·  by Bruce Bostick, SOAR Executive Board Member, District 1

District 1 SOAR Honors Immigrant Strikers Murdered at "Little Steel" Strike

Over eight decades ago, 70,000 steelworkers, including many new to our country, walked out of Republic mills, in the tough, violent strike that became known as the ‘Little Steel’ Strike. That fight was over the fundamental right of workers to form and be represented by a union of their choosing. Steelworkers won the right to unionize, but the sacrifices by workers were heavy. Some paid the ultimate price.

In Massillon, Ohio, one of the sites of that strike, three immigrant workers: Loghin Oroz, from Hungary, Nicholas Vathiaz, a Greek immigrant and Spanish native Fulgenzio Calzada, gave their lives for the worker’s cause.

Vathiaz, 37 at the time, and Calzada, 47, were murdered, shot by police, on June 11, 1937, at a peaceful union rally that was attacked by cops. Oroz was gassed and badly beaten. He died a few days later.

For eighty years these working class heroes laid in their graves in Massillon, unnoticed, their sacrifices not celebrated. That was before Colorado University professor Ahmed White wrote a book about that struggle, “The Last Great Strike,” bringing these worker’s lives, and their murders by police, to the notice of Massillon Steelworker’s Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) members. 

“We had to find a way to honor these heroes,” stated Paul Santilli, president of Massillon SOAR Chapter 27-11. “Whatever rights we have are because these great men gave their lives to get them. We’ve had to fight for everything; nothing was ever given to us without a battle. Some of the younger folks think the company gave us benefits, rights. We have the responsibility to show our newer members how we won these rights!”

Santilli had spearheaded a push that got an historic plaque put up on the Massillon town square memorializing the ‘Little Steel Strike’ a decade ago.

Along with Massillon SOAR Secretary-Treasurer Tom Treisch, they reached out and built a committee to help on this project. First, they wanted to find the striker’s graves. Sue Burton, a pro-union poet who’d lived in the area, told them she’d heard stories of the fights as a child, that she had visited the grave sites, leaving flower, gifts, and poems. The stones were in poor shape and one was missing, so the committee took up fundraising to upgrade/replace the memorials.

“Nobody turned us down, everyone wanted to help out when we explained what it was for,” Tom Treisch said. “It took quite a while, but we got the sites cleaned up, new stones and a plaque honoring those martyrs put up on the square.” 

“There’s no way we could have succeeded without others help, the reference librarian and genealogist, Jill Wingard, who tragically passed away in February, did tremendous work. We could not have found them without her help. AFL-CIO brought us heavy equipment that made it possible to get in there and repair the sites.”

This work culminated on May 5, 2018 with a gathering of hundreds at the Massillon City Library, addressed by USW International President Leo W. Gerard, USW District 1 Director Dave McCall and others, to honor the three immigrant martyrs to labor’s cause.

As we come together here to honor these three heroes, who sacrificed their lives, just stop and think, especially those who’ve worked in the mill, just what it would be like without our union, if you had no say, that the boss was god,” asked Leo Gerard. “We owe everything to these three men. Thanks to SOAR here, they are no longer unknown.”

Tiffany McKee, leader of the USW Ohio Next Generation group, was impressed, as well. “This has been a real eye-opener not just for me, but for a lot of younger workers. It really puts things in perspective. The torch is being passed, and now it’s up to us.”

USW District 1 Director, Dave McCall, spoke about how, as a young worker, he was inspired to become more involved in the union.  “It is never just about us personally,” he said. “Our struggles win the victories that we build on, that create the fighting union we now have. These men left their homes, like immigrants today, looking for a better life.  Then, like today, they were called names, downgraded. However, because of the many, united in struggles, we have created something much greater.”

For Tom Treisch, it was personal. “I remember having to struggle when dad died, the same age as Mr. Calzada, at 47. He had to work hard his whole life. Nobody gave us anything; but, because of these fellows’ sacrifice we have a chance to do better.”

For 95-year old Michael Perez, whose father, Erasmo Perez, had participated in the strike after fleeing his home in Spain to escape the fascist coup Franco launched against the elected Popular Front government, it meant a lot to have those struggles memorialized. Erasmo's grandson, Ray Perez, president of USW, Local 1124 in Massillon, was also present.

Ray said, “I never thought I’d see this. Every time I go past the square now, I can see the appreciation of this entire city for their sacrifices. This fight, for working people, is a family affair, it’s in our blood.”  

“We didn’t know a lot about the strike when I was a kid,” said Ray. “My family lived in a neighborhood where literally everyone was from another country, and they all worked in the mill. Spaniards, Russians, Italians, Hungarians, Greeks—they had to learn English to be able to speak to each other. I remember when I got a job in the mill; my grandma called me over and told me how happy she was that I got a good Union job.  It just seemed natural to get active and run for local union president. I’m proud of granddad and proud of my Union!”

Library Director Sheri Brown said that since they’d gotten involved in this memorial, many people had expressed interest in learning more about unions, labor history. They’d begun working with a student group that is working on a documentary film on the area’s labor history, she said. “We have thousands of retired steelworkers in this area. We forget that workers had to organize and protest, fight for things that workers take for granted now.”

“This isn’t the end, just the start,” said Fred Garrett, president of the Golden Lodge I.W. Abel SOAR Chapter 27-27, in Canton. “We plan to use all this to help us build a coalition to fight for social justice for all.

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