Vulnerable Akron: the first great sit-down - Rose Pesotta

An account by anarchist and union organizer Rose Pesotta of the 1936 Akron rubberworkers strike, which utilized the sit-down tactic. From the book Bread Upon the Waters.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on December 23, 2013

Akron, rubber manufacturing capital of the world. A drab Mid-Western industrial city of 255,000. A city with a hum, a throb, anodor all its own. It made the front pages in February, 1936. A strike had closed the largest tire factory on the globe, which had 14,000 employees.

On the 25th Frederick Umhey, our International's1 executive secretary, wired me from New York: "Goodyear rubber workers in Akron on strike. A woman organizer requested. Urgently needed. Please proceed to Akron at once and report to Adolph Germer Portage Hotel."

Leaving Marianne Alfons, our Polish organizer, in charge of the Buffalo office, I took the first train, reaching my destination late that night. There I was hailed by Louis Stark, labor reporter for the New York Times, who got off the same train.

We checked in at the Portage, phoned Germer's room, and he came down to greet us. Then an organizer for the United Mine Workers, Germer had been in Akron several weeks, and now was devoting all his energies to helping the rubber strikers. Sitting in the cafe, he told us what had been happening This strike had started as a small sit-down of 137 tire-builders on the 14th, in protest against a lay-off of 70 workers. That lay-off was the first step in a company plan to abolish the six-hour day, which had been in force in the Akron rubber industry for five years, and to return to the old eight-hour day. The sit-downers were promptly fired.

Quickly the sit-down spread through all departments and all shifts. Goodyear production was paralyzed. On the fourth day the strikers decided to change the form of their protest from an inside to an outside strike; they had run low on food, and realized that they could control the situation much better from outside.

They left the huge Goodyear works at midnight on the 13th, installing picket lines which sealed all the 45 gates to the company, properties, and completely shut down the plant.

Inside, in Building No. 1, however, about 1,000 "loyal" employees were stranded when the others walked out. Next morning President Paul Litchfield of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, ap. peared at the main gate, demanding that the pickets let him in. They did so. He was still inside on the 25th, seven days later, eating and sleeping in his office.

Despite great tension, the situation had been free from violence. The strikers had closed all saloons and liquor stores in the Goodyear area, policed the streets, and maintained excellent order.

But there had been an hour on the day of my arrival when battle and bloodshed and perhaps sudden death for many appeared imminent. The company had obtained an injunction against mass picketing, enforcement being Sheriff Jim Flower's job. He sent 30 deputies and 150 city policemen into the strike zone, with orders to disband the pickets and reopen the Goodyear gates÷at 10 a.m.

Long before ten, Firestone and Goodrich workers and additional Goodyear men flocked in to swell the picket lines. By conservative estimates, 10,000 pickets gathered. Practically every one was armed with a billy, a baseball bat, a bowling pin, or a piece of broomstick.

Realizing the grave danger of a riot, Mayor Schroy and police Chief Boss telephoned Flower, arguing against the planned attack, and saying it would mean slaughter. Flower answered that he had to "enforce law and order." Two minutes before the zero hour, Boss sped to the strike scene in his official car, arriving with only thirty seconds to spare, and withdrew his men. There was no attack. Thousands of strikers cheered the chief for his display of good judgment.

At breakfast next morning, Germer told me the strike was in the hands of young leaders, honest, sincere, courageous. But this was their first big strike, and they lacked experience. They needed all the support they could get, and sound advice to guard them against pitfalls, especially in negotiating for a settlement. Hence the Committee for Industrial Organization had taken over the leadership, and Germer, as the first CIO man on the ground, had asked for more help. Company agents had been working in devious ways to wreck the unity of the strikers, especially exerting pressure upon mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters. Germer wanted me. to concentrate on morale-building.

Anxious to get to the scene of action, I hurried through breakfast. A taxi stood outside the hotel. "To strike headquarters," I said.

"Wait till I tell my office I'm going into the strike zone," the driver answered. He talked into a telephone on a post, and then we were off. With the strikers ignoring the injunction, and the company and its partisans loudly demanding that the Governor send in state troops, the Goodyear area was regarded as "hot."

Speed-up was Akron's other name to the 50,000 or more workers in the five big rubber factories there, the other four being Firestone, Goodrich, General, Mohawk.

The Goodyear properties were wide=sprawled on the Eastern edge of Akron, making a small city. in themselves. Huge production buildings, an assembly hall and cafeteria, a gigantic hangar where the dirigibles Akron and Macon had been housed, and a far-flung airport.

In front of the 45 gates to the Goodyear works and at many points between gates, the strikers had erected shanties or tents, more than 300 in all, as shelters for the pickets against the subzero air, biting wind, rain, snow, and sleet That picket-line stretched 11 miles.

Shanties and tents were designated either by a number÷"Strike Post No. 1," "Camp No. 13; Average Service 13 years" or by such names as "Mae West Post," "Camp Roosevelt," "John L. Lewis Post," "Senator Wagner Post," and "Machine Gun Post." At the "House of David Post" the pickets had vowed not to shave until the strike ended; some already had sprouted beards.

Goodyear Local No. 2 of the United Rubber Workers of America had its hall-and-office directly across the street from the company's Building No. 1. This now served as strike headquarters.

Two or three hundred men and women were in the place when I arrived, many people were coming and going, and there was a buzz of voices. I introduced myself to John D. House, president of theGoodyear local, who was in immediate charge of the strike. Tall, with pale blue eyes and black wavy hair, and evidently in his early twenties, House hailed from Georgia, and spoke with a soft Southern drawl. He took time to show me around, plainly proud of the layout ÷the meeting hall, commissary, first-aid station, storage, office, information department, cash relief department, mimeograph depart.

The commissary, known simply as the kitchen, was doing a rushing business, operating 24 hours a day. It was equipped like a commercial cafeteria, with a battery of coffee urns, a 13-burner gas stove,: a hotel size refrigerator, and an electric potato masher. The chef was paid by the strike committee, but his helpers were volunteers Members of the Cooks and Waitresses' Union and wives and daugh ters of strikers worked several hours daily.

Two attendants were on duty in the first-aid provided with all essential medical supplies for emergency treatment of acci dent victims. One was spraying a picket's sore throat, the other treating, sterilizing, and bandaging a blistered heel.

When copies of the first edition of the Times-Press were brought into headquarters, I discovered that Powers Hapgood also was town, on a mission similar to mine. Two pictures of him were the front page with two of myself, which a youthful photographer had insisted on taking as I left my room that morning. I had not seen Powers since the Sacco-Vanzetti memorial meeting in Union Square, New York, in 1927. It was good to learn that I was to work with some one I knew well.

Presently Sherman H. Dalrymple, international president of URWA, appeared, accompanied by Thomas F. Burns, vice-presid Frank Grillo, secretary-treasurer, N. H. Eagle, head of the Mohawk local in Akron and member of the United Rubber Workers' general executive board, John Owens, Ohio district president of the United Mine Workers, Germer, Stark, and Hapgood.

Together we began a tour of the picket-line, in cars driven strikers. This tour was "personally conducted" by "Skip" Oharra, Oh' who gloried in the title of "Field Marshal." He was a small fellow with a chunk of chewing tobacco always in his right cheek. Only six months before, I was told, he had been an aggressive leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Akron. Many other strikers had been Klansmen. Oharra had a strong sense of responsibility toward the strike. Some one ventured that the title he carried sounded a bit too pretentious, and suggested that he change it to chairman of the pickets. He protested vehemently. "Oh no, you can't do that! I've been nationally advertised as 'field marshal.' It would hurt our cause."

A bitter wind was blowing, but inside the shanties and tents the men were comfortable. In each a stove had been improvised from two metal oil drums, with a pipe leading up through the roof. The pickets sat on boxes or old automobile seats. Some were playing cards, others found diversion in checkers. Occasionally there was music, from an accordion, banjo, or guitar. Food and coffee were brought to the posts at regular intervals by a truck from the commissary.

The pickets put in eight-hour shifts. At least one was always on duty outside to see that no one attempted to break the seal of the nearby gate to the Goodyear works. The others rested or amused themselves in the shelters. Ten pickets to a post was the legal limit established by a court ruling.

We stopped long enough at each post to exchange greetings and impress upon the pickets that organized labor throughout the country was backing them up.

Around noon we returned to strike headquarters, where we held an informal meeting, with several hundred strikers present. John House introduced Stark, John Owens, Hapgood, and myself, explaining the significance of our being there; it meant reinforcements from two powerful international unions, and special interest in the situation on the part of the nation's leading newspaper.

When my turn came, I emphasized the great concern of the ILGWU that the rubber workers' strike should be successful. Commending their courage and steadfastness, I warned them that all sorts of unfair tricks would be used by the company to defeat them, and urged them to keep their poise and trust their leaders. To the women I made a special appeal that they stand by their men.

Then I led the audience in some of our union songs--Solidarity . Forever, Hold the Fort, and others, one of the younger men playingan accompaniment on the banjo. They made the walls ring with words familiar to many as a paraphrase of an old hymn:

Hold the fort, for we are coming Union men, be strong; Side by side we battle onward÷ Victory will come!

"Rosie," said Germer afterward, "we'll make you chairman of the entertainment committee."

We got our lunch at the kitchen service counter.

"What will you have?" a trim waitress inquired. "A plate, or something else?" "Why, I'll have a plate, please," I answered quickly.

It was novel to have a choice of food in a strike hall.

The "plate" that day comprised baked beans, kidney beans, spaghetti with meat sauce, potato salad, white bread or fresh baked corn bread, home-made jam, coffee, and cottage pudding covered with warm custard sauce. There was meat of varying kinds daily and plenty of good fresh milk. We ate at long rough wooden tables, at which many strikers were having their meals.

Akron acquired its first rubber factory in the Eighteen Seventies when some of its business men prevailed upon Dr. B. F. Goodrich to come there from Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he had been doing well as a rubber producer. As new uses were found for this material, other rubber manufacturers were attracted to the Akron area, because of its transportation facilities and its moist climate.

When automobile owners multiplied into millions, rubber produc tion skyrocketed. Goodyear's net profit in the years 1921-32 totalled $108,576,000. All the big companies in the industry prospered. protect profits they ruthlessly slashed wages in the depression years In 1929 the average pay of rubberworkers was $1,377; in 1933 had been cut to $932. Thousands became jobless. Those who remained in the factories were driven mercilessly under the belt sys tem of production.

Where did the Goodyear company get its name ? I wondered about that, and took pains to find out. Son of a poor inventor in Woburn, Massachusetts, Charles Goodyear followed in his father's footsteps. He was especially interested in the effects of varying temperatures upon rubber, and in ways to toughen it without lessening its resiliency. Poverty-stricken, often hungry, and with few friends, he continued trying until in 1839 he discovered a process which he called vulcanization. After five years more of experimentation he obtained a patent on his discovery.

Vulcanization wrought a revolution in the rubber industry. But the profits went to others, not to Goodyear. Grasping men boldly made use of this process without legal right. Goodyear sued repeatedly, winning in the courts, but went on the rocks financially because of litigation costs.

He died in 1860, penniless, and owing large debts. Everything material had been stripped from him. Frank A. Seiberling, establishing a rubber company in Akron in 1898, decided to call it Goodyear. I wonder if any portion of that company's tremendous earnings ever went to the Goodyear family for the use of the luckless inventor's name, "the greatest name in rubber." If so, how much?

From 1902 to 1913 occasional sporadic attempts to organize Akron's rubber workers were crushed. One big strike was staged in 1913 by the Industrial Workers of the World and led by Bill Haywood, its colorful chief. The rubber companies broke that strike through high-handed tactics, including the organization of a Citizens' Police Association, comprising 1,000 vigilantes, and institution of martial law.

Then the A F of L sent a young and little known organizer, John L. Lewis, into Akron. He surveyed the situation, presumably filed a report with his home office, and came away.

Across the next 20 years conditions in the industry grew worse in many ways. Other unionization efforts were thwarted, through the use of spies, widespread firing of men for union activities, and other forms of intimidation, and by factional warfare within labor's own ranks.

The National Industrial Recovery Act (the NIRA) guaranteed in Section 7-a the right of workers to join unions of their own choosing, and the rubber workers flocked into the A F of L federal unions by the thousands. Unfortunately, the Federation, instead of keeping these industrial workers together, distributed them among 13 separate internationals. Immediately the rubber corporations organized company unions along industrial lines, giving them the appearance of independent organizations to meet the legal requirements of the NIRA. Under the cumbersome system of craft organization the members of the A F of L couldn't make headway.

They pressed for an international of their own, and at their con_ vention in 1935 William Green, president of the A F of L, presented them with a charter. The delegates insisted on electing their own officers.

Thus a new international was born, with a starting membership of 3,080. The delegates wrote a constitution and elected Sherman 11. Dalrymple, formerly of West Virginia and head of the Goodrich local in Akron, as president. That city had four other locals including, Goodyear, Firestone, Mohawk, and General.

In 1930 the Goodyear company had reduced its work day from eight hours to six. At the end of two years Paul W. Litchfield, it president, in the periodical industrial Relations, made these signifi cant statements: "At the Goodyear, where we have had the six=hour-day in effect . . . for two years we have not been able to make much of a case on the grounds of higher efficiency. It is our judgment that efficiency has been increased upward of eight per cent, but low production schedules preclude accurate comparisons. Of one thing we are con vinced. It is that the short working day has not noticeably increase' our overhead cost÷that is, the cost of personnel and product super vision. . .

"We should work toward shortening the average working hours tothe point where there will be work for all." :

When the company announced in 1935 that the eight-hour da: would be restored on January 1, 1936 (presaging mass lay-offs) and that piece-work rates would be cut, the Goodyear local asked Secre tary of Labor Frances Perkins to investigate. She appointed a fact finding committee comprising Fred C. Croxton of Columbus, Ohio; John A. Lapp of New York, member of the Petroleum Board; and Hugh S. Hanna, U.S. Department of Labor statistician.

This committee's 50-page report held that the company, in cutting hours of work, had introduced the speed-up system, and that in fewer hours its employees actually produced as much or nearly as much as before. It found, too, that there was no justification for the proposed lengthening of hours . . . that the change would reduce the company payroll 12 per cent, and that the company had discriminated against the URWA in favor of its company union.

But presently there were wage-cuts and lay-offs in various departments. Resentment smoldered among the Goodyear working forces, tension grew.

John L. Lewis, by that time chairman of the new Committee for Industrial Organization, spoke at a mass meeting in the Armory on January 19. Despite a blizzard, thousands of rubber workers attended. Lewis cited the millions in profits made by Goodyear and the other rubber companies, even during the depression.

"The only way out," he declared, "is to organize the workers into unions that can raise articulate voices...."

His parting words were: "I hope you will do something for yourselves."

Those who listened took heed÷and in less than a month the Goodyear workers acted.

In contrast to short-lived sit-downs of Akron rubber workers in the past, limited to a single department, the tire-builders' sit-down on February 14 was a spark that fired the long dormant indignation of Goodyear employees generally. Here was mass revolt, which might at any moment spread through the Goodrich, Firestone, Mohawk, and General Rubber Company plants and shut them down also.

Realizing that they were novices in a conflict of this size, the United Rubber Workers' leaders appealed to the Committee for Industrial Organization for aid. It sent a $3,000 check to the strike committee, and dispatched five organizers to the scene. The other two organizers÷Leo Krzycki, vice-president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, and Ben Schafer, from the Oil Workers' Union÷arrived on February 26.

Strain and anxiety showed in the eyes of the young leaders of the rubber workers, and in their tired voices. They trembled as they spoke of "what might have happened" the day before if Police Chief Boss had not spiked Sheriff Flower's plan to smash the picket lines.

But while the Akron rubber workers were babes in the woods in legitimate unionism, they could have given pointed lessons to labor- movement veterans in other forms of organization and action. I had taken special notice of the fine sense of order among the strikers.

"When did you learn all this?" I asked one of the key men in headquarters.

"They trained us," he said, pointing to the huge plant across the way.

Most of the men in the forefront of the strike had been schooled in two institutions peculiar to the Goodyear corporation÷the Flying Squadron and the Goodyear Industrial Assembly. Young and physi cally powerful workers, chosen for the Flying Squadron, were given three years of intensive training so that they could fit into any of the 4,000 different production jobs. Thus they would be available for any emergency÷to take the places of men who might be laid offbecause they had passed the age of 40 and who perhaps had slowed down, or to serve as strike-breakers. With the Flying Squadron l available to the company, seniority for the mass of Goodyear employees was non-existent.

The strikers had a profound hatred for the Squadron. Ex-members of that cat's-paw outfit poured forth their feelings in the shanties.

"I am one of those who graduated," said a broad-shouldered pick in the Mae West Post, as he showed me the wingfoot pin concealed under his vest. "They thought they bought me body and soul, damn it, when I was told to do dirty to my fellow-workers I quit .

Many Flying Squadron members also were members of the Indus trial Assembly, comprising a Senate and House of Representatives, and part of the Goodyear "Industrial Republic." Set up in 1919, this was supposed to provide democratic representation for the workers. Actually, it was a company union, the Senators and Representatives being hand-picked.

For years the Goodyear management had used the Industrial A sembly for its own purposes. But in October, 1935, there was rebellion in the Assembly. It voted against the corporation's plan restore the eight-hour schedule The emptiness of the "guarantees of democracy" in the Assembly was demonstrated when Factory Manager Cliff Slusser vetoed its action.

Yes, there was exemplary organization among the strikers, and remarkable discipline. Yet it was apparent that we were standing on the brink of a smoking volcano, which at any time might erupt.

I thought of this while talking with Field Marshal Oharra in strike headquarters. In a corner of the office I had observed a stack of rifles.

"What are those guns for?" I asked.

"Just let them try to open the plant gates, or break up the picket lines, and there'll be a revolution," Oharra answered. The guns had been brought in after Police Chief Boss averted the Sheriff's planned attack on the pickets on the 25th. Many of the strikers, having come from mountain country, were hunters, and naturally owned rifles. They had brought them here "just in case÷"

That night Powers Hapgood, Ben Schafer, and I made another tour of the shanties and tents. Henceforth this would be part of our daily routine. We talked with the pickets, asked questions, drew out their thoughts about the strike. In some posts hill-billy songs were being sung,andweinquired where the singers hailed from. They had come from various states Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Virginia, and the Carolinas.

Frequently I heard them boasting about their respective states. Others took issue with them. A man from Kentucky bragged that that Commonwealth was famous for "fast horses and beautiful women." A Tennessean would answer: "It's just the reverse."

Largely of American stock, their names testified to English and Scotch ancestry in the main, with a sprinkling of Irish and Welsh. They included many ex-coal miners, a considerable percentage of former tenant farmers, and others who had come to Ohio because they found themselves jobless or dispossessed as a result of the depression.

Watching and listening to the men in the shanties and in union headquarters, I was glad they were on our side of the fight. Some of the names recalled long-fought feuds in the Southern mountains. Here, it was obvious, were numerous hot-heads. Hence the vitalnecessity of wise leadership, for in its absence, an unforeseen contingency might impel them to desperate action.

A sit-down in Akron was precisely what we called a stoppage in the garment industry. It was an old method among independent rubber workers; when they found they could no longer put up with unfair working conditions, they laid down their tools. Usually they won their immediate point.

"But what happened after that?" I asked, in the House of David post.

"We'd go back to work," said a man with a rusty beard, "and everything would be pretty for a little time. Then the company would find an excuse to fire the leaders.... Now things are different. With you from the Lady Garment Workers, and the men from the miners, we'll build a real union here."

Back at strike headquarters by 11 p.m., we found an entertainment in progress, with an audience of 300 or more. Two boys around ten years old were on the platform, one crooning and the other playing a guitar bigger than himself. They looked sleepy, but sang and played into a microphone like professionals.

Frequently the entertainment would be interrupted, as a man in a checkered red-and-black windbreaker called through the "mike" for volunteers to relieve pickets: "Three men to Mae West Post . . . two men to Camp Argonne . . . four men to Post No. 14."

From all parts of the hall strikers would leave for duty at those posts, to keep any one from entering or leaving the plant. Wives of some of the volunteers would go along to keep them company in the shanties and tents.

In such a strike there is no limit to the number of an organizer's working hours. Often we conferred late at night, and some tours of the shanties did not end until 3 a.m. Days and evenings we spoke before many audiences in Akron, explaining the situation to church groups, consumer groups, fraternal organizations, women's auxiliaries, students, sewing circles, language groups. Almost always, without our asking, a collection would be taken up for the strikers. We asked only for moral support. Often we returned loaded with home-made pies and cakes and other edibles rounded up by thoughtful women in advance of our arrival.

The union had a sound truck, and we all took turns in speaking from it. It was useful in addressing groups of strikers and their families and the public in the strike area generally. Audiences would gather quickly whenever the truck stopped; the loud speaker never lost its novelty for them. Our speeches were varied by music from a victrola.

I had wired Fannia M. Cohn, executive secretary of our Educational Department, for a large supply of song books, and when they came we took them with us on a fast round of the posts.

"Captain! " our escort called out as we arrived at the first shanty.

A tall burly figure emerged from the dark.

"Here is a song book the Lady Garment Workers' Union is giving us. We want your shift to learn the songs and leave it with the next captain."

"O.K. We'll do that."

Evidently the little red booklets were immediately put to good use, for by the time we returned the pickets were singing songs with familiar tunes.

"Soo-oop, soo-oop, they gave me a bowl of soup," came from one post.

"It's a good thing to join a union," the voices in another avowed.

"We joined our union and now we have fun," we heard from a third. (The tune was The Man on The Flying Trapeze.) ; "C-C-C-Company, company-union . . ."

Each group picked out the lyrics which appealed to it most.

Taken from Anarchist Archives

  • 1International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union