Ohio History Journal

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The 1937 Steel Labor

Dispute and the Ohio

National Guard




The spring and early summer of 1937 were troubled times in northeastern Ohio.

On May 25, in an effort to gain company recognition, the Steel Workers Organi-

zation Committee (SWOC) of the newly created Congress of Industrial Organi-

zation (CIO) struck the plants of two of Ohio's major steel producers, Republic

Steel and Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Both of these corporations had numerous

mills in Trumbull, Mahoning, and Stark counties, and in the City of Cleveland.

The SWOC leadership, armed with New Deal legislation guaranteeing the right

to collective bargaining1 and with apparent sympathetic support from President

Franklin D. Roosevelt, was adamant in its demand for company recognition. The

executives of the steel companies were equally as firm in their stand against

recognition. Consequently, northeastern Ohio became the scene of a major

union-management confrontation. As in the case of past labor disturbances in the

United States, violence and destruction of property soon resulted.

Tom Girdler, President of Republic Steel and recognized leader in the steel

industry's anti-union activities, not only refused to negotiate with the SWOC but

also initiated a strikebreaking program that was readily adopted by Frank Pur-

nell, his counterpart at Youngstown Sheet and Tube. Briefly, this program called

for demonstrating to the public that union activities were causing a breakdown in

law and order, and thereby mobilizing community disfavor and pressure for a

"back-to-work" movement among company employees.2 Philip Murray, director

of the SWOC, and John L. Lewis, president of the parent CIO, were aware of the

strike-breaking plan but felt that it would be to no avail in light of labor's new

legal rights. Both sides to the dispute soon found they had underestimated the


The political climate in the state of Ohio seemed to support the position of or-

ganized labor. Governor Martin L. Davey, serving his second term as a New Deal

Democrat, was considered a friend of labor. He had supported the President's



1. The National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, the most important piece of new labor legislation,

reaffirmed the legal right of employees to organize and bargain collectively and required management

to bargain with the union chosen by the workers.

2. Donald Gene Sofchalk, "The Little Steel Strike of 1937" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, The

Ohio State University, 1961), 27-34. For additional interpretations on the strike see Robert L. Daugh-

erty, "Citizen Soldiers in Peace: The Ohio National Guard, 1919-1940" (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio

State University, 1974), 363-395; and Michael Speer, "The 'Little Steel' Strike: Conflict for Control,"

Ohio History, LXXXVIII (Autumn 1969), 273-287, which reaches substantially different conclusions.

Major Shiner is an Instructor in the Department of History at the U.S. Air Force Academy.