Goodyear Strike

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Goodyear Strike

United States 1936

Synopsis

The Goodyear Strike of February and March 1936 in Akron, Ohio, was an unplanned protest that demonstrated the potential of organized labor in the mass production industries of that era. The strike was a consequence of improving economic conditions and efforts by Goodyear managers to eliminate policies, especially the six-hour day, that they had introduced during the depressed years of the early 1930s. Worker protests against such changes led to sit-down strikes, another product of the depression era, and finally a full-scale strike starting on 18 February. The strikers successfully mobilized allies in and out of the labor movement and countered efforts by the company, the company union, city officials, and the business community to break the strike. The ultimate settlement, approved on 21 March, addressed the workers' grievances but did not formally recognize the union. Nevertheless, it was a significant victory for organized labor, an indication that there could be no return to the past, and a stimulus to additional organizing and collective bargaining.

Timeline

  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1926: Britain is paralyzed by the General Strike.
  • 1931: Financial crisis widens in the United States and Europe, which reel from bank failures and climbing unemployment levels. In London, armies of the unemployed riot.
  • 1933: Hitler becomes German chancellor, and the Nazi dictatorship begins.
  • 1936: Germany reoccupies the Rhineland, while Italy annexes Ethiopia. Recognizing a commonality of aims, the two totalitarian powers sign the Rome-Berlin Axis Pact. (Japan will join them in 1940.)
  • 1936: The election of a leftist Popular Front government in Spain in February precipitates an uprising by rightists under the leadership of Francisco Franco. Over the next three years, war will rage between the Loyalists and Franco's Nationalists. The Spanish Civil War will prove to be a lightning rod for the world's tensions, with the Nazis and Fascists supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviets the Loyalists.
  • 1936: Hitler uses the Summer Olympics in Berlin as an opportunity to showcase Nazi power and pageantry, but the real hero of the Games is the African American track star Jesse Owens.
  • 1939: Britain and France declare war against Germany after the 1 September invasion of Poland, but little happens in the way of mobilization.
  • 1944: Allies land at Normandy on 6 June, conducting the largest amphibious invasion in history.
  • 1951: Six western European nations form the European Coal and Steel Community, forerunner of the European Economic Community and the later European Union.

Event and Its Context

The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company strike of February-March 1936 was a major contributor to the turbulent labor history of the 1930s and a symbolic turning point in American industrial relations. Paradoxically, the formal results of the strike were unimpressive: the strikers went back to work with minor concessions, the union modestly improved its position in the plant, and the managers insisted that nothing had changed. In fact, almost everything at Goodyear and in the industry had changed. The workers showed that they could hold out against a powerful corporation and the company union movement suffered a dramatic defeat. The new Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) gained a degree of legitimacy, and the sitdown movement, the most prominent symbol of 1930s militancy, spread to other plants and industries. In retrospect, the Goodyear strike marked the end of the spontaneous worker rebellions of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) years and the beginning of more systematic union organizing that would culminate in World War II.

Goodyear employees, like millions of other industrial employees, had taken advantage of Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act (1933; NIRA) to create a local union that embraced a majority of employees at the vast Akron, Ohio, complex by late 1933. Local union president John D. House and other officers soon discovered, however, that it was easier to create an organization than to sustain it. They and their followers faced several formidable obstacles: the Goodyear managers were hostile and resolutely opposed to a formal contract; the workers expected immediate, tangible concessions; the American Federation of Labor, which had chartered the locals as directly affiliated, federal locals, was bereft of leaders and suspicious of the workers' instinctive preference for an industrial union (one that embraced all the workers in the industry, as opposed to a craft union or the various hybrids that reserved a special place for the more highly skilled workers); and the federal government was incapable of enforcing Section 7a.

There were also several distinctive features of the Goodyear situation. Though Goodyear managers were antiunion, they were not reactionaries. The company had long been a champion of advanced personnel management and provided various financial, social, and educational benefits to employees. In 1919 it had created the Industrial Assembly, one of the most famous and successful company unions. The principal architect of this action was the company president, Paul W. Litchfield, who was viewed and viewed himself as a sensitive and innovator manager. Litchfield thought of Goodyear as a seamless continuum of jobs from the executive suite to the shop floor; employees could rise as far as their abilities would take them. As proof, he pointed to his chief lieutenants, all of whom had risen from lowly positions. Yet the depression had temporarily interrupted this process, and the union, if successful, would permanently disrupt it.

A second distinctive feature of the strike setting was the presence of thousands of other rubber workers, employees of two other major tire firms, a half dozen secondary tire firms, and a dozen or more small companies that manufactured other rubber products. Together they made the industry one of the most geographically concentrated in the United States; as a result, Akron was virtually a one-industry city. After Congress passed the NIRA, the Akron locals recruited nearly 30,000 members. The B.F. Goodrich local was the largest, with more than 7,000 members; Goodyear was second with more than 6,000; and Firestone was third with 5,000. By virtue of his leadership of the Goodrich local, Sherman A. Dalrymple, a soft-spoken, unpretentious West Virginian, became the best-known union leader in the industry.

The unions that emerged in the secondary tire firms were also formidable. They had several significant advantages: their employers were less powerful and confident, were unable to finance expensive welfare plans to ward off organizers, and might not even survive a prolonged strike. Cautious but generally cooperative relationships often resulted. An example of what could happen if the employer was not cooperative occurred at the General Tire and Rubber Company in early 1934. During the early months of the year, the General Tire managers, who otherwise had had good relations with the local, rejected demands for a signed agreement and recognition. Frustrated, union activists decided on a bold strategy. They would strike but instead of trying to close the plant from outside, inviting conventional strike-breaking techniques, they would remain inside and occupy it. On the night of 19-20 June, the General local staged the first important sit-down strike, a planned, rehearsed maneuver that surprised the management, emboldened the workers, and set the stage for the successful conventional strike that followed. The eventual settlement included a written agreement and de facto union recognition. Other workers were impressed.

The Sit-Downs

By the winter of 1935 the depression seemed to be waning. Tire sales were rising, employment was gradually increasing, and the demise of the NRA seemingly invited a return to pre-depression normality. The NRA may have been legally toothless, but its power to publicize abuses had restrained large corporations in cities like Akron with watchful citizens and aggressive newspapers. Goodyear managers, for example, had met routinely with union leaders in Akron but just as routinely mobilized police and vigilante groups to attack union activists in smaller, out-of-the way communities like Gadsden, Alabama. By this point, however, the NRA influence had been eliminated. Litchfield signaled the change in late 1935 by announcing piece rate cuts and an end to the six-hour day, which had been introduced in 1931 to share the available work. The other manufacturers made similar announcements. Henceforth the Akron factories would operate on eight-hour shifts.

How would the workers react? By that time the local was much weaker. (With the formation of the United Rubber Workers [URW] in September 1935, the Goodyear federal local became URW Local 2.) Its failure to win a contract or even to challenge the company directly in 1934 and 1935 had demoralized its members, most of whom had stopped paying dues. The new URW under president Sherman Dalrymple, the former president of the B.F. Goodrich local, was almost penniless. As a result the Industrial Assembly orchestrated the most significant protests, a development that should have alerted Litchfield to a basic flaw in his logic. He had assumed that workers would willingly trade lower rates and longer hours for higher total earnings, but his proposals had a different meaning to many Goodyear employees. After five years of sporadic work and lingering poverty, longer hours meant fewer jobs and new rounds of layoffs. They demanded the retention of the six-hour day.

When Litchfield, together with the managers of the other Akron companies, moved to implement the longer workday, the workers responded with sit-down strikes. In January and early February, there were major sit-downs at Goodyear, Firestone, and B.F. Goodrich that forced the managers to close their plants. In each case the URW locals defended the strikers, won reinstatements, and even obtained a few concessions. The locals started to revive. At Goodyear, the sit-downs had another, equally important effect. Though the Industrial Assembly had taken the lead in opposing the eight-hour day, it refused to defend the strikers. Closely identified with the high seniority, relatively secure workers who viewed the sit-downs as irresponsible and disruptive, it cast its lot with management. URW Local 2 thus emerged as the only steadfast defender of the protesters.

The sit-downs culminated in mid-February. A sit-down by Goodyear fourth shift tire builders—the men slated for immediate layoff—sparked sympathetic sit-downs by workers on other shifts, which shut down the entire complex for several days and widened the gap between the Industrial Assembly and the union. President House of Local 2 called an emergency union meeting for the night of 18 February. After several hours of fiery speeches, one of the local's firebrands jumped on the stage, seized a flag, and called for the others to follow him to the plant gate. Despite subzero temperatures, the pickets remained at the gates through the night and turned away first shift workers the following morning. The strike had begun.

The Strike: Union Resources

The strike was a spontaneous and, given the fierce winter storm that accompanied it, ill-timed challenge to a major corporation. Yet it was not a desperate or foolhardy act. A year earlier the local had prepared for a major strike then backed down. Though most of its members were inactive by 1936, the leaders remained. They implemented the earlier plans and by 20 February, had set up a headquarters and dining hall, issued appeals for financial assistance, recruited picket teams, created a relief system for needy families, and established close contacts with the other rubber locals and the URW. Their ties to other unions ensured that they would have sufficient funds and picket line reinforcements. House and Dalrymple worked well together. They also attracted the attention of John L. Lewis and the staff of his new CIO. Lewis sent funds and organizers to Akron. Veteran organizer Adolph Germer became a close advisor to House and Dalrymple. Other CIO operatives wrote news releases and radio scripts and helped with public events. The conflict became the first major CIO strike.

The strike organization's first major challenge was the Non-Strikers, an impromptu antiunion group, closely linked to the Industrial Assembly, that appeared on 19 February and demanded an immediate return to work. The Non-Strikers insisted that the sheriff enforce an injunction prohibiting pickets from blocking the gates, even if it meant a violent confrontation with the strikers. When strike leaders blocked the streets outside the plant with thousands of sympathizers on the appointed day, 24 February, the sheriff and the police backed down, the picket line held, and the plant remained closed. The Non-Strikers and the Industrial Assembly never recovered. The company union became the first casualty of the strike.

The strike organization's second and more difficult assignment was to sustain public support for a negotiated settlement. This became more difficult as the conflict began to hurt the merchants and professionals who depended on the company and its employees. One of the last dramatic episodes in the strike was the appearance of a "Law and Order League" that was designed to enlist a broad spectrum of outsiders and force the union to capitulate. Created by a former mayor and other business leaders, it failed because the union once again refused to be intimidated. Nevertheless, the Law and Order League was an indication of a growing restiveness. To counter this trend the strike leaders used rallies, public demonstrations, and frequent radio speeches to emphasize their reasonableness. CIO leaders made their greatest contributions as orators, writers, and publicists. Most observers believed they won "the battle of the airwaves."

By mid-March the strikers had defeated the Non-Strikers, ensured the neutrality of local officials, and preserved a large measure of public support. They still had to negotiate a settlement.

Negotiations

In a 19 February statement to the Industrial Assembly, Litchfield agreed to preserve the six-hour day and call off the rate cuts, eliminating the workers' most serious grievances. Thereafter, the overriding substantive issue was union recognition. On that point the Goodyear managers were inflexible and unyielding. Litchfield insisted that only the Industrial Assembly represented Goodyear employees; his more pragmatic subordinates acknowledged that the Assembly was dead but were no less emphatic in rejecting any type of formal union recognition. Their goal was an informal, preferably unwritten arrangement whereby supervisors would negotiate specific problems with union representatives. This was essentially what they had done since mid-1933. Together with Litchfield's announced concessions, this arrangement would re-create the conditions of 1934 and early 1935, conditions that had been unsatisfactory to the management and the union, and would likely lead to more conflicts. URW and CIO leaders were aware of the pitfalls of such an agreement and were determined to come away with more. Explaining to workers who had had no paychecks for a month why they should continue to hold out for something less than formal recognition, however, became increasingly difficult.

Serious negotiations began on 5 March and continued for two weeks as negotiators tried to find a formula that would avoid a formal contract and yet grant the union the equivalent of a contract. Litchfield continued to be uncooperative, publicly rejecting on several occasions what his representatives had conceded in private. Ultimately, however, the negotiators found circuitous ways of spelling out concessions and the union's role without specifically recognizing the union. On 21 March the exhausted strikers finally agreed to this arrangement. On paper the agreement was at best a modest union victory. Yet, as the federal mediator concluded, the union had in fact realized "the main objectives of the strike … [and] additional benefits as well."

Results and Implications

The strike had proven to be a high-stakes gamble for Goodyear as well as the union. By 21 March Litchfield's plan for increasing profits had failed, the Industrial Assembly had died, and Local 2 and the URW were stronger than ever. Equally important were the less obvious effects. Goodyear supervisors were demoralized by the union "victory." Shop floor discipline declined, and the sit-down, hitherto a response to important policy changes, became an almost daily occurrence between late March 1936 and early 1937. After mid-1937, when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act and the power of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the company became subject to extended litigation for its refusal to sign a contract with Local 2. The continuing turmoil contributed to the company's poor economic performance in the late 1930s.

In contrast, Local 2, the URW, and the CIO had been tested, had survived, and were poised for additional gains. The strike became part of the legend of "labor on the march." It also demonstrated that an informally organized, decentralized union such as the URW could hold its own in a contest with a powerful corporation, a lesson that most other union leaders conveniently overlooked. In the late 1930s the URW, like other industrial unions, campaigned for formal recognition and collective bargaining contracts. It negotiated agreements with most of the smaller tire companies in 1936-1937, Firestone in 1937, B.F. Goodrich in 1938, and finally, Goodyear in 1941, after Litchfield had retired from the presidency. Yet the URW retained much of the spirit of 1936. Even at the peak of its power, it had little bureaucracy and a high degree of local autonomy.

The broader repercussions of the strike were also significant. The sit-down strike soon spread to other mass production industries and became a nationwide phenomenon in 1937. The CIO became more visible in the following months, rallying other industrial workers and scoring several dramatic breakthroughs. Its agreements with General Motors and U. S. Steel in early 1937 reinforced the notion of the signed contract as the primary objective of union activity, a goal that the NLRB soon made official policy. Indirectly at least, the Goodyear strike also contributed to the antiunion backlash that grew rapidly after 1937. In Akron the sit-down strikes and the simultaneous "decentralization" of the industry (i.e., the transfer of jobs to outlying communities) cost organized labor much of its public support. By 1937, the city administration was generally hostile and the public increasingly divided between union members and nonmembers. Similar divisions appeared in other industrial communities and in the country generally. Yet because of the simultaneous movement for collective bargaining agreements, this shift had only a modest impact on union membership. Most of what had been achieved in Akron and in other industrial communities continued to be part of a new industrial landscape that persisted for a third of a century.

Key Players

Dalrymple, Sherman H. (1889-1962): Dalrymple was a West Virginia farmer who sought his fortune in the industrial city of Akron. Quiet, likeable, scrupulously honest, and a World War I hero, he embodied the qualities that rubber workers sought in their leaders. Dalrymple served as president of the giant B. F. Goodrich local from 1933 to 1935 and as president of the URW from 1935 to 1945. Three months after the Goodyear strike, he was nearly beaten to death in Gadsden, Alabama, while trying to organize the Goodyear plant there.

House, John D. (1904-1988): A Georgian who came to Akron in the early 1920s in search of a better job, House became a tire builder at Goodyear and took advantage of the company's programs for ambitious employees. The depression destroyed his prospects, however, and he became an enthusiastic union supporter. House served as president of Local 2 until 1940, then as a CIO and URW organizer.

Litchfield, Paul W. (1875-1962): Litchfield was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate who took a job at Goodyear just as the tire industry entered a period of explosive growth. As factory manager, he presided over the company's dramatic expansion and introduced advanced personnel programs to retain qualified workers. A financial crisis in 1920 led to his elevation to the company presidency. During the following decade he consolidated Good-year's position as the leading tire maker and an innovator in industrial management. Strongly antiunion, Litchfield fought the URW through the 1930s.

See also: Committee for Industrial Organization; National Industrial Recovery Act.

Bibliography

Books

Bernstein, Irving. Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Nelson, Daniel. American Rubber Workers and Organized Labor, 1900-1941. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

Roberts, Harold S. The Rubber Workers. New York: Harper& Brothers, 1944.

Zieger, Robert. The CIO, 1935-1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

—Daniel Nelson

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