Monroe, Michigan. June 10, 1937. (Photo Courtesy of Walter Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)
Workers were restless in 1937. The Great Depression, which began in 1929, was far from over. Financially-strapped companies were asking employees to do more with less, and more employees were organizing. Strikes were thus becoming more frequent in American society. (For more details – and a look at sit-down strikes in particular – click Look!: 1937 Sit-Down Strikes)
This photo above originates with a 1937 strike. Specifically, it is a strike against the Newton Steel Company of Monroe, Michigan. In the photo, people flee as gas is unleashed against the strikers!
The Newton Steel Strike
The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) began its strike against Newton (a Republic Steel subsidiary) on May 28, 1937. The strike began peaceably. However, the Steel Workers Association (SWA) – an “independent” union formed just before the strike – opposed SWOC’s actions. On June 1, some SWA members visited Governor Frank Murphy in Lansing. They requested that authorities end the picketing. Murphy told them that a National Labor Relations Board election could settle the matter.
Monroe mayor Daniel Knaggs, a man with strong anti-union sentiments, had other ideas. On June 7, he held a referendum, in which Newton employees could vote on whether to end the strike. SWOC boycotted the referendum, but sixty percent of the workers did participate. The majority of these voted to return to work. Newton thus announced that it would reopen the plant on June 10.
Knaggs presented the referendum results to Governor Murphy and requested that the National Guard or State Police assist with the plant reopening. Murphy replied that the State would not intervene, unless local authorities expressed – in writing – that the situation was beyond their control. Knaggs then deputized 383 people as “special police.” Some of these were already on Newton’s payroll, and Newton paid for their weapons.
The Battle of Monroe
June 10 soon arrived, and the picketing continued. That morning, vigilantes beat an African American SWOC organizer and ran him out of town. Word of this incident traveled, and the picketers became incensed. They blocked the road to the plant, and a number began carrying clubs and steel bars.
Knagg’s special police moved against the picketers. Two squads fired nauseating gas, leading to scenes such as the one depicted in the photo above. The gas dispersed the picketers, and non-striking workers were driven into the plant. Governor Murphy felt that there was “no excuse” for the gassing. Republic Steel lauded Knagg’s actions “in behalf of law and order.” The plant continued operation, but picketing did resume – albeit under greatly restricted conditions – several days later.