Police gunned down 10 fleeing steelworkers who had been striking for fair wages and safer working conditions at the Republic Steel mill on Chicago’s Southeast Side on May 30, 1937.
The attack on demonstrators from Northwest Indiana and South Side mills on a windswept Illinois prairie injured dozens more and became known as the Memorial Day Massacre. It still resonates today, 80 years later.
“It was a rallying cry. They were martyrs,” retired steelworker and labor historian Mike Olszanski said.
“Old-timers would come in and tell the story. It was more like a picnic than a demonstration. People brought their kids. They were parading around the plant gates. Then for no reason the cops started beating people up and shot 10 workers. It was filmed with newsreel cameras. You can see the clips of them beating people up, beating people over the head with billy clubs.”
The violent assault helped rally public opinion toward the workers and motivated them eventually to come together and form the United Steelworkers union five years later, Olszanski said.
Local steelworkers honor the fallen every year with a march and tributes that have included women in black veils and a reading of the names of those who died that day, ages 17 to 50: Sam Popovich, Earl Handley, Lee Tisdale, Leo Francisco, Kenneth Reed, Otis Jones, Joseph Rothmund, Alfred Causey, Anthony Tagliori and Hilding Anderson.
“They stood up for the whole working class and changed workers’ history,” said Scott Marshall, USW District 7 Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees executive board member.
“It was terrible, tragic; it was a festive occasion with men, women and children, when they were shot down. But it got the Wagner Act enforced, got the ball rolling on the labor movement and got so many steelworkers’ contracts.”
It was an era of police violence against union workers; United Auto Workers members also were killed on picket lines in Detroit and Flint, Michigan.
“Republic Steel actually bought weapons for the Chicago Police Department,” he said. “You don’t have that kind of relationship today.”
While today’s picket lines are far more peaceful, the fight continues, Marshall said.
“Nobody’s getting shot down now and hopefully it stays that way,” he said. “That took a whole lot of effort, and we still have to fight today. We have to fight against right-to-work laws and different ways to take away bargaining rights.”
Four of the slain workers — Popovich, Handley, Reed and Causey — hailed from Hammond-based Local 1010, which represented workers at Inland Steel and, now, ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor in East Chicago.
“We were directly involved with losing members,” USW Local 1010 President Tom Hargrove said. “It had a big impact at the time. “Steelworkers throughout the plant were ready to fight. U.S. Steel signed an agreement without a struggle.”
USW District 7 Director Mike Millsap said the loss of life was just tragic.
“They were fighting to have a safer workplace and better wages,” he said. “We still have the same struggles today. We’re still fighting for higher wages, safer workplaces and better working conditions.”