The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 buoyed the hopes of American workers. For the first time, the federal government officially encouraged the process of unionism and collective bargaining. By mid 1936, however, this optimism faded, as workers found themselves still vehemently fighting anti-union employers who refused to recognize the Act's constitutionality. In response, many workers adopted more aggressive and creative tactics to force their employers to the bargaining table. This new shop-floor militancy and ingenuity is best illustrated by the sit-down strike wave of 1936 to 1937, during which nearly 500,000 workers struck, not by erecting picket lines, but by laying down their tools and refusing to leave their employer's property.
The first wide-scale use of the sit-down strike occurred in January 1936 at Firestone's Akron, Ohio, tire plant. Worker-management relations in Akron had deteriorated through late 1935 and early 1936. The main points of contention concerned the lowering of piece rates, the length of the workday, and management's continued harassment of union members and activists. This frustration with management was further exacerbated by what many workers viewed as the American Federation of Labor's (AFL) conservative approach to labor relations. Tensions finally boiled over and in January 1936 a small group of militant workers peacefully occupied Firestone's main tire plant and brought production to a standstill.
The sit-down strike had many advantages over the traditional picket line. First, because workers physically held possession of company property, management was unlikely to do anything that might harm the expensive machinery. Second, occupying the factory made it much more difficult for the company to bring in replacement workers. Finally, and most importantly, this tactic permitted a militant minority of workers to force employers to the bargaining table. To succeed, strikers only needed enough workers to retain control of the plant. The success of a traditional strike, however, depended on near total participation. Though the Akron strike did not end with the signing of a formal contract, the workers did compel Firestone to bargain with their chosen representatives. Furthermore, the strike illuminated a growing militancy among American workers who were unwilling to wait for the government or the traditional labor movement to come to their rescue.
Though the Akron rubber workers were among the first to successfully employ the sit-down strike, this tactic is most famously associated with the United Automobile Workers (UAW) efforts to organize General Motors (GM) during the winter of 1936 to 1937. Although autoworkers were relatively well paid, there was growing discontent over frequent seasonal layoffs, the speed-up of the assembly line, and the near dictatorial powers of foreman to hire, fire, and discriminate against union supporters. These grievances led to a series of strikes, conducted without official union approval, during the summer and early fall of 1936. Relations took a turn for the worse in December 1936, when GM turned down the request of Homer Martin, president of the UAW, to discuss worker grievances. In response, workers seized control of GM's Fisher Body plant in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 28. Two days later workers at the company's Fisher Body No. 1 and No. 2 plants in Flint, Michigan, also sat down on the job and brought production to a complete halt. Within a few days, this core group of workers managed to idle nearly 120,000 of GM's 150,000 workers.
General Motors reacted by securing a court injunction requiring the sit-down strikers to vacate the company's plants. Confident the company would not rush the plant, the workers ignored the court order. The workers' hopes were further buoyed by the landslide reelection of President Franklin Roosevelt in November 1936. The same polling day witnessed the election of several prolabor governors, including Frank Murphy of Michigan. While in the past employers could usually expect the governor or president to enforce judicial rulings against workers, the elections of 1936 temporarily altered the political balance of power. Governor Murphy refused to enforce the injunction, and instead of using troops to break up the strike, he deployed them to protect the workers from local authorities who sided with GM.
Realizing that neither Roosevelt nor Murphy would enforce the injunctions, and watching its competitors gain in market share, GM management finally decided to enter into negotiations in early February. The two sides signed a formal agreement on February 11, 1936. Though the agreement did not result in a complete victory for the workers in that the UAW did not achieve exclusive representation rights, it nevertheless did compel GM to recognize the UAW as the bargaining representative for its members. Most importantly, though, the workers had successfully defeated the nation's largest employer and illuminated the power of the sit-down strike.
The impact of the Flint sit-down strike reverberated well beyond the auto industry. Workers inspired by the Flint strikers flocked to the labor movement, especially the new industrial unions associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The most important post-Flint victory occurred on March 12, 1937, when, without a strike, U.S. Steel signed an agreement with John Lewis recognizing the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee as the bargaining representative for its members. Thus, by the spring of 1937, two of the nation's largest, most anti-union corporations were organized. The sit-down strike, however, quickly disappeared as a primary weapon in labor's arsenal. Workers first abandoned the tactic because of growing public resentment over what was deemed to be the lawless nature of the labor movement and its lack of respect for property rights. Political support for these actions also ebbed as public resentment began to rise. Furthermore sit down strikes became less necessary when the Supreme Court upheld, in April 1937, the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act. Now workers had a legal means for achieving unionization and no longer needed to occupy their employer's property—which, in NLRB v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp (1939), the Supreme Court ruled constituted an illegal occupation of private property.
See Also:AMERICAN FEDERATION OF LABOR (AFL); COLLECTIVE BARGAINING; CONGRESS OF INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATIONS (CIO); ORGANIZED LABOR; STRIKES; STEEL WORKERS' ORGANIZING COMMITTEE (SWOC); UNITED AUTOMOBILE WORKERS (UAW).
Dubofsky, Melvyn. The State and Labor in Modern America. 1994.
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Douglas J. Feeney
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 anti–New 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).
Zieger, Robert H. The CIO: 1935–1955. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
See also American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Labor ; National Labor Relations Board v. Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation ; Strikes ; United Automobile Workers of America .
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 (1964–1975).
See also: American Federation of Labor, Labor Movement, Labor Unionism, Strike, United Auto Workers
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.