Sit down strikes

Anniversary of the 1937 US sit-down strike wave: Remembering another Occupy movement

Sit-in strikers at General Motors’ Fisher No. 1 plant.

By Don Fitz

[See also With Babies & Banners, the classic 1977 documentary about the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike, and the role of women in it.]

January 3, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The year 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of the great sit-down strike wave of 1937. It also begins the second year of the Occupy movement, which has more than a few similarities to the time when hundreds of thousands of Americans occupied their workplaces.

The first recorded sit-down strike in the US was actually in 1906 among General Electric workers of Schenectady, New York. When three organisers for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) were fired, 3000 of their fellow workers sat down and stopped production.

By the 1930s, the IWW was on the wane, but many of its organisers were active and workers across the US had seen its tactics first hand.

In 1933, workers in the Austin, Minnesota, Hormel plant had many complaints against the company: raises habitually went to foremen’s friends; workers were fired and then rehired in other departments at lower pay; before election day, foremen would threaten layoffs if Farmer-Labor Party candidates won, and employees who challenged the practices were told that they could quit. The final straw came when Jay Hormel, who fancied himself to be a “benevolent dictator”, attempted to impose a weekly pay deduction for an insurance plan.

When a worker in Hog Kill was pressured to sign up, other workers shut down the floor for 10 minutes, until his insurance card was torn up. News of the brief sit down spread throughout the plant. That July night, workers met at Austin’s Sutton Park to form a union.

The union charter followed the IWW pattern of grouping all workers into one big union regardless of craft. It invited membership from labourers throughout Austin and the surrounding area. The workers named themselves the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW).

Jay Hormel promised to recognise the union, grant seniority rights and arbitrate grievances. But for six weeks, Hormel refused to put anything in writing and on November 10 workers voted to strike. The Farmer-Laborite Minnesota governor made public speeches backing the strikers while he secretly mobilised the National Guard 30 miles from Austin.

Support for the strike was overwhelming. Since the IUAW had endorsed farmers’ efforts to raise their prices, the Farmers’ Holiday Association patrolled roads leading into Austin to halt livestock and scabs. Strikers occupied the plant and, as Stan Weir recounted the story,

food, bedding, cigarettes, reading material and playing cards were brought to them by family and friends. They came out of the plant several days later with one of the first industrial union contracts in mass production history.

Great Goodyear Strike

The best-known early sit-down strikes were in Ohio. Jeremy Brecher described their humble beginnings in his book, Strike! Sometime in the early 1930s, two factory baseball teams in Akron, Ohio, objected to the umpire because he was not in the union. They stopped playing and sat in the field until a new umpire was found.

A few days later, a supervisor at a rubber factory insulted several workers. Remembering the ball game, they turned off their machines and sat at their work benches. The work stoppage spread throughout the plant and, in less than an hour, the company had given in. Between 1933 and 1936, the practice of sit-down strikes grew among Akron rubber workers.

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