It’s a dramatic, shocking and violent film. Some 200 uniformed policemen armed with billy clubs, revolvers and tear gas angrily charge an unarmed crowd of several hundred striking steelworkers and their wives and children who are desperately running away. The police club those they can reach, shoving them to the ground and ignoring their pleas as they batter them with further blows. They stand above the fallen to fire at the backs of those who’ve outraced them.
Police drag the injured along the ground and into patrol wagons, where they are jammed in with dozens of others who were also arrested. Four are already dead from police bullets, six others are to die shortly. Eighty are wounded, two-dozen others so badly beaten that they, too, must be hospitalized.
The close-ups are particularly brutal. As one newspaper reviewer noted, “In several instances from two to four policemen are seen beating one man. One strikes him horizontally across the face, using his club as he would a baseball bat. Another crashes it down on top of his head and still another is whipping him across the back.”
The film ends with a sweaty, fatigued policeman looking into the camera, grinning, and motioning as if dusting off his hands.
The film was made in 1937. It was not, however, one of those popular cops and robbers features of the thirties. It was not fictional. It was an on-the-scene report of what historians call “The Memorial Day Massacre,” a newsreel segment filmed by Paramount Pictures as it was happening on the south side of Chicago on May 30, 1937.
We’re accustomed these days to the use of videotaped evidence to show wrongdoing by abusive law enforcement officers. Video technology was unknown in 1937, of course, and though film was available, it had rarely – if ever – been used for that purpose. The 1937 film, in fact, was initially kept from the general public by Paramount’s executives. Fearful of “inciting riots,” they refused to include it in any of their newsreels that were shown regularly in movie theaters nationwide.
But the film was shown to a closed session of a Senate investigating committee chaired by Robert LaFollette Jr. of Wisconsin. The committee, concerned primarily with civil liberties, was outraged – particularly since the Chicago police had acted in violation of the two-year-old federal law that guaranteed workers the right to strike and engage in other peaceful union activities.
The committee found that strikers and their families, while noisily demanding collective bargaining rights as they massed in front of the South Chicago plant operated by Republic Steel, had indeed been generally peaceful.
But that was beside the point to the police in Chicago and other cities with plants operated by Republic and two other members of the “Little Steel” alliance that also were struck. For, as the committee concluded, the police had been “loosed … to shoot down citizens on the streets and highways” at the companies’ behest. The companies even supplied them with weapons and ammunition from their own stockpiles.
The committee said the companies had spent more than $40,000 on machine guns, rifles, shotguns, revolvers, tear gas canisters and launchers and 10,000 rounds of ammunition to use against strikers. Republic alone had more supplies than any law enforcement agency in the entire country.
The companies were prepared to go to any extreme to remain non-union. Two closed their plants temporarily, anticipating that most of the 85,000 strikers would soon be forced to return to work because they had little – if any – savings. But though Republic Steel closed most of its plants, it continued to operate the Chicago plant and a few others.
Republic fired union members at the plants that remained open and, with police help, cleared out union sympathizers and brought in strikebreakers to replace them. The strikebreakers, guarded by police day and night, ate and slept in the plants to avoid confronting the pickets outside.
Municipal police, company police and National Guardsmen harassed and often arrested pickets for doing little more than lawfully picketing. Six strikers were killed outside Republic’s Ohio plants in Cleveland, Youngstown, Canton and Massillon.
The killings and other violence, the steadily increasing financial pressures on strikers, unceasing anti-union propaganda – all that and more combined to end the strike in mid-July, two months after it had begun.
But the steelworkers didn’t give up. Determined to not have made such great sacrifices in vain, they turned to the labor-friendly administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help. They got it in 1941, when heavy pressures from the administration finally forced the steel companies to recognize their employees’ legal right to unionization and the many benefits, financial and otherwise, that it brought them and the many other industrial union members who followed their lead.
Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, dickmeister.com, which includes more than 300 of his columns.