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The Memorial Day Massacre: A Lost Piece of History

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You might think that, having been raised a mile from where 10 workers were killed and 30 more were shot by police while picketing a steel plant, I would have heard of such a tragedy. More confounding, my great-uncle, Eddie Marasovic, was wounded by a police bullet in that violent affair that would become known as a massacre.

Yet I knew nothing of it. 

It happened in May, 1937, before I was born, on the prairie outside the Republic Steel plant on Chicago‚Äôs East Side. This spit of land, along Lake Michigan‚Äôs southern tip, linked the steel plants of southern Chicago to a long string of industry that reached through Indiana, giving rise to what labor economists called the largest steel producing region in the world. 

Why did I only learn about the killing of workers from a poster of the massacre that I found in a bookstore, in a city located two states away, nearly half a century after the event transpired?

The Memorial Day Massacre, as many refer to it, was largely repressed by many in the community where it occurred.

In the late¬†1990s when I¬†began researching it, scholars had also neglected the tragedy for decades. Greg Mitchell‚Äôs¬†new PBS film¬†and¬†book,¬†Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, explore how vital evidence — a Paramount newsreel — helped union leaders and civil libertarians turn the tide against the extreme pro-police news coverage in the immediate aftermath of the killings.

A single newsreel cameraman, Orlando Lippert of Paramount News, captured the tragedy on film. Lippert’s footage, suppressed by Paramount until a congressional committee under progressive Sen. Robert M. La Follette Jr. (D-Wisc.) screened it, showed police firing at protesters, striking 40 of them, the vast majority in the back or on the side.

The newsreel provided vital proof of corporate and state violence against working Americans. 

How had events transpired as they did?

Tensions had been ratcheting up for months ahead of the tragedy. In 1935, the new Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), under the leadership of United Mine Workers’ John L. Lewis, organized industrial labor, unskilled workers flexed their muscle. And, in late 1936, workers set off the sit-down craze, initiating hundreds of strikes from late November 1936 through the spring of 1937.

Lewis‚Äôs CIO achieved an agreement with U.S. Steel, the largest producer in the country, but Thomas M. Girdler, the CEO of Republic Steel, and the heads of other smaller steel companies (known as Little Steel), vowed to keep unions out. When workers called a strike at these plants, unionists rallied at Republic Steel. But Chicago police refused to let strikers picket the plant and on May 28, 1937, they viciously beat strikers, including women. 

To build community support, workers organized a Memorial Day picnic for families and labor activists on the prairie several blocks from their plant. More than 1,000 people showed up, many in their Sunday best, and then set off on a peaceful march to form a picket line close to the Republic plant. 

Police halted them halfway there. Orlando Lippert‚Äôs newsreel of events shows men and women gesticulating to police. Seconds later, the film shows workers fleeing. Police run after them, many with guns drawn, and fire upon the crowd. Four workers died of their wounds immediately, and within three weeks, another six had lost their lives. Others were hospitalized due to severe beatings. One boy, age 11, was shot in the foot. 

My grandmother’s youngest brother, my great uncle Eddie, was one of those who had been shot. Ironically, though I learned of the massacre in 1983 at the Northern Sun bookstore in Minneapolis, I only discovered our personal connection at a family wedding several years later. My great uncle’s daughter shared the story of her father having been shot that Memorial Day.

In 1996, in the midst of my graduate studies, examining how news photography shaped labor conflict, I interviewed my aunts and uncles to see if I could find out more. They knew nothing of the Memorial Day Massacre. I became fascinated, not only about the events in Chicago, but about the ways in which it had been forgotten. 

Only from an oral history that my brother, Michael, conducted with our grandparents did I¬†find out that my grandfather was working in the Republic plant for¬†17¬†days before and after the massacre. He was one of the “loyal workers” the company deployed to suggest the strikers did not represent most workers. He was, in effect, a¬†scab. My uncle Eddie, in contrast, stood on the field that day, fighting for the right to a¬†union.

I have few strands of information, hardly more than whispers, of Eddie’s life.

He continued his employment at Republic Steel for nearly four decades. But these are the lone facts I can dredge up. From family, there is little more. Others, notably urban sociologist William Kornblum in his 1975 book Blue Collar Community, have observed that Chicago’s East Siders did not want to discuss the events that so divided their community.

As documentarian George Stoney found in his exploration of Southern millworkers involved in the 1934 general textile strike, being subject to state violence can cause trauma or shame, making workers suspicious and willing to repress their own experiences.

Even the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) refused to honor the massacre‚Äôs victims — it took a¬†decade for the union‚Äôs newspaper to print the infamous photographs of its members being beaten and shot at by police, even as other union papers and metropolitan dailies published such imagery. In¬†1937, SWOC was fighting for its right to exist — and it may have feared scaring off membership by highlighting the¬†massacre.

The intransigence of Girdler and the other Little Steel executives soon stymied the union drive. Little Steel only accepted union representation after the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1940 that workers deserved compensation for the companies‚Äô illegal actions against them, and as President Franklin D. Roosevelt forced industry to negotiate with unions if they wanted federal defense contracts.

While workers did not obtain contracts immediately, efforts at curtailing labor spies, corporate mercenaries, and police overreaction to labor disputes mostly succeeded. A committee under Sen. La Follette probed the massacre and exposed the buried Paramount footage.

This spotlight upon extralegal violence helped curb it in the future. Documenting and publicizing the surveillance of workers — and the collusion between private “security” forces, police and the National Guard — lmited such practices. The stifling of violence, and federal support for unions along with workers‚Äô ongoing mobilization, ultimately led a¬†third of the nation‚Äôs industrial workforce to enjoy union representation by the early¬†1950s.

It was only in the mid-1990s that I began to deeply research the story of the massacre. By reading the La Follette transcripts, I was able to find traces of my great uncle.

I knew from a second cousin that her father, Eddie Marasovic, had been shot in his leg, and he carried the bullet in his body to the grave. Unexpectedly I encountered his name, in Exhibit #1463: A medical examiner’s sketch of a body, with dots strewn across the drawing, for all the bullets that more than two dozen activists had borne that day. My great-uncle’s name corresponds to the bullet that wounded his leg.

My family had been touched by history, recorded in history, and yet those marks had been lost to me. Repressed, censored or silenced — I am still trying to¬†learn.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on May 4, 2023. It is an adapted excerpt from the foreword to he book, “Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried” by Greg Mitchell. Republished with permission.

About the Author: Carol Quirke is a professor of American Studies at SUNY Old Westbury and is the author of “Eyes on Labor.


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Joan Would Have Lost Her Sexual Harassment Suit Against McCann Erickson

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millhiser_ian_bioThe following contains spoilers from Sunday night‚Äôs episode of Mad Men. The big reveal in Sunday night‚Äôs episode of Mad Men was that Sterling Cooper, a company where racist jokes are frequently thrown about and where the company‚Äôs only female partner literally earned that partnership because she was prostituted out to a client, is actually a progressive employer by the standards of its era. The episode is the first after Sterling Cooper is absorbed into the advertising behemoth McCann Erickson, and it begins with an African American secretary telling her casually racist boss that she won‚Äôt be going over to McCann with him because ‚Äúadvertising is not a very comfortable place for everyone.‚ÄĚ Yet the highlight of the episode is Joan‚Äôs sexual harassment at the hands of a senior member of her new firm, and her eventual decision to take a buyout worth only half of her partnership stake in the now defunct Sterling Cooper rather than take McCann to court. (Joan, of course, is the partner who agreed to an indecent proposal from a client). In response to Joan‚Äôs fictional experience with sex discrimination, the real-life American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged Joan to contact them in a tweet announcing that ‚Äúsexual harassment has no place at work!‚ÄĚ Yet the sad truth is that, had Joan actually pursued a lawsuit against McCann in 1970, the year when the final half-season of Mad Men takes place, she would have almost certainly lost.

Sunday‚Äôs episode focuses on Joan‚Äôs increasingly terrible interactions with three male colleagues. Early in the episode, Joan is matched with Dennis, an account executive who botches a call with a client and then dismisses Joan‚Äôs feedback (‚ÄúWho told you you got to get pissed off!‚ÄĚ) when she calls him out on his incompetence. Fearful that Dennis will destroy the client relationships that are her only capital within the firm, she approaches Ferg, a more senior colleague, seeking help.

Though Ferg initially presents himself as a lifesaver ‚ÄĒ he takes Dennis off Joan‚Äôs business and promises that she will report directly to him ‚Äď he soon makes it clear that his real interest in Joan is sexual. Ferg suggests that the two of them travel together to Atlanta to meet the client Dennis upset and tell her that he‚Äôs ‚Äúnot expecting anything more than a good time.‚ÄĚ Once Joan goes over Ferg‚Äôs head, she‚Äôs informed that Ferg is a high-status player at McCann and that she needs to fall in line. At first, Joan threatens to bring in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Betty Friedan and the ACLU to press her sexual harassment claim, but she ultimately takes what amounts to a settlement offer consisting of only half of what McCann owes her for her stake in Sterling Cooper.

Had Joan sued McCann, she would have relied on a legal theory that wasn‚Äôt even in its infancy in 1970. The ban on sexual harassment in the workplace flows from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employment discrimination because of ‚Äúrace, color, religion, sex, or national origin.‚ÄĚ Six years after the law‚Äôs passage, however, the courts had only barely begun to grapple with how sex discrimination actually manifests in the workplace, and the term ‚Äúsexual harassment‚ÄĚ didn‚Äôt even exist yet.

According to the National Organization for Women, ‚ÄúCornell University activists coined the term sexual harassment in 1975,‚ÄĚ five years after Joan‚Äôs fictional harassment took place. The first successful sexual harassment suit was decided in 1976, and that was only the decision of a single federal district judge. The EEOC did not issue guidelines targeting sexual harassment as a kind of sex discrimination until 1980. And the Supreme Court did not recognize Title VII‚Äôs prohibition on sexual harassment until its 1986 decision in Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson.

Had Joan filed suit against McCann, her lawsuit would have preceded all of these legal developments. For that reason, despite her threat to get the ACLU involved, it is unlikely that top-notch civil rights lawyers would have wanted to use her case as the vehicle to try to blaze a new legal trail. When lawyers bring a ‚Äútest case‚ÄĚ seeking to create new law, they typically choose their plaintiff or plaintiffs very carefully, selecting someone with an especially compelling case who is likely to win the sympathy of judges or justices. Bad facts make bad law, and a lawyer who offers a novel legal theory on behalf of a client who experienced subtle or uncertain harassment is likely to not only lose their case, they are likely to create a bad precedent that will harm future plaintiffs.

Here, for example, are the allegations in Vinson, the first Supreme Court case to recognize that sexual harassment suits are viable:

Respondent testified that during her probationary period as a teller-trainee, Taylor treated her in a fatherly way and made no sexual advances. Shortly thereafter, however, he invited her out to dinner and, during the course of the meal, suggested that they go to a motel to have sexual relations. At first she refused, but out of what she described as fear of losing her job she eventually agreed. According to respondent, Taylor thereafter made repeated demands upon her for sexual favors, usually at the branch, both during and after business hours; she estimated that over the next several years she had intercourse with him some 40 or 50 times. In addition, respondent testified that Taylor fondled her in front of other employees, followed her into the women’s restroom when she went there alone, exposed himself to her, and even forcibly raped her on several occasions.

Though Vinson recognized that this egregious level of harassment-becoming-assault violates the law, it set a very high bar for future sexual harassment plaintiffs. ‚ÄúFor sexual harassment to be actionable,‚ÄĚ Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the Court, ‚Äúit must be sufficiently severe or pervasive ‚Äėto alter the conditions of [the victim‚Äôs] employment and create an abusive working environment.’‚ÄĚ The Court also cited favorably to a racial harassment case establishing that the ‚Äú‚Äėmere utterance of an ethnic or racial epithet which engenders offensive feelings in an employee‚Äô would not affect the conditions of employment to sufficiently significant degree to violate Title VII.‚ÄĚ

Ferg‚Äôs advances, though clearly inappropriate, did not even approach the egregious level of discrimination that allegedly occurred in Vinson. He began his conversation with Joan by excusing Dennis‚Äôs sexism, but ultimately promised to give Joan the professional ‚Äúrespect you desire.‚ÄĚ And he propositioned Joan more through innuendo than through the direct demands that allegedly occurred in Vinson. There‚Äôs little doubt what kind of ‚Äúgood time‚ÄĚ Ferg was looking for, but it would be difficult for Joan to prove that this one incident constituted the kind of ‚Äúsevere or pervasive‚ÄĚ harassment Vinson demands.

That’s not to dismiss the reality of Ferg’s harassment of Joan, or to suggest that the working conditions that she faced were anything less than disgusting. But sexual harassment claims are notoriously difficult to win, and even our modern, more developed sexual harassment law is inadequate to combat the kind of harassment women like Joan continue to face in the workplace.

Had Joan filed suit against McCann, she would have been a true pioneer, bringing a novel legal case years before the term ‚Äúsexual harassment‚ÄĚ even existed. She also would have almost certainly lost her case in a legal system that was not the least bit prepared to hear it.

This blog was originally posted on Thinkprogress.org on May 4, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author. The author’s name is Ian Millhiser. Ian Millhiser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund and the Editor of ThinkProgress Justice. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Kenyon College and a J.D., magna cum laude, from Duke University. Ian clerked for Judge Eric L. Clay of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and has worked as an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center‚Äôs Federal Rights Project, as Assistant Director for Communications with the American Constitution Society, and as a Teach For America teacher in the Mississippi Delta. His writings have appeared in a diversity of legal and mainstream publications, including the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, U.S. News and World Report, Slate, the Guardian, the American Prospect, the Yale Law and Policy Review and the Duke Law Journal. Ian’s first book is Injustices: The Supreme Court’s History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted.

 


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Intellectual Imperialism

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In order to think about ways to align labor rights and human rights and create the changes needed to eliminate the poverty and oppression caused by those ignoring the basic rights that all people should reasonably expect to enjoy; we must address the concept of Intellectual Imperialism.

Intellectual Imperialism is the exploitation of intellectual capital by focusing our best and brightest scientific and engineering minds on developing innovations in labor saving, rather than life saving, technology. The mindset that only by reducing the number, and cost, of workers can a mature industry remain profitable, is a perception in dire need of change if international labor and human rights standards are to be effectively implemented and enforced.

We invest our government and corporate research funding capital, and the efforts of our best people, creating new and improved ways to have fewer and fewer people able to run our industrial plants, rather than focusing that same set of limited resources on discovering innovative ways of employing the same number of people to create more, better quality, more useful products, whose production would create even higher levels of employment.

Better products increase demand, greater demand increases industrial employment to meet that demand, higher employment increases disposable income, more disposable income creates more consumer spending, and all contribute to higher profits, and therefore a stronger economy.

This is not to say that progress and innovation, geared towards increasing profit, is any way a bad thing. The profit motive has served to create the funding for all manner of innovations.

From early civilizations prior to the first time an ancient Greek, Phoenician, or Norse sea captain asked their kings and queens to sponsor exploration to find new trade routes, products, and treasure, profit has driven innovation.

Scientific and engineering advances have improved the quality of life worldwide, at all economic levels. We must continue to innovate, but we must also change the focus of our innovative efforts such that innovation creates, rather than eliminates, employment, increasing, rather than reducing, industry’s ability to generate profits for the benefit of their stakeholders.

The reallocation of capital and human resources to maximize education and employment opportunities is vital to the health and prosperity of our nation and the international community.

A greater percentage of corporate and public research and development funds must be used to improve training and education. This is essential to properly prepare our young people for their place in the future work force.  Keeping the skills of today’s work force vital and current, so their skill set can continue to evolve, is key to keeping them prepared for the constant work place change that is the hallmark of the 21st century global economy.

Corporate funding to permanently endow innovative elementary and secondary school programs; corporate and union funded endowment of professorships, teaching assistant-ships, and research staffs at universities; government, corporate, and labor partnerships in the endowment of international educational exchange programs will create a permanent environment for ongoing educational innovation.

In order to foster the cultural and core value changes required, it is imperative that governments, multinational corporations, organized labor, human rights organizations, academia, and community activists begin the dialogue necessary to form the consensus needed to implement meaningful, lasting, change.

A key element is the agreement and commitment by all International Labor Organization (ILO) member nations to implement changes in their domestic labor laws and trade policies to create the ability for workers everywhere to have the protection of, and means to enforce, the four conventions comprising the ILO’s Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.[1]

The commitment to enforce the right to freedom of association and the right to engage in collective bargaining; elimination of all forms of compulsory or forced labor; abolition of child labor; and finally, elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation with serious penalties universally imposed on violators is essential.[2]

Further, enforceable legislation needs to be passed guaranteeing that workers employed by international corporations anywhere in the world should be paid a wage that creates a standard of living equivalent to that enjoyed by that company’s workers with the best pay, benefits, and conditions employed in similar jobs. This is the only way to bring the race to the bottom to a halt and put an end to social dumping.

An international coalition of government, industry, and labor must come together to create a plan to design and implement a worldwide program of green infrastructure construction projects to replace outdated, crumbling, bridges, roads, railroads, water treatment, and power delivery systems in developed countries, and bring renewable, green, transportation, water and power delivery systems to developing nations.

This will create new business opportunities for capital investment as well as millions of management, administrative, technical, skilled, and unskilled jobs around the world. The investment in education will create the innovations needed to create this green transportation and utility infrastructure, which will create opportunities for capital investment in green mining, agricultural, industrial, and service industries, resulting in more employment, more corporate profits, and a higher standard of living for people everywhere.

If we do not, if we continue to ignore the ever-increasing hunger, squalor, sickness, ignorance, and worldwide economic and ecological damage, caused by the unregulated greed and shortsightedness of so many in political, industrial, labor, and social leadership, if we continue to march, with flags waving and bands playing, obliviously backward into the dark ages, the legacy we leave our children and grandchildren will be a millennium of darkness and despair.

YOU must choose, WE must choose, choose  between sitting by while our civilization spins into chaos, or standing up, helping our family, friends, and neighbors to stand up, then standing together, work in solidarity to make this world a cleaner, greener, healthier, more innovative and profitable place. A place where there is opportunity for all. 

About the Author: Robert Daraio is a Local Representative of The Newspaper Guild of New York, CWA Local 31003; the Recording Secretary of the New York Broadcast Trades Council; moderator of theBroadcast Union News website; and a 2011 graduate of the MALS program at the CUNY Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.

[1]¬†The ILO is the international organization responsible for drawing up and overseeing international labor standards. It is the only ‘tripartite’ United Nations agency that brings together representatives of governments, employers and workers to jointly shape policies and programs promoting Decent Work for all. This unique arrangement gives the ILO an edge in incorporating ‘real world’ knowledge about employment and work.¬†http://www.ilo.org/global/about-the-ilo/lang–en/index.htm
 
[2]¬†Adopted in 1998, the Declaration commits Member States to respect and promote principles and rights in four categories, whether or not they have ratified the relevant Conventions. These categories are: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced or compulsory labor, the abolition of child labor and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.http://www.ilo.org/declaration/thedeclaration/lang–en/index.htm¬†
 
This post was originally published by Broadcast Union News on November 9, 2012. Reprinted with permission.
 

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