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Sit-Down Strikes

SIT-DOWN STRIKES

SIT-DOWN STRIKES of 1936 and 1937 stood at the heart of the social movement that enabled the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to unionize hundreds of thousands of workers in that era's industries. CIO rubber workers briefly deployed the sit-down as part of a recognition strike in February and March 1936, but this union stratagem did not rivet the nation's attention until late in the fall of that year. CIO organizers met fierce resistance from the nation's leading corporations, many supporters of the antiNew Deal Liberty League, which expected the Supreme Court to declare the Wagner Act unconstitutional. This growing polarization made Franklin Roosevelt's landslide reelection as president seem a referendum on the industrial New Deal, especially in working-class communities. "You voted New Deal at the polls and defeated the auto barons," organizers told Michigan workers late in 1936. "Now get a New Deal in the shop."

In November and December 1936, sit-down strikes took place at Midland Steel and Kelsey-Hayes in Detroit, Michigan, and at Bendex in South Bend, Indiana. During the week after Christmas, sit-down strikes occurred at General Motors (GM), the most important at the Fisher Body and Chevrolet Motor plants in Flint, Michigan, the center of GM production. The strikes were not "spontaneous," neither were they planned by top union leaders. Socialists, communists, and other shop radicals led the way, then leaders of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the CIO took command. The factory occupations stopped production even though only a minority of the workforce participated. Supported by thousands of unionists on the outside, the Flint sit-downers organized food deliveries, policed the factories to avoid damage, and conducted classes and plays to sustain morale during the six-week stay-in. They won favorable press because of the legitimacy of their cause. The strikes were designed to force management to obey the labor law and to recognize the stake workers held in a secure and humane job. Frank Murphy, the New Deal governor of Michigan, kept the National Guard at bay. Backed by Roosevelt, Murphy sought to avoid a bloody confrontation and refused to enforce an antistrike injunction secured by GM. Although the sit-downers and their allies fought several celebrated battles with the Flint police, the unionists outnumbered their foes, and they were never dislodged from the factories.

GM reached a settlement with the UAW on 11 February 1937. The corporation recognized the union as the sole voice of its employees and agreed to negotiate with UAW leaders on a multiplant basis. Thousands of heretofore hesitant auto workers poured into the UAW. Across industrial America the settlement transformed the expectations of workers and managers alike. There were 47 sit-down strikes in March, 170 in April, and 52 in May. In Detroit, workers occupied every Chrysler factory, twenty-five auto parts plants, four downtown hotels, nine lumberyards, ten meat-packing plants, twelve laundries, and two department stores. To avoid such an upheaval, U.S. Steel and scores of other big firms agreed to recognize CIO unions during the next few months.

Although the sit-down strikes violated corporate property rights, many workers justified them as an ethical counter to management's failure to recognize the Wagner Act and to bargain with the unions. Given the industrial crisis of early 1937, such sentiments may well have contributed to the Supreme Court's 12 April 1937 decision in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation to hold the Wagner Act constitutional. But in the more conservative climate that prevailed two years later, the Court declared sit-downs illegal in National Labor Relations Board v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation (1939).

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Fine, Sidney. Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 19361937. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

Pope, James Gray. "The Thirteenth Amendment versus the Commerce Clause: Labor and the Shaping of American Constitutional Law, 19211957." Columbia Law Review 102 (January 2002): 3122.

Zieger, Robert H. The CIO: 19351955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Nelson Lichtenstein

See also American Federation of LaborCongress of Industrial Organizations ; Labor ; National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation ; Strikes ; United Automobile Workers of America .

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Sit-Down Strike

SIT-DOWN STRIKE


Sit-down strikes began in 1936 as an aggressive method of calling attention to the needs of non-unionized workers in mass production industries. Because the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was not interested in organizing these workers, a handful of radical leaders rose to the challenge and began to push for the industry-wide unionization of unskilled labor. Workers in mass production industries, however, were reluctant to join unions because they were not convinced that labor had the power to mount successful strikes without the support of the majority of workers. Sit-down strikes showed that a minority of workers could effectively halt production and force management to pay attention to their demands.

The first sit-down strike occurred in 1936, when workers at three rubber plants in Akron, Ohio, went on an unauthorized strike as part of a campaign to force their employer to recognize the United Rubber Workers as their legitimate bargaining agent. Instead of setting up a picket line at the factory gates (which makes the strikers publicly visible but has little affect on production activities) they occupied the company buildings and refused to leave. This unprecedented and disruptive tactic, which stalled production and cut into company profits, shocked both industry and more moderate labor leaders but was extraordinarily effective. Sit-down strikes soon spread throughout other industries. The single most significant sit-down strike occurred in January and February 1937, when the United Auto Workers (UAW) confronted General Motors Corporation (GM) in the GM "company town" of Flint, Michigan. With only 122 members at the Flint strike plant, the UAW local was able to stop GM production. Strikers took over Fisher Body Number 1 plant, where GM kept the dies for all of its 1937 car models, making it impossible for the company to continue manufacturing. Crippled, GM was able to turn out only 150 cars per week, and by February agreed to accept the union. The Chrysler Corporation soon followed in March 1937.

Though sit-down tactics were nonviolent, management sometimes attempted to break the strikes by force and bloodshed was not an uncommon result. Sit-down strikes were highly effective in bringing unskilled labor into unions. After the strike against GM, UAW membership increased from 98,000 in February 1937, to 400,000 by that summer. By late 1937, federal laws to prohibit sit-down strikes and court decision upholding these laws eliminated the labor movement's ability to use this method. Though sit-down strikes could no longer be used by labor, it remained an effective means of protest. Sit-down tactics were later used effectively by Civil Rights activists and students protesting the Vietnam War (19641975).

See also: American Federation of Labor, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, Strike, United Auto Workers

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sit-down

sit-down • adj. (of a meal) eaten sitting at a table. ∎  (of a protest) in which demonstrators occupy their workplace or sit down on the ground in a public place, refusing to leave until their demands are met. • n. a period of sitting down; a short rest. ∎  a sit-down protest.

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