Ahmed White’s The Last Great Strike is a fascinating analysis of an often overlooked labor struggle in the New Deal era. In a thoughtful sober assessment, White situates the Little Steel Strike in a broad historical framework. Drawing on a trove of primary source material and a sharp legal mind, White situates Little Steel as a decisive battle in a much larger struggle for industrial unionism and socialist organization in the first half of the twentieth century.
White, a professor of law at the University of Colorado, provides us with an intimate look at the inner workings of New Deal labor law, its strength and weaknesses, and the social, political, and economic forces that undergirded them. He brilliantly tells the story of the struggle including the barbaric police murder of unarmed strikers remembered as the Memorial Day Massacre. He also explores the relationship between the CIO and the Left, most notably the Communist Party, drawing up a balance sheet of the contradictory role it played in the CIO organizing drive in the steel industry.
Amidst today’s embattled labor movement, White’s study provides useful lessons for the Left. The Little Steel Strike pitted steel workers organized by
the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) against a group of powerful steel corporations—Republic, Bethlehem, Youngstown Sheet & Tube, and Inland. These were dubbed “Little Steel” to distinguish them from the industry giant US Steel.
The strike was launched on May 26, 1937 with workers “asserting the right to build an independent union, to provoke meaningful collective bargaining, and to protest by striking and picketing.” These rights were ostensibly protected by the Wagner Act enacted two years prior as part of the Roosevelt administration’s “Second” New Deal. And, as White notes, they were “held constitutional by the US Supreme Court only weeks before the strike began in the landmark decision NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel.”
The steel industry was determined to stop the organizing drive and possessed a tradition of fierce repression and anti-unionism in the era of the “open shop.” Little Steel proved no exception, bucking SWOC’s demands and flouting the new legal regime, along with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charged with its enforcement. Both the bosses and the workers drew lines in the sand and prepared for an open battle. “The Little Steel Strike,” White writes, “played out across seven states and involved around thirty mills. At its height in June 1937, over eighty thousand steel workers, along with at least ten thousand CIO miners and other sympathy strikers” had joined the work stoppage.
Little Steel came on the heels of a succession of victories the CIO had in previous strikes; most notably the sit-downs at GM the previous winter. But “by 1937,” White argues, “a broad coalition of American capitalists was pushing Little Steel to fight the CIO in a bid to check the advances of organized labor, nullify the Supreme Court’s decision in the Jones & Laughlin case, and roll back the New Deal.”
White shows how all these forces converged into a “model display of the effective use of company-sponsored repression to break a strike.” By the end of the strike, the police had killed at least sixteen unionists, seriously injured hundreds, and arrested thousands. Most of those killed died in the notorious Memorial Day Massacre on May 30, 1937 near the Republic Steel Mill on Chicago’s South Side. As White describes it:
Just after 4:00 pm, the first marchers met the police line. Stopped by the police, they too fanned out in a ragged line. A flurry of arguments erupted as the demonstrators asserted their right to picket the plant and the police demanded that they disperse. According to a worker in the crowd, the police became more agitated when some women resumed chanting—“CIO! CIO!” Other marchers continued to arrive. After what was later estimated as four to ten minutes of arguing, the officers in charge, Captain Mooney and Captain Thomas Kilroy, read out an order to disperse—“in the name of the people of the State of Illinois.” Almost on cue, the encounter exploded into violence. The police abruptly discharged at least one tear gas canister toward the demonstrators and fired several shots in the air. Moments after this, the police let loose a fusillade of two hundred gunshots into the crowd over a period of ten or fifteen seconds, and as some were still shooting, police surged into the ranks of the marchers swinging nightsticks, hatchet handles, and blackjacks. Most of the demonstrators fled back across the prairie, stumbling and falling. Dozens though, stunned by the attack, struck by police bullets or clubs, or overcome by gas, crumpled to the ground—dead, wounded or sickened, or immobilized by shock.
The violence only ended when the police accidentally discharged a tear gas canister into their own ranks.
The mills were eventually reopened under the aegis of state authorities and deployment of the National Guard, ending the strike.
Faced with this onslaught, White writes, “CIO and SWOC leaders appeared inept and often confused about how to sustain the strike’s effectiveness. Defeat, when it arrived, not only destroyed the drive in steel; it broke the CIO’s momentum, diminished its leaders appetite for organizing by means of strikes, and drove the CIO and the SWOC to rely on the problematic workings of the NLRB and other government agencies to achieve what had not been won on the picket lines.”
When it came to the NLRB and the Wagner Act, White maintains that Little Steel was a decisive test with mixed results. “The NLRB’s diligent prosecutions of the Little Steel companies for their manifold violations of the Wagner Act in provoking the strike, helped compel the companies to finally recognize and bargain with the SWOC,” he writes. “The agency’s success made clear that the new legal regime would have real value as an institution of reform.”
On the other hand, he argues, the drawn out nature of the legal process, and the imbalance in class power that defined the postwar period, demonstrates “that the NLRB and Wagner Act would neither fundamentally alter the overall contours of industrial relations nor uproot capitalist hegemony in the workplace.”
The activity of the NLRB in its formative years looks wildly progressive by today’s standards. Its functions of prosecuting unfair labor practices, overseeing union representation elections, and adjudicating appeals haven’t changed much, but early on it was quite normal for cases to regularly go in labor’s favor. In fact, it was not uncommon for its agents to have ties to left organizations, such as the Communist Party.
The NLRB could be characterized as an embattled institution; preoccupied with defending the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, and resisting a campaign orchestrated by Little Steel to “test the agency’s authority” and roll back the New Deal labor-law regime.
In the wake of the Little Steel Strike, the NLRB decided in favor of the CIO on many questions. The institution ruled that company unions—which employers utilized to preempt the genuine article—were illegitimate. And if a union had majority representation, the NLRB forced employers to sign written contracts as a token of “good faith” bargaining.
The NLRB found the Little Steel companies guilty on a multitude of charges during the strike, from locking out workers to physical intimidation and coercion. Were it not for the NLRB and its vigorous prosecution of the Wagner Act, tens of thousands of strikers would not have been reinstated nor received back pay and other compensation. Even more crucially, the companies would never have recognized SWOC as the sole bargaining agent on the shop floor.
But these legal mechanisms, however useful in a period of major strength for the labor movement, could never correct “the fundamental inequality of economic and political power that defines labor relations.” The priority of the Wagner Act, as White asserts, was prioritizing the free flow of interstate commerce.
And though it recognized on paper the strike as the prime “economic weapon,” conservative employers and politicians found ways to exploit ambiguities in the law for their own advantage. For example, the Wagner Act established a right to picket without spelling out the extent to which authorities—operating at the behest of employers—could limit it, or regulate it forcefully on the ground. The Little Steel Strike was a case study in the use of strategic and tactical picketing, and the consequent utilization of the injunction by employers and courts, acting in tandem to weaken the strike’s efficacy.
The CIO organizing drive and strike wave of the 1930s was one of the most powerful social movements in modern American history. Labor’s gains in this period are well known. But it also culminated in a corporate backlash that by 1937 involved a right turn in politics and an attack on the reformist framework of the New Deal. The retrenchment of the Right was evident with the onset of the “Roosevelt Recession” which was already underway at the time of Little Steel. This shift in the balance of power saw the imposition of Taft-Hartley, and later McCarthyism, with the purging of the Left from the labor movement.
These developments gave the union bureaucracy more room to maneuver and abandon the militancy manifest in the heyday of SWOC. They instead turned to routinized collective bargaining in place of the strike weapon, while foregoing any attempt to pursue independent working-class politics. White’s study clearly shows that this was not a law of nature. Bureaucratization had to be actively imposed on the rebellious labor movement of the 1930s.
In all, White has made an important contribution by recounting the pivotal battle of Little Steel. His analysis is a case study in the role of the state in containing social struggle, the contradictory nature of reform, and the indispensability of building a multiracial, class-based movement such as that of the CIO. The reader is left at the end wondering what might have been. In White’s words, it is difficult not to “lament the failure to build from the discontent of that time a radical challenge to capitalism itself.”