Little Steel Strike

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Editor: Robert S. McElvaine
Date: 2004
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 516 words
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1400L

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In the wake of several remarkable labor victories in 1937, unionization of the steel industry seemed to be simply a matter of time. But the determined and ultimately successful resistance of Republic Steel, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, and Inland Steel—collectively known as the Little Steel firms to distinguish them from the giant U.S. Steel—in a devastating Page 585  |  Top of Article standoff sent the burgeoning Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) into an unanticipated retreat. Coming at this crucial moment, the Little Steel Strike revealed the limitations of organized labor and federal labor policy. Along with the recession of 1937 to 1938, it temporarily halted the growing economic and political power of industrial workers.

The success of the chaotic sit-down strikes in the automobile industry in early 1937 had led U.S. Steel chairman Myron C. Taylor to negotiate with CIO president John L. Lewis an orderly recognition of the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee (SWOC) as its members' sole bargaining agent. The resulting contract, signed on March 2, 1937, led to union recognition at several other companies. Jones & Laughlin, a company known for its aggressive anti-labor practices, capitulated in May after only a two-day strike and a Supreme Court ruling against it, a ruling that also definitively upheld the National Labor Relations Act. Having successfully resisted independent unions in the past, the remaining Little Steel firms, however, refused to be bullied. As SWOC prepared for a strike, Republic and Youngstown Sheet and Tube stockpiled weapons and hired additional guards.

On May 26, 75,000 steelworkers walked out of their plants across the Midwest. Tensions culminated in Chicago, where Republic kept its mill in operation with strikebreakers. At a rally on May 30 police fired into an unarmed crowd of strikers and their sympathizers, killing ten and wounding another thirty, including two women and a child. The Memorial Day Massacre, as it was known, galvanized organized labor. In June SWOC members walked out of Bethlehem Steel's Johnstown, Pennsylvania, plant. Claiming that the Little Steel firms violated the National Labor Relations Act in their refusal to collectively bargain with their workers' representatives, SWOC and CIO leaders sought federal assistance. President Franklin Roosevelt's refusal to intervene beyond appointing a powerless Federal Steel Mediation Board marked a shift away from his tacit support of the CIO, whose participation in Labor's Non-Partisan League had greatly contributed to his re-election.

Efforts by state and local officials to find a compromise also proved fruitless. A national public relations campaign attacked Lewis's vocal presence in the strike as divisive, while back-to-work drives and citizens' committees organized by businessmen slowly swung public opinion in local communities against the strike. Discouraged by the lack of progress and continuing violence (eighteen steel-workers died that summer), strikers returned to work by the end of July. While defeated in the Little Steel Strike, SWOC eventually won its case before the National Labor Relations Board, which granted recognition, back pay, and reinstatement of fired union members. By 1942 further organizing drives secured collective bargaining agreements at all four companies. Still, union leaders had learned that federal protection would not be as vigorous as they previously had expected.


Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. 1969.

Clark, Paul; Peter Gottlieb; and Donald Kennedy; eds. Forging a Union of Steel: Philip Murray, SWOC, and the United Steelworkers. 1987.

Green, James. "Democracy Comes to 'Little Siberia': Steel Workers Organize in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, 1933–1937." Labor's Heritage 5 (1993): 4–27.

Speer, Michael. "The 'Little Steel' Strike: Conflict for Control." Ohio History 178 (1969): 273–287.

Zieger, Robert. The CIO, 1935–1955. 1995.


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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3404500332