Posted 10 years ago on Jan. 5, 2012, 9:42 a.m. EST by flip
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During the early 1930s, resentment over speed-up and lack of freedom at work was rampant among auto workers. Sit-downs at Fisher Body Plants in Cleveland and Detroit caught the owners totally unprepared. When two welders were laid of at a plant in Flint, Michigan, the sit-downers were so unified that Fisher management persuaded cops to drive all over town to tell the welders that they got their jobs back so other workers would start production again.
On December 30, 1936, workers at Fisher Body No. 1 in Flint discovered that the company was stockpiling dies (to outlast an expected strike) and occupied the plant. For several weeks, they governed themselves in their own committees that were a model of democracy unknown in the official union structure. When cops tried to stop supporters from bringing food into the plant, a fight of several hours resulted in the strikers chasing them off.
On January 11, 1937, the liberal New Deal Governor Murphy ordered the National Guard into Flint. Thousands of industrial unionists poured into Flint to protect the sit-downers by preventing the “friend of labor” politician from using the Guard. This began the great wave of 1937 sit-down strikes.
By the time General Motors signed its first contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW), nearly 50,000 workers had just been involved in strikes inside their plants. There were 60 sit-down strikes in Chicago in the month of March alone. The 1800 blue collar and white collar workers who sat down together at the Chicago Mail Order Co. won a 10% pay increase. And the 450 waitresses and other employees who sat at the tables of Chicago’s three large de Met’s Tea Room won a 25% wage hike.
When the mayor of Amsterdam, New York tried to hire a private firm to replace garbage men who were sitting at their trucks, the strikers convinced their “replacements” not to scab. Women at a Philadelphia hosiery mill halted the movement of machinery by sitting down.
In Milwaukee, the manager of Yahr Lange Drug Col had the nasty habit of firing workers when their seniority earned them a raise. So, they sat down and radioed salesmen, who pulled their cars over and sat in them until the manager had been removed. There were thousands of strikes varying from a handful of workers to massive organizing efforts. Altogether, these strikes involved close to half a million Americans sitting down at their jobs.
The tactic made famous by rubber and auto workers was especially popular in Detroit. Employees at the Newton Packing Co. and Durable Laundry occupied their workplaces. Clerks sat down at Crowley-Milner and Frand & Cedar Dept. Stores. And, there were sit-downs at hotels, lumberyards, tobacco plants, and electrical factories.
Motormen on Chicago freight subways sat down when their employer announced layoffs. Sit-down strikes included furniture workers in St. Louis, shirt company employees in Pulaski, Tennessee, leather workers in Girard, Ohio, broom manufacturing workers in Pueblo, Colorado, and oil workers in Seminole, Oklahoma. Department stores were particularly prone to sit-downs because employees could be replaced so easily in regular strikes. In Pittsburgh, C.G. Murphy store employees had a “folded arms” strike when they found no chairs available for a sit-down.
Sit-downs were successful even though unions had just been decimated by the Great Depression. They often occurred in shops where unions were weak. Workers at Yahr Lange Drug Co. had rejected unionization shortly before their sit-down. In 1934, union membership among Flint auto workers was only 528. The 137 tire builders who began the Great Goodyear Strike of 1936 with their sit-down included hardly any member of the rubber workers union.
In fact, sit-downs sometimes occurred because people distrusted union officials. Workers were frequently angry at delays in grievance procedures and the lack of attention to workplace demands. Since sit-downs are direct action by the people who see an injustice, there is no one to sell out the agreement. With a sit-down, workers do not go back to work until people are rehired, the workload is reduced to a human pace, dangerous chemicals are removed, sexual discrimination is stopped, or wages are restored.
“Normal” strikes involve unions’ giving management weeks or months of advance notice, which allows the company time to stockpile goods or otherwise prepare to defeat the strike. But both management and union leaders are caught unprepared by sit-downs. Management must respond quickly because the action brings production to a grinding halt. Workers then have tremendous leverage. Since they are occupying their place of work, it is extremely difficult for management to find scabs to replace sit-downers.