Matthew Kaplan Photography

Memorial Day Massacre Ceremony - Chicago - 5/20/23

Ten white crosses were draped with black veils as the names were read out of the striking steel workers and their supporters, shot dead by Chicago Police officers on Memorial Day 1937. Every year at this time, these ultimate sacrifices to the labor movement are commemorated at Steel Workers Memorial Hall (which also serves now as a church) on Avenue 0 at 118th Street. Afterwards a march is made to place roses on a nearby monument at 117th Street, directly across the street from the prairie where the fatal melee occurred.

Republic Steel, which operated a mill along the Calumet River (remnants of which are still standing), was being picketed by the Steel Workers Organizing Committee who were attempting to create a union at the facility to bargain for better wages and working conditions. Surprisingly, "Big Steel", ie US Steel, had already agreed to accept union bargaining. The action at Republic was part of a "Little Steel" walkout that also targeted the Youngstown and Inland Steel plants across the state line in Indiana Harbor.

To protect their operation, Republic Steel brought in dozens of Chicago Police officers, and provided them with guns, ammo and tear gas.

On Memorial Day afternoon, the strikers, their families and supporters, held a spirited rally at the nearby roadhouse, Sam's Place (114th and Green Bay), and marched the few blocks to the mill gate near 116th and Burley. When the unarmed protestors met the line of heavily armed policemen a brief standoff occurred, followed by gun fire and deadly mayhem.

Ten labor supporters, mostly from nearby communities, were killed in the clash. Many more were injured. The memory of this union martyrdom has been kept alive as a symbol of the struggle of labor against entrenched capital. Ultimately this conflict helped forge many postwar American workers into a prosperous middle class, and has for decades been fundamental to the self-image of Chicago's southeast side.

(Personally, I would be interested to see the current group of activists on the southeast side update this memorial ceremony, possibly as a way to connect past protests with current controversies.)

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