Steelworkers’ VP connects dots between 1937 massacre and today’s challenges

CHICAGO – Steelworkers and allies convened on Chicago’s Southeast side Saturday at a “Labor Fightback Festival” to look back at the historic 1937 “Little Steel” strike, remember the massacre that occurred when Chicago police violently repressed demonstrators, and to apply the lessons learned thereafter to the current conditions facing the labor movement.

In 1937, the Congress of Industrial Organizations was a voice for industrial workers in the workplace. After years of bitter struggle, U.S. Steel (known as “Big Steel”) signed a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee on March 2, 1937, but its competitors, including Republic, Bethlehem and Inland Steel, (“Little Steel”) resisted and on May 26, the Little Steel strike began.

On May 30, hundreds of strikers, their families and supporters gathered for a Memorial Day picnic in a field outside the plant before heading over to join the picket line. Chicago police shot into the crowd, massacring ten activists and wounding scores of others. It would take four more years to get the companies that made up Little Steel to agree to a contract.

“It all started right here and today we stand on the shoulders of those ten demonstrators who stood for justice and fairness. Today, we honor their spirits,” said USW International Vice President Fred Redmond.

Redmond continued, “To be very direct, in order for our movement to survive and continue to be a force for building and sustaining a strong and vibrant middle class, the labor movement must once again become a part of a much larger movement for social and economic justice.”

Redmond isn’t just talking the talk; he’s leading through example. Redmond is a co-chair of the AFL-CIO’s Labor Commission on Racial and Economic Justice whose main goals are to facilitate discussion amongst labor leaders around disparities facing workers of color. The Commission also aims to make the labor movement more accurately reflect the diversity of the nation as a whole.

“There is a deepening authoritarian trend in the U.S. political environment,” Redmond told the large crowd, “Authoritarianism can be found in the use of violence on the streets by law enforcement agencies… we cannot ignore the fact that African American males in their early 20s are twenty-one times more likely to be killed by the police when compared with whites of the same age… The implications appear to many to be nearly genocidal, particularly when combined with cuts in social services and jobs.”

Redmond also spoke on the need to increase access to the polls for everyone, and to “stop the targeting of African Americans, Latinos, youth, seniors, and, in some cases, military personnel, for exclusion from voting rolls.”

His remarks also touched on the environment, a topic of some contention between unions. “It is not that black workers need a new labor movement, or Latinos need a new movement or that women need a new movement. Unless we are prepared to let global capital run wild, destroying both the environment and the lives of those of us on planet earth, workers as a whole must heed the call of resistance that necessitates a transformed and reinvigorated labor movement.”

The annual Memorial Day Massacre commemoration is sponsored by the Steelworkers Union and its retiree organization SOAR. Other speakers at this year’s commemoration included local Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza and Chicago Federation of Labor Secretary Treasurer Bob Reiter.

In his rousing speech, Redmond did not hesitate to connect the struggles of U.S. workers to working people around the world. “Workers need the United States to have a foreign policy that advances peace and justice rather than one perceived by the majority of the planet as being bullying and promoting global capitalism,” Redmond railed. “We find ourselves in what appears to be a situation of perpetual war. Every conflict seems to move in the direction of sanctions or military action rather than efforts at negotiated settlements… Who suffers? Our young men and women, largely from working class families, place their lives on the line for causes, issues over which they have no input.”

His speech concluded with a call for global responsibility and a radical working class movement for the 21st century: “Only if we renew and invigorate our movement will we be able to meet these challenges. What those workers knew in 1937, that we know all too well today, is that America does best when we say UNION YES.”

Photo: Fred Redmond.  |  USW


Patrick J. Foote
Patrick J. Foote

Patrick Foote writes occasionally for People's World. At the University of Central Florida, he worked with the Student Labor Action Project organizing around the intersection of student and worker issues. He would go on to work in the labor movement in such organizations as Central Florida Jobs with Justice, AFSCME Council 79, and OUR Walmart.