Little Steel Strike of 1937
Strikers of Republic Steel leaving Cleveland City Hall. Cuyahoga County, after being addressed by Al Balant, leader of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC), 1937.
The Little Steel Strike of 1937 pitted steelworkers, represented by the Congress of Industrial Organizations, against smaller steel manufacturing companies, such as the Republic Steel Company, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, collectively known as Little Steel.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, factory workers faced poor working conditions, low wages, and almost no benefits. This was true for the workers employed by most companies, including in the steel industry. In 1937, workers at the Republic Steel Company, the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, and several other steel companies went on strike over low wages and poor working conditions. Collectively these steel companies were known as "Little Steel." The strikers belonged to the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a union established in 1935. The workers employed sit-down strikes and picket lines to attain their goals of better wages and improved working conditions. In the past, when workers went on strike they would leave the factory to join picket lines. Company owners often hired "scab" laborers to cross the picket lines and continue production. The practice of using scab labor made it difficult for striking workers to obtain their demands. In contrast, in a sit-down strike, workers quit working but still occupied their places within the factory. This process meant that the factory owners could not send in additional workers to continue the job. In addition, factory management was more reluctant to use private security forces or other strikebreakers to intimidate the striking workers, as that approach threatened destruction to plant property.
People sympathetic to the workers used airplanes to drop food to the workers inside of the plants. They also attempted to mail food into the businesses, but the post office refused to deliver the packages to the strikers. To prevent the strike from occurring in the first place the Little Steel companies had hired their own police forces to intimidate workers. During the strikes, the companies lobbied local residents to put pressure on the strikers and their families. Numerous citizens formed committees, including the Mahoning Valley, Ohio Citizens' Committee, the Citizens' Law and Order League of Canton, Ohio, and the John Q. Public League of Warren, Ohio, to protest the strikers' actions. Little Steel brought in scab laborers to work the machines, while the sit-down strikers remained in the plants. The employers even used tear gas to drive the strikers out of the businesses. The governor of Ohio, Martin L. Davey, eventually sent troops in to break up the strike.
The Little Steel Strike illustrates the difficulties that unions and workers faced during the 1930s to attain better working conditions. Although the United States government formally legalized unions under the Wagner-Connery Act in 1935, many companies, including the Little Steel firms, refused to abide by the law. In 1937, Little Steel refused to recognize any of the strikers' demands. It was not until 1941 that the Little Steel companies finally recognized unions.