- “The Last Great Strike”: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America by Ahmed White
In contemporary society, one would be hard-pressed to believe that an event such as the 1937 Little Steel Strike ever took place. The history of the strike often reads like a work of fiction with its accounts of industrial espionage, aerial confrontations, brutal fisticuffs, bombings, gun battles, and an outright massacre. Indeed, nothing of its kind has been seen since; hence, the title of this work, “The Last Great Strike.” Although the strike plot could have easily been dreamed up in the mind of a brilliant author of fiction, the 1937 Little Steel Strike was unfortunately not a work of fiction. Instead, the strike, according to Ahmed White, is “a complex and sobering story, untold, that speaks essential truths about the New Deal and the place of unions and labor rights in modern America” (6).
White divides the book into three sections. Part 1 is a well-written secondary source account of the open-shop era from the Homestead strike of 1892 to the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1935. Although academics already trained in the intricacies of the open-shop era would find this section unnecessary, it nevertheless offers the novice reader a strong accounting of the open shop in steel, establishing the context needed to understand the strike. Part 2 focuses strictly on the strike itself, and is by far the strongest section of the book. Before this study, the historiography of the 1937 Little Steel Strike was fragmented. White, drawing on those earlier sources and adding new archival research, weaves together a compelling narrative of how the strike progressed throughout the disconnected towns and cities across the nation’s industrial heartland. From the small steel-producing town of Monroe, Michigan, to the blood-soaked industrial fields of south Chicago, to the deadly battlegrounds of northeast Ohio, White masterfully reconstructs the history of this brutal conflict. In the final section of the book, White attempts to chart how the Steel Workers Organizing Committee’s (SWOC) defeat impacted the union in the post-strike years. He analyzes the union’s reaction to the defeat, [End Page 100] arguing that SWOC’s international leaders worked to limit direct action tactics, preferring instead “legal and political action as effective alternatives to ‘direct action’” (246). This section is not as persuasive as the previous two sections, and at times unjustifiably paints SWOC leaders as the saboteurs of some unrealized revolutionary moment.
The book’s primary strength is its accounting of the strike itself. More than any other study on the Little Steel Strike thus far, White’s narrative is the broadest in scope and most comprehensive. However, the book stumbles in the third section. In the estimation of this reviewer, the third section tends to portray the rank-and-file steelworker as more radical and revolutionary than he actually was.1 Moreover, White argues that upon losing the strike, SWOC leaders abandoned “aggressive large-scale shop floor and street-level organizing” tactics for a strategy that focused on winning union recognition through the National Labor Relations Board and the courts (274). Indeed, after the failed strike, the union often fell back on a legal strategy; however, there is evidence that suggests such an approach was not necessarily top-down driven. For example, at the 1940 SWOC convention, SWOC president Philip Murray cautioned convention delegates not to rely too heavily on the law, asserting, “and somehow or other the workers and many of the employees in and around these plants, instead of indulging in ordinary, militant campaigns of organization around the properties say, ‘Oh, let’s wait and find out what the National Labor Relations Board is going to do and what the courts are going to do,’ relying entirely too much upon the Board and not putting enough pep into it ourselves.”2 Murray believed...