Redmond on the 1937 Republic Steel Memorial Day Massacre


AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond delivered the following remarks as prepared for an event commemorating the 1937 Republic Steel Memorial Day Massacre:

Hello, everyone. I’m Fred Redmond, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and a proud Steelworker.  As many of you know, I got my start just down the road at the Reynolds aluminum with Local 3911.

So thank you all for inviting me back home to District 7. It’s great to be surrounded by my brothers and sisters and to see so many friends and friendly faces.

Now, we’re here today to commemorate a somber event. 

We’re here because 85 years ago, workers were criminalized for having the audacity to stand together and stand up to some of the most powerful companies in America and call for better working conditions. 

Those steelworkers wanted a 40-hour workweek and a fair wage. They wanted to spend time with their family on holidays and have an occasional vacation.

But Republic Steel and the other “little steel” companies denied these workers those basic needs. So the steelworkers stood together and went on strike.

Now, most workers who go on strike have never been on strike before… and the Republic Steel strikers were no different.

That Memorial Day was a beautiful Chicago day, and the striking workers brought their wives and sisters and children out to join them. It was a picnic atmosphere. A picnic with a purpose. 

And as that purpose took shape, and some 2500 people marched peacefully to the gates of Republic Steel, they were met by a line of city police armed with revolvers and billy clubs.

And by private police hired by the company, armed with tear gas and clubs and hatchet handles.

Some 250 law enforcement in all had formed a perimeter around Republic Steel. And they were ready for a fight.

As the parade of workers approached the Republic Steel gate the police fired. Not just one officer ringing out a warning shot, but many shooting the striking workers in the back as they turned and ran away.

Those officers pursued and beat and clubbed the striking workers who fell to the ground - their arms and hands raised to protect their faces.

When all was said and done, a hundred people were taken to the hospital wounded.

Ten people died. 

A man who worked for Western Union.

A man from the Works Progress Administration. 

And eight of our Steelworker brothers from Locals 65 and 1033. From 1010 and 1011. 

We’re gathered here today to honor their lives, their work, their sacrifice. We’re here to reflect on this tragic event in labor history, in our nation's history.

But we have to do more than reflect on the past or we risk the past repeating itself.

Mother Jones once said that we should sit down and read and educate ourselves for the coming conflicts. I agree. We, as a movement and a nation, have a rich history. I’m fascinated by it. I enjoy it. 

Knowing our labor history, and our civil rights history, and connecting it to our movement today can help us be better prepared for the coming conflicts. It can prepare us to fight harder and smarter.

So what can we learn from this tragedy? Well let’s start by looking at how the public learned about it back in 1937. 

Today this tragic event is called a massacre because that’s what it was. But in the following days the newspapers called the massacre of protesting demonstrators by an armed militia a “riot.”

The striking workers were portrayed as agitators. As radicals. As villains whose demands for a more just and equitable future was beyond the norm - they were dangerous and they were to be feared by the public.

It has been a common refrain about protestors agitating for change. Too often they are vilified, criminalized or ignored.

We saw that in Selma in the fight for voting rights. At Kent State in the call for peace in Southeast Asia. And recently, across the country two summers ago for racial justice.

Now in all of these cases, the brutality and terror inflicted by those charged to serve and protect the public was televised.

And it changed the public’s perception.

That wasn’t the case with the Memorial Day Massacre. It was not televised. Not because there wasn’t footage. There is. This event – this “riot” – was captured on film but it was so gruesome that it was censored over fears airing it would lead to an outraged public and mass hysteria.

Maybe it would have. And maybe it should have. In any case, the public didn’t have the chance to see it. They couldn’t form their own opinion because they didn’t have the facts. 

Now, why is this relevant? Because the same thing is happening today. We are living in a country so divided that we’re being shown different versions of the world around us.

There is so much misinformation and disinformation that one America is being fed one set of information and the other America the opposite. 

People are being intentionally misled and lied to. And because of that we cannot agree on the basic facts.

It is clawing away at our basic right to vote and our right to organize, and it is undermining our electoral system and democracy. 

And it is leading to disaster. 

We have to pay attention. And we have to help folks separate the truth from the lie. 

We can be that trusted source of information for our members. We can share the basic facts. We can learn from the history of how false narratives were created around this massacre and make sure that history doesn’t get repeated. 

To do that, we need to go back to a tried and true strategy – face-to-face conversations in the workplace.

We are going to have to listen first and build trust and then talk about the issues that matter.

It’s not going to be easy but it is critical if we want to break through those echo chambers of social media and cable news that are pushing us apart. This is how we will reach our full potential as a movement. It is how we will organize and grow and fight back against anti-democratic and authoritarian forces.

Because the attacks on our democracy are as real as the attacks on the workers here so many years ago. And like them, we need to be at the forefront calling them out. That starts with combating voter suppression and the anti-worker laws designed to silence us.

And this is the time to do it. The wind is at our back. America is excited about the labor movement. 

We have the momentum. There’s an energy out there. We need to capture it.

Workers across America are striking and standing up for their rights. And young people especially are seeing unions as the solution. They’re rejecting jobs where they risk their health and safety for a poverty wage.

And workers across America are eager to join a union. Because a union job is so much more than a job.  

It’s a career. It gives a sense of pride – a high quality of life – good health care and the ability to retire with dignity. 

And the sense of belonging in a broader movement of working people who are joined together in pursuit of the greater good.

Who doesn’t want that? It’s our job to help workers join or form a union. No matter how big or small, each organizing win improves the lives of workers – better wages and benefits – access to health care – and makes their jobs safer and more secure.

But our job isn’t done when a first contract is ratified. Our greater challenge is unionizing workers.

What do I mean by that? It’s member engagement. It’s internal organizing. It’s educating and training stewards and union leaders and community partners to communicate the core values of the labor movement. To engage members. To show the value the union brings to their lives.

That’s what we need to do as union leaders. As union members. As concerned members of the future of our communities and country.

It’s our job to show all working people that the labor movement is for everyone – with women and young people and people of color – everyone.

Because the labor movement is open to everyone. What other group or institution can say that? We accept everybody. And we need everybody. All workers must play a role in pushing our labor movement forward. Because diversity is our greatest strength. And an educated and engaged membership is our most powerful weapon. 

We have to be inclusive and unified. 100%.

When we are, the possibilities for organized labor are endless. 

We can be a progressive force for justice – for today and for generations to come.