Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Monday Memories


Organized labor fights for a foothold

In the summer of 1937 the nation’s attention turned to a strike at Newton Steel Company in Monroe. Monroe had 18,000 residents, and 1,350 of them worked at Newton Steel.

In 1936, the Congress of Industrial Organizations successfully unionized U.S. Steel, covering 200,000 steelworkers. Workers received slight pay raises, a 40-hour work week, a week of vacation, and three guaranteed holidays. With success on such a large scale, the CIO moved to organize smaller steel companies, with initial focus on Republic Steel, Inland Steel, and Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Newton Steel Co. was a subsidiary of Republic Steel.

When a May 26, 1937, deadline for a contract with the three firms passed, the CIO called for a steel workers strike. Picket lines went up in Monroe on May 28. The strike resulted in the walkout of about 120 plant workers who supported unionization. Another 800 employees did not want to strike and were members of a company “union” created by Republic Steel as a counter-maneuver to CIO organizing efforts. Republic Steel shut the plant down, fearing violence.

Just two days later, hundreds of union sympathizers demonstrated at the Republic Steel mill in south Chicago and 10 demonstrators were killed by police. Many were concerned about the potential for more violence. The mayor of Monroe, Daniel Knaggs, created a force of 200 special police armed with clubs and tear gas to protect non-striking workers.

On June 10, violence in Monroe escalated. Striking CIO members were chased by a barrage of tear gas laid down by the special police. The officers, many of them employees of the strike-bound mill, tossed tear gas bombs, shot nauseating gas shells, and wielded night sticks against the fleeing picketers, newspapermen, and spectators.

In retaliation, strikers hurled stones and rocks. Eleven men were injured, including three spectators. The most serious injury was a fractured skull. Eight autos belonging to CIO members were run into River Raisin alongside the road leading to the plant. Five others were overturned on the road and windows in several others were smashed.

Seven arrests were made.

Toledo News-Bee photographer George Blount was riding on the back of a truck with other cameramen and was narrowly missed by a flying shell. His photo shows a group of vigilantes stopping a car and detaining the vehicle’s owner. Worried about an influx of union sympathizers, the mayor had created a citizens’ battalion, deputizing 600 people and providing them with clubs. Many came with their own pistols, rifles, and shotguns, or were issued them by the city.

They stopped every automobile attempting to enter Monroe in an effort to keep strike sympathizers from joining the picket lines. All auto routes into the city were barricaded using cars and trucks. Nineteen outside “agitators” were arrested at the barricades and held overnight. Their release from jail was contingent upon their agreement to leave town.

The National Guard and Michigan State Police also were called in, and they arrived June 13, restoring a sense of order. Tensions diminished and peaceful picketing was arranged. Newton Steel resumed operation a few days later. It was eventually revealed that the steel company had paid the mayor to bust the strike, hired vigilantes to beat the strikers, and throw their cars in the river, and supplied tear gas and clubs.

An outside union was not established at Newton Steel until after World War II.

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