A History to be proud of and to be told about
Auto-Lite Strike (1934)
The city of Toledo was financially devastated by the Great Depression. The Willys-Overland automobile company, the city’s largest employer, declared bankruptcy. The city’s largest bank collapsed, along with most of the city’s banks and savings and loan associations. Unemployment in the city reached 70 percent.
The strike against Electric Auto-Lite in Toledo, Ohio, was the first of a three strikes in 1934 that forged a new American labor left. The strike is notable for a five-day running battle between roughly 6,000 strikers and 1,300 members of the Ohio National Guard. Known as the “Battle of Toledo,” the clash left two strikers dead and more than 200 injured. After passage of the National Labor Relations Act, union membership swelled. Still, the American Federation of Labor stuck to craft unionism, the principle that unions should be organized by trade, rather than by industry. This made organizing areas like the auto industry difficult. The AFL authorized “federal labor unions,” temporary, cross-union organizations designed to win limited concessions around specific strikes. It was also a multi-employer union, and its members belonged not only to the Electric Auto-Lite Company but also to the Bingham Stamping and Tool Company and the Logan Gear Company (both subsidiaries of Electric Auto-Lite) as well as the Spicer Manufacturing Company. Because of this diverse membership, workers at one employer could strike and the union would remain financially solvent. Auto-Lite workers, organized around FLU 18384 walked out, demanding recognition of their union and a 10 percent increase in wages. Employers met halfway, giving a 5 percent wage increase and offering negotiations later this year. When a contract failed to materialize, workers walked out. The strike began to collapse until the American Workers Party, led by Dutch A.J. Muste, intervened and organized the unemployed to prevent strikebreaking. It is not clear how the AWP became involved in the Auto-Lite strike. But by the end of April, its leaders (Budenz in particular) were deeply involved in planning strike strategy. The AWP’s first step was to ring the Auto-Lite plant with thousands of unemployed workers, effectively sealing off the grounds. An injunction limiting the number of union and LCUL pickets to 25 at each entrance to the two-building plant was defied. The firm hired approximately 1,500 strikebreakers as replacement workers to re-open the plant and start production. The company also hired armed guards to protect the replacement workers, and the Lucas County sheriff’s department deputized large numbers of special deputies (paid for by Auto-Lite) to assist the company’s private security personnel.Additionally, Auto-Lite purchased $11,000 worth of tear and vomit gas munitions. City and company officials began to worry that the Toledo police, who were disaffected because of wage cuts and layoffs, were beginning to sympathize with the strikers and were no longer reliable.
A little over a month into the strike, demonstrations numbered over 10,000. Sheriff’s deputies began making arrests and beat an elderly worker. Open street fighting erupted between police and strikers, leading to workers seizing a fire hose and turning it back on police. When police began using tear and vomit gas, striking workers attacked the Auto-Lite plant with bricks and stones, burned police cars and used the inner tubes as slingshots. 900 (later rising to 1,350) Ohio National Guardsmen, eight rifle companies and three machine-gun companies cleared a path through the picket line, and the sheriff’s deputies, private security guards and replacement workers were able to leave the plant.The National Guardsmen charged with bayonets, forcing the crowd back. Again the mob advanced. The soldiers fired into the air with no effect, then fired into the crowd—killing 27-year-old Frank Hubay (shot four times) and 20-year-old Steve Cyigon. Neither was an Auto-Lite worker, but had joined the crowd out of sympathy for the strikers. At least 15 others also received bullet wounds.
While Auto-Lite picketers battled police, 51 out of 103 union locals voted in favor of a general strike. A company “union” calling itself the Auto-Lite Council injected itself into the negotiations, demanding that all replacement workers be permitted to keep their jobs. In contrast, the union demanded that all strikebreakers be fired. The Toledo Central Labor Council continued to plan for a general strike. By now, 68 of the 103 unions had voted to support a general strike until 85 of the CLC’s member unions had pledged to support the general strike
By the end of the week, violence and street battles died down. While the strike ultimately secured relatively modest reforms — recognition, an additional 5 percent wage increase and a minimum wage of 35 cents per hour — it led to intense unionization in the city. Toledo, Ohio remains one of the most unionized cities in America today. Instead of a general strike the Toledo CLC held a victory rally at which 20,000 people paraded
West Coast Waterfront Strike (1934)
The Industrial Workers of the World first began organizing longshoremen under the auspices of the Maritime Workers Union. Most longshoremen, however, belonged to a company union, which handled all hiring. The Communist Party attempted to organize maritime workers under the Maritime Workers Industrial Union, part of its push for red unions during their abortive “third period.” The MWIU never gained mass acceptance, but it did provide a home for aging IWW militants like Harry Bridges. Soon the National Industrial Recovery Act led to a spike in union membership. On the docks, this meant growth in International Longshoreman’s Association numbers. After union leadership accepted an agreement brokered by the Roosevelt Administration and company leaders, the west coast ports exploded.
On May 9, 1934 every West Coast port shut down as every longshoreman walked out. Beginning in San Pedro, the strike quickly spread to Oakland, Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. In San Francisco, the longshore strike coincided with a four-day general strike. The employers recruited strikebreakers, housing them on moored ships or in walled compounds and bringing them to and from work under police protection. Strikers attacked the stockade housing strikebreakers in San Pedro on May 15; two strikers were shot and killed by the employers’ private guards. Similar battles broke out in all the other ports. Strikers also succeeded in slowing down or stopping the movement of goods by rail out of the ports. Some Teamsters supported the strikers by refusing to handle “hot cargo” – goods which had been unloaded by strikebreakers, although the Teamsters’ leadership was not as supportive. By the end of May Dave Beck, president of the Seattle Teamsters, and Mike Casey, president of those in San Francisco, thought the maritime strike had lasted too long. They encouraged the strikers to take what they could get from the employers and threatened to use Teamsters as strikebreakers if the ILA didn’t return to work.
The more conservative leadership of the general strike assumed command over the entire west coast port strike, dismantling into its constituent parts. Strikes, albeit localized and cut off from one another, continued as longshoremen and seamen returned to work. Employers on the ports conceded to many smaller demands, further emboldening the workers. ILWU stops work every July 5 to commemorate “Bloody Thursday,” the day of pitched battles between labor and capital. Police fired tear gas canisters into the crowd, then followed with a charge by mounted police. A group of strikers surrounded a police car and attempted to tip it over, prompting the police to fire shotguns in the air, and then revolvers at the crowd. One of the policemen then fired a shotgun into the crowd, striking three men in intersection of Steuart and Mission streets. One of the men, Howard Sperry, a striking longshoreman, later died of his wounds. Another man Nick Bordoise–an out of work cook who had been volunteering at the ILA strike kitchen–was shot and like Sperry, died in hospital from his wounds. As strikers carried wounded picketers into the ILA union hall police fired on the hall and lobbed tear gas canisters at nearby hotels. At this point someone reportedly called the union hall to ask “Are you willing to arbitrate now?” The National Guard moved in that evening to patrol the waterfront. Similarly, federal soldiers of the United States Army stationed at the Presidio were placed on alert. The picketers pulled back, unwilling to take on armed soldiers in an uneven fight. Thousands of strikers, families and sympathizers took part in a funeral procession, stretching more than a mile and a half, for Nicholas Bordois and Howard Sperry. The march made an enormous impact on San Franciscans, making a general strike, which had formerly been “the visionary dream of a small group of the most radical workers . . . a practical and realizable objective.” After dozens of Bay Area unions voted for a general strike over the next few days, the San Francisco Labor Council voted to call a general strike. The strike lasted four days. Non-union truck drivers joined the first day; the movie theaters and night clubs closed down. While food deliveries continued with the permission of the strike committee, many small businesses closed, posting signs in support of the strikers. Reports that unions in Portland and Seattle would also begin general strikes could potentially spread. An agreement to independent arbitration ended the strike but not the suppression. The National Guard and other authorities collaborated on vigilante raids on union and Leftist offices.
The West Coast Waterfront Strike led to a rebirth of union militancy. Initially considered a defeat and a victory for the employers by some many longshoremen and seamen did not. Spontaneous strikes over grievances and workplace conditions broke out as strikers returned to their jobs, with longshoremen and teamsters supporting their demands and employers conceded many of these battles, giving workers even more confidence. The union soon exploited the “quickie strike” tactic to extract many concessions from employers. Even though an arbitrator held that the 1935 Agreement prohibited sympathy strikes, the union’s members nonetheless refused to cross other unions’ picket lines. Longshoremen also refused to handle “hot cargo” destined for non-union warehouses that the union was attempting to organize. The ILWU has frequently stopped work for political protests against, among other things, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, fascist intervention in Spain’s civil war, South Africa’s system of apartheid and the Iraq War.
Minneapolis Teamster Strike (1934)
The Minneapolis General Strike of 1934 grew out of a strike by Teamsters against most of the trucking companies operating in Minneapolis, a major distribution center for the Upper Midwest. While the Auto-Lite Strike played a crucial role in growing the Workers’ Party while, the Minneapolis Teamster Strike is closely tied to the history of the American Trotskyist movement.
Prior to the strike, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters brought new meaning to the term “conservative union.” The IBT opposed strikes in almost any form. Its rules required a two thirds vote of the membership to authorize any strike action and that gave the International President the power to withhold strike benefits if he believed that a local union had struck prematurely and it also divided its members into separate unions along craft or industry lines: ice wagon drivers in one local, produce drivers in another, milk drivers in a third, and so forth.
Unfortunately, for bosses and conservative union bureaucrats alike, the three Dunne brothers and Carl Skoglund, members of the Communist League of America (Opposition), a group sympathetic to Trotsky, were working in Minneapolis at the time of the strike. They quickly recruited erstwhile Republican truck driver Farrell Dobbs who became a Trotskyist simply because he thought they were the most militant opponents of the trucking bosses. They began by organizing coal drivers through a strike in the coldest part of 1933 that ignored both the Teamsters cumbersome approval procedures and the ineffective mediation procedures offered under the National Industrial Recovery Act. The union had prepared for the strike in a number of ways. It rented a large hall that could be used as a strike headquarters, kitchen and infirmary. It organized a women’s auxiliary to staff the headquarters. Finally, it entered into discussions with the sympathetic leaders of organizations of farmers and the unemployed to obtain their support for the upcoming strike.
On May 16, 1934 commercial transport in Minneapolis ground to a halt. The striking teamsters allowed farmers to bring their goods directly to grocers, but otherwise the city was effectively shut down. Employers formed a goon-squad called the Citizen’s Alliance to physically attack striking truckers, hoping to force them back to work. After a brief settlement, the truckers went back on strike, leading to a quasi-general strike — union sympathy boycotts of “hot goods” would have shut down the entire city had truck drivers not taken turns delivering essential goods. Minneapolis Police and private guards beat a number of strikers trying to prevent strikebreakers from unloading a truck in that area and waylaid several strikers who had responded to a report that scab drivers were unloading newsprint at the two major dailies’. Fighting intensified when the police, augmented by several hundred newly deputized members of the Citizens Alliance attempted to open up the market for trucking. The fighting resumed on Tuesday, May 22. The picketers took the offensive and succeeded in driving both police and deputies from the market and the area around the union’s headquarters. Two deputies, one a member of the board of directors of the Citizens Alliance, were killed in the fighting.
Other unions, particularly in the building trades, began to strike in sympathy with the Teamsters. The American Federation of Labor Central Labor Council in Minneapolis offered financial and moral support for the strike, allowing the union to coordinate some of its picketing activities from its headquarters. The employers and the union reached an agreement on a contract that provided union recognition, reinstatement for all strikers, seniority and a no-discrimination clause. The membership approved it overwhelmingly. The union thought that it had the employers’ agreement to include the “inside workers”, the warehouse employees as well as the drivers and loaders. When the employers reneged on that agreement the strike re-commenced. The union’s leadership ordered its members to picket without carrying any clubs or weapons of any sort. The police, on the other hand, armed themselves with riot guns. The police opened fire on the strikers. Two strikers were dead and sixty-seven wounded. Governor Olson declared martial law and mobilized four thousand National Guardsmen, who began issuing operating permits to truck drivers. National Guard troops seized strike headquarters and placed arrested union leaders in a stockade at the state fairgrounds. Although the strike was gravely weakened by martial law and economic pressure, union leaders made it clear that it would continue. A federal mediator got acceptance of a settlement proposal, incorporating the union’s major demands. The settlement was ratified and the back of employer resistance to unionization in Minneapolis was broken and led to the inclusion of “inside” workers.
In the aftermath of this strike thousands of other workers in other industries organized with the assistance of Local 574. Another more lasting effects Farrell Dobbs organized truckers throughout the entire Midwest whose efforts led in turn to the transformation of the Teamsters from a craft union, made up of locals with a parochial focus on their own craft and locality, into a truly national union.
The Akron Rubber Strike (1936)
One big strike was staged in 1913 by the Industrial Workers of the World and led by Bill Haywood. The rubber companies broke that strike through the tactics of organizing a Citizens’ Police Association, comprising 1,000 vigilantes, and the establishment of martial law. Other unionization efforts were thwarted, through the use of spies, widespread firing of men for union activities, and other forms of intimidation, and by factional warfare within labor’s own ranks. The AFLinstead of keeping these industrial workers together in one big union, distributed them among 13 separate ones. Under the cumbersome system of craft organization workers couldn’t make headway. The Akron work-force pressed for an international of their own, and in 1935 William Green received a charter. The delegates insisted on electing their own officers.
Factory workers including those who worked for all three major rubber makers in Akron, Ohio faced poor working conditions, low wages, and benefits close none. In 1929 the average pay of rubber workers was $1,377; in 1933 had been cut to $932. Thousands became jobless. Those who remained in the factories were driven mercilessly under the conveyor-belt system of production. These conditions resulted in workers establishing the United Rubber Workers in 1935, who organized the fist major strike in the Akron Rubber Industry. The United Rubber Workers belonged to a larger organization, the newly founded Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO consisted of an umbrella organization for multiple unions. These unions worked together by providing both moral and material support to CIO-member unions, especially when these member unions went on strike. The strike began as a protest against a plan created by Goodyear to reduce wages and increase the pace of production. The workers utilized the concept of the “sit-down” strike. In the past, when workers went on strike they would leave the factory to join picket lines. Company owners often hired “scab” laborers to cross the picket lines and continue production. The practice of using scab labor made it difficult for striking workers to obtain their demands. In contrast, in a sit-down strike, workers quit working but still occupied their places within the factory. This process meant that the factory owners could not send in additional workers to continue the job. In addition, factory management was more reluctant to use private security forces or other strikebreakers to intimidate the striking workers, as that approach threatened destruction to plant property. Akron’s mayor attempted use police force to put and end to the strike, but officers refused to do so when they confronted the thousands of organized workers. By conservative estimates, 10,000 pickets had gathered. Practically every one was armed with a baseball bat or stick.The strike was successful in getting Goodyear to negotiate better contracts for the worker with the United Rubber Workers.
Flint Sit-Down Strike (1936)
The Flint Sit-Down Strike set new benchmarks for labor militancy in the United States. It changed the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from a collection of isolated locals on the fringes of the industry into a major labor union and led to the unionization of the domestic United States automobile industry.
Before the Depression there were 470,000 auto workers. The number fell by half, as did the wages, which had been reduced from $40 per week to about $20. Because these harsh times still haunted the workers, job security was an important issue. The workers could be fired by any foreman anytime. When the UAW picked a fight with General Motors in Flint, it had its work cut out for them. Flint was a company town and GM kept spies in the plants to prevent unionization. Wyndham Mortimer, the UAW official put in charge of the organizing campaign in Flint, recalled the only safe way to organize was to bypass the existing locals and meet with Flint autoworkers in their homes, keeping the names of new members a closely guarded secret.
The victory of the Akron rubber workers revealed the full power of the sit-down strike for the first time. The tactic of seizing possession of, and holding, great plants was not entirely unknown to the workers of the United States, but nothing like its mushrooming during the struggles of the mid-thirties had ever been seen before. In the sit-down strike the workers found a weapon Also taking inspiration from the French workers’ movement, American workers no longer felt content with pickets. Instead, they occupied the factories, thwarting the usual lock-out and hire strike-breakers response of employers. In a conventional strike the union takes its members outside the plant and attempts to prevent the employer from operating by discouraging other employees from entering. In a sit-down strike, the workers physically occupy the plant, keeping management and others out. The Flint sit-down strikers did just that. Faced with a tough fight in Flint, UAW workers occupied the factory, electing their own officials and organising food deliveries. The union called for supporters to gather at Cadillac Square in Detroit as a show of strength. The overflowing crowd of 150,000 supporters surprised even the union sympathizers and gave the union the self-confidence they needed to show its power and solidarity. The police attempted to enter the plant the strikers inside the plant turned the fire hoses on the police. When cops attempted to retake the factory with tear gas, the strikers’ wives threw rocks through the windows, keeping the tear gas from collecting in the building. The strikers dubbed this “The Battle of Bulls Run,” a mocking reference to the police (“bulls”).
The strike finally succeeded in 1937, giving the UAW a massive boost in legitimacy. Over 100,000 GM workers joined the UAW on the heels of the strike, with the UAW’s ranks increasing from 30,000 to 500,000 in the course of a year. Future UAW president Walter Reuther made his reputation in the Flint Sit-Down Strike, known as “the strike heard ‘round the world.” The pension and wages won by the workers raised the standard of living for the whole country.