Text flawed in its coverage of labor-management violence
Here’s one lesson that I want to leave you with: critically consider everything you read and hear, whether it comes from an authority like the news media or the Sloane-Witney textbook (and me as your instructor. You will never receive any reprisal for challenging me, either disagreeing with conclusions I relate or demanding more evidence from me. If I can teach you to do that, then I have at least partially succeeded!)
You must always ask, what is the evidence? Are euphemisms (“weasel words” like “collateral damage” being used to excuse atrocities against civilians? Are phrases like global competitiveness” being accepted without serious examination of economic realities?
One particularly troubling distortion in the Sloane-Witney Labor Relations text is its blurring of the reality of labor-management violence. While I may occasionally point out other examples of this pattern of neglecting large-scale violence directed by corporations and their allies against unionists, the story of the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937 in South Chicago as told by Sloane and Witney on page 68 camouflages one-sided violence with generalities.
The event was in fact a massacre, as wanton gunfire by Chicago police was caught on film and probed in detail by a Congressional committee. From the film and the Congressional report, it is crystal-clear that 10 striking steelworkers were shot in the back and killed, 30 others wounded, and hundreds injured by police beatings.
Yet Sloane and Witney very curiously bypass any mention of the well-known overwhelming evidence and depict the gunfire coming exclusively from pro-employer policemen as an ill-fated “clash between pickets and police,” with the responsibility for the deaths apparently the fault of both the steel companies and Steel Workers Organizing Committee. That’s almost like calling the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 a “clash between Americans on the airbase and Japanese bombers.”
LINKS TO FOOTAGE: Scenes from the massacre are captured at about 40:26 in “The Inheritance “and at 4:30 in the video at http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2012/05/this-day-in-labor-history-may-30-1937. This link also brings you to more detail on Republic Steel’s stockpiling of military-style weapons and enlisting the Chicago police on its side in response to lawful union organizing:
Republic Steel, headed by anti-union die hard Tom Girdler,…r hired the Chicago police as a private army, paying for their guns and ammunition. The committee found that the companies had spent $40,000 on weapons for the police. Between 1933 and 1937, the Little Steel companies purchased more poison gas (nausea-inducing rather than fatal) than the U.S. military
A DIFFERENT ACCOUNT OF MASSACRE You may also want to look at my account from http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/7369/may_30_1937_massacre_reminds_labor_keep_fighting_to_get_truth_out/, which I pasted below. In the article, I also touch on some of the real problems in media coverage of workers and unions; the Sloan-Witney discussion on media coverage on pp. 11-12 is exceedingly shallow and misses virtually all the central issues that media critics have raised about the way that labor unions are covered. ( I can provide more information and sources on this if you are interested; I have also written a lot on the topic.)
Interestingly, changing the public’s simplistic perception of the events—which resembled the Sloan-Witney version as simply a “clash” for which responsibility was spread among the union, management of Republic Steel and the other firms, and the Chicago police—occurred not only because of the sheer weight of the visual and documentary evidence, but also labor’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of the media..
Massacre Offers Stark Reminder: Media Usually Side With Corporations, Police
BY ROGER BYBEE
Police fire on a crowd of strikers during the Republic Steel strike on May 30, 1937, in Chicago. Ten people were killed in the massacre. (Photo viaArkansas AFL-CIO )
We’ve become accustomed to seeing "credible" major media voices like The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer blame United Auto Worker members for hauling in outlandish wages of a supposed $73 an hour, destroying the global competitiveness of U.S. companies. Those claims are way off-base: Actual average auto worker wages are$27-29/hour. Meanwhile, new workers start at just $14.50, with limited benefits.
Given the distance of most reporters and editors from the lives of working people—and the fact that labor reporters have become virtually extinct in America—it is easy to see why reporters and pundits would find such falsehoods credible.
But the Memorial Day Massacre on May 30, 1937 in southeast Chicago—the 74th anniversary of which was yesterday—should remind us that even when 10 workers get shot in the back and killed, the media’s natural inclination is to side with corporations and the police.
On Memorial Day 1937, Chicago policemen fired upon a crowd of 1,000 striking United Steelworkers and their wives and children near Republic Steel on the city’s southeast side, killing 10 workers—each one shot in the back or side, indicating that they were fleeing the police rather than charging them.
Another 30 workers were shot and wounded, all but four struck in the back or side. Ten of the strikers and supporters were permanently crippled by bullet wounds or relentless thrashings inflicted by Chicago Police billy-clubs.
MEDIA REACTION: RIOTING WORKERS PROVOKED COPS
But initial reaction was anything but sympathetic to the strikers. Predictably, Colonel Robert McCormick’s reactionary Chicago Tribune portrayed the event as an assault by communist rioters who forced police officers to defend themselves. Other major media interpreted photos and newsreel footage as confirming the scenario of a hysterical mob attack on the police. A coroner’s jury ruled the shootings “justifiable homicide.”
Howefer, the bitterest pill came from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was beseeched by labor leaders to denounce the slaughter. Instead, Roosevelt—in whom desperate workers had invested so many hopes—reportedly responded icily: "The majority of people are saying just one thing, 'A plague on both your houses.' "
The conventional “framing”—the structure and narrative—of the event by corporate leaders, the mainstream media, and leading politicians all depicted the workers as uncontrollable rioters who went far beyond the assertion of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
Some elected Democrats like Roosevelt suggested that the police were unnecessarily brutal, but implied that the strikers had provoked a violent response.
EFFORT TO GET OUT THE TRUTH
But the reality of the Memorial Day massacre slowly began to be revealed to the public, like a gradually developing photograph, thanks to the dogged and diligent efforts of the Steelworkers Organizing Committee, St. Louis Dispatch reporter Paul Anderson, and the audacity of Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette, Jr., chair of the Civil Liberties Committee.
The result was a relatively rare instance of labor turning around initially-hostile news coverage and successfully re-framing the killings as the result of the particularly avaricious and aggressive Republic Steel, led by president Tom Girdler.
Initial coverage failed to depict the bellicose stance of Girdler and other top executives. Republic Steel was rapidly advancing out of the Depression, with its profits climbing. But rather than share the wealth with the workers who produced it, Girdler prepared literally for class war. “Sure, we’ve got guns!," he replied jubilantly when asked about the corporation’s response of buying munitions instead of recognizing workers’ demands for their union rights, as reported in the class labor history by Morais and Boyer, "Labor's Untold Story."
As Prof. Carol Quirke has noted, the labor movement showed a newfound sophistication in using the mass media to document class violence against workers and to win over public support:
[N]ewsreel footage and news photographs [now understood] to demonstrate police responsibility for the violence first appeared in metropolitan dailies and nationally circulating magazines in stories representing strikers as a mob that sought to storm the Republic Steel plant, leaving police no option but to shoot.
[The Memorial Day Massacre illustrates] how labor and its allies engineered a re-reading of news imagery first employed by Chicago officials and Republic Steel executives to condemn workers' activism. This re-reading took place at Chicago rallies, in Washington congressional rooms, and ultimately, within the newly nationalized, photographic media itself.
Understanding how labor reversed the interpretation of these images before the American public suggests that labor's newfound political might included a sophisticated ability to renegotiate its visual representation, and to capitalize on the growing salience of news photography to restrict corporate and state violence against unions.
CRITICAL EVIDENCE KEPT FROM PUBLIC
One critical piece of evidence was a Paramount newsreel of the event shot by a photographer who expected a routine, peaceful rally. Instead, he wound up filming a barbaric onslaught that was described by reporter Paul Anderson of St. Louis Post-Dispatch in these unforgettable terms:
Those of us who saw it were shocked and amazed by the scenes showing scores of uniformed police firing their revolvers pointblank into a dense crowd of men, women and children, and then pursuing and clubbing the survivors unmercifully as they made frantic efforts to escape.
The impression produced by the fearful scenes was heightened by the sound record which accompanies the picture, reproducing the roar of the police fire and the screams of the victims
A vivid close-up shows the head of the parade being halted at the police line. The flag bearers are in front. Behind them the placards are massed. They bear such devices as “Come on out, Help win the strike, Republic vs. the People, and CIO …
Then suddenly, without warning, there is a terrific roar of pistol shots, and the men in the front ranks of the marchers go down like grass before the scythe. The camera catches approximately a dozen falling simultaneously in a heap. The massive sustained roar of the pistol shots last perhaps two to three seconds.
In a manner which is appallingly business-like, groups of policemen close in on isolated individuals. They go to work on them with their clubs. In several instances two to four policemen were seen beating on one man.
Even while numerous newspapers were reflecting the Republic Steel/Chicago Police Dept. version of the events, a Paramount executive refused to release the tape, stating he was blocking it “on the grounds that such an unrelieved record of blood and brutality was liable to touch off more riots.” Yet at the same time, the same footage was being viewed in British cinemas. (The newsreel in video version is still hard to obtain; try this link).
Sen. LaFollette finally obtained the newsreel so that his Senate committee could view it. The committee’s private viewing set the stage for a scorching report that excoriated Republic Steel’s decision to prepare for war rather than recognize workers’ rights. It also faulted the Chicago Police Department for acting as an auxiliary of Republic’s goon squad.
The LaFollette Committee further reported,
The Republic Steel Corporation has a uniformed police force of nearly 400 men whom it has equipped not only with revolvers, rifles and shotguns, but also with more tear and sickening gas and gas equipment than has been purchased…by any law-enforcement body, local, State or Federal in the country. It has loosed its guards, thus armed to shoot down citizens on the streets and highways.
The LaFollette report created sensational headlines and widespread condemnations of Republic Steel, and a vast tide of public sympathy for the union movement.
CHALLENGING DISCONNECTED MAJOR MEDIA
The Memorial Day Massacre reminds us of the inhuman lengths that corporate CEOs—increasingly cast in the mold of Girdler or former GE head Jack Welch—will go to avoid parting with one cent or scintilla of control over their workers.
But perhaps the most crucial lesson to draw from the awful massacre 74 years ago is that labor must challenge the way that its cause is presented in the media on a daily basis. The increasing polarization of income is almost entirely ignored by major media; globalization and “free trade” are portrayed as the only view that “enlightened” people could possibly hold, and labor unions are commonly portrayed as once-useful institutions that have become dinosaurs.
Essentially, the major media remain almost as remote from the lives of working people as Colonel McCormick's Tribune was from the reality of the Republic Steel strike and the ensuing massacre.