1. "Don't Starve - Fight"
The 1920's were a period of great expansion for American capitalism. For the trade unions, it was a period of decline, which they met by trying to persuade employers to establish unionism in order to guarantee labor peace. By the late twenties, one of America's leading economists was widely seconded when he declared that the country had entered an era of "permanent prosperity." Already, however, serious constriction had begun in such industries as coal and textiles, and with the collapse of the stock market in October, 1929, depression - long believed a thing of the past - set in.
With it came enormous misery-loss of jobs, homes, farms, savings, even the means to eat. Within three years, some fifteen million workers were unemployed. By early 1932, according to a New York newspaperman, groups of thirty or forty men would enter chain grocery stores and ask for credit. When the clerk tells them business is for cash only, they bid him stand aside; they don't want to harm him, but they must have things to eat. They load up and depart.1
Out of this kind of desperation the unemployed began improvising a variety of forms of direct action to meet their needs. Most dramatic was direct action to stop evictions. A reporter described a typical anti-eviction "riot" in Chicago:
A woman living in a certain block in Chicago has five children; her husband is a stockyards workman who has been out of a job a year and a half. But on ten dollars a month sent by her brother-in-law, and borrowing now and then from the neighbors' pantries, she has fed her family. There is no money left for rent. So after two warnings from the landlord - a crisis. She is to be evicted next Tuesday at five.
In the same block lives a member of the local branch of the Unemployed Council, who has been through it all before. He talks to the men and women and together they call a meeting of all the families on the block. Most of them have known Mrs. MacNamara for years and know that the baby has tonsilitis. At 4:30 on Tuesday you find them in an organized body outside the MacNamara flat. The sheriff arrives and in the face of protest does his work. Mrs. MacNamara's bed, bureau, stove, and children are translated to the street. Then the Council acts. With great gusto the bed, bureau, stove, and children are put back in the house. Then the neighbors proceed to the local relief bureau, where a Council spokesman displays the children, presents the facts, and demands that the Relief Commission pay the rent or find another flat for the MacNamaras. The local relief worker expresses dismay but says the rent fund is exhausted. The spokesman goes through the MacNamara story again with a new emphasis, and repeats his demands. If the Commission is adamant, he' leaves and reappears at general headquarters with a hundred Council members in- stead of fifty. Usually the Commission digs up the $6 a month rent, or the landlord throws up his hands, and Mrs. MacNamara's children have a roof over their heads.2
Organizations of the unemployed sprang up city by city around the country, often with initiative coming from Communist, Socialist or other leftist groups. Charles R. Walker, a labor expert, studied them in various parts of the country and described them thus:
The Unemployed Council is a democratic organ of the unemployed to secure by very practical means a control over their means of subsistence. I find it is no secret that Communists organize Unemployed Councils in most cities and usually lead them, but the councils are organized democratically and the majority rules. In one I visited at Lincoln Park, Michigan, there were three hundred members of which eleven were Communists. The Council had a right wing, a left wing, and a center. The chairman of the council, who was of the right wing, was also the local commander of the American Legion. In Chicago there are forty-five branches of the Unemployed Council, with a total membership of 22,000.
The Councils' weapon is democratic force of numbers and their functions are: to prevent evictions of the destitute, or if evicted, to bring pressure to bear on the Relief Commission to find a new home for the evicted family; if an unemployed worker has his gas or his water turned off be. cause he can't pay for it, to investigate the case and demand their return from the proper authorities; to see that the unemployed who are shoe less and clothesless get both; to eliminate through publicity and pressure discriminations between Negroes and white persons, or against the foreign born, in matters of relief; for individuals or families and children of the unemployed who have no relief as a penalty for political views or have been denied it through neglect, lack of funds, or any other reasons whatever, to march them down to relief headquarters and demand they be fed and clothed. Finally, to provide legal defense for ail unemployed arrested for joining parades, hunger marches, or attending union meetings.3
By direct action the unemployed were able to stop many evictions; in Chicago and other cities the public authorities were finally forced to suspend them entirely. Further, Walker reported, the amount of relief in cities he visited was directly proportional to the strength and struggle of the local unemployed council. In many places the unemployed also made attempts to reorganize economic life on their own. In Seattle, the Unemployed Citizens' League organized self-help on a large scale. The unemployed were found fishing-boats by the fishermen's union, allowed to pick unmarketable fruit and vegetables by nearby farmers, and permitted to cut wood on scrub timberland. Members throughout the city organized twenty-two locals, each with its own commissary at which the food and firewood thus acquired was exchanged with barbers who cut hair, seamstresses who mended clothes, carpenters who repaired houses, and doctors who treated the sick. With the end of the harvest season, however, self-help in Seattle lost its already marginal economic basis. The U.C.L. then became the machinery for distributing relief. It also became a major political power in the city; its candidate for mayor, named Dore, won with the largest plurality in the city's history, whereupon he took relief administration away from the U.C.L. and threatened to use machine guns against demonstrations of the unemployed - he quickly became known as "revolving Dore."4 By the end of 1932 there were 330 such self-help organizations in thirty-seven states with membership over 300,000. But by early 1933 most of them, including the Seattle U.C.L., were in collapse, discovering the limitations of a self-help movement living off the scraps of an already collapsed economy.
The most dramatic-and illegal-form of self-help was the bootleg coal industry in Pennsylvania. Small teams of unemployed coal miners simply dug small mines on company property and mined out the coal, while others took it by truck to nearby cities and sold it below the commercial rate. A miner named William Keating composed a ballad in 1932 which typifies the attitudes of the "coal-leggers":
While the woes of unemployment were increasing,
While the price of foodstuff swelled the grocer's till,
For to fix 'gainst next winter's chill breeze,
Lest our poor families do freeze,
We dug a wee coal hole on God's hill.
But our terrible toil was wasted; we worked in vain,
Two Cossack-mannered coal and iron cops came.
On next winter's cold nights,
We'll have no anthracite,
'Cause the cops caved in our wee coal hole.
My mule-driving record proves at Oak Hill mine,
I'm unfairly unemployed for four years' time.
To no soup house I'll be led,
Because I'll dig my family's bread,
Or by cops be killed, in my wee coal hole.
Right demands I keep my family fed and warm,
God put coal 'neath these hills; here I was born. 147
So call it bootleg or what,
I'll have coal in my cot,
While there's coal in Good God's coal vein.5
By 1934, coal bootlegging was an important industry, producing some five million tons of coal worth $45 million and employing 20,000 men and 4,000 vehicles. The coal companies fumed, but community opinion solidly backed the bootleggers - local officials would not prosecute the miners, juries would not convict, and jailers would not imprison. When company police tried to stop the bootlegging the miners defended themselves by force. In Shamokin, when the company started stripping operations on the "Edgewood Bootleggers' Tract," where 17,000 illegal miners dug coal, the men promptly dynamited the steam shovel and told the company men to "beat it"; nobody was arrested. At Tremont, a thousand bootleggers prepared to battle fifty police until the latter withdrew. The private police of another company blew up more than 1,000 holes in 1934, but in that time at least 4,000 new ones were dug on their property. An investigator reported several bootleggers telling him, "If they close our holes, we'll gang up on their collieries and close them."6
In coal bootlegging the miners took over use of private property and began producing for themselves. But as long as the rest of the economic system remained unchanged, bootleg mining had severe limitations. Miners had little equipment save shovels, ropes and buckets; the primitive technology required much more labor for a given amount of coal. With bootleg coal priced below commercial coal, the bootleggers ended with a wage of about $14 a week. Had the bootleg competition cut seriously into regular producers' profits, the latter would have had to cut their wages, thus worsening conditions of employed miners and turning them against the bootleggers. And with no money for safety devices, the bootleggers faced an accident rate far worse even than that of ordinary miners.
Desperate revolt was by no means limited to the unemployed. As wages were cut again and again, strikes broke out and spread spontaneously. In High Point, North Carolina, for example, a few hundred stocking boarders walked out at six hosiery mills one July morning in 1932 when the second wage cut of the year was posted at their mills. Other hosiery workers joined and by the end of the day 1,600 had walked out. The next day bands of strikers and unemployed workers marched through High Point and nearby Kernersville, Jamestown, Lexington and Thomasville, closing 100 factories of all kinds employing 15,000 workers. Next day twenty-five unemployed workers forced their way into a High Point moviehouse and demanded admission, saying that they were out of work and entitled to entertainment. When the police drove them out, they wrecked a motor and turned off the town's electricity, "to teach the big fellows that we hain't going to stand for no more bad treatment."7 The hosiery strike was finally settled through the intervention of the Governor, with a rescinding of the wage cut. Out of the conflict developed the Industrial Association of High Point, a union open to all industrial workers in the city, with 4,000 members and committees in each of the mills.
Although trade union strikes were rare and ineffectual during the early years of the depression, such spontaneous revolts developed in all parts of the country. As Charles R. Walker foresaw,
there were increasing outbursts of employed and unemployed alike - a kind of spontaneous democracy expressing itself in organized demonstrations by large masses of people. I use the word organized and I use the word democracy advisedly. They will not be mobs-though the police will often break them up- but will march and meet in order, elect their own spokesmen and committees, and work out in detail their demands for work or relief. They will present their formulated needs to factory superintendents, relief commissions, and city councils, and to the government at Washington. . . Another social tendency. . . is to suppress by any means at hand this rough-and-ready democracy. Meetings, marches, unions, and councils will be greeted in many cases-as they were in Detroit-with bullets and not relief. . . . As long as the American crisis lasts these two political tendencies -"spontaneous but organized" protest, and suppression by violence-will fight it out.8
Leftist organizations received little support in the early years of the Depression, but it was widely felt that such spontaneous mass action would become a revolutionary movement if conditions continued to worsen. As one unemployed organizer wrote of the coal bootleggers,
All that is really necessary for the workers to do in order to end their miseries is to perform such simple things as to take from where there is, without regard to established property principles or social philosophies, and to start to produce for themselves. Done on a broad social scale it will lead to lasting results; on a local, isolated plane it will be either defeated, or remain an unsuccessful attempt unable to serve the needs of the working class. When the large masses face a similar general situation as the Pennsylvania miners faced in their specific case, we have every reason to assume that they will react in the same way. The bootleg miners have shown in a rather clear and impressive way, that the so much bewailed absence of a socialist ideology on the part of the workers, really does not prevent workers from acting quite anti-capitalistically, quite in accordance with their own needs. Breaking through the confines of private property in order to live up to their own necessities, the miners' action is, at the same time a manifestation of the most important part of class consciousness-- namely that the problems of the workers can be solved only by themselves.9
At this point Franklin Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the National Recovery Administration offered workers the hope that they would not have to solve their problems by themselves. From the day of his first inaugural address, Roosevelt captured the imagination and confidence of the nation with the promise of govemment action to meet the social crisis. He acted quickly to end the financial panic that had closed the nation's banks by putting the credit of the U.S. govemment behind them. He created a national relief system which effectively prevented mass starvation in the face of the virtual breakdown of local welfare resources, and established public works programs to provide employment, going far to pacify the unemployed. Many workers developed an almost religious faith in the new President. From the Carolinas, Martha Gellhom wrote,
Every house I visited-mill worker or unemployed-had a picture of the President. These ranged from newspaper clippings (in destitute homes) to large colored prints, framed in gilt cardboard. The portrait holds the place of honour over the mantel; I can only compare this to the Italian peasant's Madonna.10
One central feature of the early New Deal was the National Recovery Administration. The NRA was largely modelled on the War Industries Board of World War I, of which its head, General Hugh S. Johnson, had been an official. The National Recovery Act was in essence a suspension of the anti-trust laws which allowed trade associations for each industry to fix prices and establish 'production quotas for each company. A "Code of Fair Competition" was established for each industry, with a Code Authority to enforce the agreements and set minimum wages and maximum hours. Following the precedent of World War I, (and with the tacit support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce), labor support for the program was won by including as Section 7 A of the National Recovery Act the provision that employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and shall be free from the interference, restraint or coercion of employers. . . . ‘11
Until the formation of the NRA, the American trade union movement had become practically defunct. The A.F.L. had failed to combat the layoffs and wage cuts that accompanied the Great Depression., and membership, far from increasing with popular discontent, went down with the slump. Workers had largely lost interest in trade unions and had tumed on a considerable scale to various forms of direct action. But with Section 7 A guaranteeing the right to organize and appearing to make trade unionism part of the President's plan for economic recovery, workers throughout the country rushed to join unions, with high hopes that Roosevelt and the A.F.L. would cure their ills. In the Appalachian hills they sang
When you all work for the NRA
You work shorter hours and get the same pay
Sweet thing, baby mine.12
The great mass of unorganized industrial workers flooded into such industrial unions as the United Mine Workers, and where none existed, they joined the newly formed "federal locals" directly under the A.F.L. In 1933, the United Mine Workers signed up tens of thousands of members simply on the slogan, "The President wants you to join the union" - admitting only if challenged that they meant the president of the union, not of the United States.
2. Nineteen Thirty-Four
With the passage of Section 7 A, longshoremen in San Francisco, like workers elsewhere, began pouring into the available unions. During July and August, 1933, nearly ninety-five percent of the San Francisco longshoremen joined the International Longshoremen's Association.13 Their greatest grievance was the shape-up, a system of hiring which the longshoremen referred to as "the slave market." Every morning at 6 a.m., everyone seeking a day's work longshoring would crowd along the Embarcadero, where the foremen would pick out those they wanted for the day. The effect was that longshoremen could never count on steady work, had to suck up to or even bribe the foremen, and had to work to exhaustion or not be hired again, Yet the I.L.A. into which they flooded made no attempt to challenge the shape-up.
Consequently the more militant workers began forming a rank-and-file movement within the union. (Its most prominent figure was an Australian, Harry Bridges, and it included many members of the Communist Party.) The rank-and-file movement forced the calling of a West Coast convention in February, 1934, from which paid officers of the union were excluded as delegates, and forced union officials to accept a program they had no desire to fight for: abolition of the shape-up and its replacement by a union hiring hall, with a strike if this was not accepted within two weeks.
Faced with a strike, the Waterfront Employers Association made a somewhat vague offer to recognize the I.L.A. and set up a dispatching hall whose control was not specified. The I.L.A. leaders accepted the proposal, whereupon the membership repudiated it and suspended the local president for being "too conservative."
On May 9th, longshoremen in Bellingham, Seattle, Tacoma, Aberdeen, Portland, Astoria, San Francisco, Oakland, Stockton, San Pedro and San Diego struck, cutting off nearly 2,000 miles of coastland.
The lines of the conflict rapidly began to spread. The employers imported large numbers of strikebreakers - eventually 1,700, many of them recruited from the University of California-to unload the ships. The strikebreakers were housed in floating boarding houses (which were rapidly boycotted by union employees) and thus protected from pickets; those who sneaked ashore, however, were systematically brutalized by the strikers. Strikebreaking would have seriously threatened the strike, but within four days mass meetings of Teamsters in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle decided overwhelmingly not to haul goods to and from the docks, thus making the strikebreakers' efforts fruitless; many of the Teamsters joined the picket lines as well. In San Francisco, as much as seventy percent of the Teamsters' work was on the waterfront. The feelings stirred by seeing the struggle of the longshoremen, combined with their own fear that if the longshoremen were broken the Teamsters would be attacked next, gave them strong motivation for sympathetic action. Before long the strike began to idle unrelated industries; lumber mills shut down in Oregon, for example, because they were unable to ship their products.
At the same time, the strike spread to other maritime workers.
As ships came to port, entire crews walked off and joined the longshoremen. By May 21st, 4,500 sailors, marine firemen, water tenders, cooks, stewards and licensed officers had struck. They established a Joint Marine Strike Committee with five representatives from each of the ten unions involved. Breaking a tradition of scabbing on each other, each agreed not to return to work until the others had settled.
Meanwhile, the longshoremen resisted numerous efforts by government and union officials to get them to work without the union hiring hall. At the outset the strike had been postponed at the request of President Roosevelt, who appointed a Federal Mediation Board; the proposal this Board worked out with the employers and West Coast leaders of the I.L.A. was repudiated by the rank and file, who went ahead and struck anyway. Next Assistant Secretary of Labor Ed McGrady, Roosevelt's top mediator, flew to San Francisco and asked the longshoremen to empower their negotiating committee to enter a final settlement; but the San Francisco local voted unanimously to refuse and to require any agreement to be ratified by the strikers themselves. Then Joseph Ryan, president of the I.L.A., flew to San Francisco and announced absurdly that "the only vital point at issue" was "recognition of the I.L.A." When he negotiated a settlement similar to past proposals, he was met with catcalls and voted down almost unanimously by the I.L.A. locals in Portland and San Francisco.14 Two weeks later Ryan signed a new agreement to send the longshoremen back to work; Michael Casey and Dave Beck, San Francisco and Seattle Teamster bosses, guaranteed the agreement by promising to resume working on the docks; but Ryan was again booed down by his own membership, which rejected the agreement by acclamation at a mass meeting in San Francisco, Finally, President Roosevelt appointed a National Longshoremen's Board to mediate the conflict.
Pacification efforts notwithstanding, the conflict itself grew steadily more violent. On the first day of the strike, police broke up a 500-man picket line. On May 28th, pickets armed with brickbats fought police, who ended the battle by firing with sawed-off shotguns directly into the pickets after failing to quell them with billy clubs and tear gas. As the Clarion, organ of the conservative Central Labor Council, put it,
To parade strike-breakers through the streets on the way to the docks under police guard and to use public property and city employees in conveying these outcasts to their nefarious work was an invitation to violence. . . .15
After forty-five days, San Francisco's economy was reeling, and the business community decided the time had come to break the strike. At a meeting on June 23rd, representatives of the Industrial Association, Chamber of Commerce, Police Commissioners, Chief of Police, and Harbor Commissioners agreed to open the port, with the assurance of the Chief of Police that "every available police officer in San Francisco will be detailed to the waterfront to give the necessary protection."16 On July 3rd a cordon of freight cars was set up and 700 policemen armed with tear gas and riot guns. A police captain brandishing a revolver declared, "The port is open," and five trucks manned by strikebreakers rolled from the pier toward the warehouses. Thousands of strikers and sympathizers on the picket line attacked the police lines. As the New York Times described it,
Mounted and foot police swung their clubs and hurled tear-gas bombs, strikers hurled bricks and rocks, battered heads with clubs and railroad spikes and smashed windows. . . . Mounted and foot police relentlessly drove the pickets behind these freightcar barriers. The safety line remained intact but on its fringes pandemonium raged.17
Twenty-five people were hospitalized as a result of the battle, about half pickets, half police.
After the Independence Day holiday, battle resumed July 5th. In the morning police charged 2,000 pickets who had gathered to stop trucks coming off the pier, and dispersed them after an hour and a half of street and barricade fighting. By the afternoon a crowd of 5,000 gathered, and when the police could no longer control them with gas, they switched to guns on a large scale. The crowd grew increasingly furious in the face of police shootings, and when the word spread that the National Guard would take over the waterfront that evening, they made a last concerted effort to seize the belt-line railway on the waterfront before the troops arrived. Unarmed demonstrators were no match for the police, however, and were driven back in a bloody battle. One reporter wrote, "It was as close to actual war as anything but war itself could be."18 Two strikers and a bystander were killed, 115 people were hospitalized.
That night the Governor of California ordered in 1,700 National Guardsmen, who enclosed the Embarcadero with barbed wire and machine gun nests, patrolled the area with armored cars, and were given orders to shoot to kill. Under this protection, freight moved steadily from the docks to the warehouses. The balance of forces had shifted decisively against the strikers; as Harry Bridges said, "We cannot stand up against police, machine guns, and National Guard bayonets."19
But the conflict had generated a whole new body of allies for the strikers. In the early weeks of June, the feeling had begun to spread among San Francisco workers that a general strike might be necessary to back up the longshoremen. The strikebreaking activities of the police daily roused their ire. A general strike was felt as a way of expressing their power against all employers. Even relatively conservative workers felt the need to protect themselves against the employer offensive; The Clarion wrote:
Workers in other groups have been impelled to stand behind the marine and waterfront workers under the general belief that they represented the 'shock troops' in a general defense of the Trade Union position against the assault upon the union shop and for the installation of the "open shop," even in industries which had recognized union contracts for generations.20
In mid-June, the Painters Local circulated a letter among A.F.L. unions requesting support for a general strike if necessary. On June 20th the Machinists Local voted to join such a strike when called. The longshoremen began sending first small committees and then mass delegations of fifty to four hundred men to other unions asking for support by a vote for a general strike.
The movement for a general strike did not become irresistable, however, until after the violent opening of the port. The street fighting itself had roused a spirit of combat, and the killing of unarmed strikers by police roused the resentment of virtually all the city's workers. The sending in of the National Guard to break the strike aggravated them still further. And with every other tactic defeated, a general strike was evidently the only means by which the longshoremen could be saved from defeat.
The day after the entry of the National Guard, the Joint Marine Strike Committee appealed for a general strike. Next day fourteen unions in San Francisco voted to strike in sympathy with the longshoremen, and similar sentiment developed in Portland and Seattle. At the crucial meeting of the Teamsters, Local President Casey warned the drivers that their contract restricted and their union constitution forbade sympathetic strikes, but they voted 1,220 to 271 to strike Thursday, July 12th, if the maritime strike had not been settled. "Nothing on earth," Casey said, "could have prevented that vote. In all my thirty years of leading these men I have never seen them so worked up."21
On July 9th, a mass funeral procession for the strikers killed in the opening of the port rallied tens of thousands. As Paul Eliel, director ofiìndustrial relations for the Employers' Industrial Association, later wrote, "the funeral was one of the strangest and most dramatic that had ever moved along Market Street." It created a "tremendous wave of sympathy for the workers," and with it "a general strike. . . became for the first time a practical and realizable objective."22 By July 12th, twenty-one unions had voted to strike, most of them unanimously. At a second mass meeting the Teamsters sang, "We'll hang Michael Casey from a sour apple tree," and shouted him down when he argued passionately against a strike.23
By Thursday, a partial general strike was under way; 4,000 Bay Area Teamsters walked out and picketed the roads entering the city, stopping all trucks except those carrying such exempted goods as milk, bread and laundry. In the city, Teamsters established a system of strike exemptions-as in Seattle in 1919:
San Francisco's food and gasoline problems. . . were taken to the Teamster's Union. . . . Emissaries of corporations and hospitals made their way through the crowd of striking truck drivers up the dingy stairs and waited their turn at the door behind which union officials sat. . . . Anyone not a representative in some way of a charitable institution or hospital was turned away with curt words before he reached that door, usually to the accompaniment of jeering laughter. . . . Union truck placards were granted without ado to the hospitals.24
Restaurants began to shut down. Next day 2,500 taxi drivers were scheduled to walk out. Cleaners and dryers struck for their own demands. Boilermarkers in sixty shops left their jobs.
The Central Labor Council was now faced with a general strike of which it wanted no part. Three weeks before it had passed a resolution condemning the "Communist" leadership of the maritime strikers, and resolutions calling for a general strike had been ruled out of order at its meetings week after week. After the forcible opening of the port, when the Joint Maritime Strike Committee had appealed for a general strike, the Central Labor Council did not even take up the question. Instead, it appointed a "Strike Strategy Committee" of seven conservative union officials, none of them from the striking unions. "The action of the conservative element in the labor council in naming the strike strategy committee . . . successfully sidetracked the plan of more radical groups to incite and promote a general walkout immediately," the New York Times reported.25 The Committee was appointed to kill the strike, not to organize it.
The momentum of general strike sentiment was too great, however, for the city's A.F.L. leadership to head off. When a convention called by the Strike Strategy Committee met Friday, July 13th, the general strike, though not yet complete, was already a fact. The convention, with five members from each union, voted 315-15 for a general strike. By Monday, the strike deadline, virtually all San Francisco unions except the Bakery Wagon and Milk Wagon Drivers - who were instructed to stay at work - had voted to join the strike. The Oakland Central Labor Council similarly voted for a general strike. The movement spread up the Pacific Coast; in Portland the Central Labor Council voted for a general strike, but left the date to a Strategy Committee.
Unable to stop the strike, the leadership of the San Francisco Central Labor Council decided to assume direction in order to bring it to an end as quickly as possible. They established a General Strike Committee of Twenty-five, all conservatives. The head was Vandeleur, who as chairman of the Labor Council had consistently opposed the strike, and the vice-chairman was C.W. Deal. Deal was head of the Ferryboatmen's union, one of the few in the city not to join the strike. Vandeleur was head of the Municipal Streetcar Workers' Union; when his members walked out on Monday he ordered them back to work on the grounds that they were breaking civil service contracts; he thus created the first breach of the strike the very first day. The General Strike Committee made no provision for meeting the needs of the strikers and the city's population, but instead issued an ever-increasing number of strike exemptions, which created the impression that the strike was dissolving. They also organized their own strike police to keep pickets from interfering with those they had sent back to work.
According to the press, Harry Bridges planned to recommend-
the immediate establishment of food distribution depots in every section of the city, with sub-committees of strikers to prevent profiteering, to regulate distribution of vegetables and fruit, and to prevent hardship.26
But this system never developed. Bridges concluded, "The general strike was broken by the return of the carmen and the lifting of restrictions upon food and gasoline." And as an article in Editor and Publisher pointed out, the bitterly anti-strike newspapers fully realized and abetted the objective of the labor leaders: "Newspaper editorials built up the strength and influence of the conservative leaders and aided in splitting the conservative membership away from the radicals. . . "27
Nevertheless, the strike effectively crippled the life of the city. Some 130,000 workers were out. With taxis, trolleys, and street railway workers out and gasoline for private cars embargoed by the strikers, transportation in the Bay Area virtually stopped. Many small shops closed down in sympathy with the strike or because delivery of goods had stopped. Food trucks were given permits to enter the city and markets remained open; a limited number of restaurants were permitted to run; gasoline was supplied for doctors; electric power workers and newspaper printers continued to work. The violence which had raged for weeks came to a halt with the general strike.
The strike was met with a powerful counter-attack. Five hundred special police were sworn in and the National Guard contingent was raised to 4,500, complete with infantry, machine gun, tank and artillery units; state officials were poised on the edge of declaring martial law. The leading California publishers set up a headquarters at the Palace Hotel and undertook a coordinated attack on the strike, combining a desire to weaken trade unions with an effort to embarrass President Roosevelt and a real fear that the general strike was the beginning of a revolt that might sweep the country. Typical was an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:
The situation in San Francisco is not correctly described by the phrase "general strike." What is actually in progress there is an insurrection, a Communist-inspired and led revolt against organized government. There is but one thing to be done-put down the revolt with any force necessary.28
The NRA chief, General Johnson, arrived in town and after meeting with the publishers declared the general strike a "menace to the government" and "civil war." The Governor declared that the general strike "challenges the authority of government to maintain itself," and Senator Hiram Johnson, California's elder statesman, declared, "Here is revolution not only in the making but with the initial actualities."29 President Roosevelt followed the strike closely, but felt it had been provoked by the employers and saw no need to intervene for, as Secretary of Labor Perkins informed him, the General Strike Committee of Twenty-five was "in charge of the whole strike . . . and represents conservative leadership."30
On July 17th, Charles Wheeler, vice-president of the McCormick Steamship Lines, said that raids on radical centers would start soon, with government consent. That day a series of vigilante raids began up and down the coast on the Marine Workers Industrial Union, the Ex-Service Men's League, the Western Worker, and many other radical organizations and gathering places. According to the New York Times, the vigilantes "were connected with the Committee of 500 organized by prominent citizens at the behest of Mayor Rossi."31 The raids followed a regular pattern:
men in leather jackets drove up, broke in, smashed windows, furniture and typewriters, and beat up those within; the police invariably arrived just after the attackers departed and arrested those they had beaten. U.S. Army and immigration officials interrogated many of those arrested and held some of them for possible deportation. Radicals faced a virtual reign of terror.
The general strike succeeded in preventing the crushing of the longshoremen for the moment, but the Labor Council leadership began maneuvering to bring it to an end almost before it began. On July 18th, President Green of the A.F.L. disowned the strike. The second day of the strike the General Strike Committee called for arbitration of all issues, thus giving up the basic demand which the strike was all about, the union hiring hall. The third day it reopened all union restaurants and butcher shops and ended embargoes on gasoline and fuel oil. This generated irresistable pressures on those still striking for, as the strike strategy committee in the East Bay declared, "it would be unfair to the unions to continue the strike in view of the return of some San Francisco organizations to work." By the fourth day, the General Strike Committee voted 191 to 174 to end the general strike.32
With the end of the general strike, the longshoremen were forced to accept arbitration of all issues by the Longshoremen's Board. The Board established jointly operated hiring halls with union dispatchers but employer choice among available workers.
Each employer won the right "to introduce labor-saving devices and to institute such methods of discharging and loading cargo as he considers best suited to the conduct of his business."33
This far from ended the struggle on the waterfront, however, for the longshoremen now moved to direct action on the job to fight the speed-up authorized in the 1934 settlement. A journalist described the conflicts which followed:
. . . every dock gang elected from among themselves a so-called gang or dock steward. . . There were endless disputes, some resulting in "job action" on the part of workers or quick strikes ("quickies") localized to one dock. Suddenly, in the midst of unloading a ship, the longshore gang would walk off, causing the stubborn employer sailing delay, considerable additional expense, and general irritation. . .
. . . the employer called the union hiring-hall for another gang, which came promptly enough, but as likely as not pulled another "quicky" an hour later; and so on, till the employer yielded to, say, a demand that the slingload be made two or three thousand instead of four thousand pounds.34
Between January 1st, 1937, and August 1st, 1938, more than 350 such work stoppages occurred in the maritime industry on the Pacific Coast.35
Another bloody struggle broke out at the auto parts plant in Toledo, Ohio. The local A.F.L. union struck, went back, and on April 12th, 1934, struck again. Fewer than half the workers joined the strike, and the employers hired strikebreakers and kept the plants running. Under such conditions the strike seemed doomed to failure, until a large number of unemployed began joining the picket lines. As a newspaperman wrote privately,
The point about Toledo was this: that it is nothing new to see organized unemployed appear in the streets, fight police, and raise hell in general. But usually they do this for their own ends, to protest against unemployment or relief conditions. At Toledo they 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 down and getting the jobs the other men had laid down.36
The Lucas County Unemployed League was affiliated with the American Workers Party, a small radical organization led by A.J. Muste, which emphasized mutual support of employed and unemployed workers, and A. W.P. leaders played an important part in the conflict.
When the strikers and unemployed blocked the plant gates with mass picketing, the employers got an injunction limiting them to twenty-five pickets at each gate. The Unemployed League, determined to "smash the injunction," continued picketing, and when leaders were arrested for contempt of court, hundreds of unemployed packed the courtroom and cheered and sang as the trial progressed. On May 21st, 1,000 gathered for a noon mass meeting at the gates of the Toledo Auto-Lite plant; next day 4,000 came to the noon rally, and the third day 6,000.
At this point, Sheriff David Krieger decided, as he later testified in court, that the time had come to take the offensive. Unwilling to rely on the local police, who were disaffected themselves and sympathetic to the strikers, he deputized special police, paid for by National Guardsmen attacked the picket lines and evacuated strikebreakers from Auto-Lite plants, but were driven back by the crowds. Guardsmen advanced again with bayonets; they were ordered to fire.
He then began arresting pickets, and a deputy began beating an old man in front of a crowd of 10,000 which had gathered. This was too much for the crowd, which proceeded to surround the Auto-Lite plant, holding 1,500 strikebreakers inside. The special deputies dropped tear gas on the crowd from the plant and attacked them with fire hoses, iron bars and some gunfire. The crowd systematically collected bricks and stones, deposited them in piles around the streets, and heaved them through the factory windows. Three times the strikers broke into the factory and were driven out in hand-to-hand fighting. The battle raged for seven hours.
At dawn next morning 900 National Guardsmen, complete with machine-gun units, were rushed into Toledo from elsewhere in the state-Sheriff Krieger being unwilling to call up the local Guard. The Guardsmen evacuated the strikebreakers from the plant, but failed to intimidate the crowds, who stoned them and drove them against the factory walls. The Guardsmen advanced with bayonets. The crowd drove them back again, and were in turn pushed back with bayonets. As the crowd advanced the third time the troops were ordered to fire; they let go, killing two and wounding fifteen. Even this did not disperse the crowd, which attacked again that night and was again fired on by the Guard. Only the sending of four more militia companies to the plant-more troops than ever seen in Ohio before in peacetime-and the agreement of the companies to close down finally pacified the situation. Meanwhile, eighty-five local unions pledged themselves to support a general strike in sympathy with another dispute, growing from the demands of workers at the electric power company. The strike was headed off when the company offered a twenty-two percent wage increase and union recognition.
Leaders of the unemployed were arrested and one was seized by the Guard and held incommunicado. With their plants closed, the auto parts makers finally agreed to recognize the union, grant a wage increase, and rehire the strikers. Rehiring proceeded slowly as the plants reopened until a crowd began gathering at the Auto-Lite gates and the company, fearing a renewal of direct action, rehired all the strikers at once.
Meanwhile, in Minneapolis there developed a conflict which clearly demonstrated the process of polarization of social classes occurring throughout the country. Early in 1934, Teamsters who worked in Minneapolis coalyards struck, caught the employers by surprise, and closed down sixty-five of the town's sixty-seven coal yards; the employers capitulated in three days and granted recognition for Teamsters Local 574. The local held a catch-all charter making it virtually industrial in character, and truckdrivers and helpers in all trades began pouring in. Unofficial leadership for the unions was given by the Dunne brothers and Karl Skogeland, who were American followers of Leon Trotsky. When the truckers refused to sign any agreement with the union, the Teamsters voted at a mass meeting May 12th to strike. Most businesses were hit by the strike - general and department stores, groceries, bakeries, cleaners and laundries, meat and provision houses, all building materials; all wholesale houses, all factories; gas and oil companies, stations and attendants; breweries, truck transfer and warehouses; all common carriers. As the Sheriff later put it, "They had the town tied up tight. Not a truck could move in Minneapolis." The only exceptions were the unionized milk, ice and coal companies, which were given strike exemptions.37
The key tactic of the strike was the "flying squadron," a system of mobile pickets operating out of the strike headquarters, an old garage rented for the strike. There were never less than 500 strikers at the headquarters, day or night. In the dispatchers' room four telephones took in messages from picket captains throughout the city with instructions to call in every ten minutes.
Truck attempting to move load of produce from Berman Fruit, under police convoy. Have only ten pickets, send help. Successfully turned back five trucks entering city. . . . Am returning Cars 42 and 46 to headquarters.38
On the basis of such information, the dispatchers sent cars from the garage wherever they were needed. A motorcycle squad cruised the city reporting trouble. The strikers listened to police radio instructions on a special short-wave radio, and conducted phone calls in code when their phones were tapped. Pickets guarded fifty roads into the city, turning back non-union trucks. A crew of 120 prepared food day and night; at the peak of the strike, 10,000 people ate at the headquarters in a single day. A hospital was established with two doctors and three nurses in constant attendance.
And a machine shop with fifteen auto mechanics kept the 100 trucks and cars of the flying squadrons in repair. Guards policed the headquarters and watchmen with tommy guns stood guard on the roof. Constant P A announcements and nightly mass meetings attended by thousands of strikers and supporters kept strikers in touch.39 A rank-and-file committee of 100 truckdrivers formed the official strike authority.
Support for the strike among other Minneapolis workers was passionate. Thirty-five thousand building trades workers walked out in sympathy, as did an the taxi drivers in the city. The Farm Holiday Association, a militant farmers' organization, made substantial contributions of food, and other unions contributed to the strike fund. Hundreds of non-Teamster workers showed up at strike headquarters daily saying, "Use us, this is our strike."40
The city polarized as the business forces, too, began to organize. Leading them was the Citizens' Alliance, one of the most powerful employers' associations in the country, with its own corps of undercover informers. It was dedicated to keeping unionism out of Minneapolis and for a generation it had been almost completely successful. Business leaders developed their own strike headquarters with barracks, hospital and commissary. As the conflict deepened they called for a "mass movement of citizens" to break the strike and began organizing a "citizen's army,"41 Many of whose members were deputized as special police.42 With an unusual clarity, two organized social classes stood face to face, poised for battle.
The battle was seriously joined on Monday, May 21st. A group of men and women pickets had been severely beaten when they were sent into a police trap by a stool pigeon who had infiltrated the strike headquarters. One striker described the effect thus:
Nobody had carried any weapon or club in the first days of the strike. We went unarmed but we'd learned our lesson. All over headquarters you'd see guys making saps or sawing off lead pipe. . .43
As the citizens' army began to occupy the market and move trucks, the strikers hit with military precision. A strike leader described it':
We built up our reserves in this way. At short time intervals during an entire day we sent fifteen or twenty pickets pulled in from all over the city into the Central Labor Union headquarters on Eighth Street. So that although nobody knew it, we had a detachment of six hundred men there, each armed with clubs, by Monday morning. Another nine hundred or so we held in reserve at strike headquarters. In the market itself, pickets without union buttons were placed in key positions. There remained scattered through the city, at their regular posts, only a skeleton picket line.
The men in the market were in constant communication through motorcycles and telephone with headquarters. The special deputies [citizens' army] were gradually pushed by our pickets to one side and isolated from the cops. When that was accomplished the signal was given and the six hundred men poured out of Central Labor Union headquarters. They marched in military formation, four abreast, each with their clubs, to the market. They kept on coming. When the socialites, the Alfred Lindleys and the rest who had expected a little picnic with a mad rabble, saw this bunch, they began to get some idea what the score was. Then we called on the pickets from strike headquarters who marched into the center of the market and encircled the police. They [the police] were put right in the center with no way out. At intervals we made sallies on them to separate a few. This kept up for a couple of hours, till finally they drew their guns. We had anticipated this would happen, and that then the pickets would be . unable to fight them. You can't lick a gun with a club. The correlation of forces becomes a little unbalanced. So we picked out a striker, a big man and utterly fearless, and sent him in a truck with twenty-five pickets. He was instructed to drive right into the formation of cops and stop for nothing. We knew he'd do it. Down the street he came like a bat out of hell, with his horn honking and into the market arena. The cops held up their hands for him to stop, but he kept on; they gave way and he was in the middle of them. The pickets jumped out on the cops. We figured by intermixing with the cops in hand-to-hand fighting, they would not use their guns because they would have to shoot cops as well as strikers. Cops don't like to do that.
Casualties for the day included for the strikers a broken collar bone, the cut-open skull of a picket who swung on a cop and hit a striker by mistake as the cop dodged, and a couple of broken ribs. On the other side, roughly thirty cops were taken to the hospital.44
The Monday battle was not decisive, however, and the reserves on both sides mobilized in the market again the next day. An extra 500 special police were sworn in, and according to Charles R. Walker's study of the strike, An American City, "Nearly every worker who could afford to be away from his job that day, and some who couldn't, planned to be on hand in the market."45 Twenty to thirty thousand people showed up. No battle was planned; the melee began when a merchant started to move crates of tomatoes and a picket threw them through his store window. The pickets, armed with lead pipes and clubs, fought viciously with the police, driving them out of the market within an hour, then continuing to battle them all over the city. By nightfall there were no police to be seen in Minneapolis. Strikers were directing downtown traffic.
After the "Battle of Deputies Run," a settlement of sorts was patched together by the Governor and Federal mediators, leaving the real issues unsettled, and events moved toward a second strike.
The Chief of Police requested a virtual doubling of his budget to add 400 men to the force, to maintain a training school, and to buy machine guns, rifles and bayonets, steel helmets, riot clubs and motorcycles. The employers sponsored an enormous press and radio campaign against the union, stressing an attack by the head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters calling the local leadership Communistic. The workers laid in food for a forty-day seige.
On July 5th the largest mass meeting in the history of Minneapolis, preceded by a march of farmer and labor groups with two airplanes flying overhead, mobilized support for the Teamsters and displayed the forces that would support them in the event of another showdown. When the Teamsters struck again on July 16th, they re-established in still more perfected form the strike organization, published a hugely popular strike daily paper (circulation went from nothing to 10,000 in two days), and kept farmer support by allowing all members of farmers' organizations to drive their trucks into town and establish their own market.
The first few days of the strike were peaceful, then the police tried to break it by terror. On July 20th, a truck accompanied by fifty police armed with shotguns started moving in the market. A second truck with ten pickets arrived and cut across the convoy's path. The police opened fire, and within ten minutes sixty-seven persons, including thirteen bystanders, were wounded, two fatally. A commission appointed by the Governor to investigate the "riot" later concluded:
Police took direct aim at the pickets and fired to kill. Physical safety of police was at no time endangered. . . . At no time did pickets attack the police. . . .
The truck movement in question was not a serious attempt to move merchandise, but a "plant" arranged by the police.
The police department did not act as an impartial police force to enforce law and order, but rather became an agency to break the strike. Police actions have been to discredit the strike and the Truck Drivers' Union so that public sentiment would be against the strikers.46
These actions were hardly accidental. As the secretary of the Citizens Alliance, whose leaders met with the Police Chief just before the attack, stated later,
Nobody likes to see bloodshed, but I tell you after the police had used their guns on July 20 we felt that the strike was breaking. . . . There are very few men who will stand up in a strike when there is a question of they themselves getting killed.47
That night an enormous protest meeting ended in a march on City Hall to lynch the Mayor and Police Chief. The march was headed off by National Guard troops. This, together with a huge mass funeral for one of the killed pickets - attended by an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 - revealed that whatever its intentions, the massacre had strengthened rather than undermined the workers' determination and solidarity.
In this situation Farmer-Labor Governor Floyd B. Olson - who had personally contributed $500 to the strike fund and declared, “I am not a liberal. . . I am a radical" - declared martial law. The Governor's official policy was that neither pickets nor trucks (except those delivering food) would operate; but by the second day of martial law, military authorities announced that "more than half the trucks in Hennepin County were operating."48 Faced with the imminent breaking of the strike, the workers decided at a mass meeting attended by 25,000 to resume picketing in defiance of the Governor and the National Guard. The Governor replied by surrounding the strike headquarters at 4 a.m., August 1st, occupying it, arresting most of the top strike leaders, and instructing the rank and file to elect new leaders. The strikers replied with intensified picketing. As the press reported:
Marauding bands of pickets roamed the streets of Minneapolis today in automobiles and trucks, striking at commercial truck movement in widespread sections of the city. . . . National Guardsmen in squad cars made frantic efforts to clamp down. The continued picketing was regarded as a protest over the military arrest of Brown and the Dunnes, strike leaders, together with 68 others during and after Guardsmen raided strike headquarters and the Central Labor Union.49
Charles Walker wrote, "The strike's conduct had been such that a thousand lesser leaders had come out of the ranks and the pickets themselves by this time had learned their own jobs. The arrest of the leaders, instead of beheading the movement, infused it, at least temporarily, with demoniac fury."50 As one worker said, "We established 'curb headquarters' all over the city. We had twenty of them."51
In the face of this situation, the Governor was forced to back down. He released the captured leaders, turned back the strike headquarters, and raided the Citizens Alliance to save face with his labor constituents. The strike continued and with the city reeling after a month of conflict the employers succumbed to the enormous pressures for a settlement and capitulated. The strike supporters celebrated with a twelve-hour binge.
The most extensive conflict of the NRA period was the national textile strike of 1934. The Depression hit the textile industry long before the rest of society and by early 1929 the mill towns, especially in the South, were seething with discontent. The great grievance was the "stretch-out"; at one mill at Monroe, North Carolina, for example, spinners were required to work twelve rather than eight spindles, four doffers did the work of five, and crews of four carders were cut to three. The result, as Herbert J. Lahne wrote in The Cotton Mill Worker, was that, "a powder train of strikes flashed through an astonished South," many of them "without unionism at all and . . . under purely local leadership whose main concern was . . . the stretch-out."52 We have described above one such explosion at High Point, North Carolina.
With the coming of NRA, textile workers flooded into the United Textile Workers union; its paper membership went from 27,500 in 1932 to 270,000 in 1934. The NRA Cotton Textile Industry Committee was headed by George Sloan, who happened to be the chief industry spokesman as well. The code set a minimum wage of twelve dollars per week in the South and thirteen dollars in the North. It utterly failed to prevent more stretch-out, or to stop employers from firing workers who joined the union.53 Further, in order to restrict over-production, the NRA ordered a cut-back to thirty hours a week per shift, cutting wages by twenty-five percent.
The U.T.W. threatened to strike the industry, but withdrew the threat in exchange for a seat on the Cotton Textile Industrial Relations Board and a government "study" of the industry.
Textile workers were furious at the union's backdown. For the Southern cotton mill workers, as Irving Bernstein put it, "NRA had become a gigantic fraud."54 In Alabama, forty of forty-two U.T. W. locals voted to strike, and 20,000 workers walked out on July 16th, 1934. The president of the U.T.W. advised workers in other states not to join the strike, adding to resentment at the cancellation of the previous strike; "He killed the other strike," a worker in Birmingham remarked, "we're not going to let him kill this one."55
The strike held solidly, revealing an unexpected commitment and solidarity, and a month later a U.T. W. national convention, with the militant Southern rank and file in control, voted without opposition for a general strike in the industry, and required the officers to call it within two weeks. The workers condemned NRA bitterly and were only kept from boycotting it by a special appeal from union officers and prominent outsiders.
The strike began in North Carolina on Labor Day, September 3rd, 1934, when 65,000 workers walked out. That day National Guardsmen were ordered to guard three mills in South Carolina where the strike was expected next day. The workers not only quit work, but immediately formed "flying squadrons," which moved through the area, closing non-striking mills. A reporter described a typical example:
Workers in the Shelby, N.C., mills, thoroughly organized, refused to permit the opening of their plants early today, formed a motorcade which swept into King's Mountain, a dozen miles away, and succeeded in closing eleven plants. They met with no resistance and persuaded 2,800 non-union workers to quit their posts.56
The strikers' tactics showed great creativity in other ways; for example, at Macon, Georgia (and later at various other points), a group of pickets, many of them women, sat down on a plant railroad track and prevented the movement of trains carrying finished goods. Before and at the start of the strike, mass demonstrations were held throughout the South, such as a meeting of 1,000 at Charlotte, North Carolina, and a parade of 5,000 in Gastonia, North Carolina, designed to show the workers' strength.
The strike spread rapidly throughout the eastern seaboard; newspaper surveys reported 200,000 out on September 4th and 325,000 out the next day.57 The flying squadrons were largely responsible for the spread:
Moving with the speed and force of a mechanized army, thousands of pickets in trucks and automobiles scurried about the countryside in the Carolinas, visiting mill towns and villages and compelling the closing of the plants. . . strikers in groups ranging from 200 to 1,000 assembled about mills and demanded that they be closed. . . .
The speed of the pickets in their motor cavalcades and their surprise descent on point after point makes it difficult to follow their movements and makes impossible any adequate preparation by mill owners or local authorities to meet them.58
What happened when the flying squadrons arrived depended on conditions of the moment, the mood of the crowd, the degree of resistance and similar factors. Sometimes they simply picketed peacefully, at others they battled guards, and at times they entered mills, unbelted machinery, broke threads, and fought non-strikers.
Although the flying squadrons created a sensation throughout the country, they were a natural form of action in isolated mill towns. They were at first tolerated and perhaps encouraged by union officials, but as the squadrons led to confrontations, union officials tried to bring them to a halt. Francis Gorman, chairman of the U.T.W. strike committee, repudiated their use and denied that they were ever sanctioned by the national leadership.59
Practically from the beginning of the strike, confrontations and small-scale violence developed in numerous places. In Fall River a crowd of 10,000 imprisoned 300 strikebreakers in a mill, and in North Carolina pickets stormed a mill in which strikebreakers were working. The flying squadrons and other mass actions developed a momentum of their own, and as early as September 5th the New York Times warned on page one that "The grave danger of the situation is that it will get completely out of the hands of the leaders. Indications of that were in evidence today." Women were reported "taking an increasingly active part in the picketing, egging on the men," with "the pickets apparently prepared to stop at nothing to obtain their objectives."60 The Times added ominously,
The growing mass character of the picketing operations is rapidly assuming the appearance of military efficiency and precision and is something entirely new in the history of American labor struggles.
Observers . . . declared that if the mass drive continued to gain momentum at the speed at which it was moving today it will be well nigh impossible to stop it without a similarly organized opposition with all the implications such an attempt would entail.61
The opposition was not long in starting. On September 5th, the Governor of North Carolina called out the National Guard to aid local authorities, declaring, "The power of the State has been definitely challenged," and "local authorities have proven unequal to the test." More Guardsmen were ordered out in South Carolina, and on September 9th partial martial law was established in that state.62 The Governor declared that a "state of insurrection" existed.63 Mills in the Carolinas were reported "feverishly preparing to resist. . . by mobilizing special guards equipped with shotguns and teargas bombs and by arming workers who remained at the looms."64 But as a reporter wrote from the storm-center in North Carolina, "Despite efforts of strike leaders to prevail upon the strike pickets 'to put on the brakes,' . . . picketing activity showed no abatement. . . "65
More than fifty strike squadrons were in action in the Carolinas, in detachments of 200 to 650. They moved south on a 110-mile front between Gastonia, North Carolina, and Greenville, South Carolina, garrisoning the towns along the line of battle to ensure that the mills would stay closed. As they approached Greenville they were met by National Guardsmen who informed them they had orders to "shoot to kill," but "the strikers, apparently undeterred by the presence of the troops, were determined to capture Greenville . . . "66 where the strike had not yet spread. The conflict naturally became more violent, for "the situation was rapidly assuming the character of industrial civil war. . . "67
On September 5th, a striker and a special deputy were killed in a two-hour battle at a mill in Trion, Georgia (pop. 2,000); a policeman shot three pickets, one fatally, in Augusta; 2,500 textile workers rioted in Lowell, Massachusetts; at Danielson, Connecticut, Macon, Georgia, and other points, mill officials' cars were attacked.68 On September 6th at Honea Path, South Carolina, sheriffs deputies and armed strikebreakers fired on pickets:
Without warning came the first shots, followed by many others, and for a few minutes there was bedlam. Striker after striker fell to the ground, with the cries of wounded men sounding over the field and men and women running shrieking from the scene.69
Seven pickets were killed and a score wounded in the attack. The killings were seen as marking "the beginning of the second bloody phase of the strike," as "one town after another reported completion of preparations to resist the flying squads and the picketing activity of the strikers."70
Commissaries were set up in various textile centers, and hundreds of strikers canvassed for contributions of food and money. At Hazleton, Pennsylvania, 25,000 workers shut down the town in a one-day general strike on September 11th in support of the textile workers. George Googe, chief A.F.L. representative in the South, urged other workers to give support "without joining the strike," emphasizing that his appeal was not to be interpreted as "a move toward extending the strike to other industries. . . "71 Workers from other industries joined in many of the confrontations that occurred at mills throughout the country, turning them into community struggles.
Meanwhile, violent conflict spread through New England. The first strike shooting there occurred in Saylesville, Rhode Island, on September 10th. A crowd of 600 pickets attempting to close a mill (particularly hated for having broken previous strikes) was driven back by state troopers with machine guns. A smaller group of pickets then tried to outflank the troopers and attack the rear of the plant; deputy sheriffs opened fire on them with buckshot. Next afternoon a much larger crowd, estimated at 3,000 to 4,000, imprisoned strikebreaking employees in the mill. As the shift was due to end, the crowd surged forward, captured the mill gate, ripped up a fire hydrant, overturned a gate house, and appeared about to take possession of the plant. In reply, deputy sheriffs began firing buckshot with automatic weapons into the crowd, hitting five. Some 280 National Guardsmen then rode into the scene on caissons. They were pelted with paving stones torn up by the pickets as they clubbed their way to the mill. The crowd tried unsuccessfully to capture the pumping station and set fire to the mill.
That night the pickets deployed themselves behind the tombstones of a nearby cemetery, and shouting "Let's get the militia!" 2,000 of them broke through police lines and battled the troops.72
By the next afternoon, the crowd had grown to 5,000. Hurling pieces of gravestones from the cemetery, they charged the troops and drove them back behind the barbed wire enclosure surrounding the plant. The Guardsmen fired into the crowd, critically wounding three. That night another crowd stoned the Guard, which again fired on them. In the face of such serious disorder, the Sayles plant finally decided to shut down, giving the signal for many other plants in the area to do the same.
By September 12th, National Guardsmen were on duty in every New England state except Vermont and New Hampshire. At Danielson, Connecticut, 1,500 pickets battled state troopers. A flying squadron of 200 from Fall River, Massachusetts, was turned back from a factory in Dighton, Massachusetts, when they found every approach barricaded with sandbags manned by police and seventy-five special deputies armed with shotguns. Other confrontations occurred at Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts, and Lewiston, Maine, but the New England violence reached its peak at Woonsocket, Rhode Island.
The mill which was the original scene of rioting there had been organized six months before, whereupon the union members were fired, leaving much bitterness behind. The evening of September 12th, Governor Green of Rhode Island read a proclamation over the radio urging rioters to return to their homes. Instead, ever-increasing masses began to pour down on the Woonsocket Rayon Plant in a "sullen and rebellious mood." At midnight a crowd of about 500 let fly a barrage of bricks at the police guards at the plant, then attacked. The police replied with tear gas grenades, many of which were caught and thrown back "with telling effect" by the crowd. Word of the conflict spread, and the crowd grew quickly to 2,000. At this point, National Guardsmen took a hand, firing 30 shots into the front ranks of the crowd, hitting four, one fatally. At the shooting, a correspondent reported, "The crowd went completely wild with rage."
News of the shooting, carried back into the heart of the city, brought recruits to the strikers' forces. . . . Men and women and boys too, pounded up and down the business district, and where they ran the crash of broken plate glass and tearing splintering wood was heard.73
The crowd grew to 8,000 and was only quelled by the arrival of two more companies of National Guardsmen, who put the city under military rule. The Woonsocket Rayon Mill, source of the conflict, was closed.
Declaring that "there is a Communist uprising and not a textile strike in Rhode Island," Democratic Governor Green called the legislature into special session to declare a state of insurrection and request Federal troops. Acting under secret orders from Washington, detachments of regular Army troops began mobilizing at strategic points, prepared to leave for Rhode Island "at a moment's notice."74 The union leadership agreed with the Governor's assessment of the riots:
. . . Communists. . . were solely responsible for the serious uprisings that took place in both Saylesville and Woonsocket.
. . . the [Rhode Island] strike committee has instructed each union to place trustworthy men and women of their unions at strategic points in strike areas for the sole purpose of cooperating with police and all other law enforcement agencies in driving Communists not only from strike areas but from the state."75
The strike - like the industry - was centered in New England and the South, but it spread through the rest of the eastern seaboard as well. In Pennsylvania, for example, 47,000 struck, eleven cars filled with special guards were attacked and some of them overturned, and in Lancaster, police charged that women strikers were using "old-fashioned hat pins" to attack non-strikers.
Meanwhile, the struggle in the South reflected "a grim determination on both sides to hold on at any cost."76 A road approaching the Cherryville mill in Gaston County, North Carolina, was dynamited September 10th, as was a mill generator at Fayetteville, North Carolina, a few days later. Five pickets in a crowd of 400 wearing "peaceful picket" badges were bayoneted by soldiers as they yelled "scab" at strikebreakers entering a mill at Burlington, North Carolina. Non-striking workers in Aragon, Georgia, armed by their employer and led by a deputy sheriff, dispersed a flying squadron by threat of force.
By September 17th, the Southern employers were ready for their big counter-offensive. They met in advance in Greenville, North Carolina, and planned "a gigantic effort. . . to break through the strike lines and start the movement back to the mills."77 An army of 10,000 National Guardsmen was mobilized in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, supplemented by 15,000 armed deputies. Numerous Southern mills tried to reopen under heavy armed guard. The New York Times described as typical the response of 1,000 pickets at the Hatch Hosiery Company in North Carolina:
Refusing to budge even when a wedge of troops with bayonets tried to cross the road to break their lines, the pickets shouted "Boy Scouts!" and "Tin Soldiers!" . . . A committee of four pickets was assured that the mill would not resume operations during the day and the picket line dispersed until tomorrow.78
Such confrontations continued all week throughout the South. The employers' effort to stampede the strikers back to work failed overwhelmingly: on September 18th, the AP reported 421,000 on strike, 20,000 more than the week before.
In Georgia, Governor Talmadge declared martial law. National Guardsmen started mass arrests of flying squadrons and incarcerated them without charges in what was described as a concentration camp near the spot where Germans had been interned during World War 1. Thirty-four key strike leaders in whose names strike funds were held were arrested and held incommunicado, thus crippling the strike relief system in the state. Organizers were beaten and arrested throughout the South. By September 19th, the death toll in the South reached thirteen. Union officials stated September 20th that "force and hunger" were sending strikers back to the mills, but only 20,000 of 170,000 on strike in the South had returned to work in the previous six days, many of them to mills still too understaffed to operate, and they were offset by many thousands of additional workers who had joined the strike.79
On September 20th, the Board of Inquiry for the Cotton Textile Industry, which President Roosevelt had appointed toward the start of the strike, issued its report. A new Textile Labor Relations Board of "neutral" members should be established; it would set up a subcommittee to "study" workloads; the Federal Trade Commission should study the capacity of the industry to raise hours and employment; the Department of Labor should survey wages to see whether differentials had been maintained. As Irving Bernstein noted, "There was little of tangible benefit to either the textile workers or U.T.W. . . . In fact, the only recommendation that was immediate and tangible in effect was imposed on the union: to terminate the strike."80 Nonetheless, the U.T.W. strike committee hailed the Board's recommendation as "an overwhelming victory" and on September 22nd ordered the strikers back to work.81 Thus ended what Robert R.R. Brooks described as "unquestionably the greatest single industrial conflict in the history of American organized labor."82
President Roosevelt urged textile firms to rehire strikers without discrimination, but by October 23rd, the U.T. W. reported, 339 mills had refused to do so, leaving thousands of workers unemployed. Martha Gellhorn wrote from North Carolina that textile workers "live in terror of being penalized for joining unions; and the employers live in a state of mingled rage and fear. . . "83
The textile workers felt an extreme disillusionment with both the government and the union. As Robert R.R. Brooks concluded,
The thousands of militiamen, sheriffs, and armed strikebreakers which were thrown into strike territories and the numerous deaths at the hands of drunken deputies and nervous guardsmen linked the forces of law and order so clearly with the interests of the textile employers that northern newspaper reporters repeatedly referred to the situation as "the employers' offensive." The significance of this was not lost upon the strikers. In the space of a few weeks thousands of workers received a practical education in the philosophy of class relations which was clearly reflected in conversation, tactics, and general attitude.84
Mill workers were likewise extremely bitter at the union and its officials for claiming a victory, calling off the strike, and putting their faith in government boards, when the employers had conceded nothing. Herbert Lahne reported he found that "in many interviews . . . with Southern cotton mill workers in 1938 this resentment was clearly expressed."85
The bloody conflicts of 1934 certified the failure of the NRA's Sec- tion 7 A. By the end of the year, workers who had previously looked to the NRA for a solution to their problems were referring to it as the National Run-Around. Local radicals played important parts in the strikes of 1934-Communists in San Francisco, Musteites in Toledo, Trotskyists in Minneapolis; significantly, in each case it was not their particular party line and party organization that was responsible for this, but the fact that their own militance coincided with that of the workers.
U.M.W. head John L. Lewis, according to his biographer Saul Alinsky, "read the revolutionary handwriting on the walls of American industry,"86 And moved to establish the Committee on Industrial Organization within the A.F.L. to utilize the newly revealed militance to establish unionism in the basic mass-production industries. New Dealers in Congress began pushing for a National Labor Relations Act to enforce the system of orderly collective bargaining in industry which the NRA had promised but had manifestly failed to establish. Meanwhile, the workers themselves, largely fed up with both the unions and the NRA, began to develop their own methods of struggle. The key weapon they created was the sitdown; the crucible in which it was forged was Akron, Ohio.
By the time of the Depression, Akron was the rubber center of America, home of the great Goodyear, Firestone, and Goodrich plants and more than twenty factories of lesser companies. At peak production the Akron rubber industry employed nearly 40,000 workers, but by 1933 one-third to one-half of Akron's workers were unemployed, Firestone and half a dozen smaller companies were closed down, and Goodyear was on a two-day week.87
With the passage of the NRA in 1933, Akron's rubberworkers poured into unions set up by local trade unionists. As Ruth McKenney wrote in her over-dramatized but valuable study of the Akron labor movement, Industrial Valley, "the first weeks of the new rubber union were something like a cross between a big picnic and a religious revival. . . "88 Forty to fifty thousand rubberworkers, mostly in Akron, took out union cards in 1933. They expected the union, backed by the government, to save them.
Always the cry was “join up." But nobody said what came after you joined. The rubberworkers believed blindly, passionately, fiercely, that the union would cure all their troubles, end the speedup, make them rich with wages. They had no clear idea, and nobody told them, just how the union would accomplish these aims. Vaguely, they thought President Roosevelt might just order the rubber bosses to raise wages and quit the speedup.89
The next two years would see their disillusionment with that belief and their discovery of how to act on their own.
The A.F.L. assigned an organizer, Coleman Claherty, to Akron. His first step was to try to separate the rubberworkers, who had established locals representing all the workers in each plant, into various crafts. The workers joined the unions to which they were assigned but proceeded to ignore the divisions, coming to the meetings of their plant local anyway. Claherty's slogan was "Rome wasn't built in a day," and he did everything possible to "pack ice on the hot-heads" who were pushing in every union meeting for action. Ruth McKenney describes a Goodyear local meeting one Sunday which Claherty was addressing on the NRA:
"We want action," a big tirebuilder bawled, bored with the NRA. "Sure you do," Claherty shot back, "and you're going to get it." . . . Claherty never liked the curious atmosphere of Akron union meetings. He tried to prevent the back talk. He deplored the universal notion of rubberworkers that a man had a right to get up and have his say, whenever he felt like it, at his own union meeting.
But the rubberworkers had carried over the technique of Baptist prayer sessions, where anybody was free to "testify" as the spirit moved him, to their union meetings. Tirebuilders rose in the Federal locals to "testify" about "why ain't this union gittin' anywheres," whenever the thought struck them. . .
"We shall demand that the rubber industry recognize our unions," Claherty thundered this Sunday.
"How you goin' to git 'em to dew that?" somebody yelled. . . .
"He asks a question like that," Claherty shot back, "when everybody in this room knows that President Roosevelt is for the unions." It was a good answer. A lot of the men clapped and the mill-room man in the back of the hall seemed satisfied. . . .
"It won't be long now," some of the men said. . . "Roosevelt will fix those bastards pushing up our rate schedules." . . .
"Every labor gain," he [Claherty] told his assistant. . . "is a gradual one. You can't expect to get everything the first five years. The fellows expect the moon on a platter all in a month."90
On June 19th, 1934, tire builders at the General Tire and Rubber Co. walked out when a foreman announced some wage rate changes-the first step in introducing the "Bedeaux plan" to speed up production. The tirebuilders began cussing out the foreman. One of them yelled, "I ain't going to stand for it. Let's quit, boys," and the entire shift walked out. Outside the plant the men decided to have a meeting the next day and take a strike vote. At the meeting the local union's executive committee recommended that the workers accept a wage increase the company had offered in response to the strike and go back to work - they were booed. off the platform and physically attacked by the strikers. A local officer was hissed off the platform for saying the strike wasn't legal because the United Rubber Council executive board had to give permission to strike. "Who said they had to OK what we do? We ain't never heard anything about that before," a man yelled from the floor. The rubberworkers voted to strike and established their own strike organization, selecting their own picket captains and organizing food committees. After a month, the company granted a number of the strikers' demands and they went back to work.91
By the end of 1934, the labor relations board of the NRA denounced the companies for refusing to bargain collectively and ordered representation elections in the Goodyear and Firestone plants. The government had ballots printed and polling places set up. The rubberworkers fully expected the government to force the companies to recognize them. Then two days before the election the companies asked for and got an injunction against the election from a Federal court, thus tying up the issue in the courts indefinitely. The rubberworkers were shocked and bitterly disappointed; their belief that the government would solve their problems was killed at a blow. As Ruth McKenney put it, "Rubberworkers spent three passionate weeks hoping that the government would cure the speed-up and low wages in Akron-and then the NRA and its NLRB went blooey as far as the man on the tire machine was concerned."92
The final disillusionment with the union came in the spring of 1935. Workers were flooding out of the unions, and Claherty recognized that he had to give at least the appearance of doing something. On March 27th he announced a strike vote. By April 8th, A.F.L. president William Green was announcing to the press, "There is no hope of averting the strike."93 The rubberworkers were set to strike on the 15th, and began feverish preparations.
Then Claherty and the local presidents went to Washington and, at the last minute, signed a government-mediated agreement not to strike and to await court action on a representative election. As Goodyear announced, the agreement made "no change in employee relations since the provisions are in complete accord with the policies under which Goodyear has always operated."94
The rubberworkers considered it a complete sell-out. They stood on street corners tearing up their union cards, thinking it futile even to vote against the settlement. As one put it, "You can't do nothin' about that. They run the union, and they run it for the bosses, not for us. I'm through. I'd see myself in hell before I ever belong to another dirty stinking union."95 Union membership in Summit County - mostly rubberworkers - dropped from 40,000 to 5,000, with most of those remaining paper members.
In the face of this collapse of confidence in trade unionism and the government, work conditions remained intolerable. As a rubberworker in Akron wrote to the local paper,
Only our machines are alive. We must treat them with respect or they turn against us. Last week one of the boys who had been back only a month grew a little careless, or maybe the long layoff had made him dull or maybe he had grown so accustomed to the change from sleeping at night to working at night-and his mill swallowed his hand and part of his arm...
The mills stopped only long enough for us to pull him out, and then they resumed their steady turn. Two of the boys carried him to the hospital and the foreman called for a Squad man to take his place.
Unbelievably it is 3 A.M., and we hastily gulp tasteless sandwiches, working and eating at once. The soapstone which is flying around everywhere clogs our throats and tongues and nostrils so that they seem dry. If we drink much water, we become fat and bloated, so we chew great handfuls of licorice-flavored tobacco.
Someone has grown drowsy. "Ha, ha," we laugh. "Old Bill has forgotten to weigh his batch. That's a good one, ha, ha." Bill doesn't laugh. He knows that to do this once more will cost him his job. The foreman has warned him. . . .
We used to work eight hours and feel fine when the quitting whistle blew. Now we work six hours and are dead-tired.
We can't be cheerful, remembering the hard days of the past three years, and knowing that the work may not last much longer. We've nothing to look forward to. We're factory hands.96
Disillusioned with trade unionism and tormented by the speedup, workers in Akron developed a new tactic - the sitdown - which they themselves could directly control without need for any outside leaders. When Louis Adamic later visited Akron to find out how the sitdowns had begun, he was told that the first had occurred not in a rubber factory but at a baseball game. Players from two factories refused to play a scheduled game because the umpire, whom they disliked, was not a union man. They simply sat down on the diamond, while the crowd for a lark cheered the NRA and yelled for an umpire who was a union man, until the non-union umpire was replaced.97
Not long after, a dispute developed between a dozen workers and a supervisor in a rubber factory. The workers were on the verge of giving in when the supervisor insulted them and one of them said, "Aw, to hell with 'im, let's sit down." The dozen workers turned off their machines and sat down. Within a few minutes the carefully organized flow of production through the plant began to jam up as department after department ground to a halt. Thousands of workers sat down, some because they wanted to, more because everything was stopping anyway. What had happened, workers wanted to know? "There was a sitdown at such-and-such a department. A sitdown? Yeah, a sitdown; don't you know what a sitdown is, you dope? Like what happened at the ball game the other Sunday."98
Adamic describes the response:
Sitting by their machines, cauldrons, boilers, and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works! Almost any dozen or score of them could do it! In some departments six could do it! The active rank-and-filers, scattered through the various sections of the plant, took the initiative in saying, "We've got to stick with 'em!" And they stuck with them, union and non-union men alike. Most of them were non-union. Some probably were vaguely afraid not to stick. Some were bewildered. Others amused. There was much laughter through the works. Oh boy, oh boy! Just like at the ball game, no kiddin'. There the crowd had stuck with the players and they got an umpire who was a member of a labor union. Here everybody stuck with the twelve guys who first sat down, and the factory management was beside itself. Superintendents, foremen, and straw bosses were dashing about. . . . This sudden suspension of production was costing the company many hundreds of dollars every minute. . . . In less than an hour the dispute was settled-full victory for the men!99
Between 1933 and 1936 this tactic gradually became a tradition in Akron, with scores of sitdowns - the majority probably not instigated even by rank-and-file union organizers, and almost invariably backed by the workers in other departments. It became an understood principle that when one group of workers stopped work everyone else along the line sat down too. To explain this, Adamic listed the advantages of the sitdown strike "from the point of view not so much of the rank-and-file organizer or radical agitator as of the average workingman in a mass-production industry like rubber."
To begin with, the sitdown is the opposite of sabotage, to which many workers were opposed.
It destroys nothing. Before shutting down a department in a rubber plant, for instance, the men take the compounded rubber from the mills, or they finish building or curing the tires then being built or cured, so that nothing is needlessly ruined. Taking the same precautions during the sitdown as they do during production, the men do not smoke in departments where benzine is used. There is no drinking. This discipline. . . is instinctive.100
Sitdowns are effective, short, and free from violence.
There are no strikebreakers in the majority of instances; the factory management does not dare to get tough and try to drive the sitting men out and replace them with other workers, for such violence would turn the public against the employers and the police, and might result in damage to costly machinery. In a sitdown there are no picket lines outside the factories, where police and company guards have great advantage when a fight starts. The sitdown action occurs wholly inside the plant, where the workers, who know every detail of the interior, have obvious advantages.
The sitters-down organize their own "police squads," arming them - in rubber - with crowbars normally used to pry open molds in which tires are cured. These worker cops patrol the belt, watch for possible scabs and stand guard near the doors. In a few instances where city police and company cops entered a factory, they were bewildered, frightened, and driven out by the "sitting" workers with no difficulty whatever.101
The initiative, conduct, and control of the sitdown came directly from the men involved. Most workers distrust - if not consciously, then unconsciously - union officials and strike leaders and committees, even when they themselves have elected them. The beauty of the sitdown or the stay-ins is that there are no leaders or officials to distrust. There can be no sell-out. Such standard procedure as strike sanction is hopelessly obsolete when workers drop their tools, stop their machines, and sit down beside them.
Finally, the sitdown counters the boredom, degradation and isolation of the factory.
Work in most of the departments of a rubber factory or any other kind of mass-production factory is drudgery of the worst sort - mechanical and uncreative, insistent and requiring no imagination; and any interruption is welcomed by workers, even if only subconsciously. The conscious part of their mind may worry about the loss of pay; their subconscious, however, does not care a whit about that. The situation is dramatic, thrilling.
. . . the average worker in a mass-production plant is full of grievances and complaints, some of them hardly realized, and any vent of them is welcomed.
The sitdown is a social affair. Sitting workers talk. They get acquainted. And they like that. In a regular strike it is impossible to bring together under one roof more than one or two thousand people, and these only for a meeting, where they do not talk with one another but listen to speakers. A sitdown holds under the same roof up to ten or twelve thousand idle men, free to talk among themselves, man to man. "Why, my God, man" one Goodyear gum-miner told me in November, 1936, "during the sitdowns last spring I found out that the guy who works next to me is the same as I am, even if I was born in West Virginia and he is from Poland. His grievances are the same. Why shouldn't we stick?"102
Late in 1935, Goodyear announced that it was shifting from the six- to the eight-hour day, admitting that 1,200 men would be laid off and that other companies would follow suit. The announcement created shock in Akron - unemployment was still high and six hours under speed-up conditions were already so exhausting that rubberworkers complained, "When I get home I'm so tired I can't even sleep with my wife."103 As the companies began "adjusting" piece rates in preparation for introducing the eight-hour day, a wave of spontaneous work stoppages by non-union employees forced a slowing of production.
On January 29th, 1936, the truck tire builders at Firestone sat down against a reduction in rates and the firing of a union committeeman. The men had secretly planned the strike for 2 a.m.
When the hour struck,
the tire builder at the end of the line walked three steps to the master safety switch and, drawing a deep breath, he pulled up the heavy wooden handle. With this signal, in perfect synchronization, with the rhythm they had learned in a great mass-production industry, the tirebuilders stepped back from their machines.
Instantly, the noise stopped. The whole room lay in perfect silence. The tire builders stood in long lines, touching each other, perfectly motionless, deafened by the silence. A moment ago there had been the weaving hands, the revolving wheels, the clanking belt, the moving hooks, the flashing tire tools. Now there was absolute stillness, no motion anywhere, no sound. . . .
"We done it! We stopped the belt! By God, we done it!" And men began to cheer hysterically, to shout and howl in the fresh silence. Men wrapped long sinewy arms around their neighbors' shoulders, screaming, "We done it! We done it!"104
The workers in the truck tire department sent one committee around the plant to call out other departments, another to talk with the boss, and a third to police the shop. Within a day the entire Plant No. 1 was struck, and after fifty-three hours the workers at Plant No.2 announced they had voted to sit down in sympathy.
Management capitulated completely. Two days later, pitmen at Goodyear sat down over a pay cut, were persuaded to return to work by the company union, sat down again and were cajoled back to work, sat down a third time and returned to work under threat of immediate replacement. On February 8th, the tire department at Goodrich sat down over a rate reduction. The strike spread through the rest of the plant, stopping it completely within six hours, and management rapidly capitulated to the sitdowners. The sitdown had shaken each of the rubber big three within a ten-day period.
The crisis finally came February 14th. A few days before, Goodyear had laid off 700 tirebuilders and the workers assumed that this was the signal for introducing the eight-hour day. At 3:10 a.m., 137 tire builders in Department 251-A of Goodyear's Plant No.2 - few if any of them members of the union - shut off the power and sat down. The great Goodyear strike was on.
Meanwhile, the Rubberworkers Union had been regaining support. It had refused to accept Claherty as president, installed former rubberworkers in office, and allied itself with the new C.I.O. With each sitdown, the union signed up the participants, and now workers flooded back into the union halls. The initiative for the sitdowns, however, did not come from the union; indeed, as Irving Bernstein has noted, "The U.R.W. . . . disliked the sitdown."105 Thus, U.R.W. officials now persuaded the Goodyear sitdowners to leave and marched them out of the plant. Goodyear offered to take the laid-off men back, but by now the rubberworkers of the entire city were up in arms, determined to make a stand against the eight-hour day. Fifteen hundred Goodyear workers met and voted unanimously to strike, but four days later the president of the local was still saying the strike was not a U.R.W. affair.
The workers made it their affair. They began mass picketing at each of the forty-five gates around Goodyear's eleven-mile perimeter, putting up 300 tarpaper shanties to keep warm. They elected picket captains who met regularly, coordinated strike action, and set the strike's demands. Inside Plant No.1, hundreds of men and women staged a sitdown - until a union delegate marched them out. At the union hall, "committees sprang up almost by themselves" to take care of problems as they arose. A soup kitchen developed out of the sandwich- and coffee-making crew, staffed by volunteers from the Cooks and Waitresses Union. On the sixth day of the strike the C.I.O. sent in half-a-dozen of its top leaders, and the U.R.W. executive board finally sanctioned the strike.
The company now tried to break the strike by force. They secured an injunction against mass picketing, which the workers simply ignored. The Sheriff put together a force of 150 deputies to open the plants, but 10,000 workers of all trades from all over the city gathered with lead pipe and baseball bats and the charge was called off at the last possible second. Next a Law and Order League, which claimed 5,200 organized vigilantes, was organized by a former mayor with money from Goodyear. Word spread that an attack was planned for March 18th. The union went on radio all that night while workers gathered in homes throughout the city ready to rush any place an attack was made. The Summit County Central Labor Council declared it would call a general strike in the event of a violent attack on the picket lines. In the face of such preparations, the vigilante movement was paralyzed.
President Roosevelt's ace mediator, Ed McGrady, proposed that the workers return to work and submit the issues to arbitration. To this and other proposed settlements the workers at their mass meetings chanted, "No, no, a thousand times no, I'd rather die than say yes."106 After more than a month Goodyear capitulated on most of the demands, although without agreeing to formal recognition of the union. The rubberworkers returned to work largely victorious and proceeded to implement their position with the sitdown.
In the three months after the strike there were nineteen recorded sitdowns at Goodyear alone, with many "quickies" unrecorded. Louis Adamic described the situation he found in Akron in 1936:
A week seldom passed without one or more sitdowns. . . . A typical one took place on November 17, when I was in Akron, in the huge Goodyear No.1 plant. After an inconclusive argument with the management over an adjustment in wage rates, ninety-eight workers in one of the departments sat down, stopping the work of seven thousand men for a day and a half, at the end of which period the company promised speedy action on the adjustment.
Officials of rubber companies, with whom I talked, were frantic in their attempts to stop the sitdowns. They blamed them on "trouble-makers" and the union movement in general. They tried to terrorize union sympathizers. The Goodyear management, for instance, assigned two non-union inspectors to a department with instructions to disqualify tires produced by known union men. After pelting them with milk bottles for a while, the men sat down and refused to work till the inspectors were removed. The company rushed in forty factory guards with clubs, but a 65-year-old union gum-miner met the army at the entrance and told them to "beat it." They went - and the non-union inspectors were replaced.
Akron sitdowns were provoked by various other causes. In the early autumn of 1936, S.H. Dalrymple, president of the D.R.W.A., was beaten by thugs employed by a rubber factory, whereupon the factory workers sat down in protest, forcing the company to close for a day. When work was resumed, the next night, a K.K.K. fiery cross blazed up within view of the plant. This caused the men to sit down again - and to despatch a squad of "huskies" to extinguish the cross.107
Such use of the sitdown gave rubberworkers virtually a dual power over the production process in Akron.
Machine Operator No. 8004 worked in the camshaft department of the Chevrolet factory in Flint, Michigan. The men he worked with produced 118 shafts per shift, naturally producing a few more in the first half, when they were fresh, than in the second. One day in 1935, the management suddenly announced that they would have to increase production in the second half to the level of the first, turning out 124 instead of 118 a shift. The men accepted the increase, but then organized informally to prevent any further speed-up. As one of them put it, "Any man who runs over 124 every night is only cutting his own throat."108 They also carefully planned not to produce more in the first half, lest management again use the differential against them. If they ran past sixty-two shafts, they would hide the extras in the racks under the machines, covering them with rough stock. The pickup man checked every hour to see how many shafts were completed and passed the information along, allowing the workers to keep a steady and equalized pace. If a worker turned out seventy shafts, he picked up only sixty-two of them.
Machine Operator No. 8004 fought the movement, telling his fellow workers to "knock the production out and forget about trying to set an amount for each man to run;"109 He was almost beaten up for his pains. This case of workers controlling the speed of production is documented - unlike thousands of others that have remained unrecorded - because Machine Operator 8004 was a labor spy whose periodic reports were published by the Senate Civil Liberties Investigating Committee, popularly known as the La Follette Committee.
As a study of the auto industry in 1934 by the NRA Division of Research and Planning revealed prophetically, “the grievance mentioned most frequently. . . and uppermost in the minds of those who testified is the stretch-out. Everywhere workers indicated that they were being forced to work harder and harder, to put out more and more products in the same amount of time and with less workers doing the job. . . . If there is anyone cause for conflagration in the Automobile Industry, it is this one.110
According to Sidney Fine, whose Sitdown is the basic scholarly study of the great General Motors strike of 1936-1937, the speed-up was resented not only because of the absolute rate of production, but also because the mass-production worker "was not free, as perhaps he had been on some previous job, to set the pace of his work and to determine the manner in which it was to be performed."111 A Buick worker complained, "You have to run to the toilet and run back. If you had to . . . take a crap, if there wasn't anybody there to relieve you, you had to run away and tie the line up, and if you tied the line up you got hell for it."112 The wife of a General Motors worker complained,
"You should see him come home at night, him and the rest of the men in the busses. So tired like they was dead, and irritable. My John's not like that. He's a good, kind man. But the children don't dare go near him, he's so nervous and his temper's bad. And then at night in bed he shakes, his whole body, he shakes."
"Yes," replied another, "they're not men any more if you know what I mean. They're not men. My husband is only 30, but to look at him you'd think he was 50 and all played out."113
"Where you used to be a man . . . now you are less than their cheapest tool," one worker complained, and another summed up, "I just don't like to be drove."114
The development of unionism in the auto industry followed closely that in rubber. Herbert Harris estimated that with the coming of the NRA, 210,000 auto workers joined the A.F.L. auto locals, though the figure may be excessive.115 Since the employers refused to give any significant concessions, important auto locals voted to strike and a strike throughout the industry seemed inevitable. Workers flooded into the unions to take part in the strike 20,000 in Flint alone.116 The A.F.L. leadership, however, wanted no part in a strike, and managed to postpone it again and again.
Finally, William Collins, top A.F.L. official in the auto industry, asked President Roosevelt to intervene. Roosevelt immediately demanded that the strike be postponed. Collins told union leaders, "You have a wonderful man down there in Washington and he is trying hard to raise wages and working conditions."117 According to Henry Kraus, editor of the union paper in Flint, "The attitudes of the auto workers toward the President those days bordered on the mystical";118 The local representatives agreed to cancel the strike. Thereupon Roosevelt announced a settlement conceding nothing to the workers but an Automobile Labor Board to hear discrimination cases, legitimizing company unions, and virtually exempting the auto industry from Section 7 A.119
"We all feel tremendously happy over the outcome in Washington," a General Motors vice-president reported.120 In the words of Sidney Fine, "The President made the victory of the automobile manufacturers complete on the issue of representation and collective bargaining."121 Leonard Woodcock (today president of the United Auto Workers) recalls that when the workers in Flint heard of the settlement they felt "a deep sense of betrayal," and began to tear up union cards. By October, 1934, paid-up membership in Flint had plummeted to 528. In several subsequent local strikes, the A.F.L. played a strikebreaking role, even marching its members with a police escort into a motor products plant struck by another union. Those few, mostly young and militant, who remained in the auto union bitterly fought A.F.L. control, and eventually took control of the union and aligned it with the newly emerging C.I.O. (The C.I.O., the alliance of unions aiming to unionize the unorganized basic industries, was soon to be expelled from the AF.L. and establish itself as a new union federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations.)
Like the rubberworkers, the auto workers turned to the sitdown and other forms of job action against the speed-up; we have given one example in a camshaft department above. Quickies occurred sporadically, especially in auto body plants in Cleveland and Detroit, from 1933 through 1935. By late 1936, the highly visible sitdowns in Akron were being imitated by auto workers all over, especially since it was the "grooving-in" period during which new models are introduced. Management as usual tried to increase speed and cut piece rates on new jobs, raising resentment to a peak. In Flint, heart of the General Motors empire, there were seven work stoppages in the Fisher Body No.1 plant in one week. One day the trim shop knocked off an hour early as a protest. Workers in another shop struck for an extra man and got the line slowed from fifty to forty-five units. Another action won restoration of a twenty percent wage cut. Henry Kraus describes this as "largely a spontaneous movement onto which the union had not yet securely attached itself."122 He tells of Bud Simons, a union leader in the Fisher plant, coming to Bob Travis, the U.A.W. organizer in Flint, and saying, "Honest to God, Bob, you've got to let me pull a strike before one pops somewhere that we won't be able to control!"123
The union tried to win the confidence of the workers by supporting the sitdowns and making itself the agency through which they could be spread. On November 12th, for example, supervision reduced by one the number of "bow-men" who welded the angle irons across car roofs. The other bow-men were two brothers named Perkins and an Italian named Joe Urban; none of them was in the union, but they had been reading about a sitdown at Bendix. Adopting the idea, they simply stopped working. The foreman and superintendent rushed over and tried to talk them into going back to work, but the men just sat there arguing until twenty unfinished jobs had passed on the production line. The whole department followed the argument with intense excitement. Finally the bow-men agreed to go back to work till they could talk with the day-shift about it, but everyone left that night talking about the sitdown. Next day when the Perkins came to work they were sent to the employment office and told that they were fired. They showed their firing slips to Bud Simons and he and the other union committeemen ran through the "body-in-white" department where the main welding and soldering work was done, crying, "The Perkins boys were fired! Nobody starts working!"
The whistle blew. Every man in the department stood at his station, a deep, significant tenseness in him. The foreman pushed the button and the skeleton bodies, already partly assembled when they got to this point, began to rumble forward. But no one lifted a hand. All eyes were turned to Simons who stood out in the aisle by himself. The bosses ran about like mad.
"Whatsamatter? Whatsamatter? Get to work!" they shouted. But the men acted as though they never heard them. One or two of them couldn't stand the tension. Habit was deep in them and it was like physical agony for them to see the bodies pass untouched. They grabbed their tools and chased after them. "Rat! Rat!" the men growled without moving and the others came to their senses.
The superintendent stopped by the "bow-men." "You're to blame for this!" he snarled.
"So what if we are?" little Joe Urban, the Italian cried, overflowing with pride. "You ain't running your line, are you?"
That was altogether too much. The superintendent grabbed Joe and started for the office with him. The two went down along the entire line, while the men stood rigid as though awaiting the word of command. It was like that because they were organized but their organization only went that far and no further. What now?
Simons, a torch-solderer, was almost at the end of the line. He too was momentarily held in vise by the superintendent's overt act of authority. The latter had dragged Joe Urban past him when he finally found presence of mind to call out: "Hey, Teefee, where you going?"
It was spoken in just an ordinary conversational tone and the other was taken so aback he answered the really impertinent question.
"I'm taking him to the office to have a little talk with him." Then suddenly he realized and got mad. "Say, I think I'll take you along too!"
That was his mistake.
"No you won't!" Simons said calmly.
"Oh yes I will!" and he took hold of his shirt.
Simons yanked himself loose.
And suddenly at this simple act of insurgence Teefee realized his danger. He seemed to become acutely conscious of the long line of silent men and felt the threat of their potential strength. They had been transformed into something he had never known before and over which he no longer had any command. He let loose of Simons and started off again with Joe Urban, hastening his pace. Simons yelled: "Come on, fellows, don't let them fire little Joe!"
About a dozen boys shot out of line and started after Teefee. The superintendent dropped Joe like a hot poker and deer-footed it for the door.
The men returned to their places and all stood waiting. Now what? The next move was the company's. The moment tingled with expectancy. Teefee returned shortly, accompanied by Bill Lynch, the assistant plant manager. Lynch was a friendly sort of person and was liked by the men. He went straight to Simons.
"I hear we've got trouble here," he said in a chatty way. "What are we going to do about it?"
"I think we'll get a committee together and go in and see Parker," Simons replied.
Lynch agreed. So Simons began picking the solid men out as had been prearranged. The foreman tried to smuggle in a couple of company-minded individuals, so Simons chose a group of no less than eighteen to make sure that the scrappers would outnumber the others. Walt Moore went with him, but Joe Devitt remained behind to see that the bosses didn't try any monkeyshines. The others headed for the office where Evan Parker, the plant manager, greeted them as smooth as silk.
"You can smoke if you want to, boys," he said as he bid them to take the available chairs. "Well, what seems to be the trouble here? We ought to be able to settle this thing."
"Mr. Parker, it's the speed-up the boys are complaining about," Simons said, taking the lead. "It's absolutely beyond human endurance. And now we've organized ourselves into a union. It's the union you're talking to right now, Mr. Parker."
"Why that's perfectly all right, boys," Parker said affably. "Whatever a man does outside the plant is his own business."
The men were almost bowled over by this manner. They had never known Parker as anything but a tough cold tomato with an army sergeant's style. He was clearly trying to play to the weaker boys on the committee and began asking them leading questions. Simons or Walt Moore would try to break in and answer for them.
"Now I didn't ask you," Parker would say, "you can talk when it's your turn!" In this way he sought to split the committee up into so many individuals. Simons realized he had to put an end to that quickly.
"We might as well quit talking right now, Mr. Parker," he said, putting on a tough act. "Those men have got to go back and that's all there is to it!"
"That's what you say," Parker snapped back.
"No, that's what the men say. You can go out and see for yourself. Nobody is going to work until that happens."
Parker knew that was true. Joe Devitt and several other good men who had been left behind were seeing to that. The plant manager seemed to soften again. All right, he said, he'd agree to take the two men back if he found their attitude was okay.
"Who's to judge that?" Simons asked.
"I will, of course!"
"Uh-uh!" Simons smiled and shook his head.
The thing bogged down again. Finally Parker said the Perkins brothers could return unconditionally on Monday. This was Friday night and they'd already gone home so there was no point holding up thousands of men until they could be found and brought back. To make this arrangement final he agreed that the workers in the department would get paid for the time lost in the stoppage. But Simons held fast to the original demand. Who knew what might happen till Monday? The Perkins fellows would have to be back on the line that night or the entire incident might turn out a flop.
"They go back tonight," he insisted.
Parker was fit to be tied. What was this? Never before in his life had he seen anything like it!
"Those boys have left!" he shouted. "It might take hours to get them back. Are you going to keep the lines tied up all that time?"
"We'll see what the men say," Simons replied, realizing that a little rank and file backing would not be out of the way. The committee rose and started back for the shop.
As they entered a zealous foreman preceded them, hollering: "Everybody back to work!" The men dashed for their places.
Simons jumped onto a bench.
"Wait a minute!" he shouted. The men crowded around him. He waited till they were all there and then told them in full detail of the discussion in the office. Courage visibly mounted into the men's faces as they heard on the unwavering manner in which their committee had acted in the dread presence itself.
"What are we going to do, fellows," Simons asked, "take the company's word and go back to work or wait till the Perkins boys are right here at their jobs?"
"Bring them back first!" Walt Moore and Joe Devitt began yelling and the whole crowd took up the cry.
Simons seized the psychological moment to make it official.
"As many's in favor of bringing the Perkins boys back before we go to work, say Aye!" There was a roar in answer. "Opposed, Nay!" Only a few timid voices sounded -those of the company men and the foremen who had been circulating among the workers trying to influence them to go back to work. Simons turned to them.
"There you are," he said.
One of the foremen had taken out pencil and paper and after the vote he went around recording names. "You want to go to work?" he asked each of the men. Finally he came to one chap who stuck his chin out and said loudly, "Emphatically not!" which made the rest of the boys laugh and settled the issue.
Mr. Parker got the news and decided to terminate the matter as swiftly as possible. He contacted the police and asked them to bring the Perkins boys in. One was at home but the other had gone out with his girl. The police short-waved his license number to all scout cars. The local radio station cut into its program several times to announce that the brothers were wanted back at the plant. Such fame would probably never again come to these humble workers. By chance the second boy caught the announcement over the radio in his car and came to the plant all bewildered. When told what had happened the unappreciative chap refused to go to work until he had driven his girl home and changed his clothes! And a thousand men waited another half hour while the meticulous fellow was getting out of his Sunday duds.
When the two brothers came back into the shop at last, accompanied by the committee, the workers let out a deafening cheer that could be heard in the most distant reaches of the quarter-mile-long plant. There had never been anything quite like this happen in Flint before. The workers didn't have to be told to know the immense significance of their victory. Simons called the Perkins boys up on the impromptu platform. They were too shy to even stammer their thanks.
"You glad to get back?" Simons coached them.
"Who did it for you?"
"You boys did."
Simons then gave a little talk though carefully refraining from mentioning the union.
"Fellows," he said amid a sudden silence, "you've seen what you can get by sticking together. All I want you to do is remember that."124
Largely in response to this victory, United Auto Workers' membership in Flint increased from 150 to 1,500 within two weeks. The union's objective was to win recognition as the bargaining representative for the auto workers. Discontent was seething in the auto plants and breaking out in strikes all over. Since the auto companies were not willing to recognize the union voluntarily, the obvious approach for the union was to "attach itself' to this strike movement, lead it on a company-wide basis, and use it to negotiate for recognition by the company. As one U .A. W. National Council member had put it some time before, "the only means we have now is to strike. . . we must prove to the automobile workers we can help them."125
Indeed, such "organizational strikes" became the basic tactic of the C.I.O. unions in winning union recognition. Yet the union leadership was ambivalent about a strike. According to J. Raymond Walsh, later research and education director for the C.I.O., "The C.I.O. high command, preoccupied with the drive in steel, tried in vain to prevent the strike. . . "126 Leadership of the U.A.W. believed a strike was necessary, but wanted to postpone it until they were better organized - membership from April to December, 1936, averaged only 27,000 for the entire industry - and resisted attempts to spread various strikes that broke out in November and December.
This attitude was based on the fact that General Motors would be little hurt by strikes in peripheral plants, whereas if the Fisher Body plants in Cleveland and Flint could be closed, perhaps three-quarters of General Motors' production could be crippled. On the other hand, local leaders often reflected the turbulence of the workers in the shops. Thus Adolph Germer, C.I.O. representative for the auto industry, complained,
There is . . . a strong undercurrent of revolt against the authority of the laws and rules of the organization. . . . It is not that the boys are defiant of the organization; I attribute it rather to their youth and dynamic natures. They want things done right now, and they are too impatient to wait for the orderly procedure involved in collective bargaining.127
The union finally requested a collective bargaining conference with General Motors, the key company in the industry. It also announced the goals with which it hoped to gain leadership of the workers: an annual wage adequate to provide "health, decency, and comfort," elimination of speed-up, seniority, an eight-hour day, overtime pay, spreading work through shorter hours, safety measures, and "true collective bargaining."128 It expected events to move toward a head sometime in January. Events, however, did not wait. The workers all over began striking on their own; as Germer complained, "It seems to be a custom for anybody or any group to call a strike at will. . . . "129
In Atlanta, on November 18th, the local called a sitdown over piece rate reductions, to the consternation of national officials of the U.A.W. A week later, the U.A.W.local at the Bendix Corporation in South Bend won a contract after a nine-day sitdown, and a sitdown at Midland Steel Frame Company in Detroit won a wage increase, seniority, and time and a half for overtime. In early December a sitdown at Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company in Detroit forced union recognition. In Kansas City on December 16th, workers sat down over the firing of a union man for jumping over the conveyor to go to the toilet. Detroit experienced a virtual sitdown wave in December, 1936, with workers at the Gordon Baking Company, Alcoa, National Automotive Fibers, and Bohn Aluminum and Brass Co. all sitting down.
Those union leaders who wanted a strike against General Motors were most worried about whether the Fisher plant in Cleveland would come out - many union workers there had lost their jobs in the wake of previous strikes, and no more than ten percent of the workers were in the union. But resentment was running high over grooving-in speed-up, and when on December 28th management postponed a long-awaited meeting to discuss grievances, workers in the quarter panel department said, "to hell with this stalling," and pulled the power switch. Workers in the steel stock, metal assembly and trim departments quit work and soon 7,000 workers were sitting down.130 The local leadership was "taken completely by surprise."131
Meanwhile, events in Flint moved toward the decisive conflict. Two days after the Cleveland strike began, fifty workers sat down spontaneously at the Fisher Body No.2 plant in Flint to protest the transfer of three inspectors who had been ordered to quit the union and refused. Later that night workers in Fisher plant No. 1 discovered that the company was loading dies - critical for the making of car bodies - onto railroad cars for shipment to plants elsewhere. General Motors followed a policy described by Knudson as "diversification of plants where local union strength is dangerous"; half the machinery in the Toledo Chevrolet plant, for example, had been removed after a strike in 1935, leaving hundreds out of work. The workers were furious, and streamed over to the union hall across from the plant where a meeting had been announced for lunchtime. Kraus, who was present, reports that "everybody's mind seemed made up before even a word was spoken."132 When an organizer asked what they wanted to do, they shouted, "Shut her down! Shut the goddam plant!"133 They raced back into the plant, and a few minutes later one of them opened a third story window and shouted, "Hurray, Bob! She's ours!"134
The occupiers rapidly faced the problem of organizing themselves for life inside the plant. (The following description is largely drawn from Fisher No.1, but the pattern was similar in the smaller sitdowns elsewhere.) The basic decision-making body was a daily meeting of all the strikers in the plant. "The entire life of the sitdown came into review here and most of its ideas and decisions originated on the spot," Henry Kraus reported.135 The chief administrative body was a committee of seventeen that reported to the strikers; available records indicate that virtually all its decisions were cleared with the general meeting of strikers. The strikers inside the plant, according to Sidney Fine, "displayed a fierce independence in their relationship with the U.A.W. leadership on the outside." For example, Flint U.A.W. organizer Bob Travis, though personally respected by the strikers, had to ask their permission to send one of his men into the plant to gather material for the press, and he was only allowed in on condition his notes were cleared by the strike executive. A sitdowner told a reporter that he and his companions would not leave the plant even under orders from the union president or John L. Lewis, "unless we get what we want."136
Social groups of fifteen, usually men who worked together in the shop, set up house and lived together family-style in their own corner of the plant, usually with close camaraderie. Each group had its own steward, and the stewards met together from time to time. The actual work of the strike was done by committees on food, recreation, information, education, postal services, sanitation, grievances, tracking down rumors, coordination with the outside, and the like. Each worker served on at least one committee, and was responsible for six hours of strike duty a day. The sitdowners sent out their own representatives to recruit union members, coordinate relief, and create an "outside defense squad."
Special attention was paid to the question of defense. A "special patrol" made hourly inspections of the entire plant day and night, looking for signs of company attack. Security groups were assigned to doorways and stairwells. Strikers set up "a regular production line"137 To make blackjacks out of rubber hoses, braided leather and lead, and covered the windows with metal sheets with holes for fire hoses. The men conducted regular drills with the hoses, and collected piles of bolts, nuts, and door hinges for ammunition.
Sanitation likewise was stressed. At 3 p.m., a crane whistle would blow and all the men would line up at one end of the plant. The first wave would pick up refuse, behind them the second would put things in order, and the third would sweep the floor. The commissary floor was cleaned once an hour. The men showered daily. These measures were aimed at preserving both morale and health. Likewise the workers protected the machinery, in some cases even oiling it, organized fire protection and inspected for fire hazards. Food was prepared on the outside by hundreds of volunteers and brought to the sitdowners by striking trolley coach employees.
Workers established courts to punish infractions of rules. The most serious "crimes" were failures to perform assigned duties by not showing up, sleeping on the job, or deserting the post. Others included failing to bus dirty dishes, littering, not participating in daily clean-up, smoking outside the plant cafeteria, failure to search everyone entering and leaving buildings, bringing in liquor, or making noise in sleeping areas or the "Quiet Zone" where absolute silence was available twenty-four hours a day. Punishments were designed to fit the crime; for example, men who failed to take a daily shower were "sentenced" to scrub the bathhouse. The ultimate punishment, applied only after repeated infractions, was expulsion from the plant. The courts were generally conducted with a good deal of humor and treated as a source of entertainment. For example, a striker who entered a plant without proper credentials was sentenced to make a speech to the court as his punishment; reporter Edwin Levinson observed that "there is more substantial humor in a single session of the Fisher strikers' kangaroo courts than in a season of Broadway musical comedies."138
This kind of informal gaiety and creativity seemed to burgeon in the strike community. A favorite pastime was for the men to gather in a circle and call out the name of a member, who would then have to sing, whistle, dance, or tell a story. Each plant had its own band, composed of mandolins, guitars, banjos and harmonicas. The strikers made up verse after verse about the strike to dozens of popular and country tunes. General meetings, by the strikers' decision, opened and closed with singing; the favorite was "Solidarity Forever." A sitdowner wrote home, "We are all one happy family now. We all feel fine and have plenty to eat. We have several good banjo players and singers. We sing and cheer the Fisher boys and they return it."139 Another wrote, "I am having a great time, something new, something different, lots of grub and music."140 A psychologist declared that, "the atmosphere of cooperativeness" created "a veritable revolution of personality," indicated, for example, by workers more frequently saying "we" and "I."141 As a reporter in Paul Gallico's novelette on the sitdown sensed, "They had made a palace out of what had been their prison."142
Outside the factories, a network of committees supported the strike, organizing defense, food, sound cars, picketing, transportation, strike relief, publicity, entertainment, and the like. Women were particularly important in the outside organization. (The union leadership had decided that only men would occupy the plants, to the anger of some women workers.) Wives' support was essential to strike morale, a fact recognized by the company, which sent representatives calling on them to pressure their husbands back to work. But strikers' wives and women workers poured into the commissary and worked on the various committees. Following a street dance New Year's Eve about fifty women decided to form a Women's Auxiliary, and set up their own speakers' bureau, day care center for mothers on strike duty, first-aid station, welfare committee and the like. After battles began with the police, women established a Women's Emergency Brigade of 350, organized on military lines, ready to battle police. "We will form a line around the men, and if the police want to fire then they'll just have to fire into us," announced a leader.143 "A new type of woman was born in the strike," one of the women said. "Women who only yesterday were horrified at unionism, who felt inferior to the task of organizing, speaking, leading, have, as if overnight, become the spearhead in the battle of unionism."144 Another recalled, "I found a common understanding and unselfishness I'd never known in my life. I'm living for the first time with a definite goal. . . . Just being a woman isn't enough anymore. I want to be a human being with the right to think for myself."145
The union coordinated the strike and put forward union recognition as its central demand. What recognition meant was never clarified, but workers assumed it meant a powerful say for them in industrial decisions and they supported it enthusiastically. The strike spread rapidly from Flint and other initial centers throughout the General Motors system. Auto workers sat down at Guide Lamp in Anderson, Indiana, at Chevrolet and Fisher Body in Janesville, Wisconsin, and Cadillac in Detroit; regular strikes developed at Norwood and Toledo, Ohio, and Ternstedt, Michigan. General Motors was forced to halt production at Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Deleo-Remy, and numerous other plants.146 G.M.'s projected production for January of 224,000 cars and trucks was cut to 60,000, and in the first ten days of February, it produced only 151 cars in the entire country.
General Motors refused to bargain until the plants were evacuated and started a counter-attack on three levels: legal action, organization of an anti-strike movement, and direct violence against the strikers. The third day of the strike, G.M. lawyers requested and received an injunction from Judge Edward Black ordering strikers to evacuate the plants, cease picketing, and allow those wanting to work to enter. The Sheriff read the injunction to the sitdowners, who jeered him menacingly until he fled. Then a quick-witted union lawyer checked and discovered that Judge Black owned 3,365 shares of General Motors stock valued at $219,900. This revealed the judge as a party in interest and made the injunction worthless, as well as showing dramatically the corporation's power over government.
The company's next move was to organize the Flint Alliance "for the Security of Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Community." It was headed by George Boysen, a past and future General Motors official, and as a state police investigator reported, it was "a product of General Motors brains." The Alliance worked in close cooperation with Flint City Manager Barringer.147 It began anti-strike publicity and started recruiting anti-union workers, businessmen, farmers, housewives, schoolchildren and anyone else who would sign a card; a large enrollment was desired, according to Boysen, for "its moral effect toward smothering the strike movement."148
For almost two weeks there was little violence in Flint. But on January 11th, supporters carrying dinner to the sitdowners in Fisher No.2 were stopped at the gate by plant guards, whom the strikers had allowed to hold the ground floor of the factory. The pickets started taking food up a twenty-four-foot ladder, but the guards formed a flying wedge and seized the ladder. Suddenly police closed off all traffic approaches to the plant. An attempt was clearly underway either to starve out the sitdowners or evict them by force, and unless the workers took the gates it would succeed. Twenty sitdowners, armed with blackjacks, marched downstairs and demanded the key to the gate. "My orders are to give it to nobody," the company policeman in charge replied.149 The sitdowners gave them to the count of ten, then charged the gate. The guards fled and locked themselves in the ladies room. The sitdowners put their shoulders to the wooden gates and splintered them, to the cheers of the pickets who had quickly gathered outside.
Then suddenly patrol cars drew up and city policemen began pouring out, throwing gas grenades at the pickets and into the plant. At this point the earlier defensive preparations came in handy; the sitdowners dragged firehoses to the windows and showered the police with two-pound door hinges. Within five minutes the police, drenched and battered, retreated from the vicinity. The police attacked again, but the outside pickets regrouped and drove them off. In retreat the police began firing their guns, wounding thirteen.
The conflict was quickly dubbed the Battle of the Running Bulls. It was considered a great victory for the strikers and a demonstration that they could hold out against police attack; in its wake, hitherto hostile workers flooded into the union. It also caused Governor Frank Murphy to order the National Guard into Flint.150
Murphy was a New Deal Governor par excellence. In Detroit he had been one of the most liberal mayors in the country, providing exceptional public assistance to the unemployed and preventing the police from suppressing radicals. He was elected Governor with overwhelming labor support, and had insisted on making welfare relief available to strikers. He was also on close terms with such auto magnates as Walter Chrysler and Lawrence Fisher of Fisher Body, whose plants were the chief target in Flint. Although it was not known at the time, Murphy was also the owner of 1,650 shares of General Motors stock worth $104,875.150 Murphy did not intend to use the Guard to drive the sitdowners out by force. In this decision he was fully supported by General Motors, whose officials told Murphy privately that they did not want the strikers "evicted by force."151 Knudson stated publicly that G.M. wanted the strike settled by negotiation rather than violence. Murphy, who believed the sitdown illegal but feared bloodshed in evicting the strikers, used the Guard to prevent vigilante attacks while holding the threat of a starve-out over the workers' heads. Murphy even succeeded in arranging a truce in which the union would evacuate the plants in exchange for a company pledge not to remove machinery or open the plants for fifteen days. This would have given away the strikers' strongest point, their possession of the plants, but it was scotched when the union labelled G.M.'s plans to negotiate with the Flint Alliance a double-cross and called off the truce.
Failing to evacuate the plants by negotiation, G.M. applied for a new injunction from a different judge. Meanwhile pressure built up as strikers were attacked by police in Detroit, vigilantes in Saginaw, and both in Anderson, Indiana. At this point the local leaders in Flint devised a bold initiative to shift the balance of forces by seizing the giant Chevrolet No.4 plant. The problem was that union strength at Chevrolet No.4 was limited and the plant was heavily protected by company guards. At a meeting of carefully selected Chevrolet workers which deliberately included company spies, Bob Travis announced a sitdown at Chevrolet No.9 at 3:20 the next day, February 1st. Key leaders at No.9 were told that they need only hold the plant for half an hour, as the real target was No.6. As expected, company guards next day had been tipped off and shifted from the No.4 to the No.9 area. At 3:20 201 workers sat down at No.9, company guards rushed in, and the diversionary battle began. Meanwhile, a handful of workers in Chevrolet No.4 who knew the plan marched around the factory shouting, "Shut 'er down!"152 But were too few even to be heard. Those in on the plan in plant No.6, meanwhile, led a small group over to No.4. They were still too few to close down the huge plant, however, and it seemed as if the plan had failed. But when they returned to No.6, they found the whole plant on strike, and the workers marched en masse back to No.4 and shut it down. About half the No.4 workers joined the sitdown, the rest dropping their lunches in gondolas for the sitdowners as they left.
The capture of Chevrolet No.4 changed the balance of forces. It demonstrated that the workers, far from being exhausted, were still able to expand their grip on the industry. As a result, General Motors agreed to negotiate without evacuation of the plants. The law and order forces tried one more offensive, however. January 2nd, Judge Gadola issued a new injunction ordering evacuation of the plants and an end to picketing within twenty-four hours; when the workers ignored it he issued a writ of attachment and claimed authority to have the National Guard enforce it without approval of the Governor. In the final crisis, thousands of workers poured into Flint from hundreds of miles around-auto plants in Detroit and Toledo were shut down by the exodus of workers to Flint. To avoid the appearance of provocation, the mobilization was declared Women's Day and women's brigades came in from Lansing, Pontiac, Toledo and Detroit. The crowd of perhaps 10,000 virtually occupied Flint, parading through the heart of the city, then surrounding the threatened Fisher No. 1 plant, armed with thirty-inch wooden braces provided from the factory.
Learning that the Guard would not evict the sitdowners, City Manager Barringer ordered all city police on duty and decided to organize a 500-man "army of our own." "We are going down there shooting," he announced. "The strikers have taken over this town and we are going to take it back."153
The tenor of events is suggested by a plan worked out without union knowledge by the Union War Vets, who had taken responsibility for guarding strike leaders outside the plants. Had leaders been arrested under the Gadola writ, the veterans "would muster an armed force among their own number and in defense of the U.S. Constitution, of 'real Patriotism,' and the union, would take over the city hall, the courthouse and police headquarters, capture and imprison all officials and release the union men."154
The rug was pulled from under City Manager Barringer's "army" when a G.M. official asked him to demobilize, saying, "The last thing we want is rioting in the streets,"155 A result the workers' mass mobilization would have made inevitable.
General Motors agreed to recognize and bargain with the union in the struck plants and promised not to deal with any other organization in them for six months. As Sidney Fine wrote,
What the U.A.W., like other unions at the time, understood by the term "recognition" has always been rather nebulous, but the union believed, and it had reason to, that it had been accorded a status of legitimacy in G.M. plants that it had never before enjoyed. It was confident that it would be able to consolidate its position in the 17 plants during the six-month period because it had no rivals to contend with.156
But if the agreement established the union firmly enough, it did little for the concrete grievances of the workers. When Bud Simons, head of the strike committee in Fisher No. 1, was awakened and told the terms of the settlement, he remarked, "That won't do for the men to hear. That ain't what we're striking for."157 When the union presented the settlement to the sitdowners, they asked, "How about the speed of the line? How about the bosses - would they be as tough as ever?" Did the settlement mean everything stood where it did when they started?158
The workers' forebodings were borne out by the negotiations which followed the evacuation of the plants. In the words of Irving Bernstein, "The corporation's policy was to contain the union, to yield no more than economic power compelled and, above all, to preserve managerial discretion in the productive process, particularly over the speed of the line."159 The fundamental demand of the strike from the point of view of the workers had been "mutual determination" of the speed of production, but under the collective bargaining agreement signed March 12th, local management was to have "full authority" in determining these matters - if a worker objected, "the job was to be restudied and an adjustment was to be made if the timing was found to be unfair."160 Further, instead of having a shop steward for every twenty-five workers, directly representing those they worked with, the union agreed to dealing with management through plant committees of no more than nine members per plant. Finally, the union agreed to become the agency for repressing workers' direct action against speed-up and other grievances, pledging that
There shall be no suspensions or stoppages of work until every effort has been exhausted to adjust them through the regular grievance procedure, and in no case without the approval of the international officers of the union.161
Such agreements were not enough to control workers who had just discovered their own power. Workers assumed victory in the strike "would produce some radical change in the structure of status and power in G.M. plants," and they "were reluctant to accept the customary discipline exercised by management"; they "ran wild in many plants for months."162 As one worker later recalled, "every time a dispute came up the fellows would have a tendency to sit down and just stop working."163 According to Knudson, there were 170 sitdowns in G.M. plants between March and June, 1937.164
For example, on March 18th, 200 women sat down in a sewing room in the Flint Fisher Body No.1 plant in a dispute over methods of payment. An hour later 280 sat down in sympathy with them in another sewing room. Next, sixty men sat down in the shipping department. Soon the entire plant was forced to shut down. "Since the strike was clearly in violation of the agreement. . . in which the union promised to protect the company against sitdowns during the life of the agreement, union officials hurried to Flint to settle the matter."165
Two weeks later 935 men struck in the final Chevrolet assembly plant. Then the parts and service plant struck in sympathy, closing Fisher Body Plant No.2. Finally, workers in all departments of the Chevrolet complex walked out in sympathy. Meanwhile, the Fisher Body Plant and the Yellow Truck and Coach Plant in Pontiac were closed by workers protesting discharge of fellow workers. In all, 30,000 workers were involved in the wildcats at this time. This indicated that the workers had developed the ability to coordinate action between plants and even between cities without the union. Union officials told Governor Murphy that they were "mystified" by the sitdowns and that "their representatives in the plants told them they had been 'pushed into' the new sitdowns without union authorization."166
Equally important, the workers won control over the rate of production, despite the union contract that conceded this authority to management. The New York Times reported April 2nd,
Production in the Chevrolet Motor plants has been slowed down to nearly 50 per cent of former output during the last several weeks by concerted action of the union workers, with key men on the mother line stopping work at intervals to slow down production.167
Despite the failure of the union to win control over the production rates, a Fisher No. 1 worker who had opposed the big strike wrote,
The inhuman high speed is no more. We now have a voice, and have slowed up the speed of the line. And [we] are now treated as human beings, and not as part of the machinery. The high pressure is taken off. . . . It proves clearly that united we stand, divided or alone we fall.168
The top leadership of the union considered these wildcat work stoppages a serious threat to union authority. A New York Times article entitled "Unauthorized Sit-Downs Fought by C.I.O. Unions" described the steps they took against them:
(1) As soon as an unauthorized strike occurs or impends, international officers or representatives of the U.A.W. are rushed to the scene to end or prevent it, get the men back to work and bring about an orderly adjustment of the grievances.
(2) Strict orders have been issued to all organizers and representatives that they will be dismissed if they authorize any stoppages of work without the consent of the international officers, and that local unions will not receive any money or financial support from the international union for any unauthorized stoppage of, or interference with, production.
(3) The shop stewards are being "educated" in the procedure for settling grievances set up in the General Motors contract, and a system is being worked out which the union believes will convince the rank and file that strikes are unnecessary.
(4) In certain instances there has been a "purge" of officers, organizers and representatives who have appeared to be "hot-heads" or "trouble-makers" by dismissing, transferring or demoting them.169
John L. Lewis and U.A.W. leaders blamed wildcats that idled tens of thousands in early April on Communist agitation, and the New York Times reported Lewis might soon "send some 'flying squadrons' of 'strong-arm men' from his own United Mine Workers to Flint. . . to keep the trouble-makers in line."170 But William Weinstone, Michigan secretary of the Communist Party, hotly denied the charges that Communists were responsible; he himself denounced "helter-skelter use of the sit-down."171 He added, "I have personally visited Flint today. . . and have not found a single Communist party member who countenanced or supported in the slightest the recent sit-down. . . "172
The Communists' general attitude toward the sitdown closely followed that of the C.I.O.; at a party strategy meeting an Akron Communist leader put it thus:
The sitdown is an extremely effective organizational weapon. But credit must go to Comrade Williamson for warning us against the danger of these surprise actions. The sitdowns came because the companies refused to bargain collectively with the union. Now we must work for regular relations between the union and the employers-and strict observance of union procedure on the part of the workers.173
The lengths to which union opposition to wildcats went is illustrated by an incident in November, 1937. Four workers were fired from a Fisher Body plant and several hundred of their fellow workers struck and occupied the plant in protest. U.A.W. leaders denounced the strike, but were unable to persuade the workers to leave, and therefore resorted to strategem. They persuaded the workers to divide into two shifts and take turns occupying the plant, concentrated their supporters in one of these shifts, and marched the workers out of the plant, turning possession back to the company guards. When the other shift of strikers arrived to take their turn, they found themselves locked out.
It is not surprising that a New York Times reporter found the continuing sitdowns due in part to "dissatisfaction on the part of the workers with the union itself," and that "they are as willing in some cases to defy their own leaders as their bosses."174 They had not reckoned on having the union become the agency for enforcing work discipline in the shops. Yet this had always been the essential policy of the C.I.O. unions, however much they might utilize sitdowns as an organizing tactic. C.I.O. Director John Brophy made this clear in a carefully worded statement issued before the General Motors strike:
In the formative and promotional stages of unionism in a certain type of industry, the sitdown strike has real value. After the workers are organized and labor relations are regularized through collective bargaining, then we do urge that the means provided within the wage contract for adjusting grievances be used by the workers.175
Len De Caux, editor of the C.I.O. Union News Service, elaborated:
. . . the first experience of the C.I.O. with sitdowns was in discouraging them. This was in the Akron rubber industry, after the Goodyear strike. C.I.O. representatives cautioned. . . the new unionists against sitdowns on the grounds that they should use such channels for negotiating grievances as the agreement provided. . .
. . . when collective bargaining is fully accepted, union recognition accorded and an agreement reached, C.I.O. unionists accept full responsibility for carrying out their side of it in a disciplined fashion, and oppose sitdowns or any other strike action while it is in force.176
John L. Lewis was even more blunt: "A C.I.O. contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike."177 Held up as a model was the C.I.O's largest union, the United Mine Workers, whose "agreement with coal companies now includes guarantees that there shall be no cessation of work during the term of the contract, and its constitution includes definite penalties, including fines, discharges and even a blacklist for anyone calling or participating in an unauthorized strike."178 "The new unions, it is held in C.I.O. quarters, must educate and discipline their members or invite a situation of chaos and anarchy which could very well be utilized by either Leftists or Rightists in seizing political power," the Times concluded ominously.179 Despite the efforts of the union and management, however, the wildcats in the auto industry continued - and continue to this day.
In the wake of the General Motors strike, people throughout the country began sitting down. Even excluding the innumerable quickies of less than a day, the Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded sitdowns involving nearly 400,000 workers in 1937.180 It would be impossible of course even to summarize them all here, but we can learn something of their range and pattern by examining a number of those that occurred in the peak of the wave during and just after the General Motors sitdown.
The most immediate impact was in the auto industry. The union began negotiations with Chrysler, and the company offered to accept the General Motors agreement. According to the New York Times, at the start of negotiations
. . . the union committee started the discussion on the issue of seniority, but said that the rank-and-file demanded that sole bargaining be put first on the agenda.
Then the various union locals held meetings and passed resolutions ordering the union committee to present an ultimatum demanding a yes-or-no answer from the company on sole bargaining by the following Monday.
When the company replied in the negative, according to the union, the men themselves sat down without being ordered out by their leaders.181
The company secured an injunction ordering the 6,000 sitdowners to leave, but as the hour it ordered evacuation came near, huge crowds of pickets gathered - 10,000 at the main Dodge plant in Hamtramck, 10,000 at the Chrysler Jefferson plant, smaller numbers at other Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto plants 30,000 to 50,000 in all, demonstrating the consequences of an attempted eviction. "It is generally feared," the Times reported, that an attempt to evict the strikers with special deputies would lead to an "inevitable large amount of bloodshed. and the state of armed insurrection. . . "182
Governor Murphy warned that the State might have to use force to restore respect for the courts and other public authority, to protect personal and property rights, and to uphold the structure of organized society, emphasizing that the State must prevent "needless interruption to industry, commerce and transportation."183 He established a law and order committee, but when top U.A.W. officials refused to serve on it, "strikers inside the plant could be seen waving their home-made blackjacks in jubilation. Inside the gate about 150 women who had been serving meals in the company cafeteria engaged in a snake-dance, beating knives and forks against metal serving trays."184
Shop committees in the occupied plants voted not to leave the plants until they had won sole bargaining rights. Nonetheless on March 24th, John L. Lewis, representing the C.I.O., agreed to evacuate the plants on the basis of the General Motors settlement, which Chrysler had accepted even before the strike began. Many strikers considered the settlement a surrender, but they reluctantly left the place.
The Chrysler strike was merely the largest of dozens of simultaneous sitdowns in the Detroit area. About 20,000 additional auto workers were out as a result of a sitdown at the Hudson Motor Company.185 Wildcat sitdowns in General Motors plants, as we have seen, occurred by the score during this period, many of them involving tens of thousands of workers at a time; by April 1st there were more than 120,000 auto workers on strike in Michigan. Workers occupied the Newton Packing Co. in late February and, after eleven days, turned off refrigeration of $170,000 worth of meat, stating they were "through fooling."186 In early March, clerks sat down in the Crowley-Milner and Frank & Sedar department stores. Thirty-five women workers seized the Durable Laundry, as the proprietor fired a gun over organizers' heads "to scare them away."187 The same day, Detroit's four leading hotels were all closed by sitdowns and lockouts, the auto workers providing a mass picket line in one case. Women barricaded themselves in three tobacco plants for several weeks; in one case residents of the neighborhood battled their police guard with rock-filled snowballs. Eight lumberyards were occupied by their workers. Other sitdown strikes occurred at the Yale & Towne lock company and the Square D electrical manufacturers.
Unable to challenge the giant Chrysler strike, police moved forcefully against the lesser sitdowns. Early in the afternoon of March 20th, police evicted strikers from the Newton Packing Company. Three hours later 150 police attacked sitdowners at a tobacco plant.
Hysterical cries echoed through the building as, by ones and twos, the 86 women strikers, ranging from defiant girls to bewildered workers with gray hair, were herded into patrol wagons and sped away, while shattering glass and the yells of the street throng added to the din.188
Such action could clearly be an entering wedge against the auto workers, and the U.A.W. responded by calling a mass protest rally in Cadillac Square and threatening to call a strike of 180,000 auto workers in the Detroit area (excluding those at G.M. for whom they had just signed a contract) and hinting that it would ask for a city-wide general strike unless forcible evictions of sitdowners in small stores and plants was halted. In the judgment of Russell B. Porter of the New York Times,
. . . it is wholly possible that the automobile workers' union might get the support of the city's entire labor movement, now boiling over with fever for union organization. . . for a city-wide general strike.189
Telegrams went out to U.A.W. locals in Detroit to stand by in preparation to strike, but the city quickly halted its drive against the more than twenty remaining sitdowns.
In the two weeks March 7th-21st, Chicago experienced nearly sixty sitdowns. Motormen on the sixty-mile freight subway under Chicago shut off controls and sat down when the employer decided to ship a greater proportion of goods above ground and laid off thirty-five tunnel workers. The motormen were joined by 400 freight handlers and other employees who barricaded their warehouses. On March 12th, sitdowns hit the Loop, with more than 9,000 men and women striking-including waitresses, candy makers, cab drivers, clerks, peanut baggers, stenographers, tailors, truckers and factory hands. Eighteen hundred workers, including three hundred office workers, sat down at the Chicago Mail Order Co. and won a ten percent pay increase; 450 employees at three de Met's tea rooms sat down as "the girls laughed and talked at the tables they had served" until they went home that night with a twenty-five percent pay increase190 ; next day sitdowns hit nine more Chicago firms.
The range of industries and locations hit by sitdowns was virtually unlimited. Electrical workers and furniture workers sat down in St. Louis. Workers at a shirt company sat down in Pulaski, Tennessee. In Philadelphia, workers sat down at the Venus Silk Hosiery Co. and the National Container Co. Leather workers in Garard, Ohio, sat down, as did broom manufacturing workers in Pueblo, Colorado. Workers sat down at a fishing tackle company in Akron, Ohio. Oil workers sat down in eight gasoline plants in Seminole, Oklahoma. The list could go on and on.
Sitdowns were particularly widespread among store employees, so easily replaced in ordinary strikes.
Women sat down in two Woolworth stores in New York. Pickets outside one store broke through private guards, opened windows from a ledge fifteen feet above ground, and passed through cots, blankets, oranges and food packets to the strikers, who ate with china and silver from the lunch counter. Similar sitdowns occurred in five F. & W. Grand stores; in one, strikers staged an impromptu St. Patrick's Day celebration and a mock marriage to pass the time. Having no chairs to sit down on, 150 salesgirls and 25 stock boys in Pittsburgh staged a "folded-arms strike" in four C.G. Murphy five-and-ten stores for shorter hours and a raise; they also complained that "we have to pay for our uniforms and washing them and have to sweep the floor."191 Twelve stores in Providence, Rhode Island, locked out their employees to prevent an impending sitdown, whereupon the unions called a general strike of retail trades.
Nor was the sitdown restricted to private employees. In Amsterdam, New York, municipal ash and garbage men sat down on their trucks in the city Department of Public Works garage when their demands for a wage increase were refused; when the Mayor hired a private trucking firm, the strikers persuaded the men not to work as strikebreakers. A similar strike occurred in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when sixty trash collectors sat down demanding immediate reinstatement of a fellow employee and the firing of the foreman who had fired him. In New York, seventy maintenance workers, half white, half black, barricaded themselves in the kitchen and laundry of the Hospital for Joint Diseases; services were continued for patients, but not for doctors, nurses and visitors. A series of similar sitdowns occurred in the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. Forty grave-diggers and helpers prevented burials in a North Arlington, New Jersey, cemetery by sitting down in the toolhouse to secure a raise for the helpers. Seventeen blind workers sat down to demand a minimum wage at a workshop run by the New York Guild for the Jewish Blind, and were supported by a sympathy sitdown of eighty-three blind workers at a workshop of the New York Association for the Blind. Draftsmen and engineers in Brooklyn sat down against a wage cut in the office of the Park Department. W.P.A. workers in California sat down in the employment office as flying squadrons spread a strike through the Bay Area.
An important aspect of the sitdown was the extent to which it was used to challenge management decisions. We have already seen various examples of this, such as the Chicago freight subway workers' challenge to the decision to move more freight on the surface. On March 11th, workers at the Champion Shoe Company sat down when they found the company had secretly transferred fifty machines to a new plant elsewhere. Two hundred and fifty workers, more than half of them women, occupied a Philadelphia hosiery mill which management intended to close and prepared to block efforts to move the machinery.
A hundred and fifteen workers at the Yahr Lange Drug Company in Milwaukee, who had resisted efforts to unionize them, sat down in protest against a company policy of firing workers as soon as their age and length of service justified a raise. Their sole demand was removal of Fred Yahr as general manager of the company. "The girls sat around and played bridge and smoked, and the men gathered in knots awaiting the results. The telephone was not answered, and customers were not served. Salesmen on the road were notified of the strike by wire and responded that they were sitting down in their cars until it was settled." After a long conference with the workers, management announced that Mr. Yahr had resigned. The strikers, in effect, had "fired the boss.”192
Far from being limited to employer-employee relationships, sitdowns were used to combat a wide range of social grievances.
In Detroit, for example, thirty-five women barricaded themselves in a welfare office demanding that the supervisor be removed and that a committee meet with the new supervisor to determine qualifications of families for relief.
Thirteen young men sat down in an employment agency where they had paid a fee for jobs that had then not materialized. In New York, representatives of fifteen families who lost their homes and belongings in a tenement fire sat down at the Emergency Relief Bureau demanding complete medical care for those injured in the fire and sufficient money for rehabilitation, instead of token sums the Bureau had offered. A few days later forty-five people sat in at another relief office, demanding aid for two families and a general forty percent increase for all families on home relief. In Columbus, Ohio, thirty unemployed men and women sat down in the Governor's office demanding $50 million for poor relief. And in St. Paul, Minnesota, 200 people demanding action on a $17 million relief plan staged a sitdown in the Senate chamber. In the Bronx, two dozen women sat down in an effort to prevent the eviction of two neighbors by twenty-five policemen.
Prisoners in the state prison in Joliet, Illinois, sat down to protest working in the prison yard on Saturday afternoon, usually a time of rest, as did prisoners in Philadelphia against a cut in prison wages. Children sat down in a Pittsburgh movie theater when the manager told them to leave before the feature film, as did children in Mexia, Texas, when a theater's program was cut. At Mineville, New York, 150 high school students struck because the contracts of the principal and two teachers had not been renewed. Women students at the Asheville Normal and Teachers College in North Carolina sat down to protest parietal rules. In Bloomington, Illinois, wives went on a sitdown strike, refusing to prepare meals, wash dishes, or answer door bells until they received more compensation from their husbands. In Michigan, thirty members of a National Guard company which had served in Flint during the G.M. sitdown staged a sitdown of their own in March because they had not been paid.
The sitdown idea spread so rapidly because it dramatized a simple, powerful fact: that no social institution can run without the cooperation of those whose activity makes it up. Once the example of the sitdowns was before people's eyes, they could apply it to their own situation. On the shop-floor it could be used to gain power over the actual running of production. In large industries it could be used for massive power struggles like the G.M. strike. In small shops it could force quick concessions. Those affected by public institutions - schools, jails, welfare departments and the like could use similar tactics to disrupt their functioning and force concessions; these conflicts showed that ordinary people's lack of power over their daily lives led them to revolt not only in the workshops but in the rest of society as well. The power and spread of the sitdowns electrified the country: in March, 1937, alone there were 170 industrial sitdowns reported with 167,210 participants - no doubt a great many more went unrecorded.193
The sitdowns provided ordinary workers an enormous power which depended on nobody but their fellow workers. As Louis Adamic wrote of the non-union sitdowns in Akron,
The fact that the sitdown gives the worker in mass-production industries a vital sense of importance cannot be overemphasized. Two sitdowns which completely tied up plants employing close to ten thousand men were started by half a dozen men each. Imagine the feeling of power those men experienced! And the thousands of workers who sat down in their support shared that feeling in varying degrees, depending on their individual power of imagination. One husky gum-miner said to me, "Now we don't feel like taking the sass off any snot-nose college-boy foreman."
Another man said, "Now we know our labor is more important than the money of the stockholders, than the gambling in Wall Street, than the doings of the managers and foremen." One man's grievance, if the majority of his fellow-workers in his department agreed that it was a just grievance, could tie up the whole plant. He became a strike leader; the other members of the working force in his department became members of the strike committee. They assumed full responsibility in the matter; formed their own patrols, they kept the machines from being pointlessly destroyed, and they met with management and dictated their terms. They turned their individual self-control and restraint into group self-discipline. . . . They settled the dispute, not some outsider.194
In the face of the sitdown wave, a great many employers decided to deal with unions voluntarily, and by World War II unions were established in practically all large industrial companies. Most significant was the largest corporation of them all, U.S. Steel, which reversed its bitter tradition of anti-unionism to recognize the C.I.O.'s Steel Workers Organizing Committee (S.W.O.C.). As Irving Bernstein wrote, it made sense for the corporation to engage in collective bargaining "on a consolidated basis with experienced and responsible union officials like Lewis and Murray rather than with disparate local groups led by men with no background in bargaining." U.S. Steel head Myron Taylor "had good reason to trust Lewis and Murray," whom he had been bargaining with already in the coal industry.195
The new contract cost U.S. Steel little - a wage increase they recouped twice over in a price increase, limitation on hours which was required anyway if they wanted to bid on government contracts, and some deference to seniority in laying off workers. In return, the contract provided that
differences . . . should be taken up without cessation of work, with the final decision, if an agreement was not reached, to rest with an impartial umpire named by the company and union.196
S.W.O.C. was in a strong position to enforce this strike ban: its officials were appointed by the C.I.O., not elected by the steelworkers; all initiation fees and dues went through the central office, and locals were forbidden to sign an agreement or call a strike without its approval. As Myron Taylor wrote a year after the contract went into effect, "The union has scrupulously followed the terms of its agreement."197
In early 1937 Louis Adamic had an interesting interview with the head of a small steel company that had voluntarily recognized the C.I.O. soon after U.S. Steel, suggesting how union recognition looked to an employer faced with rising labor militancy. The employer described how he had been visited by a C.I.O. organizer
who "began to sell me on the idea of letting the C.I.O. start a union in our plant." The organizer started to tell him "all about the petty troubles and pains-in-the-neck we'd had in the mill the past few weeks, which. . . amounted to a lot of trouble and expense" which "were bound to increase as the years went by . . . "
Why? Because, he said, in shops where the union was fought and men belonged to it secretly all sorts of damned things happened all the time, which led to fear, nervousness, and jitters among the men, to secret sabotage and loafing on the job. . . . he proceeded to tell me, too, that if we let the union come in, it would form a grievance committee consisting of workers in the mill; all the union men in the shop would be required, and others allowed, to take their grievances to the committee, which would assemble all the kicks and complaints and what-nots, then take them up with us-the management. . . say once a week; and many, perhaps most, of the grievances would be smoothed out by the committee itself without bothering us with them. . . . We signed an agreement for a year, the union was formed, about half the men joined, a grievance committee was organized and sure enough, the thing began to work out. . . . It seemed to act as a sort of collective vent. . . .
The men bring their grievances to committee members, then argue about them, then the first thing they know, in many instances, the grievances disappear.198
His only complaint was that grievance committee members "are new, green, inexperienced fellows, apt to get excited about nothing at all. As yet they can't quite handle authority and responsibility. They get 'tough' with us over little matters."
Workers had used the sitdown to establish a direct counterpower to management - freedom to set the pace of work, to tell the foreman where to get off, to share the work equitably, to determine their share of the product, and the like. They saw trade unionism as a way to guarantee this power. The new C.I.O. unions - like any political organizations trying to win a following - presented themselves as the fulfillment of the workers' desires. The objective of the C.I.O. organizing campaigns was that magical phrase "union recognition" - magical because it could mean all things to all people.
To the workers the C.I.O. proclaimed that union recognition meant an end to speed-up, shorter hours, higher wages, better working conditions, vacations with pay, seniority, job security, and - in the words of John L. Lewis -"industrial democracy." Furthermore - and here it won over the great number made cynical about unionism by their experience with the A.F.L. - the C.I.O. proclaimed that the union meant all the workers would be organized together and fighting the employers. It was this image that allowed the C.I.O. to appear as the champion of the great sitdown wave, even as it was systematically opposing and crushing sitdown movements.
Meanwhile, to management, it was able to declare itself with equal honesty as a system for disciplining the work force, managing workers' discontent, and protecting "against sit-downs, liedowns, or any other kind of strike" - a claim whose validity it was able to demonstrate in practice. Thus with the cooperation of the government, which created a rigid institutional structure for collective bargaining through the Wagner Act and its National Labor Relations Board, the C.I.O. was able to channel the sitdown movement back into forms of organization which, far from challenging the power of the corporate rulers, actually reinforced their power over the workers themselves.
- 1Louis Adamic, My America 1928-1938 (N.Y.: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1938), p. 309.
- 2Charles Walker, "Relief and Revolution" in The Forum, September 1932, p. 156.
- 3Ibid., pp. 155-6.
- 4 Irving Bernstein, The Lean Years, A History of the American Worker 1920- 1933 (Baltimore, Md.:' Penguin Books, 1960), p. 417.
- 5 Ibid., pp. 423-4.
- 6 Adamic, p. 323.
- 7 Bernstein, Lean Years, p. 421.
- 8 Walker, p. 158.
- 9 Paul Mattick Sr., "What Can the Unemployed Do," in Living Marxism, No.3, May 1938, p. 87.
- 10 Irving Bernstein, Turbulent Years, A History of the American Worker 1933- 1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1970), p. 171.
- 11 Cited Ibid. P. 34.
- 12 "Songs from thc Depression," New Lost City Ramblers. For a vivid picture of popular feelings during the Depression, especially in Appalachia, this record is well worth attention.
- 13 Samuel Yellin, American Labor Struggles (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 217 1936), p. 328.
- 14 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 266.
- 15 Clarion, May 18, 1934, cited in Wilfred H. Crook, Communism and the General Strike (Hamden, Conn.: The Shoe String Press, 1960), p. 112.
- 16 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 271.
- 17 New York Times, July 4, 1934, cited in Crook, p. 116.
- 18 San Francisco Examiner, July 5,1934, cited in Crook, p. 117.
- 19 Ibid.
- 20 Cited in Crook, p. 112.
- 21 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 280.
- 22 Ibid., p. 282.
- 23 Ibid., p. 283.
- 24 San Francisco Examiner, July 13, 1934, cited in Crook, p. 120.
- 25 New York Times, July 8, 1934, ciied in Yellin, p. 344.
- 26 New York Times, July 16, 1934, cited in Crook, p. 138.
- 27 E. Burke, "Dailies Helped Break General Strike," Editor and publisher, July 28, 1934, cited in Yellin, p. 348.
- 28 Los Angeles Times, cited in Yellin, p. 347.
- 29 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 287.
- 30 Ibid., p. 288.
- 31 New York Times, July 18, 1934, cited in Yellin, p. 350.
- 32 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 293.
- 33 Ibid., p. 295.
- 34 Adamic, p. 370.
- 35 George O. Bahrs, The San Francisco Employers' Council (Phila.: Wharton School of Finance and Commerce, 1948), p. 7.
- 36 Roy W. Howard of Scripps-Howard newspapers to Louis Howe in the White House, cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 221.
- 37 Charles R. Walker, American City, A Rank-and-File History (N.Y.: Farrar & Rinehart, 1937), pp. 97-8.
- 38 Ibid., pp. 99-100.
- 39 Ibid., pp. 102-3.
- 40 Ibid., pp. 110-1.
- 41 Ibid., p. 109.
- 42 Ibid., p. 110.
- 43 Ibid., p. 111.
- 44 Ibid., pp. 113-4.
- 45 Ibid., p. 120.
- 46 Cited Ibid., pp. 168-9.
- 47 Cited Ibid., pp. 171-2.
- 48 Ibid., p. 181.
- 49 Ibid., pp. 208-9.
- 50 Ibid., p. 211.
- 51 Ibid., p. 208.
- 52 Herbert J. Lahne, The Collon Mill Worker (N.Y.: Farrar & Rinehart, 1944), p.216.
- 53 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, pp. 302-4.
- 54 Ibid., p. 306.
- 55 Alexander Kendrick, "Alabama Goes on Strike," in The Nation, Aug. 29, 1934, p. 233.
- 56 New York Times, Sept. 4, 1934.
- 57 New York Times, Sept. 5 & 6, 1934.
- 58 New York Times, Sept. 5, 1934.
- 59 New York Times, Sept. 16, 1934.
- 60 New York Times, Sept. 5, 1934.
- 61 Ibid.
- 62 Robert R.R. Brooks, "The United Textile Workers of America" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1935), p. 376.
- 63 New York Times, Sept. 10, 1934.
- 64 New York Times, Sept. 6, 1934.
- 65 Ibid.
- 66 Ibid.
- 67 Ibid.
- 68 Ibid.
- 69 New York Times, Sept. 7, 1934.
- 70 Ibid.
- 71 New York Times, Sept. 10, 1934.
- 72 New York Times, Sept. 12, 1934.
- 73 New York Times, Sept. 13, 1934.
- 74 New York Times, Sept. 14, 1934.
- 75 Ibid.
- 76 New York Times, Sept. 12, 1934.
- 77 New York Times, Sept. 16, 1934.
- 78New York Times, Sept. 18, 1934.
- 79Brooks, p. 378; New York Times, Sept. 19, 1934.
- 80Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 314.
- 82Brooks, p. 379.
- 83Cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 315.
- 84Brooks, pp. 384-5.
- 85Lahne, p. 231.
- 86Saul Alinsky, John L. Lewis, an unauthorized biography (N.Y.: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1949), p. 72.
- 87Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 99.
- 88Ruth McKenney, cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 98.
- 89Ruth McKenney, Industrial Valley (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), p. 101.
- 90Ibid., pp. 134-5.
- 91Ibid., pp. 166-9, 178.
- 92 Ibid., p. 188.
- 93 Ibid., pp. 194-5.
- 94 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 591.
- 95 McKenney, pp. 198-9.
- 96 Cited in McKenney, pp. 133-4.
- 97 Adamic, p. 405.
- 98 Ibid., pp. 405-6.
- 99 Ibid., p. 406.
- 100 Ibid., p. 407.
- 101 Ibid., p. 408.
- 102 Ibid., pp. 408-9.
- 103 McKenney, cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 99.
- 104 McKenney, pp. 261-2.
- 105 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 593.
- 106 Ibid., p. 595.
- 107 Adamic; p. 411.
- 108 Henry Kraus, The Many and the Few (Los Angeles: Plantin, 1947), p. 8.
- 109 Ibid., p. 9.
- 110 Herbert Harris, American Labor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939), 219 p. 272.
- 111 Sidney Fine, Sit-Down, the General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969), p. 55.
- 112 Ibid., p. 56.
- 113 Harris, p. 271.
- 114 Fine, pp. 59, 57.
- 115 Harris, p. 281.
- 116 Kraus, p. 10.
- 117 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, pp. 182-3.
- 118 Kraus, p. 12.
- 119 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, pp. 184-5.
- 120 Cited in Fine, p. 31.
- 121 Ibid.
- 122 Kraus, p. 42.
- 123 Ibid.
- 124 Ibid., pp. 48-54.
- 125 Fine, p. 75.
- 126 J. Raymond Walsh, C.I. O. -Industrial Unionism in Action
- 127 Cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 501.
- 128 Fine, p. 97.
- 129 Germer to Brophy, Nov. 30,1936, cited in Fine, p. 136.
- 130 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 524.
- 131 Ibid.
- 132 Kraus, p. 87.
- 133 Ibid., p. 88.
- 134 Ibid., p. 89.
- 135 Ibid., p. 93.
- 136 New York Times, Feb. 1 &9,1937, cited in Fine, p. 172.
- 137 Fine, p. 165.
- 138 Edward Levinson, "Labor on the March," in Harper's Magazine CLXXIV (May 1937), cited in Fine, p. 160.
- 139 Cited in Fine, pp. 173-4.
- 140 Cited in Fine, p. 171.
- 141 Solomon Diamond, "The Psychology of the Sit-Down," in New Masses, XX III (May 4, 1937), p. 16. cited in Fine, p. 157.
- 142 Paul Gallico, "Sit-Down Strike," p. 159, cited in Fine, p. 171.
- 143 Genora Johnson, cited in Fine, p. 201.
- 144 Cited in Fine, p. 201.
- 145 Ibid.
- 146 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 525.
- 147 Fine, p. 189.
- 148 Ibid., p. 188.
- 149 Kraus, p. 128.
- 150 Fine, p. 155.
- 151 Ibid., p. 236.
- 152 Kraus, p. 211.
- 153 Fine, p. 281.
- 154 Kraus, p. 248.
- 155 Fine, p. 282.
- 156 Ibid., pp. 306-7.
- 157 Ibid., p. 307.
- 158 Kraus, p. 287.
- 159 Bernstein, p. 551.
- 160 Fine, p. 325.
- 161 New York Times, April 11,1937.
- 162Fine, p. 321.
- 164Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 559.
- 165New York Times, Mar. 19, 1937.
- 166 New York Times, Apr. 2,1937.
- 168Alfred H. Lockhart to Gernsley F. Gorton, Mar. 7, 1937, William H. Phelps Papers, Michigan Historical Collection, cited in Fine, p. 328.
- 169New York Times, Apr. 11, 1937.
- 170New York Times, Apr. 4,1937.
- 171New York Times, Apr. 7,1937.
- 173 McKenney, p. 340.
- 174 New York Times, Apr. 11, 1937.
- 175 Adamic, p. 415.
- 176 Harris, pp. 290-1.
- 177 Ibid., p. 291.
- 178 New York Times, Apr. 11, 1937.
- 179 Ibid.
- 180 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 500.
- 181 New York Times, Mar. 27, 1937.
- 182 New York Times, Mar. 19, 1937.
- 183 New York Times, Mar. 18, 1937.
- 184 Ibid.
- 185 New York Times. Mar. 21,1937.
- 186 New York Times, Mar. 9, 1937.
- 187 New York Times, Mar. 18, 1937.
- 188 New York Times, Mar. 21, 1937.
- 189 Ibid.
- 190 New York Times, Mar. 31, 1937.
- 191 New York Times, Mar. 21, 1937.
- 192 New York Times, Apr. 15, 1937.
- 193 Fine, p. 331.
- 194 Adamic, p. 408.
- 195 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 468.
- 196 New York Times, Mar. 18, 1937.
- 197 Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 468.
- 198 Adamic, pp. 431-3.