. Below is a historical essay recreating that infamous day.

CHICAGO — A crowd gathered as vendors selling hot dogs and ice cream walked among the families. Little children ran around at their parents’ feet or sat proudly atop their fathers’ shoulders overlooking the crowd. It looked like a typical Memorial Day celebration, but for striking steelworkers, this get-together was no simple picnic.

Memorial Day 1937 was to be the first mass meeting of the strikers from the Republic Steel Company plant on the south side of Chicago. The Steel Workers’ Organizing Committee (SWOC), predecessor to the United Steel Workers union, had set up strike headquarters at an abandoned dance hall on 113th and Green Bay Avenue, just a few blocks over from the plant.

On Memorial Day the strike was still only a few days old. The day the strike was called, police rounded up strikers and forced them out of the plant and down the street, effectively preventing them from establishing a peaceful picket line. The next day and the day after that strikers marched to the plant gates to try to establish a picket line, but the police retaliated by beating and arresting protesters.

These strikers were no strangers to violence. They had seen or heard about violence against other protestors in other struggles. Still, the atmosphere was upbeat and many strikers felt confident enough to bring their children to the meeting.

A few speakers climbed the improvised stage to address the crowd. One criticized police efforts to prevent a picket line, in violation of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) passed two years earlier. The crowd voted to send resolutions to the government in protest.

Then someone in the crowd proposed that they march to the plant gates to establish their picket line. The group agreed and about 1,000 people began to march.

Near 117th Street, the marchers could see a line of police there to prevent them from reaching the plant. The protesters continued to push forward and as they reached the police ranks, the march spread out as strikers from behind moved around to the sides to see what was happening.

At first police started the usual beatings, but then officers began firing into the crowd. Unprepared for this, the unarmed marchers turned and ran. After the brief but intense spray of bullets, the police pursued the marchers, trampling, beating and arresting them.

All told, 10 strikers were killed or mortally wounded, 30 more suffered bullet wounds, almost all of them shot in the back or side. Another 60 were injured. About 30 police were injured, with the most severely injured merely requiring a one-night stay in the hospital.

There was a huge outcry against the police. More than 4,000 people assembled at the Civic Opera House to protest the police action. The Senate established the La Follette Committee to investigate. The committee found that the police were in violation of the NLRA and that they had used unnecessary force against strikers. However the damage was already done. After the police violence in Chicago and around the country, the strike was eventually called off. When the strike ended, the death count was up to 16, with the addition of six strikers killed on the picket lines in Ohio.

The strike was not in vain however. After the strike ended, SWOC turned to the National Labor Relations Board, which forced Republic Steel to cease its unfair labor practices. After a series of secret ballot elections and card checks, SWOC received bargaining rights and a year later Republic Steel signed its first contract with the United Steelworkers of America.

Cori Marshall ( is a college student in Chicago active in student-labor issues.