The sit-down strikes

June 10, 2011

The years 1936 and 1937 represented the highest point of class struggle in the U.S. to date--when a wave of sit-down strikes swept across U.S. industry. Those strikes built the Congress of Industrial Organizations and changed the face of the labor movement. Sharon Smith recounts the story in an article that appeared in the in June 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

FROM THE time of the founding in 1936, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) was pulled in two directions. On the one hand, it was a mass industrial union, built from below through the succession of rank-and-file-struggles that culminated in the sit-down wave of 1936-37.

On the other hand, the union officials at the CIO's helm from the very beginning sought to curtail rank-and-file initiative, and they looked to the Roosevelt administration to help them do it.

CIO leaders like John L. Lewis sought a cozy relationship with Roosevelt, who they felt could be cajoled into a pro-union position. Thus, the year 1936 saw unions like Lewis's United Mine Workers pump millions into the Democratic Party's campaign to re-elect Roosevelt.

Other union leaders, like Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, helped found pseudo-labor parties, like Labor's Non-Partisan League or the American Labor Party, to garner Roosevelt votes from union members who could not stomach voting for the Democratic Party.

Flint sit-down strikes during the occupation of one of GM's plants
Flint sit-down strikes during the occupation of one of GM's plants

Lewis went so far as to say in 1936, "Labor has gained more under President Roosevelt than under any president in memory."

But as Art Preis points out in his firsthand history of the U.S. labor movement, Labor's Giant Step:

He [Lewis] did not say that more company unions had been organized, more workers killed, wounded and jailed, more troops called out against strikers under Roosevelt than under any president in memory.

He did not tell how Roosevelt had strengthened the big banks and industrial corporations and helped tighten the stranglehold of the monopolies on the American economy.

The CIO leaders, virtually all of whom were trained in the conservative traditions of the American Federation of Labor, likewise believed that the CIO could negotiate its labor agreements in the manner that they were accustomed--across the negotiating table.

The last thing they had in mind was the wave of sit-down strikes that involved nearly a half million workers in 1937.

THE FIRST recorded sit-down strike of the decade took place in November 1935 in Akron, Ohio, when all rubber workers in the Goodyear truck tire department staged a two-hour strike to protest a wage cut during which workers sat down while a delegation went to negotiate with management.

Management restored the old wage rates.

By January 1936, 2.500 Firestone workers struck to protest the firing of a union member, in a sit-down that lasted several days. Against the strike ended in victory.

Soon the sit-down trend had spread to the auto industry and on December 28, 1936, more than 1,000 workers at Cleveland Fisher Body occupied the plant, demanding a national auto contract.

Within two days, the strike spread to Flint, Mich. Within three weeks, the strike would shut down GM operations not only in Flint, Detroit and Toledo but also at plants as far away as Kansas City and Atlanta.

By the end of the strike, 140,000 of GM's 150,000 production workers had been involved in either a work stoppage or a plant occupation, making demands that included union recognition and a signed contract, the 30-hour week and six-hour day, a seniority system and union input into the seed of the assembly line.

In the first 10 days of February, GM produced only 151 cars in the entire country.

The 44-day Flint sit-down strike, which was led by shop floor militants and socialists, has become legendary--for its outstanding rank-and-file solidarity, which drew in thousands of workers from nearby cities, as well as its shrewd execution, which repeatedly outsmarted GM management in their attempt to force the strikers out of the plants.

CIO officials did everything they could to dissuade the auto workers from starting the sit-down, but once it began, Lewis cleverly announced his support, in the hopes of regaining control over the strikers.

And Lewis appealed to Roosevelt to intervene on behalf of the GM strikers:

The workers of this country expect the administration to help the workers in every legal way and to support the workers in General Motors' plants.

In response, Roosevelt only reprimanded Lewis for requesting him to take sides.

BUT THE Flint sit-downers had already taken matters into their own hands.

The first injunction against the strikers was issued on January 2 by Judge Edward Black. But that injunction was never enforced because strikers disclosed that Black owned $219,000 worth of GM shares!

When Flint's police force attacked Fisher Body Plant No. 2 on January 12, police used guns and tear gas to try to force strikers out of the plant. Strikers fought back by hurling nuts and bolts and soda bottles, and eventually by shooting freezing water at police with the plant fire hose, which finally drove the police back.

Before the three-hour battle ended, however , 14 workers suffered gunshot wounds--and several police cars had been seized by strikers.

When word of another injunction came in early February, the strike leaders, under the direction of socialist Kermit Johnson, staged a brilliant diversion.

They pretended, for the benefit of the company spies in their ranks, that they planned to occupy plant No. 9, leaving plant No. 4--the real target unguarded for strikers to enter and begin a sit-down.

When, on February 8, the company turned off the heat to freeze the strikers out, they opened up all the windows because, if the fire equipment froze, GM's fire insurance would be canceled.

The next day, Gov. Frank Murphy, a New Deal Democrat, called in the National Guard. But in a state as heavily unionized as Michigan, he knew his political future would be ruined if he attacked the unarmed GM strikers.

GM management was left with no choice but to give in to the bulk of the strikers' demands. On February 11, GM signed a six-month contract recognizing the United Auto Workers.

In the wake of the victory of the Flint sit-down strike, sit-downs began taking place all over the country--more than half of them demanding union recognition and most against the wishes of CIO leaders.

In an effort to dissociate the CIO from the wage of sit-downs, Lewis states, "A CIO contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs or any other kind of strike."

JOHN L. Lewis had good reason to dislike the sit-downs. Factory occupations are among the most effective weapons of self-organization available to striking workers.

And factory occupations have been used effectively by workers in countries all over the world for the last century.

The main reason why sit-downs are so effective is that it is impossible for management to use strikebreakers to defeat a strike, since the workers are literally sitting on the means of production.

Secondly, whereas police customarily inflict violence upon picket lines--only to turn around and blame the strikers--it is much more difficult to do the same thing to workers occupying a plant. For one thing, it is somewhat difficult to attack the occupying strikers without damaging the company's property. But also, it is much more difficult to charge sit-downers with starting the violence.

Thus, as Preis shows, out of the more than 1,000 sit-downs strikes reported by the press in 1936 and 1937, only 25 were broken by the police.

But another feature of the sit-down strike makes union officials particularly uneasy. The very nature of factory occupations places control of the strike solidly in the hands of the strikers themselves.

And a factory occupation, if it's to succeed, must involve fairly extensive organization, both to protect the plant and to fulfill the basic physical needs of the strikers.

Thus, the Flint sit-downers had daily meetings of all strikers in the plant. They organized routine clean-up rituals, defense drills, recreation and even "courts" where grievances could be raised (many, apparently, in jest, as a form of entertainment.)

Strike supporters and families organized the picket lines and food supplies, and raised money for the strikers. Solidarity networks of union activists organized unionists to come to Flint to take part in solidarity actions and mass picketing.

In short, factory occupations give workers a taste of taking real control over their own lives. That's why after the strike was over, many of the Flint sit-downers recalled their experience inside the plant with genuine affection.

As one worker, quoted in Jeremy Brecher's book Strike, put it, "We are all one happy family now. We all feel fine and have plenty to eat. We have several good banjo players and singers. We sing and cheer the Fisher boys and they return it."

According to one historian, there were 170 sit-downs in GM plants alone between March and June 1937. One GM worker later recalled, "every time a dispute came up, the fellows would have a tendency to sit down and just stop working."

The use of the sit-down made the strike wave of 1936-37, which built the CIO, the highest point of class struggle in the history of the U.S. labor movement. And the workers who were involved were changed forever by the sit-downs, in their awareness of their own power as a class.

This article originally appeared in the in June 1990 issue of Socialist Worker.

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