Jeremy Brecher's account of the struggles of rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, the centre of the American rubber industry. Growing disillusioned with the failure of the unions to improve their situation, the workers developed the sitdown strike.
By the time of the Depression, Akron was the rubber center of America, home of the great Goodyear, Firestone, and Goodrich plants and more than twenty factories of lesser companies. At peak production the Akron rubber industry employed nearly 40,000 workers, but by 1933 one-third to one-half of Akron's workers were unemployed, Firestone and half a dozen smaller companies were closed down, and Goodyear was on a two-day week.1
With the passage of the National Recovery Administration in 1933, Akron's rubberworkers poured into unions set up by local trade unionists. As Ruth McKenney wrote in her over-dramatized but valuable study of the Akron labor movement, Industrial Valley, "the first weeks of the new rubber union were something like a cross between a big picnic and a religious revival. . . "2 Forty to fifty thousand rubberworkers, mostly in Akron, took out union cards in 1933. They expected the union, backed by the government, to save them.
Always the cry was “join up." But nobody said what came after you joined. The rubberworkers believed blindly, passionately, fiercely, that the union would cure all their troubles, end the speedup, make them rich with wages. They had no clear idea, and nobody told them, just how the union would accomplish these aims. Vaguely, they thought President Roosevelt might just order the rubber bosses to raise wages and quit the speedup.3
The next two years would see their disillusionment with that belief and their discovery of how to act on their own.
The American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.)4 assigned an organizer, Coleman Claherty, to Akron. His first step was to try to separate the rubberworkers, who had established locals representing all the workers in each plant, into various crafts. The workers joined the unions to which they were assigned but proceeded to ignore the divisions, coming to the meetings of their plant local anyway. Claherty's slogan was "Rome wasn't built in a day," and he did everything possible to "pack ice on the hot-heads" who were pushing in every union meeting for action. Ruth McKenney describes a Goodyear local meeting one Sunday which Claherty was addressing on the NRA:
"We want action," a big tirebuilder bawled, bored with the NRA. "Sure you do," Claherty shot back, "and you're going to get it." . . . Claherty never liked the curious atmosphere of Akron union meetings. He tried to prevent the back talk. He deplored the universal notion of rubberworkers that a man had a right to get up and have his say, whenever he felt like it, at his own union meeting.
But the rubberworkers had carried over the technique of Baptist prayer sessions, where anybody was free to "testify" as the spirit moved him, to their union meetings. Tirebuilders rose in the Federal locals to "testify" about "why ain't this union gittin' anywheres," whenever the thought struck them. . .
"We shall demand that the rubber industry recognize our unions," Claherty thundered this Sunday.
"How you goin' to git 'em to dew that?" somebody yelled. . . .
"He asks a question like that," Claherty shot back, "when everybody in this room knows that President Roosevelt is for the unions." It was a good answer. A lot of the men clapped and the mill-room man in the back of the hall seemed satisfied. . . .
"It won't be long now," some of the men said. . . "Roosevelt will fix those bastards pushing up our rate schedules." . . .
"Every labor gain," he [Claherty] told his assistant. . . "is a gradual one. You can't expect to get everything the first five years. The fellows expect the moon on a platter all in a month."5
On June 19th, 1934, tire builders at the General Tire and Rubber Co. walked out when a foreman announced some wage rate changes-the first step in introducing the "Bedeaux plan" to speed up production. The tirebuilders began cussing out the foreman. One of them yelled, "I ain't going to stand for it. Let's quit, boys," and the entire shift walked out. Outside the plant the men decided to have a meeting the next day and take a strike vote. At the meeting the local union's executive committee recommended that the workers accept a wage increase the company had offered in response to the strike and go back to work - they were booed. off the platform and physically attacked by the strikers. A local officer was hissed off the platform for saying the strike wasn't legal because the United Rubber Council executive board had to give permission to strike. "Who said they had to OK what we do? We ain't never heard anything about that before," a man yelled from the floor. The rubberworkers voted to strike and established their own strike organization, selecting their own picket captains and organizing food committees. After a month, the company granted a number of the strikers' demands and they went back to work.6
By the end of 1934, the labor relations board of the NRA denounced the companies for refusing to bargain collectively and ordered representation elections in the Goodyear and Firestone plants. The government had ballots printed and polling places set up. The rubberworkers fully expected the government to force the companies to recognize them. Then two days before the election the companies asked for and got an injunction against the election from a Federal court, thus tying up the issue in the courts indefinitely. The rubberworkers were shocked and bitterly disappointed; their belief that the government would solve their problems was killed at a blow. As Ruth McKenney put it, "Rubberworkers spent three passionate weeks hoping that the government would cure the speed-up and low wages in Akron-and then the NRA and its NLRB went blooey as far as the man on the tire machine was concerned."7
The final disillusionment with the union came in the spring of 1935. Workers were flooding out of the unions, and Claherty recognized that he had to give at least the appearance of doing something. On March 27th he announced a strike vote. By April 8th, A.F.L. president William Green was announcing to the press, "There is no hope of averting the strike."8 The rubberworkers were set to strike on the 15th, and began feverish preparations.
Then Claherty and the local presidents went to Washington and, at the last minute, signed a government-mediated agreement not to strike and to await court action on a representative election. As Goodyear announced, the agreement made "no change in employee relations since the provisions are in complete accord with the policies under which Goodyear has always operated."9
The rubberworkers considered it a complete sell-out. They stood on street corners tearing up their union cards, thinking it futile even to vote against the settlement. As one put it, "You can't do nothin' about that. They run the union, and they run it for the bosses, not for us. I'm through. I'd see myself in hell before I ever belong to another dirty stinking union."10 Union membership in Summit County - mostly rubberworkers - dropped from 40,000 to 5,000, with most of those remaining paper members.
In the face of this collapse of confidence in trade unionism and the government, work conditions remained intolerable. As a rubberworker in Akron wrote to the local paper,
Only our machines are alive. We must treat them with respect or they turn against us. Last week one of the boys who had been back only a month grew a little careless, or maybe the long layoff had made him dull or maybe he had grown so accustomed to the change from sleeping at night to working at night-and his mill swallowed his hand and part of his arm...
The mills stopped only long enough for us to pull him out, and then they resumed their steady turn. Two of the boys carried him to the hospital and the foreman called for a Squad man to take his place.
Unbelievably it is 3 A.M., and we hastily gulp tasteless sandwiches, working and eating at once. The soapstone which is flying around everywhere clogs our throats and tongues and nostrils so that they seem dry. If we drink much water, we become fat and bloated, so we chew great handfuls of licorice-flavored tobacco.
Someone has grown drowsy. "Ha, ha," we laugh. "Old Bill has forgotten to weigh his batch. That's a good one, ha, ha." Bill doesn't laugh. He knows that to do this once more will cost him his job. The foreman has warned him. . . .
We used to work eight hours and feel fine when the quitting whistle blew. Now we work six hours and are dead-tired.
We can't be cheerful, remembering the hard days of the past three years, and knowing that the work may not last much longer. We've nothing to look forward to. We're factory hands.11
Disillusioned with trade unionism and tormented by the speedup, workers in Akron developed a new tactic - the sitdown - which they themselves could directly control without need for any outside leaders. When Louis Adamic later visited Akron to find out how the sitdowns had begun, he was told that the first had occurred not in a rubber factory but at a baseball game. Players from two factories refused to play a scheduled game because the umpire, whom they disliked, was not a union man. They simply sat down on the diamond, while the crowd for a lark cheered the NRA and yelled for an umpire who was a union man, until the non-union umpire was replaced.12
Not long after, a dispute developed between a dozen workers and a supervisor in a rubber factory. The workers were on the verge of giving in when the supervisor insulted them and one of them said, "Aw, to hell with 'im, let's sit down." The dozen workers turned off their machines and sat down. Within a few minutes the carefully organized flow of production through the plant began to jam up as department after department ground to a halt. Thousands of workers sat down, some because they wanted to, more because everything was stopping anyway. What had happened, workers wanted to know? "There was a sitdown at such-and-such a department. A sitdown? Yeah, a sitdown; don't you know what a sitdown is, you dope? Like what happened at the ball game the other Sunday."13
Adamic describes the response:
Sitting by their machines, cauldrons, boilers, and work benches, they talked. Some realized for the first time how important they were in the process of rubber production. Twelve men had practically stopped the works! Almost any dozen or score of them could do it! In some departments six could do it! The active rank-and-filers, scattered through the various sections of the plant, took the initiative in saying, "We've got to stick with 'em!" And they stuck with them, union and non-union men alike. Most of them were non-union. Some probably were vaguely afraid not to stick. Some were bewildered. Others amused. There was much laughter through the works. Oh boy, oh boy! Just like at the ball game, no kiddin'. There the crowd had stuck with the players and they got an umpire who was a member of a labor union. Here everybody stuck with the twelve guys who first sat down, and the factory management was beside itself. Superintendents, foremen, and straw bosses were dashing about. . . . This sudden suspension of production was costing the company many hundreds of dollars every minute. . . . In less than an hour the dispute was settled-full victory for the men!14
Between 1933 and 1936 this tactic gradually became a tradition in Akron, with scores of sitdowns - the majority probably not instigated even by rank-and-file union organizers, and almost invariably backed by the workers in other departments. It became an understood principle that when one group of workers stopped work everyone else along the line sat down too. To explain this, Adamic listed the advantages of the sitdown strike "from the point of view not so much of the rank-and-file organizer or radical agitator as of the average workingman in a mass-production industry like rubber."
To begin with, the sitdown is the opposite of sabotage, to which many workers were opposed.
It destroys nothing. Before shutting down a department in a rubber plant, for instance, the men take the compounded rubber from the mills, or they finish building or curing the tires then being built or cured, so that nothing is needlessly ruined. Taking the same precautions during the sitdown as they do during production, the men do not smoke in departments where benzine is used. There is no drinking. This discipline. . . is instinctive.15
Sitdowns are effective, short, and free from violence.
There are no strikebreakers in the majority of instances; the factory management does not dare to get tough and try to drive the sitting men out and replace them with other workers, for such violence would turn the public against the employers and the police, and might result in damage to costly machinery. In a sitdown there are no picket lines outside the factories, where police and company guards have great advantage when a fight starts. The sitdown action occurs wholly inside the plant, where the workers, who know every detail of the interior, have obvious advantages.
The sitters-down organize their own "police squads," arming them - in rubber - with crowbars normally used to pry open molds in which tires are cured. These worker cops patrol the belt, watch for possible scabs and stand guard near the doors. In a few instances where city police and company cops entered a factory, they were bewildered, frightened, and driven out by the "sitting" workers with no difficulty whatever.16
The initiative, conduct, and control of the sitdown came directly from the men involved. Most workers distrust - if not consciously, then unconsciously - union officials and strike leaders and committees, even when they themselves have elected them. The beauty of the sitdown or the stay-ins is that there are no leaders or officials to distrust. There can be no sell-out. Such standard procedure as strike sanction is hopelessly obsolete when workers drop their tools, stop their machines, and sit down beside them.
Finally, the sitdown counters the boredom, degradation and isolation of the factory.
Work in most of the departments of a rubber factory or any other kind of mass-production factory is drudgery of the worst sort - mechanical and uncreative, insistent and requiring no imagination; and any interruption is welcomed by workers, even if only subconsciously. The conscious part of their mind may worry about the loss of pay; their subconscious, however, does not care a whit about that. The situation is dramatic, thrilling.
. . . the average worker in a mass-production plant is full of grievances and complaints, some of them hardly realized, and any vent of them is welcomed.
The sitdown is a social affair. Sitting workers talk. They get acquainted. And they like that. In a regular strike it is impossible to bring together under one roof more than one or two thousand people, and these only for a meeting, where they do not talk with one another but listen to speakers. A sitdown holds under the same roof up to ten or twelve thousand idle men, free to talk among themselves, man to man. "Why, my God, man" one Goodyear gum-miner told me in November, 1936, "during the sitdowns last spring I found out that the guy who works next to me is the same as I am, even if I was born in West Virginia and he is from Poland. His grievances are the same. Why shouldn't we stick?"17
Late in 1935, Goodyear announced that it was shifting from the six- to the eight-hour day, admitting that 1,200 men would be laid off and that other companies would follow suit. The announcement created shock in Akron - unemployment was still high and six hours under speed-up conditions were already so exhausting that rubberworkers complained, "When I get home I'm so tired I can't even sleep with my wife."18 As the companies began "adjusting" piece rates in preparation for introducing the eight-hour day, a wave of spontaneous work stoppages by non-union employees forced a slowing of production.
On January 29th, 1936, the truck tire builders at Firestone sat down against a reduction in rates and the firing of a union committeeman. The men had secretly planned the strike for 2 a.m.
When the hour struck,
the tire builder at the end of the line walked three steps to the master safety switch and, drawing a deep breath, he pulled up the heavy wooden handle. With this signal, in perfect synchronization, with the rhythm they had learned in a great mass-production industry, the tirebuilders stepped back from their machines.
Instantly, the noise stopped. The whole room lay in perfect silence. The tire builders stood in long lines, touching each other, perfectly motionless, deafened by the silence. A moment ago there had been the weaving hands, the revolving wheels, the clanking belt, the moving hooks, the flashing tire tools. Now there was absolute stillness, no motion anywhere, no sound. . . .
"We done it! We stopped the belt! By God, we done it!" And men began to cheer hysterically, to shout and howl in the fresh silence. Men wrapped long sinewy arms around their neighbors' shoulders, screaming, "We done it! We done it!"19
The workers in the truck tire department sent one committee around the plant to call out other departments, another to talk with the boss, and a third to police the shop. Within a day the entire Plant No. 1 was struck, and after fifty-three hours the workers at Plant No.2 announced they had voted to sit down in sympathy.
Management capitulated completely. Two days later, pitmen at Goodyear sat down over a pay cut, were persuaded to return to work by the company union, sat down again and were cajoled back to work, sat down a third time and returned to work under threat of immediate replacement. On February 8th, the tire department at Goodrich sat down over a rate reduction. The strike spread through the rest of the plant, stopping it completely within six hours, and management rapidly capitulated to the sitdowners. The sitdown had shaken each of the rubber big three within a ten-day period.
The crisis finally came February 14th. A few days before, Goodyear had laid off 700 tirebuilders and the workers assumed that this was the signal for introducing the eight-hour day. At 3:10 a.m., 137 tire builders in Department 251-A of Goodyear's Plant No.2 - few if any of them members of the union - shut off the power and sat down. The great Goodyear strike was on.
Meanwhile, the Rubberworkers Union had been regaining support. It had refused to accept Claherty as president, installed former rubberworkers in office, and allied itself with the new C.I.O. With each sitdown, the union signed up the participants, and now workers flooded back into the union halls. The initiative for the sitdowns, however, did not come from the union; indeed, as Irving Bernstein has noted, "The U.R.W. . . . disliked the sitdown."20 Thus, U.R.W. officials now persuaded the Goodyear sitdowners to leave and marched them out of the plant. Goodyear offered to take the laid-off men back, but by now the rubberworkers of the entire city were up in arms, determined to make a stand against the eight-hour day. Fifteen hundred Goodyear workers met and voted unanimously to strike, but four days later the president of the local was still saying the strike was not a U.R.W. affair.
The workers made it their affair. They began mass picketing at each of the forty-five gates around Goodyear's eleven-mile perimeter, putting up 300 tarpaper shanties to keep warm. They elected picket captains who met regularly, coordinated strike action, and set the strike's demands. Inside Plant No.1, hundreds of men and women staged a sitdown - until a union delegate marched them out. At the union hall, "committees sprang up almost by themselves" to take care of problems as they arose. A soup kitchen developed out of the sandwich- and coffee-making crew, staffed by volunteers from the Cooks and Waitresses Union. On the sixth day of the strike the C.I.O. sent in half-a-dozen of its top leaders, and the U.R.W. executive board finally sanctioned the strike.
The company now tried to break the strike by force. They secured an injunction against mass picketing, which the workers simply ignored. The Sheriff put together a force of 150 deputies to open the plants, but 10,000 workers of all trades from all over the city gathered with lead pipe and baseball bats and the charge was called off at the last possible second. Next a Law and Order League, which claimed 5,200 organized vigilantes, was organized by a former mayor with money from Goodyear. Word spread that an attack was planned for March 18th. The union went on radio all that night while workers gathered in homes throughout the city ready to rush any place an attack was made. The Summit County Central Labor Council declared it would call a general strike in the event of a violent attack on the picket lines. In the face of such preparations, the vigilante movement was paralyzed.
President Roosevelt's ace mediator, Ed McGrady, proposed that the workers return to work and submit the issues to arbitration. To this and other proposed settlements the workers at their mass meetings chanted, "No, no, a thousand times no, I'd rather die than say yes."21 After more than a month Goodyear capitulated on most of the demands, although without agreeing to formal recognition of the union. The rubberworkers returned to work largely victorious and proceeded to implement their position with the sitdown.
In the three months after the strike there were nineteen recorded sitdowns at Goodyear alone, with many "quickies" unrecorded. Louis Adamic described the situation he found in Akron in 1936:
A week seldom passed without one or more sitdowns. . . . A typical one took place on November 17, when I was in Akron, in the huge Goodyear No.1 plant. After an inconclusive argument with the management over an adjustment in wage rates, ninety-eight workers in one of the departments sat down, stopping the work of seven thousand men for a day and a half, at the end of which period the company promised speedy action on the adjustment.
Officials of rubber companies, with whom I talked, were frantic in their attempts to stop the sitdowns. They blamed them on "trouble-makers" and the union movement in general. They tried to terrorize union sympathizers. The Goodyear management, for instance, assigned two non-union inspectors to a department with instructions to disqualify tires produced by known union men. After pelting them with milk bottles for a while, the men sat down and refused to work till the inspectors were removed. The company rushed in forty factory guards with clubs, but a 65-year-old union gum-miner met the army at the entrance and told them to "beat it." They went - and the non-union inspectors were replaced.
Akron sitdowns were provoked by various other causes. In the early autumn of 1936, S.H. Dalrymple, president of the D.R.W.A., was beaten by thugs employed by a rubber factory, whereupon the factory workers sat down in protest, forcing the company to close for a day. When work was resumed, the next night, a K.K.K. fiery cross blazed up within view of the plant. This caused the men to sit down again - and to despatch a squad of "huskies" to extinguish the cross.22
Such use of the sitdown gave rubberworkers virtually a dual power over the production process in Akron. From there, they quickly spread to the rest of the auto industry.
Excepted and very slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone article from Strike! - Jeremy Brecher.
- 1. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 99.
- 2. Ruth McKenney, cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 98.
- 3. Ruth McKenney, Industrial Valley (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), p. 101.
- 4. libcom note: the main umbrella trade union federation in US
- 5. Ibid., pp. 134-5.
- 6. Ibid., pp. 166-9, 178.
- 7. Ibid., p. 188.
- 8. Ibid., pp. 194-5.
- 9. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 591.
- 10. McKenney, pp. 198-9.
- 11. Cited in McKenney, pp. 133-4.
- 12. Adamic, p. 405.
- 13. Ibid., pp. 405-6.
- 14. Ibid., p. 406.
- 15. Ibid., p. 407.
- 16. Ibid., p. 408.
- 17. Ibid., pp. 408-9.
- 18. McKenney, cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 99.
- 19. McKenney, pp. 261-2.
- 20. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 593.
- 21. Ibid., p. 595.
- 22. Adamic; p. 411.