Before steel, this area was rural, known mostly as home to some of the best duck hunting in the country. There wasn't a general store here until 1836, and a harbor until 1870. By 1875, however, the Brown Iron & Steel Company (later Wisconsin Steel) built the first mill in the region, transforming the future of this community.
By 1889, when this area was annexed into the City of Chicago, this once-rural hamlet boasted a population of 20,000. While the first mill workers were recruited from the city's existing workforce, management quickly turned to immigrants, who were often willing to work longer hours for less pay than native-born workers. New immigrants often secured a job through a family member or friend from their native country, so immigrants often clustered together in specific sections of the mill. Almost all of the railroad men were Austrian, immigrants from Poland all worked in the furnaces, and so on. To some extent, this presented a problem for management: none of the workers were willing to sell out their relatives or neighbors, so assigning blame for industrial accidents was nearly impossible.
These ethnic divisions, however, also worked in management's favor. While it may be difficult to discipline any specific worker, it also made it difficult to unite the mill's workforce behind a common cause, such as unionization. Unions arose because, although the mills offered relatively good wages, the work was arduous even by the standards of the day. In 1902, for example, workers at South Works would work 24-hour shifts on alternating Sundays, staving off their fatigue with chewing tobacco. 12-hour shifts for six or seven days at a time were fairly common. The work was also extremely dangerous. The two bells here were used to pour hot steel in the blast furnace, while the ingot mold was used to shape the molten steel. Workers were around hot steel and heavy equipment all day, and one careless error could be costly. The common belief was that a person died in the mills every day; official records from South Works don't substantiate that claim, but the numbers are still staggering. In 1906, forty-six workers were killed on the job, with countless others severely injured or left disabled.
In 1919, the first great steel strike hit Chicago, quickly spreading nationwide. The demands of the strikers were simple: a union contract and an eight-hour day. The mills, however, broke the strike without giving into the demands of the workers, hiring Mexican immigrants and African Americans as strikebreakers. Most of the strikers returned to work within four months, their demands unmet. Mill management had not only succeeded in breaking this strike — in doing so, they fanned racial tensions that continued to undermine unionization efforts. In the 1930s, however, unions started to win concessions. In 1937, the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee won union recognition at South Works. Several other manufacturers, however, continued to refuse to recognize the union. On Memorial Day, 1937, more than 1,500 steelworkers, along with their families and other supporters, marched to the gates of Republic Steel.
Police, called by Republic Steel, met the marchers on 116th Street and opened fire on the crowd. They shot sixty-two people, killing ten, while brutally beating dozens more. The violence was recorded by journalists and provoked a national outcry, eventually prompting a federal investigation by a U.S. Senate committee.
While this strike was broken, unions would win recognition at Republic and other anti-union steel mills in the 1940s. The events of that day would come to be known as the Memorial Day Massacre, still commemorated annually by Chicago unions.