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In May 1937, seventy thousand workers walked off their jobs at four large steel companies known collectively as “Little Steel.” The strikers sought to make the companies retreat from decades of antiunion repression, abide by the newly enacted federal labor law, and recognize their union. For two months a grinding struggle unfolded, punctuated by bloody clashes in which police, company agents, and National Guardsmen ruthlessly beat and shot unionists. At least sixteen died and hundreds more were injured before the strike ended in failure. The violence and brutality of the Little Steel Strike became legendary. In many ways it was the last great strike in modern America.
Traditionally the Little Steel Strike has been understood as a modest setback for steel workers, one that actually confirmed the potency of New Deal reforms and did little to impede the progress of the labor movement. However, The Last Great Strike tells a different story about the conflict and its significance for unions and labor rights. More than any other strike, it laid bare the contradictions of the industrial labor movement, the resilience of corporate power, and the limits of New Deal liberalism at a crucial time in American history.
Introduction: Labor, Little Steel, and the New Deal
The Open Shop
1 • Like a Penitentiary: Steel and the Origins of the Open Shop
2 • They Should Honor Us: Work and Conflict in the Open Shop Era
3 • Sure, We Have Guns: The Open Shop in the Depression Era
4 • I Never Gave That Guy Nothin’:
The New Deal and the Changing Landscape of Labor Relations
5 • To Banish Fear: The Campaign to Organize Steel
6 • The Spirit of Unrest: From Stalemate to Walkout
7 • In the Name of the People: The Incident on Memorial Day
8 • What Had to Be Done: The Struggle at the Mill Gates
9 • A Change of Heart: Corporate Power and New Deal Strikebreaking
10 • Let’s Bust Them Up: Last Struggles and Defeat
11 • A Steel Strike Is Not a Picnic: The Anatomy of Failure
12 • Kind of a Victory: New Deal Labor Law on Trial
13 • Unreconciled: War, Victory, and the Legacies of Defeat
Conclusion: These Things That Mean So Much to Us
Ahmed White is a Professor of Law at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
“The history deftly told by Ahmed White isn't really history—the fallout from the 1937 ‘Little Steel’ strike lingers. This book should be a must-read for anyone interested in today’s labor issues—from efforts to break public workers’ unions to the push for a $15 per hour minimum wage.”—Dale Maharidge, author of Journey to Nowhere, which inspired Bruce Springsteen’s “Youngstown”
“The Last Great Strike is a brilliant, incisive, always intriguing, sometimes heartbreaking account of a critical moment in America’s labor history. This work is more important than ever today, as working men and women struggle to make a living and hang on to their rights.”—Kevin Baker, author of The Big Crowd
“The Last Great Strike is a superb piece of scholarship about a critical event in modern American labor history. It sheds light on a pivotal moment in the creation of the modern labor movement and the origins of industrial unionism in America, and it has much to teach us about the evolution of labor law.”—Steve Fraser, author of The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power
"A great read, especially for those interested in the history of labor and labor relations."—Charles K. Piehl, Library Journal
"Students of labor history now have a fantastic new book on the history of the Little Steel strike in 1937. Ahmed White's The Last Great Strike is an excellent introduction to the period, and engages with a wealth of rich material from different primary sources."—Joe Richard, SocialistWorker.org