In 1937 in the city of Monroe, Michigan, workers at the Newton Steel Plant picketed and later went out on strike. Most workers and residents did not expect their quiet town to become a major battle ground in the American labor movement and the center of national attention.
ONE UNION STRIKES, ONE UNION DOESN’T
Before the strike, there were already two steelworker unions in Monroe. One was the Amalgamated Association of Steel, Iron and Tin Workers, the Monroe lodge of the CIO SWOC union. This was the union that would strike. The other union was the SWA, the independent “company” union of Newton workers not affiliated with the CIO. SWOC started the strike by picketing the plant on Friday, May 28, 1937. By midnight, Republic decided to shut down the Newton mill. Monroe was now stuck between two groups of workers, the smaller SWOC group that picketed and ultimately influenced Republic’s decision to close, and the larger SWA group that was now out of work—not by choice. And the strike was only one day old.
THE LINES ARE DRAWN
The picket line had been constantly manned and peaceful for over ten days when on Tuesday, June 8 the newspaper reported that Newton Steel would reopen in two days. Governor Frank Murphy sent State Labor Commissioner George Krogstad to Monroe on Wednesday, June 9 to resolve the impasse between the city, SWOC and SWA with hopes of reopening the plant, allowing non-striking SWA workers to return to work, and addressing striking SWOC workers’ concerns. In the meantime, the city prepared for a show down and possible violence, in case reopening Newton required the use of force. The city began deputizing Monroe residents. The CIO called for outside reinforcements to man the picket line at the intersection of Detroit and Elm. THE LINE IS BROKEN Newton was scheduled to reopen with the 4:00 p.m. shift on Thursday, June 10. What people did not know was what would actually happen as part of the process. Monroe braced itself for a possible confrontation. Spectators flocked to the T-intersection to wait and see. In Monroe, 800 workers reporting for shift had already lined up and were waiting in cars on Winchester Avenue around 2:00 p.m. Additional special police marched from city hall to the strike area. Everyone waited. The 4:00 p.m. local deadline passed as all sides in Lansing worked out the details of opening the road and the plant. About 5:55 p.m. two tear gas bombs were thrown from Detroit Avenue into the picket area. Spectators scattered and the picket line became upset. For a few minutes, it seemed that an altercation was imminent, but cooler heads prevailed. Then, fifteen minutes later, tear gas canisters were again launched into the area. Special deputies advanced toward the line, and a sizable force of workers from inside the factory attacked it from the rear. The CIO line was broken and in the melee that followed, union supporters were chased and beaten. By 6:22 p.m. the tent at the corner of Detroit and Elm, which was used as the strikers’ kitchen, was set ablaze. Eight people were injured and hospitalized. Sixteen cars were vandalized, five cars were overturned, and eight more were dumped into the River Raisin. Cars filled with non-strikers drove through the battlefield toward the Newton mill. The road to the plant had been re-opened. For now, the picket line had been eliminated
THE MAYOR’S CITIZEN ARMY
After the line was broken, UAW workers in the tri-state area threatened to descend by the thousands on Monroe to shut down Newton Steel and re-establish the picket line. Monroe would defend itself against invaders who had no business in the city. No union was going to take over Monroe without a fight, and all outsiders were barred from entering town. As many as 200 hundred autoworkers from Pontiac drove toward Monroe on June 11. They ultimately turned around near Ready Road, 10 miles north of the city, and drove home. UAW President Homer Martin apparently called the state police and instructed troopers to turn the caravan around. Monroe remained secure.
A DAY AT THE PARK
After Homer Martin threatened to invade Monroe with 100,000 union auto workers, tensions ran high between the CIO and the city. Governor Murphy negotiated an arrangement agreeable to the city, the union, and law enforcement. The agreement allowed a CIO rally to be held on Sunday, June 13. To reduce tension, the mass meeting was deliberately held outside of Monroe at the state park. Further, the national guard and additional state police were detailed to Monroe to keep the peace.
On Tuesday, June 15, SWOC director Charles Kiser and Mayor Knaggs met in Monroe to discuss the resumption of picketing at Newton Steel. This resulted in the creation of strict picketing rules, which favored the city and maintained “law and order.” Picketing resumed, and midsummer passed uneventfully. It had been slightly more than a month since the violence of June 10, and apparently peace had been restored. Knaggs disbanded the citizen police battalion on July 18. The city began to return to normal.
Monroe had avoided disaster, and the city could return to the quiet anonymity it had enjoyed before the strike.