The Communist Party and socialists during the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike

The Communist Party and socialists during the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike

A passage about radicals involvement in the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, from The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions by Roger Keeran.

During the Toledo auto strike of 1934, Communists and Musteites (members of A.J. Muste's American Workers Party1 played a major part in turning a rout of the workers into a partial victory. The conflict began on April 11, when Federal Local Union 183842began a strike that within several days involved workers in three interlocked auto parts companies, the Electric Auto Lite Company, Bingham Stamping and Tool Company and Logan Gear Company. The walkout occurred after the three firms failed to fulfill a promise to reach an agreement with the local by April 1. Among other demands, the union sought a 20 percent wage increase and a promise of union security. Only a small minority of the workers in the three plants joined the walkout, and the companies continued to run production in spite of the strike. William Green, president of the AFL, believed that the strike was ill-advised and offered no assistance. Within a couple of weeks the strike looked helpless. These circumstances probably accounted for the local's reliance on radical assistance, and for the radicals ability to achieve the influence they did.3

From the beginning of the walkout Communists and Musteites offered their support and joined strikers on the picket lines. But Communist denunciations of the Musteites as "'left' social fascists" and Musteite suspicions of the Communists prevented effective cooperation between the two. Of the two groups, the Musteites had the larger following in Toledo and exercised greater influence during the walkout. The Communists had only a small following in Cleveland. According to Ohio district organizer, John Williamson, only three or four party members worked in the Auto Lite plant, and they were old, foreign-born workers. The party suffered from a "complete isolation from organized contact with the strikers prior to the strike." Similarly, the "very small and inactive" Auto Workers Union4 "played no role during the strike". The Communists did, however, have an active Unemployed Council in Toledo, and through its activity the party carried on considerable agitation and supplied volunteers for the picket line.5

The radicals aided the strikers by helping organize the walkout and by generating strike support. Early in the walkout, after Thomas Ramsey, the local AFL organizer, had warned the strikers to have nothing to do with Communists and had failed to establish picket lines, about 30 workers from the Bingham and Auto Lite plants sought advice at the Communist Party office. Williamson and the local party organizer, Kenneth Eggert, gave the workers "some idea on how to take the situation into their own hands". Bob Travis, a leftist in the Toledo Chevrolet plant, helped the Auto Lite strikers arrange picketing, and party women established a soup kitchen. To build support for the walkout, the Communists also issued 16 different leaflets (a total of 105,000 copies) and held seven shop gate meetings as well as perhaps a dozen other strike support rallies at which Earl Browder, William Patterson, William Weinstone and other party leaders spoke.6

The radicals' major contribution was their defiance of court injunctions. On April17, in response to an application by Auto Lite and Bingham, Common Pleas Judge Roy Staurt issued a restraining order that limited picketing to 25 persons at the two Auto Lite gates and at the Bingham gate and that prohibited picketing by the Lucas County Unemployed League, the Lucas County Unemployed Council, and all other nonunion people. Judge Stuart followed this act with a similarly worded temporary injunction on May 14 and a permanent injunction on May 15. To enforce the injunction, Lucas County Sheriff David Krieger appointed 150 special deputies, paid by Auto Lite and Bingham. On May 5, in a letter to Judge Stuart, Sam Pollock of the Unemployed League condemned the initial restraining order as a curtailment of "the rights of all workers to organize, strike and picket peacefully" and promised that the league would "deliberately and specifically" violate the order. The Musteites and Communists then mobilized their followers among the unemployed to bolster the picket lines. Roy W. Howard of the Scripps-Howard newspapers noted with amazement that the unemployed "appeared on the picket lines to help striking employees win a strike, though you would expect their interest would lie the other way - that is, in going in and getting their jobs the other men had laid down".7

Defiance of the restraining order rescued the walkout from certain defeat. On May 15, deputies arrested 107 strikers for violating the May 14 injunction. The next day 46 were arrested. On May 17, over 200 strikers and sympathizers stormed the jail; the following day a similar crowd demonstrated in the corridors of the courthouse as Judge Stuart opened hearings on the contempt charges. After this, the picket lines grew. On Monday, May 21, 1,000 picketers demonstrated at Auto Lite. They stoned several carloads of scabs leaving the plant and scuffled with strike breakers. On Tuesday, 4,000 picketers and spectators appeared, and on Wednesday, 6,000. That day tensions rose. A bolt thrown from a window in the Auto Lite plant struck a young girl on the head. Deputies "unmercifully" beat up an old man. Then, after strikebreakers turned a hose on the picketers, a major riot broke out between the strikers and the scabs, police, and deputies caught inside the plant. A Toledo Communist described the scene: "The police and Deputy Sheriffs were helpless. The entire neighborhood was seized by the workers. The Communist Party and the Young Communist League members played an active part in organizing squads in different streets around the plant and charged the police and the plant and when necessary retreated in an organized way. Hand to hand fighting with police took place, with the workers getting the upper hand. The economic struggle developed into a political struggle, into class war".8

The siege of the plant continued through the night until the next day, May 24, when Ohio Governor George White sent in the National Guard. The National Guard used bayonets, tear gas, vomiting gas, and bullets to disperse the crowd. Guardsmen's bullets killed two strike sympathizers. Fighting between the guard and demonstrators raged all that day. The next afternoon fighting again erupted between the guardsmen, who then numbered 1,350 (the largest peacetime mobilization in the state's history), and an estimated crowd of 20,000. On May 26, yet more fighting occurred. Strikers and their supporters pitted bottles and bricks against tear gas and bayonets. When the violence finally ebbed, radical condemnation of the "murderers" and calls for a general strike flowed. At a Communist-sponsored rally on Sunday, May 27, William Weinstone, who had recently replaced John Schmies as district organizer for Detroit, declared: "Only by establishing a rule of workers in place of a rule of the capitalists can prosperity and freedom for everybody be won." The rally raised two slogans: "You Can't Make Auto Parts With Soldiers" and "A General Strike to Support Auto-Lite Workers".9

By May 28, 95 of the 103 unions affiliated with the Toledo Central Labor Union had expressed a readiness to support a general strike. On that day, however, William Green informed Otto Brach, head of the Central Labor Union, that he did not believe it "necessary for the organized workers in Toledo to engage in a sympathetic strike". Though Green and local federation leaders ended the threat of a general strike, the picket line violence effectively closed the Auto Lite plant, provoked the intervention of Department of Labor mediators, and hastened a strike settlement. The written settlement on June 4 yielded a company promise not to discriminate against union members, a 5 percent wage increase in all three plants, as well as a unique preamble to the agreement repudiating "the tactics of Communists". While Brach called the agreement "a splendid victory", the Daily Worker stated: "The strikers victorious on the mass picket lines, were defeated by the maneuverings of the AFL leaders who succeeded in their strategy of splitting them up and blocking a general strike for their demands." Both appraisals contained some truth. Clear to all, however, was that in the most dramatic confrontation of the NIRA10 period, Auto Lite workers, defied the AFL no-strike policy, relied on outside radicals and won one of the few signed agreements in the industry and established one of the strongest auto locals in the AFL.11

From The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions by Roger Keeran, Indiana University Press,1980

Slightly edited with added footnotes to be a stand-alone article

  • 1. The AWP was a socialist organization that hoped to find an 'American approach' to Marxism. Headed by A.J. Muste, a former minister, the AWP only had a membership in the hundreds, but had significant influence through its Unemployed Leagues, whose membership dwarfed the party's. 9 months after the Toledo strike, the AWP merged with the Communist League of America, a Trotskyist group that played a role in that summer's Teamster strike in Minneapolis, to form the Workers Party of the United States. The WPUS eventually dissolved itself into the Socialist Party of America in 1936, later splitting to form the Socialist Workers Party, which still exists today. -juan
  • 2. 'Federal' unions were an AFL compromise on industrial unionism. They were preliminary locals that were supposed to eventually be separated by craft. - juan
  • 3. Sidney Fine, The Automobile Under the Blue Eagle (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963) pp. 274-277
  • 4. Communist Party-organized industrial union - juan
  • 5. Fine, p. 276; Oral History of A.J. Muste (Columbia); Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 173-174; John Williamson, Dangerous Scot: the Life and Work of an American 'Undesirable' (New York: International Publishers, 1969), p. 104; Daily Worker (June 18, 1934)
  • 6. Williamson, pp. 104-105; John Burns, "The Lessons of the Auto-Parts Strike in Toledo," Daily Worker (June 18, 1934)
  • 7. Fine, pp. 277-278; Burns, 8-9; Pollock quoted by Art Preis, Labor's Giant Step (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1964), pp. 21-22; Howard quoted by Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 221
  • 8. Fine, pp. 275-278; A.J. Muste, "The Battle of Toledo", Nation (June 6, 1934), 639-640; Louis F. Budenz, "Strikes Under the New Deal", in Alfred M. Bingham and Seldon Rodman, ed., Challenge to the New Deal (New York, Falcon, 1934), pp. 102-103; Daily Worker (May 24, 25, 26, 1934); Burns, 10-15.
  • 9. Fine, pp. 279-280; Daily Worker (May 28, 1934); Williamson, Dangerous Scot, p. 105
  • 10. National Industrial Recovery Act, a law passed in 1933, which aimed to regulate industry. It also established union organizing rights.
  • 11. Fine, pp. 280-283; William Green to Otto Brach (May 28, 1934) in AFL Papers (State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Bernstein, Turbulent Years, pp. 226-229; Otto Brach to William Green (June 5, 1934) in AFL Papers; Daily Worker (June 6, 1934)

Comments

syndicalist
Jul 14 2014 23:30

It's an interesting book written from a CPers perspective. The author is a decent enough guy. Met him years ago, I think we even worked on a project against plant closings. Worth the read.