Memorial Day for Labor?

May 27, 2008

Yesterday was Memorial Day, which most Americans honestly celebrate by enjoying a 3-day weekend. It’s a day that was originally designed to remember the soldiers who fought and died so we can enjoy the freedom they do now, but there were many who died to secure our freedom without ever setting foot on a battle field. I was reading the Diary Rescue thread on DailyKos last night and read a great piece by Kossack gjohnsit about the Memorial Day Massacre in 1937.

Memorial Day in Chicago in 1937 was hot and sunny. On the prairie outside the Republic Steel’s Chicago plant the strikers and their families began to gather for picnics. Women were dressed in their holiday best. Children could be seen riding on their father’s shoulders.
 Sam’s Place was nearby. Once a dance-hall, Sam’s was now the strike headquarters. Gradually the families drifted over to where a soup kitchen had been set up and where strike leaders gave speeches from a platform. A group of girls began singing IWW union songs, and the men joined in. Plans were being made for a mass demonstration, despite the rumors that the police had something big planned themselves.
 The day seemed just too nice for anything bad to happen.

What happened next is one of the darker moments of U.S. History.

 When the meeting was over, the men, women and children formed lines to march towards the Republic Steel plant. Two men at the front carried large American flags. The whole event resembled a Memorial Day parade more than a strike.
  As they marched across the field, several news photographers showed up and began snapping pictures. This was to be more important than anyone imagined.

  Part way across the field the strikers and their families were met by 200 blue-coated policemen about 250 yards outside the plant. Their clubs were already out. Some carried non-regulation billy-clubs that Republic Steel provided and were equipped with tear gas from Republic stockpiles as well. A police captain yelled, “You dirty sons of bitches, this is as far as you go!”

After a few heated words, a stick was thrown at the police from somewhere in the crowd. Almost immediately tear gas bombs were tossed from the police, and the strikers began moving away. A couple more things were thrown by both sides when an officer in the rear drew his gun and fired into the air.

 Without a command or warning police on the front line drew their revolvers and fired point blank into the huge crowd of men, women, and children.


The entire police line moved forward swinging billy clubs. Marchers who had dropped to the ground to avoid the bullets were beaten where they lay. It didn’t matter if they were grown men, women, or even children. The beatings went on until the marchers had either ran out of reach of the police, or they had been beaten into submission.

 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.

 Four marchers had been fatally shot, while six were mortally wounded. 30 others suffered gunshot wounds, including three children. 28 required hospitalization from their beatings, while another 30 required medical treatment. The gunshot wounds for those that died were all from being shot in the back or sides. Only four gunshot wounds total could be counted as frontal.
  35 police received some sort of injuries, but only three required some sort of hospitalization.

 Paramount cameraman Orlando Lippert actually had a motion picture shot of almost the whole event. You can watch it all, uncut, here (it starts about 4 minutes in). It was indisputable proof. So what did Paramount do? They suppressed the film

The reason given by Paramount News for suppressing its newsreel of the Chicago Memorial Day steel-strike massacre is an obvious sham. Audiences trained on the Hollywood school of gangster films are not likely to stage a “riotous demonstration” in the theater upon seeing cops beating people into insensibility, and worse. Against whom would the riot be directed anyway? The Board of Directors or Republic Steel and the Chicago municipal authorities are hardly likely to be found in the immediate vicinity.
  The real reason behind the film suppression is its decisive evidence that virtually every newspaper in the country lied, and continues to lie, about the responsibility for violence in the strike areas. The myth that the steel strikers have resorted to violence to gain their just ends is now the basis for the whole campaign of slander and misrepresentation against them. That is why Tom Girdler of Republic Steel refuses to confer with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, and that is why 95 per cent of the press carries on a publicity pogrom against the strikers.
  Even after the St. Louis Post Dispatch performed a genuine service to the American people in breaking the story of the film (for which, though it is Pulitzer owned, it is very unlikely to get the Pulitzer award), the venal press still continued to blast away at the strikers with the same old legend. Not a comma has been changed in the editorials which, day after day, have defended the steel tycoons on the ground that there can be no compromise with labor violence.
  And all this time, the film record exists–and has been described–which would enable the public to make up its own mind on this very crucial point!
 – New Masses, June 29, 1937

At the end of the original Kos story, there is a poll for people to voice their opinion on if we should have a memorial day for labor. I voted, “Hell Yes!” which, as of this writing, is winning by a huge margin. The workers who died in strikes in this country are the people who gave us our overtime pay, 40-hour work week and 8-hour day. It’s time we recognized these brave fighters for freedom.

Bread, Peace and Freedom.


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