FDR and the Little Steel Strike

In countless articles during the 2016 presidential election and reaching a crescendo after Trump’s victory, pundits such as Thomas Frank, Robert Reich and Katrina vanden Heuvel have urged the Democrats to return to their working class roots if they are to win the White House, frequently pointing to the Bernie Sanders campaign as model for future efforts.

Frank in particular has built a virtual career out of making such points. In April 2016, he gave an interview to In These Times, a citadel of such hopes, titled Thomas Frank on How Democrats Went From Being The ‘Party Of The People’ to the Party Of Rich Elites  that was based on his new book Listen, Liberal, which argues that the Democrats have gone from the party of the New Deal to a party that defends mass inequality. In the interview Frank chastises Obama for not carrying out a new New Deal despite having control of Congress. “He could have done anything he wanted with them, in the way that Franklin Roosevelt did in the ’30s. But he chose not to.”

For many on the left, particularly the DSA and its journalistic sounding boards such as Jacobin, In These Times and Dissent, FDR is an icon who embodies their hopes for what they call socialism, a Scandinavian style welfare state that ostensibly put the needs of the workers over the capitalist class. While likely admitting that this is not the socialism that Marx advocated, they certainly are right that a reincarnated New Deal would be better than Donald Trump or the corporatist presidency of Barack Obama. Whether that would be feasible under a capitalism that has been leaking jobs to automation and runaway shops for the past 40 years is debatable. Many on the left have argued that it was WWII that lifted the USA out of the Great Depression rather than any New Deal program.

But the gauzy, halcyon portrait of the New Deal does not stand up to the reality of the Little Steel Strike of 1937 that is the subject of Ahmed White’s magisterial The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America that I discussed in a previous CounterPunch article focused on identity politics and the racism endured by Black steelworkers. For those new to the topic, “little” refers to the group of companies that blocked the CIO from organizing its workers, as opposed to US Steel, the “big” company that had they had come to terms with in March 1937. Little Steel consisted of Republic Steel Corporation, Bethlehem Steel Corporation, Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company and Inland Steel Company. Despite being called “little” in comparison to US Steel, each ranked among the hundred largest firms in America.

On Memorial Day, just two months after the contract with US Steel had been signed, a march of striking steelworkers and their supporters in Chicago was attacked by the cops, leaving ten dead and sixty-seven wounded. Of the wounded, nine suffered permanent debilitating injuries. At a press conference on June 29th, FDR told reporters that the country regarded the strike as: “A plague on both your houses.” It is to the credit of Ahmed White to reveal that beneath this seemingly neutral but cruelly indifferent statement was a Democratic Party elite that served as a soft cop alongside the Chicago hard cops arrayed against the Little Steel strikers.

Ahmed White’s narrative is both inspiring and dispiriting in a way that most of us who have fought in the trenches of the American left can relate to. On the inspiring side of the ledger, we learn about the Communist Party members who were ready to give up their lives for the struggle even as the party leadership was all too willing to fight with one arm behind its back.

As someone with vivid memories of Gus Hall constantly applying the brake on the antiwar movement in the 1960s, it was a pleasure to see him fearlessly taking on the cops and the goon squads defending the interests of Little Steel. Born Arvo Kusta lastgreatstrikeHalberg in 1910 to Finnish parents in a log cabin on Minnesota’s Iron Range, Hall attributed working in mining and logging camps in his youth as turning him into a communist. In the early 30s, Hall trained in the International Lenin School in Moscow where along with reading Marx and Stalin (unfortunately), he learned sabotage and guerrilla tactics.

Perhaps this training helped him to lead a group of CIO militants in closing off rail access to Republic Steel during the strike. In the 1930s, rail was critical to the supply of raw materials to steel mills as might be obvious from the sight of the rusting rails that can be seen in the empty lots where such companies once stood. When picketers could not convince train crews to turn back, they would take direct action by blocking the tracks with crossties and often more combative tactics. On June 15th, union men dynamited eighty feet of track, including a trestle, on the line between Warren and Niles in Ohio, two steel company towns. On June 27th, Gus Hall and five other CIO activists were arrested for conspiring to sabotage steel and railroad company property and to damage private homes with explosives stolen from mining operations in Pennsylvania. In the New York Times report on his arrest, Hall seemed to be taking everything in stride. Another heroic Communist leader of this uphill struggle was Robert Burke who was a young and very talented Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) organizer who was now dodging cops as he made the rounds of steel mills in Youngstown, where he was born and toiled in the mills himself. On August 22nd, he ran into a goon brandishing a gun and a blackjack who told him to “mind your own business while you’re still in one piece”. When the SWOC reported this incident to the cops, it was told that the thug was a deputy and that they could do nothing about it. The chief of police told Burke that he had no right to distribute literature on the streets anyhow. In many ways, these were the same kinds of obstacles that the Wobblies faced a generation earlier and showed how the capitalist state and private enterprise overlap.

White reports on how Burke saved up money from truck-driving and working in the mills to go to Columbia University in 1932. While there, he did odd jobs, including washing dogs for rich people and teaching boxing. (My uncle Mike was there at the time, working in kosher chicken slaughter yards to keep him going.) In May 1936, Burke led student protests against Columbia hosting Nazi officials from Germany, including in front of the president’s home, one Nicholas Murray Butler. Burke was expelled for his efforts.

In 2007 I wrote an article  about the furor over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance at Columbia, calling attention to the Robert Burke-led protest. This led to Burke’s son Terry signing up for Marxmail and offering his own thoughts on his dad who died in 1988:

My father was a man whose life stands as a testament to the fact that in struggle, change for the good of the human race WILL come, that victory over the truly evil culture of “the bosses” IS attainable. We live in an era of ascendant cynicism, of defeatist truisms that preach surrender to an “eternal law” of inequality and human misery. But I wear his red garnet ring on my hand, and I am here on this earth to distribute the small yet precious particle of his spark which I possess wherever I walk. My life has no higher meaning than its potential to contribute as the son of Robert H. Burke to the continuation of the struggle to liberate humankind from oppression, dishonesty and privilege, and to encourage all that I encounter to struggle, to know that our struggle will never be in vain and that, as my Pop always said “you aint licked till ya quit, kid.” Thank you, and God bless us all.

Gus Hall and Robert Burke struggled to liberate humankind from oppression even if the Communist Party was an instrument inadequate to that task. Even if socialism and the bankrupt foreign policy of the Kremlin that mandated Communist subordination to FDR in a “Popular Front”, there was at least a hope that a Communist-led CIO organizing drive might have led to victory over Little Steel just as it had in other CP-led strikes before this one. What the party had not anticipated was the treachery of the Roosevelt administration whose commitment to the labor movement was purely verbal.

In chapter nine, aptly titled “A Change of Heart: Corporate Power and New Deal Strikebreaking”, White lays out a tale of perfidy that should serve to demolish any illusions fostered by Thomas Frank. The SWOC had found itself locked in a bitter struggle in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a state that had elected George H. Earle III to governor. Earle was one of just two Democrats that served as Governor of Pennsylvania between the Civil War and World War II, and considered by many to be a New Deal stalwart. So were Clifford Townshend of Indiana and Martin Davey of Ohio. So, with three states governed by liberals, why wouldn’t the bosses accept the CIO especially when “big” steel already had?

The steel mill owners mounted a furious campaign against the strikers that included both violence and PR campaigns of the sort associated with the Koch brothers today. The newspapers were all too happy to repeat the talking points of the bosses.

Strikers had reason to believe that FDR was on their side, all the more so when he questioned the reasons for Little Steel bosses refusing to sign a contract. Despite all this, the Roosevelt administration could not be trusted. Frances Perkins, a liberal sociologist and Secretary of Labor, was no socialist.

With little help from the White House and an intransigent assault on trade union rights from the steel mill owners, it was only a matter of time before the Governors of Indiana, Pennsylvania and Ohio caved in. Davey was the first to go. On June 24, Davey terminated a ruling that had kept the mills closed—something that worked in the SWOC’s favor—and issued a proclamation that began: “The right to work is sacred” This was a go-ahead for the mills to be reopened with the full force of the cops and goons, the PR machine and rightwing committees on behalf of the union-busting machine. Earle and Townshend followed suit almost immediately. White sums up the outcome of the failed strike:

When the governors lifted their status quo orders, CIO officials pleaded with Roosevelt to intervene directly and stop the mills from reopening. After several days of silence, Roosevelt issued a devastating response. At a June 29 press conference, he summoned Shakespeare and declared the strike “a plague on both your houses.” The statement made clear the president’s intention to distance himself from capitalists and workers alike and, if possible, to wash his hands of the whole affair. Like thousands of rank and filers, [John L. Lewis, the CIO president] was deeply betrayed. But he waited until Labor Day to give full vent to his anger. In a nationally broadcast radio address, Lewis warned Roosevelt, “It ill behooves one who has supped at labor’s table and who has been sheltered in labor’s house to curse with equal fervor and fine impartiality both labor and its adversaries when they become locked in deadly embrace.” Roosevelt’s decision to denounce the union would seriously erode the administration’s alliance with Lewis and the CIO and would reverberate for years to come. His move also hinted at a fundamental political shift. In the words of the Buffalo Evening News’s Washington correspondent, it signaled that the New Deal had undergone “a change of heart.”

Before I ever picked up Ahmed White’s essential labor history, I had abandoned the idea that Roosevelt was a friend of labor. In the late 60s, I read SWP labor journalist Art Preis’s Labor’s Giant Step that had a chapter on the Little Steel fiasco that has stuck with me over the years.

This year, as hopes were pinned on Bernie Sanders’s “socialism”, I began looking at the events of 1937 but from a somewhat different angle than White. Instead of looking at the governors who sold out the SWOC, I was interested in the role of Chicago’s mayor Edward J. Kelley who had ordered the cops to open fire on the strikers on Memorial Day and whose candidacy had been endorsed by the Communist Party. I cited an article by Roger Biles:

The Democratic leadership so feared retaliation by working-class voters [for the massacre] that they met with CIO officials to discuss ways of improving their rapport. Kelly offered them future exemption from police interference in return for official forgiveness for Kelly’s role in the Memorial Day affair. The CIO worked for the machine in subsequent elections and, amazingly, a steelworker whose eye had been shot out in the 1937 skirmish gave Kelly a radio endorsement during the 1939 mayoral campaign. Thereafter, Chicago police assumed a more circumspect stance during labor-management confrontations, and the CIO took its place among the supporters of Chicago Democracy.

When confronted by all of the “inside-outside” strategies advanced by Bernie Sanders supporters speaking in the name of a Marxism I can barely recognize, I long for the time when a deep-rooted radicalization of the sort that took place in the 1960s can once again rear its beautiful head and draw clear class lines that force the left to make up its mind about the burning question of our epoch: whether the Democratic Party can be an instrument for progressive change.

In the November-December 1980 New Left Review, you can find an article by Mike Davis titled “The Barren Marriage of American Labour and the Democratic Party” that pretty much reflected the mood of the time. (Unfortunately Davis has backtracked on his youthful radicalism recently, urging people in Jacobin—quite naturally—to get involved with the Sanders campaign.) The NLR article is Mike Davis at his best. The fifty-page article recounts the Little Steel strike events and characterizes the political lessons:

Thus when Democratic Governor Davey of Ohio sent the national guard into the steel towns of Canton, Massillon, and Youngstown, they were welcomed as ‘brotherly heroes’ by the SWOC strikers. Instead the guardsmen launched a reign of terror, reminiscent of the suppression of the 1919 Steel Strike, which virtually drove SWOC underground in Ohio. Meanwhile, the even more ‘pro- labour’ Governor Earl of Pennsylvania, who in earlier months had genuinely supported the CIO’s fight to establish civil liberties in the Allegheny and Monogahela valleys, also backtracked into a repressive stance. The key to the behaviour of these Democratic politicians, of course, was the attitude of the administration in Washington. Roosevelt, shifting ground to rebuild support from business circles as well as with the anti-CIO leadership of the AFL, cynically repaid his electoral debts to the CIO by playing the role of Pontius Pilate in the aftermath of the bloody Memorial Day (1937) massacre of striking steelworkers in South Chicago. While Lewis was busy defusing the rank and file anger inside SWOC which was pushing for a general strike in Chicago, FDR, declared ‘a plague on both houses’ and coolly distanced himself from the CIO. The combined result, therefore, of Lewis’s bureaucratism, the CP’s new-found moderation, and FDR’s betrayal was the defeat of SWOC and the crashing halt of the CIO’s offensive in industry.

While the labor struggles of the 1930s now seem as remote from our own experience today as the Chartist fight to win the vote in Great Britain, there is much to learn by reading Ahmed White. Labor was defeated nearly eighty years ago because it put its trust in the Democratic Party. Whether there is even the possibility that the American working class can confront the capitalist class at the point of production with a factory system transformed by automation and with new jobs tending toward the “precariat” is to be decided.

What has already been decided, however, is that class collaboration in a sterile bid to reconstruct the New Deal is a blind alley that can only lead to defeat in any arena of struggle, from Black Lives Matter to the right of immigrants to live in safety whether they are “legal” or not. To begin the long and arduous process of organizing the oppressed in a powerful mass movement that can deliver blows against the forces of reaction, we have to start with a clean break with the Democratic Party. Anybody speaking in the name of the left that waffles on this question has to be moved to the side or else we are condemned to failure over and over again.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.