Eliot Ness: The Man Behind the Myth
Labor problems started early in February, 1937, when the Chevrolet plants at Flint, Michigan, exploded into a battleground between 1,200 Michigan National Guardsmen, armed with rifles, bayonets and machine guns, and striking automotive workers. A few months later in mid-May, the labor unrest spread to the Pittsburgh and Aliquippa plants of Jones & Laughlin Steel. As the third largest independent steel company battled with the union, Republic Steel and Youngstown Sheet & Tube with major operations in Ohio watched the negotiations very closely.
Eliot Ness announced that he was going to revise police procedures in handling strikes given the sharp criticism of police by both labor unions and employers. Ness put Captain Eugene Aufmuth in charge of all strike details in the city. This was a change from the previous procedure in which the precinct captains were in charge of any strike within their precincts. Captain John Savage, head of the vandal squad, continued to operate as usual if vandalism was involved with any future strikes.
The new procedures resulted from a study of complaints about police activity. "The handling of strikes has so many ramifications that it easily becomes a specialty," Ness explained. "Most strikes are similar and one man can soon educate himself in all the things he needs to know."
A couple of weeks later steel companies and unions faced a showdown in five states. Heavy picket lines formed at Youngstown, Republic and Inland Steel factories and many plants had to close. However, in most cases, the police were reasonably well prepared and the walkouts were orderly.
The peace was short-lived. On June 21 Ohio Governor Martin Davey sent in state troops to keep the steel plants shut in two Ohio counties upon the request of President Roosevelt to maintain the status quo while federal mediators tried to settle the strike. A couple of weeks later, more National Guard troops were ordered to Cleveland on the request of the mayor and county sheriff. The goal was to preserve order for the reopening of strike closed Republic Steel plants.
The next day, July 4, Sheriff O'Donnell proclaimed military rule in Cuyahoga County. The order limited the number of pickets to twelve at each entrance to the plant and established "dangerous strike zones" which were to be completely controlled by sheriff's deputies, city police and national guardsmen. Troops were stationed at every entrance to permit workers to return to work if they wished. The preparations were well worth the effort for the plants opened without any violence.
Again the peace was short-lived. By the end of July, some sixty people were injured and over a hundred cars were damaged in fighting between strikers and non-strikers. The violence broke out at night and escalated almost immediately. Tear gas bombs were flying, shots rang out, strikers were being run down by cars and hand-to-hand combat was erupting everywhere. Dozens were injured and at least one man was killed.
Ness's police force finally brought the unruly crowds under control and provided some protection for the union hall that had been damaged the night before. In an attempt to prevent another occurrence, Ness put out an order that established picket zones and forbid pickets from coming within 500 yards of the Corrigan-McKinney mill of Republic Steel. With the worst of the labor riots over, Ness was able to return to his investigation of labor racketeering that he had begun in the spring of 1937. The Cleveland Plain Dealer summarized the problem of a city trying to recover from the Depression: "Capital has been driven out of Cleveland because those who wished to spend it here came to believe that racketeering spokesmen for the unions must either be bought off or fought openly with slight chance of victory.
Building projects partly completed have been held up by lawless demand of union representatives, by threats to 'pull' the job, by fake jurisdictional claims, etc. Those who furnish the capital are grossly penalized."
In an election year, the actions of Mayor Burton and Eliot Ness during the labor riots and Ness's probe into labor racketeering had a significant impact. Many of the voters in blue collar Cleveland firmly believed that the Republican city government was staunchly antiunion. In spite of this misperception on the part of the public, Harold Burton was voted back into office with a slim margin of approximately 20,000 votes.
Immediately after Burton's reelection, Ness prepared to take his evidence of his four month investigation into labor racketeering to the grand jury. His preparations were interrupted when his mother, Mrs. Emma Ness, died of a heart attack at the age of 73. Eliot and his wife left the following day for Chicago to attend the funeral. Ness's case to the grand jury focused upon two very brazen and feared labor racketeers: Don A. Campbell, president of the Painters' District Council and Glaziers' Union, and John E. McGee, head of the Window Washers' Union and the Laborers' District Council. Some sixty witnesses, twenty of who were from outside the city, were prepared to testify that Campbell and McGee extorted money from them.
Up until then, businessmen complained of the terrorism, but steadfastly refused to testify for fear of the repercussions. Once Cleveland businessmen saw the protection that Ness provided to witnesses, many more came forward with testimony. Within a few days, Ness reported that scores of any businessmen from all parts of the country were waiting to testify against the reign of terror from the two labor racketeers.
Ness's evidence showed that the two men prevented companies from operating in the certain building trades, permitting only companies favored by Campbell and McGee. The two of them, along with their cohorts, also stopped the completion of existing work until they received the cash they demanded. Essentially, builders had to pay off Campbell and McGee for every building project in the city. An army of enforcers made sure that if payments were not made, the building was vandalized until the two men got what they asked.
Witnesses came not only from the business community, but from union members as well. The activities of the two labor racketeers had thrown hundreds of union members out of work for long periods of time and prevented many businesses from coming to the city. Ness learned that "many businesses had boycotted Cleveland because they refused to deal with racketeers or because the racketeers' demands were so high as to make any profit impossible. " This boycott was slowing Cleveland's economic recovery.
Ness was pleasantly surprised by the outpouring of help from angry union members who prevented them from taking advantage of the return of prosperity. The rank-and-file resented the conditions the racketeers used to control their unions. They told Ness that "when they came to vote in union elections they found two ballot boxes, one for the racket leader and one for the opponent, and the racket leader stood by observing which ballot box was used by each voter." 1937 closed with another victory for Eliot Ness. On December 20, Campbell and McGee and two other racketeers were indicted by the grand jury. But Ness did not let this victory go to his head since he realized that the fight was far from over. Organized labor had raised a large sum of money for the defense of the racketeers and denounced Ness as orchestrating an attack on the entire labor movement. Dozens of labor leaders were forced to testify that the racketeers were men of good character.
Despite the smoke screen that was mounted to protect Campbell and McGee that included the attempted bribery of jurors, in early March of 1938 the jury found them guilty. With bail denied, they were sentenced to the penitentiary for up to five years.
The success of the fight against the "bad apples" in the labor movement was a major publicity coup for Ness. The local newspapers looked at him as a messiah. And for once, he received that national recognition that had eluded him during the Capone era. The only downside was the anti-labor image that haunted him through the rest of his career.