Labor’s breakthrough in Toledo

September 15, 2009

The year 1934 marked a turning point for the working-class struggle during the Great Depression, with three strikes in three cities--Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis--that showed workers could fight back and win. Clause 7(a) of the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in 1933, had granted workers "the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing." But workers had to make the letter of the law a reality through their own battles with employers.

Here, Elizabeth Schulte tells the story of the Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, where workers and the unemployed united to beat back the bosses and their troops.

THE 1934 Auto-Lite strike in Toledo, Ohio, like the great struggles that same year in San Francisco and Minneapolis, demonstrated how workers--in the midst of the worst economic crisis in living memory--could break through after a series of defeats and win.

Their weapon was a relatively moderate government reform. When the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in May 1933, its main concerns was freeing business from anti-trust laws--the right to unionize contained in Clause 7(a) was almost an afterthought.

For the most part, it set out codes on wages and hours that business would voluntarily follow if they were to be exempted from anti-trust laws. These codes invariable suited employers. The code in the auto industry fixed the minimum wage at 40 to 43 cents an hour, amounting to as little as $16 for a 40-hour work week.

Another code, personally approved by Roosevelt, stated that employers "may exercise their right to select, retain or advance employees on the basis of individual merit, without regard to their membership or non-membership in any organization." Thus, union militants became fair game for reprisals.

Picketers surround Fank Hubay, one of two people killed by National Guardsmen during the Toledo strike
Picketers surround Fank Hubay, one of two people killed by National Guardsmen during the Toledo strike

Roosevelt also added a clause on "proportional representation," which allowed representatives of company-sponsored unions a seat at the bargaining table on a proportional basis, along with legitimate unions that represented workers.

Clause 7(a), which granted workers "the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing," wasn't intended to set off a wave of militant labor struggles. But that's what it did--because workers around the country put it to use in organizing.

A first wave of strikes, like the great textile strike in the South, ended in defeat, as workers faced court injunctions, police violence and company-hired thugs and strikebreakers. But the tables were turned on in Toledo, as well as Minneapolis and San Francisco, as workers used more militant tactics. The involvement of socialists, communists and other radicals in these struggles only made them stronger.

IN 1934, Toledo was, as historian Irving Bernstein called it, "a little Detroit." It was a center for auto manufacturing, especially automotive parts, and the home of corporations like Electric Auto-Lite, which made lighting, starting and ignition systems for several automakers, the largest being Chrysler. Auto-Lite's founder Clem Miniger also controlled the Ohio Bond and Security Bank, and in 1929, could boast a personal fortune of $84 million.

When the depression hit, it hit Toledo hard. Companies went bankrupt and shut the doors of their factories. The Ohio Bond and Security Bank also went under; thousands of workers lost their jobs and savings. One in three workers in a city of 275,000 were on relief.

Miniger became "the most unpopular man in town," Bernstein wrote in his book The Turbulent Years. "A picket sign read, 'We don't need Dillinger--we have Miniger.'" His home had to be protected my armed guard.

Conditions at Auto-Lite--where wages were even lower than the NRA minimum and the drive for output was high--led workers to strike in February 23, 1934, alongside fellow union members in the newly formed AFL Federal Local 18384, who worked at the Spicer, Bingham and Logan plants. But the new and inexperienced local was soon ordered back to work by federal AFL leaders, while they negotiated a settlement with management.

In April, tired of waiting for the company to negotiate, workers went out on strike. The company responded by getting a judge to issue an injunction that limited pickets at the plant. Within three weeks, the bosses had gathered some 1,800 strikebreakers at Auto-Lite.

What else to read

For an exciting account of the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, see Art Preis' Labor's Giant Step. Irving Bernstein's The Turbulent Years, now out of print, but soon to be reissued by Haymarket Books, offers a detailed retelling of the strike as well.

Sharon Smith's Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States offers an invaluable survey of the U.S. labor movement, with a section on 1934 and its importance for future labor struggles.

The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs by Sidney Lens provides a history and analysis of the U.S.'s most significant labor struggles, including the Toledo strike.

But workers had a secret weapon--the Lucas Country Unemployed League, led by A.J. Muste and the American Workers Party.

The AWP grew out of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action in 1933--the small Marxist group stressed the unity of workers and the unemployed. Muste, a Dutch-born clergyman who lost his church because of his opposition to the First World War and who became a life-long independent radical and pacifist, cut his teeth during the Lawrence textile strike of 1919. His politics were a mix of religious radicalism and militant labor activism that leaned toward socialism, but not Stalinism.

The AWP saw its focus as organizing unemployed workers in militant struggles to demand relief, but also to support the struggles of striking workers. By building active solidarity between employed and unemployed, they could defeat employers' attempts to divide them. Together, all workers--employed and unemployed--could win better living standards.

Soon, the Unemployed League had organized mass pickets at the plant gates.

When an injunction was applied to the Unemployed League, two of its officers, along with several local members, sent a letter to the judge informing him that they would break the injunction and encourage mass picketing.

After they were arrested, tried and released for defying the injunction, workers walked right back to the picket line directly from court. Actions like these showed with crystal clarity which side the courts and judges were on--and made the picket lines even bigger.

Socialist historian Art Preis reprints the Unemployed League's May 5 letter in Labor's Giant Step:

Honorable Judge Stuart:

On Monday morning, May 7, at the Auto-Lite plant, the Lucas County Unemployed League, in protest of the injunction issued by your court, will deliberately and specifically violate the injunction enjoining us from sympathetically picketing peacefully in support of the striking Auto Workers Federal Union.

We sincerely believe that this court intervention preventing us from picketing is an abrogation of our democratic rights, contrary to our constitutional liberties and contravenes the spirit and the letter of Section 7a of the NRA.

Further, we believe that the spirit and intent of this arbitrary injunction is another specific example of an organized movement to curtail the rights of all workers to organize, strike and picket effectively.

Therefore, with full knowledge of the principles involved and the possible consequences, we openly and publicly violate an injunction which, in our opinion, is a suppressive and oppressive act against all workers.

Sincerely yours,
Lucas County Unemployed League
Anti-Injunction Committee
Sam Pollock, Sec'y

TOLEDO WORKERS and the unemployed responded in kind, and soon, more than 10,000 people were turning out to the picket line. On May 23, as country deputies were massed on the roof of the Auto-Lite plant, with tear gas aimed at strikers, a strikebreaker from inside the plant threw a bolt out a plant window that hit a picket, Alma Hahn, sending her to the hospital. Picketers grew angrier, as more police showed up and began beating individual strikers.

When the cops tried to escort strikebreakers out of the plant, picketers responded with a barrage of bricks. Tear gas bombs rained down from the factory windows, as company thugs wielded bats and fired a water hose at the crowd.

At one point, strike supporters, choking from the tear gas fumes, fell back--but only to regroup. In the end, the police and company thugs were the ones to retreat. As Preis describes the scene:

Choked by the tear gas fired from inside the plant, it was the police who finally gave up the battle. Then, the thousands of pickets laid siege to the plant, determined to maintain their picket line.

The workers improvised giant slingshots from inner tubes. They hurled whole bricks through the plant windows. The plant soon was without lights. The scabs cowered in the dark. The frightened deputies set up machine guns inside every entranceway. It was not until the arrival of 900 National Guardsmen, 15 hours later, that the scabs were finally released, looking a sorry sight, as the press reported it.

Then followed one of the most amazing battles in U. S. labor history...With their bare fists and rocks, the workers fought a six-day pitched battle with the National Guard. They fought from rooftops, from behind billboards and came through alleys to flank the guardsmen. "The men in the mob shouted vile epithets at the troopers," complained the Associated Press, and the women jeered them with suggestions that they "go home to mama and their paper dolls."

But the strikers and their thousands of sympathizers did more than shame the young National Guardsmen. They educated them and tried to win them over. Speakers stood on boxes in front of the troops and explained what the strike was about and the role the troops were playing as strikebreakers. World War I veterans put on their medals and spoke to the boys in uniform like Dutch uncles. The women explained what the strike meant to their families.

The press reported that some of the guardsmen just quit and went home. Others voiced sympathy with the workers. (A year later, when Toledo unionists went to Defiance, Ohio, to aid the Pressed Steel Company strike, they found that 8 percent of the strikers had been National Guardsmen serving in uniform in the Auto-Lite strike. That was where they learned the lesson of unionism.)

During the six-day pitched battle, strikers fought toe to toe against the troops, with scores of national guardsmen sent to the hospital and scores more demoralized. On May 31, the employers had to turn out the strikebreakers from the plant and call off the troops.

By June, a general strike was on the table, with 98 out of 99 AFL locals voting in favor. Some 40,000 workers and supporters turned out for a rally on June 1. On June 4, the company agreed to a six-month contract that included a 5 percent wage increase, with a 5 percent minimum that was above the industry code.

The contract also included a priority system for re-employment of workers that ensured Local 18384 members were rehired. The contract, however, didn't include a "proportional representation clause"--the first not to do so. This succeeded in freezing out the company union and accepting Local 18384 as the "exclusive" bargaining agent.

The Toledo victory--the product of militant tactics, radical leadership and the rank-and-file workers and the unemployed taking the lead--would have ramifications for the rest of the labor movement for years to come.

"The path was opened for organization of the entire automobile industry," explains author Sidney Lens in Labor Wars. "With the Auto-Lite victory under their belts, the Toledo auto workers were to organize 19 plants before the year was out, and, before another 12 months, were to lead the first successful strike in a GM plant, the real beginning of the conquest of General Motors."

Further Reading

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