Mass Strikes

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Mass Strikes

United States 1934


Elected in 1932 on a platform of relief, reform, and recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt formulated a series of New Deal measures to address the economic crises of the Great Depression. One of the first pieces of New Deal legislation was the 1933 National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA). A comprehensive initiative to create balance in the American economy, the NIRA suspended antitrust laws to allow businesses to coordinate production plans in return for a pledge to pay a minimum wage for a 40-hour workweek. Employers also had to allow their employees to form labor unions to engage in collective bargaining over labor contracts under Section 7(a) of the NIRA. Without an agency to oversee the collective bargaining process under the NIRA, however, employers routinely refused to recognize their employees' demands for representation through unions. Frustrated by the ambiguous federal response in enforcing the NIRA, workers and unionists in three cities—Toledo, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and San Francisco, California—conducted major strikes to force union recognition by employers in those cities. Each of the strikes was at least partially successful in gaining union recognition, although the larger question of the enforcement of Section 7(a) of the NIRA remained ambiguous. In 1935 another landmark piece of New Deal legislation—the National Labor Relations Act, better known as the Wagner Act—left no doubt that workers had the right to organize labor unions without interference from their employers.


  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1924: In the United States, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall, along with oil company executives Harry Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny, is charged with conspiracy and bribery in making fraudulent leases of U.S. Navy oil reserves at Teapot Dome, Wyoming. The resulting Teapot Dome scandal clouds the administration of President Warren G. Harding.
  • 1929: On "Black Friday" in October, prices on the U.S. stock market, which had been climbing wildly for several years, suddenly collapse. Thus begins the first phase of a world economic crisis and depression that will last until the beginning of World War II.
  • 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.
  • 1934: Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who aligns his nation with Mussolini's Italy, establishes a fascist regime in an attempt to keep Austria out of the Nazi orbit. Austrian Nazis react by assassinating Dollfuss.
  • 1934: Dionne sisters, the first quintuplets to survive beyond infancy, are born in Canada.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China, and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
  • 1939: After years of loudly denouncing one another (and quietly cooperating), the Nazis and Soviets sign a non-aggression pact in August. This clears the way for the Nazi invasion of Poland, and for Soviet action against Finland. (Stalin also helps himself to a large portion of Poland.)
  • 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circle to the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.
  • 1949: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is established.

Event and Its Context

The NIRA and Section 7(a)

Although federal legislation before the New Deal had never barred workers from forming labor unions, neither did the government protect workers from retaliation or interference on the part of their employers for attempting to organize. While some skilled trades workers thus bargained for higher wages and improved benefits through their craft unions—often as part of the American Federation of Labor—unskilled workers in the mass-production industries such as automobiles, steel, and textiles were consistently frustrated in their unionization efforts. Throughout the 1920s successive Republican administrations had also scaled back Progressive Era reforms that had improved working conditions, while conservative federal courts issued injunctions to break strikes.

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt to the presidency in 1932 promised to reverse the trends of the 1920s by injecting the federal government into labor relations on an unprecedented scale. Roosevelt had come to office with approximately 80 percent of the working-class vote on his pledge to provide relief to the poor, inaugurate recovery efforts for the economy, and pass reform legislation. Just three months into his first term, Roosevelt guided the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) through Congress and signed it into law on 16 June 1933. Under a code of fair competition supervised by the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the NIRA temporarily suspended antitrust rules and allowed businesses to plan production on an industry-wide basis. In return, the NRA mandated a minimum wage set by industry and a 40-hour maximum workweek. From the start, the NRA's work was roundly criticized. Some in the business community resented the government's involvement in the private sector, while others argued that the NRA's reach did not go far enough in fundamentally restructuring the economy.

The NIRA provision that created the most controversy was Section 7(a). The section declared that "employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and be free from interference" by their employers in such efforts. The section also prohibited employers from forcing workers to join company-controlled unions or from firing them for joining independent labor unions. Yet the NIRA did not specify penalties against employers for failing to follow Section 7(a), nor did it set up an administration to oversee the implementation of the article. Thus, while Section 7(a) seemed to place the weight of the government behind unionization for the first time in the country's history, it did little to clarify how workers could actually organize labor unions. In the wake of the NIRA's passage in June 1933, a new wave of labor unrest swept the country as business and labor tested the real impact of Section 7(a) in the workplace.

The Auto-Lite Strike

One of the first major strikes in 1934 to test the limits of Section 7(a) occurred in the auto-parts manufacturing city of Toledo, Ohio. A few workers at the Electric Auto-Lite plant had initially struck over union recognition for Local 18384 of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from 23 to 28 February 1934. The action concluded when the company agreed to reinstate them; soon after, however, Auto-Lite management refused to recognize Local 18384 as a bargaining agent for the workers. On 13 April about 400 of the plant's 800 workers struck again; this time, they were joined by hundreds of other striking workers from other area factories as well as members of the Lucas County Unemployment League and the American Workers' Party, a Marxist organization led by A. J. Muste. The company responded by arming its plant with tear gas, machine guns, and a hastily assembled force of special deputies, in addition to a court injunction that limited the number of strikers around the plant to 25 picketers.

The company's strategy backfired. Defying the injunction to stay away from the plant, by the third week in May, up to 10,000 sympathetic Toledo residents protested at the plant each day. When someone in the factory threw a steel bracket at Auto-Lite striker Alma Hahn on 23 May 1934, the north-side working-class neighborhood that surrounded the factory erupted in four days of rioting. A force of about 1,350 National Guards-men eventually silenced the Auto-Lite plant, but not before one striker and one protester were killed; about 200 others had been injured. Auto-Lite's management finally agreed to recognize the union after Ohio Governor George White refused to provide National Guard protection to allow the plant to operate. With an increase of five cents in wages and a minimum wage set at 35 cents, the plant reopened on 5 June 1934 with AFL Local 18384 as the recognized bargaining agent for the workers. The following year, after the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), Local 18384 became Local 12 of the United Auto Workers union and remained a powerful influence over the city's economic and political spheres.

The Teamsters' Strike

In Minneapolis, a strike led by Teamsters' Local 574 gripped the city between May and August 1934. After Teamsters' organizer Ray Dunne led a successful strike by coal-truck drivers in early February 1934, Local 574 signed up between 2,000 and 3,000 members and demanded union recognition, a wage hike, and overtime pay. Confronted by the antiunion Citizens' Alliance (CA), the union mustered public support for its position that proved decisive in the months to come. A series of battles at the city's public market on 21 and 22 May left two CA members dead; under pressure from Governor Floyed Olson, who was sympathetic to the strikers, the employers' group signed an agreement to abide by Section 7(a) on 25 May. Almost immediately, the CA went back on its pledge to recognize Local 574 as a collective bargaining agent, and on 16 July 1934 the union's membership voted for another strike.

The second strike lasted for 36 days and brought crowds of up to 100,000 union supporters into Minneapolis. Another violent confrontation on 20 July left two strikers dead and 50 injured, prompting the governor to declare martial law six days later. Another month of negotiating under federal supervision finally produced a victory for Local 574, which gained undisputed recognition as a bargaining agent and a minimum wage for its members. Within two years of the strike, Local 574 represented members at 500 companies in the Minneapolis area, and the CA was effectively broken as a power in the city.

The Maritime Workers' Strike

The biggest of the three urban strike waves took place in San Francisco from May to July 1934 and culminated in a general strike from 16 to 19 July. A springtime strike by the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) under the leadership of Harry Bridges had been averted through federal intervention, but the settlement left dockworkers unsatisfied with their wages, hours, hiring practices, and, most of all, lack of formal union recognition. On 9 May 1934 ILA members along the entire Pacific Coast (with the exception of Los Angeles) went on strike; in San Francisco, the Teamsters Union supported them by refusing to move cargo from the port.

As in Minneapolis, an employers' group—the Industrial Association of San Francisco (IASF)—took the lead in fighting the ILA. On 5 July 1934, in a battle instigated by the IASF with the support of the local police, two strikers were killed and dozens more were shot. In response, the ILA called for a general strike of San Francisco's workers. The resulting three-day strike shut down the city after 130,000 workers walked off the job on 16 July. Under pressure from NRA chief Hugh Johnson, the general strike was called off on 19 July, and the Teamsters went back to work two days later. The dockworkers followed them on 31 July, when the ILA agreed to federal arbitration of the initial strike's issues. The arbitration board issued a ruling on 12 October 1934 that granted the ILA most of its demands. Not only had it won recognition as a bargaining agent, it also gained joint control with employers over the hiring process, higher wages, and an overtime provision.

Together with a series of textile strikes in the Carolinas, the major urban strikes of 1934 demonstrated the problems in administering the vague clause of Section 7(a) of the NIRA. The NIRA itself was soon deemed irrelevant, however, when it was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935. In response, the Roosevelt administration fought to pass the National Labor Relations Act (often called the Wagner Act), which the president signed into law on 5 July 1935. Unlike the NIRA, the Wagner Act not only guaranteed the right of workers to bargain collectively, but also specified how that right would be enforced. It also created the National Labor Relations Board to issue injunctions over unfair labor practices, to oversee union elections, and to hear grievances between labor and management.

Key Players

Bridges, Alfred Renton ("Harry") (1901-1990): Head of theILA in San Francisco in the 1930s, Bridges led the 1934 maritime workers' strike. In 1937 he founded the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union and worked as the West Coast director for the CIO in the 1940s. Born in Australia, Bridges became an American citizen in 1945.

Dunne, Vincent Raymond (1890-1970): A follower of the Trotskyite wing of the Communist Party, Dunne helped plan a February 1934 strike that empowered Teamsters' Local 574 in Minneapolis. He was also a leader in the subsequent 36-day trucking strike in July and August 1934, which decisively broke the power of the antiunion Citizens' Alliance in the city.

Johnson, Hugh Samuel (1885-1942): A graduate of the U.S.Military Academy, Johnson eventually reached the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army and helped to draft the first Selective Service Act in 1918. In 1933 Johnson was appointed to head the NRA, which had been created to implement the NIRA. After the Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional in 1935, Johnson went on to lead another New Deal Agency, the Works Progress Administration.

Muste, A. J. (1885-1967): Born in Holland, Muste came to the United States with his family in 1891. Ordained a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in 1909, he left for the Congregational Church in 1914 and declared himself a pacifist in opposition to World War I. The director of the AFL's Brockwood Labor College in the 1920s, Muste founded the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) in 1929. The CPLA in turn spawned the American Workers Party in 1934, which played a pivotal role in assisting Toledo's Auto-Lite strikers. Muste continued to play a role in liberal and pacifist causes during the remainder of his life.

See also: National Industrial Recovery Act; Stock Market Crash; Wagner Act.



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—Timothy G. Borden

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Mass Strikes

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