#477) Republic Steel Strike Riot Newsreel Footage (1937)
by Paramount News
Class of 1997
There are lots of different YouTube videos out there with this footage, and I’ll always recommend the raw footage, as some of these clips include the actual audio from the day. I also recommend this film by the Illinois Labor History Society featuring commentary by Sam Evett, a union organizer and witness to the riot.
On May 26th, 1937, after failing to make a negotiation with Republic Steel for better working conditions, the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) went on strike. Organized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the strike also included workers at Inland Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube (known collectively with Republic as “Little Steel”), amounting to 67,000 total steel workers on strike.
On the morning of Memorial Day (May 30th), a crowd of striking workers and sympathizers gathered in the field in front of Republic Steel in Chicago. They were met by a large group of Chicago policemen, armed and prepared to break up any protests. After a few minutes, things escalated into a riot, with the police firing shots at the crowd, as well as throwing tear gas and beating strikers with their clubs. When the dust settled, four civilians were immediately dead, six more died of complications in the ensuing days, and at least 67 were wounded or suffered head injuries. This event would become known as the “Memorial Day Massacre“, and its show of violence was one of many the strikers would face in the next few months.
Tipped off about the protest, Paramount News was at the scene documenting the entire event with their cameras. The Chicago police initially banned Paramount from releasing the footage publicly, fearing “mass hysteria”. The footage did, however, make an appearance in a 1938 Senate investigation, in which it was used to prove that the policemen had incited the riot, and that their gear was provided to them by Republic Steel. Despite this evidence, no police arrests were ever made.
Like much of the historical films on this list, the Memorial Day massacre newsreel footage is indeed worthy of NFR preservation. In addition to its sudden, unsettling view of the day, the film’s historical significance lies in its documentation as well as its role in the subsequent investigation. Sadly, with the rise in police brutality that we see in our modern, deeply-divided world, the Republic Steel Strike footage has proven just how little we have evolved as a nation.
- While the strike ended five months later in a sound defeat for SWOC, these events led to the creation of the United Steel Workers of America (now United Steel Workers), and a contract with Little Steel in 1942.
- Republic Steel saw a slow decline, and by the 1980s had been bought and merged with other companies, though it would regain its Republic Steel name in 2011.
- United Steel Workers is still going, 860,000 members strong. The USW’s former union hall in Chicago now features a plaque memorializing the Memorial Day massacre, and the 10 union members who were killed.