Marseilles to remember 1932 event that cost Steve Sutton his life

Incident led to the creation of the Laborers Local 393

By July 19, 1932, La Salle County was in as much of the throes of the Great Depression as anyone. A project at the Marseilles Dam, meant to provide jobs for the local community as one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plans to overhaul American infrastructure to relieve starving families, was awarded to outside firms using non-local, non-union labor.

“It was tough times,” said retired Laborers Local 393 Business Manager David Raikes. “There were millions of dollars in this project and all of the workers were from out of state. They wouldn’t hire any local union workers.”

A plaque was placed in Marseilles near the Illinois River bridge memorializing the life of Steve Sutton and drawing attention to the incident that led to his death.

A commemoration is planned Thursday to dedicate a plaque in Marseilles and make sure the story behind what would be the eventual death of Steve Sutton is remembered.

Workers from Marseilles, Morris and Joliet arrived at the job site to talk to the construction company, Stephens Brothers and Miller-Hutchison Construction Company, who instead opted to shut down and build a fence around the project.

Three hundred workers, all unemployed locals, marched on the dam in hopes contractors working the job would recognize the union and pay regulation union wages. This march wasn’t their first that day: They’d conducted one earlier that morning, according to a July 19, 1932 article from the Streator Daily Times-Press.

Contractors fired shots, though, when the locals returned that afternoon. Sutton, 45, of Joliet, by way of Croatia, died at 12:45 p.m. at the offices of Dr. C. J. Stricker in Marseilles after his body laid in the office of an undertaker for two hours. One bullet pierced each lung and two passed through his stomach. Sutton was the father of four children.

Eight others were shot and taken to Ottawa for treatment at Ryburn-King Hospital. Fourteen others were treated for gunshot wounds and a total of 21 were injured.

Contractor H.W. Miller later confessed in a July 20, 1932, Ottawa Republican Times article, he sawed off the barrel of the shotgun used to kill Sutton and left it loaded in the construction office.

Leo Dale, a construction worker from Mississippi, later admitted he fired a gun outside the office window as unemployed laborers approached.

Negotiations afterward led to local hiring and the establishment of Laborers International Union in North America Local 393 in Marseilles.

Laborers Local 393 will be dedicating a historical marker and a plaque in honor of Sutton and the events of July 19, 1932 at 5 p.m. Thursday, April 26, which will be attended by Gov. JB Pritzker, Treasurer Mike Frerichs, Comptroller Susana Mendoza and Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.

Morello, who has Marseilles ties, penned an essay in the New York Times about the 1932 protest. Morello wrote the 2008 song “Night Falls” about “Big Steve” Sutton, as he’s referred to in a July 19, 1932, article of the Ottawa Republican-Times.

Other officials expected to attend are state Rep. Lance Yednock (D-Ottawa) and Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea.