CHICAGO | When striking union members who worked at the Republic Steel plant tried to picket near the plant gates 75 years ago, Chicago police used force to drive them back, sending more than 100 to the hospital and 10 to the morgue.
But when organized labor supporters on Saturday marched to where the steel mill used to be near 118th Street and Avenue O to pay tribute to the 10 steelworkers who died, they had a Chicago police escort to ensure no one was hurt.
About 100 people gathered at Washington High School, 3535 E. 114th St., for a daylong series of events that included a forum and panel discussion about the Republic Steel "massacre." Activities also included a rally attended by U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., that ended with the peaceful walk to the site where a memorial to the deceased workers was placed, across the street at The Zone youth center, 11731 S. Ave. O.
People who participated in the Saturday events were told that on May 30, 1937, police refused a request by union members to allow them to “peacefully picket” at the steel mill gate, and also that the union members were “not able to defend themselves” from police attacks.
The Illinois Labor History Society also provided newsreel footage shot that day that depicted multiple instances of uniformed police officers kicking people and hitting them with clubs. A coroner’s jury in Cook County ultimately found all 10 deaths to be “justifiable homicide,” and no one was ever prosecuted.
Jackson, who did not stay to march with the group, said what strikes him the most about the incident is that the hostility toward organized labor issues remains intense even today.
“They tried to say it was a ‘labor riot’ caused by ‘red communists,’” Jackson said of the 1937 event.
He said he plans to introduce a bill in Congress during coming weeks to raise the minimum wage nationally to $10 per hour, and said he plans to make the bill a tribute to the 10 union members who died in the East Side neighborhood 75 years ago this week.
Other members of Congress also were invited to participate in the event. None showed up, although union officials conceded that they had reported erroneously that U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., was among those expected to participate.
Also not participating in the rally was 10th Ward Alderman John Pope. Aides cited his busy schedule, although he said he sympathizes with those union workers who were killed.
“I’m from the area,” the Hegewisch neighborhood resident said. “How can you not pay tribute to their efforts?”
United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard said that while union members rarely face police clubs or violence these days, opposition is just as intense.
“Instead of using police with clubs and tear gas against us, they use a 'velvet glove' approach,” Gerard said. “They have judges in the courts destroy our rights one by one.”