The year 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of the great sit-down strike wave of 1937. It also begins the second year of the Occupy movement, which has more than a few similarities to the time when hundreds of thousands of Americans occupied their workplaces.
The first recorded sit-down in the US was actually in 1906 among General Electric workers of Schenectady, New York. When three organizers for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) were fired, 3000 of their fellow workers sat down and stopped production. By the 1930s, the IWW was on the wane, but many of its organizers were active and workers across the US had seen its tactics first hand.
In 1933, workers in the Austin, Minnesota Hormel plant had many complaints against the company: raises habitually went to foremen’s friends; workers were fired and then rehired in other departments at lower pay; before election day, foremen would threaten layoffs if Farmer-Labor Party candidates won, and, employees who challenged the practices were told that they could quit. The final straw came when Jay Hormel, who fancied himself to be a “benevolent dictator,” attempted to impose a weekly paycheck deduction for an insurance plan.
When a man in Hog Kill was pressured to sign up, other workers shut down the floor for 10 minutes, until his insurance card was torn up. News of the brief sit-down spread throughout the plant. That July night, workers met at Austin’s Sutton Park to form a union.
The union charter followed the IWW pattern of grouping all workers into one big union regardless of craft. It invited membership from laborers throughout Austin and the surrounding area. They named themselves the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW).
Jay Hormel promised to recognize the union, grant seniority rights, and arbitrate grievances. But, for six weeks, Hormel refused to put anything in writing, and, on November 10, workers voted to strike. Farmer-Laborite Governor Olson made public speeches backing the strikers while he secretly mobilized the National Guard 30 miles from Austin.
Support for the strike was overwhelming. Since the IUAW had endorsed farmers’ efforts to raise their prices, the Farmers’ Holiday Association patrolled roads leading into Austin to halt livestock and scabs. Strikers occupied the plant, and, as Stan Weir told the story,
Food, bedding, cigarettes, reading material and playing cards were brought to them by family and friends. They came out of the plant several days later with one of the first industrial union contracts in mass production history.
Great Goodyear Strike
The best-known early sit-down strikes were in Ohio. Jeremy Brecher described their humble beginnings in his book Strike! Sometime in the early 1930s, two factory baseball teams in Akron, Ohio objected to the umpire because he was not in the union. They stopped playing and sat in the field until a new umpire was found.
A few days later, a supervisor at a rubber factory insulted several workers. Remembering the ball game, they turned off their machines and sat at their work benches. The work stoppage spread throughout the plant and, in less than an hour, the company had given in. Between 1933 and 1936, the practice of sit-downs grew among Akron rubber workers.
In January 1936, Firestone announced a rate reduction and fired a union committeeman. Workers in one area after another halted production and sat down. The company gave in on both issues. The Great Goodyear Strike began in February 1936 when 700 workers were laid off.
Though hundreds of workers held a sit-down, officers from the United Rubber Workers (URW) persuaded them to leave. Goodyear, President Roosevelt and URW officials all tried to convince them to return to work and submit their grievances to arbitration. Instead, the Goodyear workers held out for a month and won. Since union recognition had not been established, the rubber workers enforced the agreement by dozens of sit-downs during the rest of 1936.
During the early 1930s, resentment over speed-up and lack of freedom at work was rampant among auto workers. Sit-downs at Fisher Body Plants in Cleveland and Detroit caught the owners totally unprepared. When two welders were laid of at a plant in Flint, Michigan, the sit-downers were so unified that Fisher management persuaded cops to drive all over town to tell the welders that they got their jobs back so other workers would start production again.
On December 30, 1936, workers at Fisher Body No. 1 in Flint discovered that the company was stockpiling dies (to outlast an expected strike) and occupied the plant. For several weeks, they governed themselves in their own committees that were a model of democracy unknown in the official union structure. When cops tried to stop supporters from bringing food into the plant, a fight of several hours resulted in the strikers chasing them off.
On January 11, 1937, the liberal New Deal Governor Murphy ordered the National Guard into Flint. Thousands of industrial unionists poured into Flint to protect the sit-downers by preventing the “friend of labor” politician from using the Guard. This began the great wave of 1937 sit-down strikes.
By the time General Motors signed its first contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW), nearly 50,000 workers had just been involved in strikes inside their plants. There were 60 sit-down strikes in Chicago in the month of March alone. The 1800 blue collar and white collar workers who sat down together at the Chicago Mail Order Co. won a 10% pay increase. And the 450 waitresses and other employees who sat at the tables of Chicago’s three large de Met’s Tea Room won a 25% wage hike.
When the mayor of Amsterdam, New York tried to hire a private firm to replace garbage men who were sitting at their trucks, the strikers convinced their “replacements” not to scab. Women at a Philadelphia hosiery mill halted the movement of machinery by sitting down.
In Milwaukee, the manager of Yahr Lange Drug Col had the nasty habit of firing workers when their seniority earned them a raise. So, they sat down and radioed salesmen, who pulled their cars over and sat in them until the manager had been removed. There were thousands of strikes varying from a handful of workers to massive organizing efforts. Altogether, these strikes involved close to half a million Americans sitting down at their jobs.
The tactic made famous by rubber and auto workers was especially popular in Detroit. Employees at the Newton Packing Co. and Durable Laundry occupied their workplaces. Clerks sat down at Crowley-Milner and Frand & Cedar Dept. Stores. And, there were sit-downs at hotels, lumberyards, tobacco plants, and electrical factories.
Motormen on Chicago freight subways sat down when their employer announced layoffs. Sit-down strikes included furniture workers in St. Louis, shirt company employees in Pulaski, Tennessee, leather workers in Girard, Ohio, broom manufacturing workers in Pueblo, Colorado, and oil workers in Seminole, Oklahoma. Department stores were particularly prone to sit-downs because employees could be replaced so easily in regular strikes. In Pittsburgh, C.G. Murphy store employees had a “folded arms” strike when they found no chairs available for a sit-down.
Sit-downs were successful even though unions had just been decimated by the Great Depression. They often occurred in shops where unions were weak. Workers at Yahr Lange Drug Co. had rejected unionization shortly before their sit-down. In 1934, union membership among Flint auto workers was only 528. The 137 tire builders who began the Great Goodyear Strike of 1936 with their sit-down included hardly any member of the rubber workers union.
In fact, sit-downs sometimes occurred because people distrusted union officials. Workers were frequently angry at delays in grievance procedures and the lack of attention to workplace demands. Since sit-downs are direct action by the people who see an injustice, there is no one to sell out the agreement. With a sit-down, workers do not go back to work until people are rehired, the workload is reduced to a human pace, dangerous chemicals are removed, sexual discrimination is stopped, or wages are restored.
“Normal” strikes involve unions’ giving management weeks or months of advance notice, which allows the company time to stockpile goods or otherwise prepare to defeat the strike. But both management and union leaders are caught unprepared by sit-downs. Management must respond quickly because the action brings production to a grinding halt. Workers then have tremendous leverage. Since they are occupying their place of work, it is extremely difficult for management to find scabs to replace sit-downers.
If you ask “Why did sit-downs come to a halt in the US?” you may hear that it was because a Supreme Court ruling made them illegal. Though on February 27, 1939, the Court ruled that sit-downs violated property owner rights, the ruling had little to do with the decline of sit-down strikes. For centuries, merely being in a union and taking any job action was illegal. If unions had never been willing to do anything illegal, they never would have come into existence.
As Brecher observes in Strike!, court injunctions were used repeatedly against sit-downers during 1937. In other words, sit-downs were already illegal when they happened. And labor actions since the great sit-down wave have been won, despite being “illegal.” The most notable is the postal wildcat strike of March, 1970. Though striking against the government is a felony which can result in a year in jail, over 200,000 postal workers in 15 states joined strikers in New York City. Their action forced Congress to grant them a 24% wage increase.
It was repeated hostility by union officials that threw ice water on the sit-down movement. Union officials tend to want arbitration and negotiated settlements which give them a place at the table without taking personal risks. Throughout 1937, many union officials urged workers not to sit-down or to end strikes after they began. After 1937, collaboration between employers and union higher-ups increased.
Civil rights movement, 1960s
Nevertheless, the idea of sitting down has inspired generations of activists for three quarters of a century. Beginning in the late 1950s, civil rights marchers recalled the labor tactic as they held sit-ins against racism at lunch counters throughout the South. During the height of US attacks on Vietnam in the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of students sat-in at administration offices to protest their complicity with militarism. By the late 1970s, hardly a month went by without a sit-in to call attention to the destructive effects of nuclear power or other ecological catastrophes.
Labor has not forgotten the tactic. During the 1968 upheavals in France, many workers struck by occupying their workplaces. In the first decade of this century, there have been worker occupations in Canada, South Africa, England, France, Spain and Turkey. The most intense have been in Argentina.
With the financial crisis of 2001, one business after another looked like it would close and workers responded by taking over many of them. Moreover, they kept the companies running. According to Marie Trigona, 250 worker occupied enterprises have employed over 13,000 people. This has led Argentina to have some of the lengthiest recent experiences of worker management. Trigona believes that “the recuperated enterprises confirm that businesses don’t need bosses to produce.” For example, at the Zanon ceramics factory, workers hold general assemblies to make decisions about production.
The sit-down occupation best-known to Americans was at Republic Windows and Doors in December 2008. With construction business down, the Chicago company gave its over 200 workers three days to clear out. Instead, the members of UE Local 1100 took over the plant and groups of 30 kept it occupied so management could not move out its expensive machinery. After six days, they won.
Occupy Wall Street can trace itself to a great tradition which began in the US, spread across the globe in one movement after another, and returned to the US in 2011, only to go global again. When people sit down at work, at a lunch counter, at school, or in a park, they realize that they themselves have the power to collectively take back control of their lives from the 1%.
Don Fitz is on the Coordinating Committee of the Greens/Green Party USA and produces Green Time TV in St. Louis, Missouri. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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J. Brecher, (1977). Strike! Boston: South End Press.
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