Cover story: Ahmed White, Nicholas Rosenbaum Professor at the University of Colorado Law School, spent nearly a decade writing The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America. Published in 2016 by the University of California Press, White’s debut book tells the story of one of the most important labor disputes in American history: a 1937 strike in the steel industry known as the Little Steel Strike that involved more than 70,000 workers, claimed the lives of at least 16 union people, and helped reshape the New Deal and define its legacy in law and policy.
White’s interest in labor rights stems from his upbringing in the small community of Plaisance, Louisiana. Raised in an extended family with many relatives subsisting as domestic workers or farmers, he developed a sense of empathy for working people and a commitment to the values of hard work, solidarity, and equality.
“My father, who grew up picking cotton, was one of the first black lawyers in the state,” White says. “He handled a great number of civil rights cases and also farmed soybeans and cattle. My mother, who is white, ended up as a college history instructor. But she struggled through most of my youth to get and hold a job. She was blacklisted because of her marriage to my father, his activism, and her own work in civil rights and on behalf of poor and working people.”
These circumstances were, as he recalls, hardly a recipe for prosperity and stability, but White’s upbringing gave him a lasting appreciation for what working people endure.
“Our family endured more than its fair share of hard times. But, like most people, we managed. Every lesson I learned about the inherent dignity of work was matched by another about the indignities of low wages, capricious workplace rules, and tyrannical bosses.”
Fast-forward to 2007, when White’s book begins to take shape. He is a recently tenured professor at Colorado Law. After seeing mentions of the Little Steel Strike in articles and books about labor and the New Deal, he notices the lack of in-depth research available about the conflict. The story was crucial but incomplete, White thinks. He decides to tell it himself and takes a chance on an unfamiliar format—a book.
“I had never written a book and had only a very basic idea of how to write one,” he recalled. “Somehow I just started researching and writing, and then editing, and then more writing and more editing, and by 2013 I had a manuscript I was confident enough in to send around.”
The book format allowed White to do what all good writers know is fundamental to their job: tell a compelling story. White was able to tell the stories of the men (and some women) who literally laid their lives on the line for better working conditions for all Americans in a fuller and more nuanced way than he could have done in a law review article. The format also allowed the story to reach a broader audience that included professional historians and the general public, not exclusively legal scholars.
Writing a book of this kind was “considerably more challenging than writing 20 law review articles,” he says with a smile. White based The Last Great Strike on extensive archival research that necessitated extensive travel. During one trip in the summer of 2009, he drove from Colorado to Pennsylvania and back, visiting archives and the places where key events in the strike occurred. Because many of the archives were open only one or two days a week—a result of the Great Recession—he had to stay out East for weeks at a time, shuttling from one location to another.
White’s research involved digging through tens of thousands of pages of old correspondence, government documents, oral histories, and photographs, but the sense of place often had the greatest impact. “Seeing firsthand where people were shot down in the street, where riots unfolded . . . I didn’t think I could honestly write the book without visiting those places,” he says.
The book that emerged from all this work tells a remarkable tale. It describes how workers in the steel industry endured extremely difficult working conditions and relentless, often very violent, repression for decades before finally, in the mid-1930s, mounting an effective campaign to organize a union and challenge these conditions. This effort was part of a broad uprising by industrial workers that was a foundation of the New Deal and eventually formed the basis for the rise of the American middle class. This all unfolded in the face of extraordinary resistance by employers who, working through organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, resorted to political intrigue, propaganda, and organized violence in an effort to blunt this push for unionism and derail the New Deal.
“The Little Steel Strike was the culmination of this conflict between powerful capitalists and ambitious, reform-minded workers,” White says. “It was a test of workers’ resolve, of the New Deal, and of its most important legislation, the National Labor Relations Act, which had just been enacted in 1935, and which employers were intent on reducing to a dead letter.”
For six weeks in the summer of 1937, the conflict was front-page news nationwide. The 16 to 18 workers who died (the causes of death in two cases remain unclear) were cut down in a series of clashes with heavily armed police, National Guardsmen, and company guards with more than 2,000 firearms in their possession. In one especially notorious episode known as the Memorial Day Massacre, the Chicago police killed or mortally wounded 10 union people when they fired, unprovoked, into a crowd of strikers and strike supporters. Over the course of the strike, more than 300 strikers and strike supporters were seriously injured.
Although the union people sometimes used sabotage and mass picketing to try to keep the steel plants closed, they were responsible for very little serious violence; they were the victims. Nevertheless, the strikers were blamed for the unrest, a charge that justified still more repression, which in turn sealed the fate of the walkout. When the strike ended, the companies fired around 8,000 strikers. This halted the push to organize industrial workers, and not only in steel.
“It was World War II that finally allowed the unions to resume their great advance in organizing American workers,” White observes, noting how the war dramatically altered the country’s political and economic situation. “There would be no more big, sensational strikes like this one aimed at organizing workers, and none so tragic as this one. This is what makes this the ‘Last Great Strike.’”
In the meantime, the steel companies, which had provoked the walkout by their flagrant violations of the labor law, paid little price at all for what had happened. No one from the companies’ side was prosecuted for the deaths and injuries. The steel companies had to rehire most of the fired strikers and issue them back pay as dictated by the labor law. After waiting five years for this process to play out, the average worker who was fired received only a couple hundred dollars. In fact, the war had made the companies much richer, which made these penalties and the companies’ eventual concessions to unionism very easy for them to bear.
In all these ways, White says, the strike revealed the limits of the New Deal’s commitment to reform and the shortcomings of the movement for industrial unionism that lay behind it, as well as the limits of the new labor law. The strike’s legacy can be seen today in a working class that is debased, a labor law that remains ineffective, and a union movement that never really gained a solid footing in American society.
"To understand why barely 10 percent of workers today are union members, why wages for most categories of American workers have not increased in decades, and why so many employers view the workplace as their private fiefdoms—to understand any of this, you can start by looking at what happened in Little Steel," White suggests.
Although White began writing The Last Great Strike with some trepidation, today he can be found working on his next book project, this one about the widespread enforcement of sedition laws against radicals. He is especially interested in using this project to show how this campaign affected everyday activists and workers in the early 20th century. He has already visited a dozen archives, all over the country, some of them multiple times.
"This is what you have to do to tell a story worth telling,” he says, “and to tell it the right way."