1937: the year of the sitdown

Issue: 127

John Newsinger

When they tie the can
To a union man
Sit down! Sit down!

When they smile and say
“No raise in pay”
Sit down! Sit down!

When the boss won’t talk
Don’t take a walk
Sit down! Sit down!1

The first New Deal that Franklin Roosevelt’s administration began implementing in 1933 was accompanied by an explosion of working class unrest. Workers flooded into the unions and in the course of 1933 and 1934 confronted America’s open shop employers in hundreds of battles across the country, some of which reached near insurrectionary proportions.2 The response of the trade union leadership to this militancy was mixed. The American Federation of Labour (AFL) was dominated by the craft unions and showed no real interest in the organisation of unskilled workers in the mass production industries that were the core of the modern American economy. The successful organisation of these industries was regarded as a threat that would shift the balance of power in the labour movement, weakening the craft unions’ hold over the AFL. The organisation of the unskilled also carried the taint of radicalism.

Much more positive was the response of the leadership of the industrial unions affiliated to the AFL, in particular of the United Mine Workers (UMW), led by John L Lewis. The UMW had been on its knees in the late 1920s, but had launched an aggressive union drive in 1933, seeking to take advantage of Section 7a of Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA), which guaranteed workers the right to organise and bargain collectively. This sop to the AFL was seized on by Lewis and others who proclaimed that the government was encouraging unionisation, that the president wanted workers to join the unions. This was quite untrue, but it struck a chord with millions of workers. The UMW organising drive broke the back of the employers’ resistance in the coalfields, with the union’s membership rising from some 80,000 to nearly 400,000 by the end of 1933. As far as Lewis was concerned, these gains could only be safeguarded if the trade union movement was transformed, if there was a shift in the balance of power from craft to industrial unions. Most important for the UMW was the organisation of the steel industry, long a bastion of the open shop.

Working class unrest was widespread, with hundreds of thousands of men and women prepared to defy police, troops and company spies, guns, clubs and tear gas. This militancy had to be harnessed. For Lewis and his allies in the trade union bureaucracy, the alternatives were at best a missed opportunity to aggrandise their own organisations. At worst there was the danger that the workers would turn to the left, to the Socialists and Communists who had provided the leadership in the great class battles in Toledo, Minneapolis and San Francisco in 1934. The urgency of the task was to precipitate a historic split in the trade union bureaucracy in the United States.

The rise of the CIO

John L Lewis was the most unlikely leader of working class revolt. By the end of the 1920s he was widely acknowledged as one of the most reactionary union bureaucrats in the country. William Z Foster, one of the leaders of the Communist Party and himself a veteran union organiser, described the Lewis regime in the UMW as “a curse to the miners”. Once the UMW had been:

the most progressive organisation in the American labour movement. Under Lewis it has degenerated into one of the most reactionary…union democracy has been destroyed. Lewis, in cooperation with the employers, rules like a despot. Opposition leaders are ruthlessly crushed, expelled, and driven from the union and industry. The conventions are a tragic farce. Lewis dominates them with unparalleled corruption and violence.3

This was not just a Communist complaint. John Brophy, Lewis’s reformist challenger for the union presidency in 1926, complained of how his opponent had become “increasingly ruthless in crushing union democracy”. The ballot rigging that year was “so obvious and flagrant…that the inference that Lewis would not have won without stealing votes is a defensible one”.4 Attempts to challenge the result at the 1927 convention were met with “fraudulent delegations, gangster terrorism and black reaction” that “has never been equalled in the American labour movement”. Lewis held onto office, “Mussolini-fashion”.5 One of Lewis’s opponents, the Socialist Powers Hapgood, was beaten up in a hotel room and then when he still had the nerve to turn up at the convention was assaulted on the convention floor.6 At the convention delegates voted to ban Communists from union membership, to abandon the union’s support for the nationalisation of the mines and to give Lewis a 50 percent pay rise.

Lewis continued to maintain control over the UMW by the same methods into the 1930s. By 1932 he had removed the elected officers in 19 of the union’s 29 districts, suspending democracy and installing men loyal to him. This meant that a majority of the union’s executive board were appointed by Lewis.7 Even after the great organising drive of 1933 the Lewis machine continued to rule the UMW by the same methods.

Throughout the 1920s Lewis situated himself politically on the right, actively supporting the party of big business, the Republicans. He cultivated what his biographers describe as “a distinctly haut bourgeois lifestyle”. At the end of 1922 he joined the elite Congressional Country Club in Washington, proposed for membership by Herbert Hoover. As far as he was concerned, the union was a business and he was its chief executive, entitled to the same lifestyle as other business leaders. While no one has so far been successful in establishing his income, he bought his first Cadillac in 1922, sent his son to an expensive private school, employed servants and socialised with the rich and powerful.

Lewis was put forward as a potential Republican vice-presidential candidate by the Harriman banking interest in 1924. After the election influential business interests lobbied President Coolidge to appoint him secretary of labour. When Hoover became president in 1929, Lewis once again put himself forward for the post.8 All this was at a time when the labour movement was being rolled back, the employers were rampant, the government was openly identified with big business in a way not to be seen again until the 1980s, and the miners themselves were under sustained attack.

But the Great Depression brought about a change in Lewis’s outlook. The survival of the UMW required, as far as he was now concerned, a regulated capitalism that was not at the mercy of unrestrained market forces. This was to be a capitalism in which the unions, and in particular, their leaders, were recognised as partners by the employers and the government. He had also come to despise and detest bankers and financiers. The best way to ensure this version of capitalism was to build a strong bureaucratic labour movement founded on great industrial unions organising the mass production industries. Such a movement would ally itself with those forces in business and politics that had similar objectives. To this end, Lewis was to embrace the New Deal (although he never thought it went far enough and distrusted Roosevelt, even half-heartedly endorsing Hoover again in 1932). He took full advantage of the favourable circumstances created by the Democrats’ ascendancy to launch the greatest union drive in the history of the mining industry.

Lewis never had any illusions in Roosevelt’s supposed sympathy for the unions or the working class. He always insisted that the labour movement got nothing from Roosevelt that it had not paid for. He recognised that the president was a political operator who only respected power. To this end, he was determined to create a trade union movement strong and powerful enough to command Roosevelt’s attention. Ideally, such a movement would be built by bureaucratic means, from above, with the rank and file under the control of the officials and working class militancy tightly harnessed. If that was not possible, however, Lewis was prepared to identify himself unambiguously with the rank and file in order to achieve his objectives, to ride the wave of militancy, to make their cause his own and, if necessary, to join them in defying both employers and the government.

Lewis and his union allies hoped to secure AFL support for an organising drive in the mass production industries, but failed. This was not just a matter of craft versus industrial unionism. The AFL rejected militancy, relying instead on convincing employers that union organisation would be a good thing for them. When they refused recognition and the government failed to intervene, the rank and file were left to be victimised. While Lewis’s objective was a partnership with business, he recognised that they would have to be battered into accepting the partnership. This would require militancy and, as he came to recognise, the help of the left he had spent the 1920s fighting.

Conflict within the AFL came out into the open at the October 1935 convention in Atlantic City. Lewis told delegates that he was “enraged” by the AFL’s failures. There were thousands of steel workers desperate to organise, but the discredited craft union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers, was incapable of doing the job. Indeed, any attempt to organise the steel industry on craft lines was inevitably doomed: the employers “will mow you down like the Italian machine guns will mow down the Ethiopians in the war now going on in that country…they will mow you down and laugh while they are doing it”. Lewis’s people were suffering because of the AFL’s failures and he asked delegates how long they thought the UMW would put up with this state of affairs.9 The craft unions voted down any change.

On 19 October, the last day of the convention, Lewis very deliberately and calculatedly gave notice to militants throughout the country that change was coming. He picked an argument on the convention floor with Bill Hutcheson, the leader of the powerful carpenters’ union and famously punched him in the mouth, knocking him to the ground. As Victor Reuther, then a Socialist militant, later recalled: “This bit of melodrama gave new hope to thousands of industrial workers”.10 The next day Lewis met his allies and they decided to establish the Committee for Industrial Organisation (CIO), both to fight for a change of policy within the AFL and, more importantly, to rally the hundreds of thousands of workers waiting for a lead.

The new organisation, the CIO, was formally established on 9 November with Lewis, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW) as the dominant voices. Lewis installed his former bitter rival John Brophy as director. Once again this was a demonstration that change was coming, that the CIO meant business. Brophy brought in (with Lewis’s agreement) two other longstanding opponents of the UMW leader, Adolph Germer and Powers Hapgood. Even more significant, he appointed Len De Caux as the CIO’s publicity director. De Caux was a radical journalist, known to be close to the Communist Party (he was, in fact, a covert member). The CIO went on to make overtures to the Communists and enlist hundreds of party members as organisers.

The CIO was soon put to the test. The first great demonstration of resurgent working class militancy took place in Akron, Ohio, the centre of the rubber industry. Here thousands of workers had rallied to the union cause in 1933, but they had been given the usual AFL run-around and membership had fallen. Despite this, the refusal of the employers to meet the union had provoked a sitdown strike involving over a thousand workers at General Tire and Rubber as early as June 1934. The decisive struggle took place at the start of 1936.

On 28 January there was a spontaneous sitdown at the Firestone plant following the suspension of a union militant, Clayton Dicks. The company was taken completely by surprise and quickly caved in, reinstating Dicks and paying the strikers half pay for the duration of the dispute. This was a small victory of immense significance. News of the success spread throughout Akron, boosting the union. As one local official wrote to Adolph Germer, the sitdown at Firestone had “done more to build the trade union movement here than anything we could have even thought of doing”.11

The victory encouraged workers at Goodyear to demand the reversal of a pay cut, occupying the plant on 31 January. Soon after, workers at the Goodrich plant sat down in a dispute over piece rates. Then on 14 February, in what became known as “the first CIO strike”, workers at Goodyear sat down when 130 workers were laid off. The plant was only briefly occupied before the strikers marched out to establish picket lines. Workers who had despaired of the union ever making a stand now rallied to it, and “the second day of the strike found the largest rubber factory in the world at a standstill and more than 10,000 in the strikers’ ranks”.

The strikers established 63 picket posts to provide 24-hour policing of the plant’s 11 mile perimeter. Each post was equipped with huts and heating to provide protection from the Ohio winter. When the company obtained an injunction banning picketing, over 5,000 workers, many of them armed, assembled outside the factory. The CIO sent organisers to help the strike, very publicly making their cause its own. This, they were telling workers across the country, was a trade union movement ready for a fight. On 20 March, Goodyear surrendered. Akron, as Edward Levinson wrote, was “set on the road to becoming a fortress of the CIO”.12

On 12 June 1936 the CIO went ahead and established the Steel Workers Organising Committee (SWOC). To all intents and purposes, the UMW was going to organise the steel industry along industrial lines through the CIO, without any reference to the concerns of the craft unions. The craft union was absorbed into the SWOC, and Lewis put one of his trusted lieutenants, Philip Murray, in charge of the campaign. The steel industry, however, was to be organised from the top down. While the CIO leadership would support rank and file revolt, their preference was for bureaucratic organisation along UMW lines. The move into steel precipitated a crisis with the AFL. On 5 September the AFL suspended the ten unions by now affiliated to the CIO, unions representing 1.2 million workers, over a third of the AFL membership. The reactionary leaders of the craft unions had split the US labour movement. This was to end with the expulsion of the CIO unions from the AFL in early 1938 and the establishment of the Congress of Industrial Organisations in October.

The struggle in auto

The Great Depression had a devastating impact on the US car industry. In 1929, 5,300,000 vehicles were produced, down by 1932 to 1,330,000. At the same time employment fell from 450,000 to 243,000 with many of those still in work on short time.13 For many, short time was very short time: between June 1931 and June 1932 Wyndham Mortimer earned $53.65.14

The first great explosion of working class unrest occurred in January 1933 at Briggs Manufacturing in Detroit, a firm making car bodies for Ford and Chrysler. On 11 January the management imposed a 20 percent wage cut, provoking a walkout at their Waterloo plant. The lead was given by Socialist, International Workers of the World and Communist activists on the shop floor. Their involvement was crucial: the success of many strikes in this period was dependent on the anger on the shop floor being directed by political militants, men and women committed to organising the class for struggle. The strikers put pickets on the other three Briggs plants in Detroit, closing them down. Within days the company withdrew the pay cuts.

The management refused to meet with the workers’s representatives, however, and on 24 January some 12,000 workers walked out again. This time the company was ready. It was fighting to preserve the open shop on behalf of the whole Detroit car industry. The strike went down to defeat with mass victimisation. Walter Reuther (all three Reuther brothers, Walter, Victor and Roy, were Socialist Party members involved in the strike) wrote at the time that, despite the setback at Briggs, “underneath the surface there was rebellion in the hearts of the workers”.15

The great rallying of workers to the unions that took place after Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act did not leave the car industry untouched. Over the summer of 1933 the AFL established 183 Federal Labour Unions (FLUs) in the industry, recruiting some 100,000 workers. As there was not an affiliated AFL union in the industry, workers were recruited into FLUs that were under the jurisdiction of the AFL itself. William Green, the AFL president, put William Collins in charge of organising the industry. He was totally unfit for the task. Collins was a bureaucrat of the worst kind, opposed to militancy whatever the provocation. Moreover, he was under orders not to allow into the FLUs any workers who came under the jurisdiction of the craft unions. He famously assured the employers that he was completely opposed to strikes and had never voted for one.16 The AFL strategy was to use the machinery established by Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration to secure recognition, in effect relying on the government. The failure of this strategy left union members exposed to victimisation at the hands of some of the most ruthless employers in the US.

The AFL strategy did not go unchallenged. On 21 September 1933 tool and die makers who were members of the Mechanics Educational Society of America (MESA) struck at General Motors in Flint, Michigan. The strike quickly spread throughout the city and to Detroit, affecting every major company except Ford (MESA had not made any headway in that industrial police state) and many small engineering firms. Some 14,000 workers walked out.

MESA had been established in February 1933, a militant craft union, that posed as a self-improvement society to avoid victimisation. It organised the skilled toolmakers who made the cutting, stamping and grinding machinery used in the car industry. These skilled workers had seen their wages and conditions savagely attacked. Leading them was Matt Smith, a British immigrant, who had been one of the leaders of the shop stewards’ movement in Manchester during the First World War. A strong socialist, Smith had been imprisoned during the war for his opposition to
conscription. In the aftermath of the 1926 General Strike he was blacklisted (he was sacked from 11 jobs in six weeks), and emigrated. Smith’s militancy was to be compromised by his craft outlook, but in September and October 1933 MESA members took on the car companies for six weeks.

The strike was only partly successful in closing down production as the big plants turned to small workshops for retooling. To counter this, on 30 October hundreds of strikers mounted a “riotcade”, with car loads of pickets carrying out surprise raids on scab workshops, invading the premises, destroying blueprints, sabotaging machinery, breaking windows and overturning cars. This direct action broke the deadlock and company after company came to terms. Although only small material gains were made (5 cents an hour rise), “MESA had breached the historic open shop in the automobile industry”.17

With this example of what militancy could achieve, production workers organised in the FLUs demanded action. Workers in the Buick and the Fisher Body plants in Flint and in the Hudson plant in Detroit voted for strike action on 4 March 1934. They demanded union recognition, the reinstatement of victimised workers and a 20 percent pay rise. The intention was to use strike action in these plants as a springboard to close down the whole industry. Militant action would rally the workers to the union. All that stood in the way was the AFL leadership. Collins was determined to avoid a strike and contacted the government, warning of the threat that his members posed to the industry and urging intervention. Roosevelt responded with a promise of mediation by the National Labour Board. Playing the Roosevelt card, Collins secured a suspension of the strike. Discussions got nowhere and the workers voted to strike on 21 March. Once again Roosevelt intervened at Collins’s instigation. With the employers refusing to even meet with the unions, Roosevelt met the two sides separately.

On 25 March he announced a settlement that established a toothless Automobile Labour Board, leaving union members helpless in the face of a wave of victimisation and, most damaging of all, for the first time gave government recognition to company unions. The settlement effectively undermined Section 7a of the NIRA. It was enthusiastically welcomed by the car companies as bolstering their stand against the unions. It was, in Irving Bernstein’s words, “a total victory” for management.18 It is all the more significant because it also reveals Roosevelt’s own lack of sympathy for the unions. The AFL accepted the settlement, with disastrous consequences. Union membership in the car industry collapsed, particularly in the key centres of Flint and Detroit. Workers tore up their union cards, both in disgust at the AFL’s betrayal and in order to avoid victimisation. Those who didn’t were sacked and blacklisted.

The battle was not over, however. In Toledo, Local 18384 defied the AFL leadership and struck at the Autolite components plant on 12 April 1934. The strikers turned to the far-left American Workers Party (AWP) for support. The result was a hard fought struggle that saw strikers and their supporters battling police and troops before the company surrendered. It was the first of the great victories won by the US working class in 1934, victories that began to turn the tide.

Under pressure from the surviving FLUs, the AFL established a National Council for the car industry in June 1934. From strongholds in Toledo and Cleveland, the left pushed for the chartering of an independent car workers’ union. Meanwhile, the AFL replaced Collins with another identikit bureaucrat, Francis Dillon. In April 1935 he was confronted with another strike called by Local 18384, once again in defiance of the AFL leadership. This time the union closed down GM’s Chevrolet plant that supplied all the transmissions for the Chevrolet division. The strike leaders, James Roland, Bob Travis, George Addes and others, once again all Socialists or Communists, were determined to spread the strike. Urged on by AJ Muste of the AWP, they hoped to use their struggle as a springboard for a company-wide strike. All their efforts to bring out other GM plants were blocked by Dillon. As Sidney Lens later wrote:

The strike was spreading with 30,000 workers in other plants…out in sympathy. The men were on the verge of victory, since it was obvious that a few more days of the tie-up would spread the strike throughout the GM system. But ever fearful of the rank and file, the Federation declared the strike unauthorised and ordered the men back to work.19

Once Dillon had successfully isolated the Toledo workers, he was able to bully them back to work, although only with considerable difficulty and great abuse. Even though unsuccessful, the strike accomplished “the final discrediting of the AFL in auto”.20 The aftermath of the strike demonstrated the need to organise company-wide: GM fired hundreds of workers at the well-organised Toledo plant, shifting some 50 percent of transmission production to unorganised plants in Saginaw, Michigan, and Muncie, Indiana.

By the time the AFL finally called a convention to establish a new union for the car industry (the United Auto Workers) in August 1935, its leadership was completely discredited and regarded with contempt. The leadership of Collins and Dillon had seen opportunity after opportunity squandered with membership collapsing from 100,000 to only 22,000, with thousands victimised and blacklisted. The situation was most dire in Flint and Detroit, where membership fell to 757 and 2,197 respectively.

When William Green gave the new union its charter, he insisted on appointing its leadership. Dillon was installed as union president with a handpicked team that excluded anyone on the left or with a taint of militancy—anyone who had actually been trying to build the union.

At the newly formed UAW’s convention in April 1936 delegates took the first opportunity to remove Dillon, replacing him with Homer Martin, a former preacher turned car worker. He was a powerful orator, who could rouse an audience, but a poor organiser and a worse strategist. Elected first vice-president was one of the architects of the forthcoming struggle, Wyndham Mortimer, a Communist Party member (although this was never admitted even in his memoirs—he was actually a member of the party’s Central Committee but his membership was registered under a pseudonym). Elected secretary-treasurer was one of the leaders of the union in Toledo, George Addes. Under their new leadership the UAW looked not to the AFL but to the CIO. Organising the car industry was going to involve a fight and they knew they could count on the CIO for help.

“The dark clouds of fear”

General Motors was the largest corporation in the world. It operated 69 plants in 35 cities in 14 states with total assets of $1.5 billion. In 1928 its profits after tax were $296 million, but by 1932 this had fallen to only $8 million. By 1936, however, the company had made a remarkable recovery with profits after tax back up to $239 million. This turnaround had, of course, been accompanied at the expense of its workers. GM was absolutely committed to the open shop and, to this end, dramatically increased its expenditure on labour spies, company police and weapons. From 1932 until 1936 GM spent $1 million on spies and was the Pinkerton Agency’s biggest client.21 The company had successfully, in the words of one historian, generated “widespread terror…by mass firings and victimisations… Reprisals were commonplace at all the major plants…the company went to extraordinary lengths to repress union activities”.22

When Wyndham Mortimer arrived in Flint to launch an organising campaign in June 1936, he found that “a cloud of fear hung over the city, and it was next to impossible to find anyone who would even discuss the question of unionisation”. On paper the UAW had five locals in the city with a combined membership of only 122. Most of the union officers were either spies or members of the fascist Black Legion or both. The militants had, by and large, been victimised and “were now walking the streets”. Within minutes of registering at a hotel (Mortimer had not even taken his coat off) he had a phone call warning him to leave town now “if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box”. This was the Black Legion serving him notice, a threat that had to be taken seriously because “a number of union organisers had in past years been shot”. Mortimer had to begin organising on a clandestine basis, bypassing the existing union officers, patiently building up a secret network of militants.23

In the circumstances, GM was completely confident that it would be able to keep the UAW out. When GM executive William Knudsen visited France in September 1936, he met Renault executives still reeling from the May-June factory occupations which had followed the election of the Popular Front government. Knudsen told them that that it could never happen in the US.24

What drove workers to fight back was the speedup. The car companies had taken full advantage of mass unemployment to relentlessly increase work rates while at the same time cutting wages, confident, as one worker was told, if he didn’t like it there were 400 workers outside after his job. Speedup was a permanent feature of mass production, but in the car factories:

The drive system became even more bluntly coercive. As a foreman who worked at the Flint Chevrolet plant throughout the 1930s later recalled, “It was predicated on getting every bit of work out of a person…that he could stand”… Physical abuse was even used by foremen to supplement other forms of coercion.

Workers were regularly sacked to intimidate the others. When the line was speeded up, foremen would watch for those who could not keep up and fire them. Men were worked until they dropped. Such was the punishing nature of the job, that a production line worker was regarded as finished by the age of 40. Rates of pay were arbitrarily set, with workers often not knowing what they were being paid until they got their wage packet.25

As GM moved back into massive profit, however, the balance of power on the shop floor began to shift. Any interruption of production cost money, and to keep the line moving, the management began to make concessions. Small victories built the confidence necessary for great battles. Wyndham Mortimer recalled one such victory at the Fisher Body Number One plant in Flint in October 1936. The two Perkins brothers were fired for union activity and their fellow workers stopped work, demanding their reinstatement. The company conceded but the workers

refused to resume work until the fired men were back on the job. General Motors ordered the Police Department to find and bring these two men back to the job. The Flint radio station broadcast spot announcements urging them to return. No work was done, however, until the Perkins boys walked into the plant and resumed their jobs. One of them had gone to a show with his girlfriend so that by the time they were found and brought back to the plant it was 10pm.

GM had surrendered to direct action, and on the shop floor at least, had been forced to negotiate with union members, with a committee headed by Bud Simons, a CP member. This victory, Mortimer continues, “had a terrific impact on the rest of the workers… The dark clouds of fear that had hung over Flint were rapidly disappearing.” The workers were beginning to “feel their strength and power. Fear of the boss evaporated to the point where workers were openly talking union”.26

The number of disputes in the industry grew in the run-up to Christmas 1936. On 27 November 1,200 workers at Midland Steel in Detroit sat down and occupied. This was “the first wave of a flood tide of worker unrest”. The company surrendered on 4 December, “the first time in the city’s history a major car company had been forced to come to terms with a union representing all its workers”.27

At the Kelsey-Hayes wheel plant in Detroit militants carefully planned a confrontation with management. Department 49 was the union stronghold, but what was needed “was some dramatic incident to spark the action and draw in other departments as well”. A little while earlier a strong union member, a Polish woman working in the department, had collapsed because “the constant increase in tempo was more than she could handle”. It is worth quoting Victor Reuther’s account at length:

Since the speed-up was the major source of resentment, we spoke to the Polish girl in my sector, and she agreed to faint again. This time it would be a signal for a strike in 49… To take advantage of our membership in both shifts, we set the fainting incident for the hour when the shifts were about to change and both sets of workers would be present. D-Day would be Tuesday 10 December… We organised picket squads, and since we were planning a sit-in, a committee was formed to take care of feeding the strikers inside the plant and their families outside. May Reuther took a sick leave from her teaching job… On the day of the strike, I reported to work earlier than usual to size up the situation before the deadline came … At precisely 20 minutes before that shift was to end, our faithful friend went into a dead faint, and I ran and pulled the main switch and shouted, “Strike! We’ve had enough of this speed-up!” The call for strike action spread through our whole department and into neighbouring sectors.

Kelsey-Hayes surrendered on 23 December, conceding union recognition and a substantial pay rise (Reuther’s wages “were doubled”). The sitdown strikers “marched out into the glare of flash bulbs and the cheers of thousands who had gathered to congratulate them”. As Reuther emphasises, a union local that had begun the strike with only 78 members ended it with 3,000, and by the end of 1937 had 35,000 members throughout the district.28

The man in the White House

The class struggle on the shop floor did not take place in a political vacuum. It both influenced and was influenced by political developments at state and national level. The election of Franklin Roosevelt as president in 1932, even though he had little sympathy for the labour movement, had nevertheless encouraged a working class fightback, with the National Industrial Recovery Act appearing to guarantee the right to join a union. The reality was, of course, very different, and massive struggles, both successful and unsuccessful, had taken place in 1934.

By 1935, with increasing popular disenchantment with his administration, Roosevelt felt obliged to move left. His radicalism should not be exaggerated. The social reforms he presided over were arguably less radical than those introduced by the Liberal government in Britain before the First World War. His Social Security Act was, according to historian William Leuchtenburg, “an astonishingly inept and conservative piece of legislation…[that] denied coverage to numerous classes of workers, including those who needed security most: most notably farm labourers and domestics”. His Wealth Tax, despite the outcry from the rich, left their share of national income unchanged, indeed “the share of the top 1 percent actually increased a bit after the passage of the Wealth Tax”.29 According to Peter Fearon, in the early years of Roosevelt’s presidency, taxation had “hit the poor disproportionately hard”, and even when he turned left, “achievement fell a long way short of rhetoric”.30

Of particular importance to the unions was the National Labour Relations Act, largely the work of Senator Robert Wagner. The Wagner act was, according to David Milton, “the most radical legislation enacted during Roosevelt’s tenure, yet he neither initiated nor supported the bill until the last minute”. It “outlawed company unions, declared traditional anti-union practices by employers illegal, legalised union organising efforts, and established the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to administer all the provisions of the act”.31 Roosevelt signed it into law on 5 July 1935.

The capitalist class responded to these measures with absolute fury. As Time magazine reported in April 1936, “With few exceptions members of the so-called upper class frankly hate Franklin Roosevelt.” While there is not the space here to discuss this opposition, it is worth noticing that leading the fight against the New Deal were the Du Pont family who held, among other things, a controlling interest in General Motors. The Du Ponts financed the Liberty League, a right wing propaganda organisation, along with a variety of other fascist and racist organisations including the Black Legion. They were influential in the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), an organisation that advocated strikebreaking and the open shop which represented 75,000 firms. Employers were urged to ignore the Wagner act on the grounds that it was unconstitutional and would inevitably be struck down by the Supreme Court.32

Roosevelt responded to this hostility with an often ferocious assault on “organised money” in the run-up to the 1936 presidential election. His attacks on the rich were, of course, largely rhetorical. He was careful to attack “selfish” capitalists, rather than capitalism itself. Indeed, he continually pledged his support for the capitalist system. This did not stop the unions rallying to him, with the UMW contributing over $500,000 to his campaign. His landslide election victory convinced many workers that they could replicate his electoral victory over “the bosses” on the shop floor. Without any doubt his re-election contributed to “the year of the sitdown”. It served in the words of Henry Kraus as “the trumpet call”.33

Sit Down! Sit Down!

According to Len De Caux, the sitdown strike

was the stratagem of the man on the job… To the man on the conveyor line, the thing to do in a showdown was to pull the switch. All on that power line would have to stop working. If united on the beef, they’d stay stopped until it was settled. Meanwhile, in the nature of line production, a stoppage in one department would soon stop others—and the boss would be tearing his hair out… In the 1920 sitdowns I saw in Italy, the workers ran up the red flags, claimed the plants for the people, and tried to keep them running. The American sitdowners claimed the jobs were theirs, not the plants. Significantly, perhaps, they often acted as if the plants were also theirs.

As De Caux insisted, in the class struggle “the initial impetus came from the men on the job”, although the action was generally “sparked” by union activists, “often radicals”.34 In 1937 the sitdown strike was to transform the balance of class forces in the United States.

In some ways, the sitdown strikes in the US were a testimony to the immense power of big business, to the success corporations like GM had in resisting unionisation. What hundreds of thousands of workers were to decide in the course of the year was that occupying their workplace was a way of giving themselves the strategic advantage at a time when the employer still seemed to hold all the cards. In the car industry the experience of the workers was that any attempt to build a union resulted in victimisation before it was securely established. The workforce was infiltrated by company spies, who would often pose as good union men, identifying those to be sacked.35

If you worked for Ford, dismissal was often accompanied by a beating (union activists were routinely sacked for “fighting” which conveniently explained their injuries). If victimisation provoked a strike the picket lines would be broken by police and company guards, with strikers beaten, arrested and sometimes killed. Scabs would be brought in to take the strikers’ jobs and the least determined would begin to return to work, leaving the most determined, the militants, out in the cold. The sitdown strike changed all this.

The sit down strike enabled a strategically placed minority of workers to close down production and demonstrate to their workmates that the boss could be taken on and beaten. The crucial importance of this factor is clearly demonstrated by the fact that at the end of 1936 the UAW had only some 4,500 members in Flint out of a workforce of 45,000. By occupying, the sitdown strikers avoided defeat on the picket line—storming a defended factory was a completely different proposition from dispersing a picket line. Occupying also prevented replacement by scabs. In the car industry workers in a strategic position in the production process could bring even a giant like GM to its knees. The sitdown strike in the US in 1937 was an organising weapon. It was the way both to win over the majority of the workers and to batter the employer into submission.

The UAW was committed to strike action against GM in 1937, but the way the struggle developed was in the hands of the rank and file. On 17 December 1936 there was a sitdown at the Bendix Products plant (part owned by GM) in South Bend, Indiana, that ended in a union victory. On 23 December strikes broke out at plants in Atlanta and Kansas City, and on 28 December workers in the Fisher Body plant in Cleveland began a sitdown strike. The decisive battleground, however, was to be in Flint.

On 30 December workers in Flint’s Fisher Body Number Two plant occupied in protest against the sacking of three inspectors for union membership. The union was still weak in this plant, and if they were to have any chance of winning it was absolutely essential to close Fisher Body Number One plant where the union was strong. At this stage it was felt that any defeat would seriously damage union credibility.

Bud Simons and his committee in Fisher Number One, with the support of union organiser Bob Travis, decided to take action over a company attempt to remove a key set of dies from the plant so they could start up production elsewhere. They occupied the plant that same day. The part played by Communist Party and Socialist Party militants was crucial. They were able to present their workmates with a strategy for winning and with a blueprint for running an occupation. As one worker later remembered, “guys in the back of the room took a couple of pieces of paper out of their pockets—”What to do in case of a sitdown”.36

While the Flint Fisher Body plants were occupied, the UAW launched a solidarity and recruitment campaign. Whereas in the days of the AFL officials would have made every effort to undermine the strike in order to demonstrate their usefulness to management, the UAW and the CIO recognised that the only way to break management resistance was to spread and intensify the strike. On 31 December GM plants in Norwood, Ohio, walked out and the Guide Lamp plant in Anderson, Indiana, was occupied. On 4 January 1937 workers occupied the Chevrolet plant in Toledo and the following day plants in Janesville, Wisconsin, were occupied. The strike spread until by early February there were over 40,000 GM workers either in occupation or on the picket line.

Fisher Body Number One provided a model for the sitdown strike. In his The Many and the Few Henry Kraus, who edited the UAW’s Flint newspaper, provides a useful if flawed account. An elected strike committee, chaired by Bud Simons, ran the occupation, although its decisions “were subject to the daily checkup of the membership meetings”. Subcommittees were established with responsibility for supervising all the various activities involved in maintaining the occupation. As Kraus wrote:

Everyone had to work, naturally, putting in six hours strike duty a day, three hours on and nine hours off. This would be picket duty at the gates, outside patrols, health and sanitation inspection, kitchen, police, etc. The kitchen was open day and night, serving coffee and sandwiches at all times.

The strikers were organised into squads of 15 under a captain, living and working together in the plant. Education classes were organised. The workers entertained themselves, forming their own “orchestra” with mandolins, guitar, banjo and mouth organ. The owner of the Rialto cinema, Maxie Gaeler, was a union sympathiser, and sent in variety acts to entertain the strikers. He put on film shows in the plant, including a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. And the sitdown strikers and their supporters sang. They sang union songs for their own entertainment, to maintain morale and as a propaganda weapon.37

Preparations were made to defend the plants against police and vigilante attack. Metal sheets were fixed over the windows with holes cut in them so that fire hoses could be deployed against any attackers. Missiles, particularly the heavy door hinges, were stockpiled, ready for use. Firearms were banned. The strikers held regular drills, preparing themselves for a showdown.

Also of crucial importance was the organisation of solidarity outside the occupied plants. Keeping the strikers fed three hot meals a day was a massive undertaking, along with organising support for the men’s families. According to William Weinstone, the Communist Party leader in Michigan, the strike was won by the “combination of an inside strike with an outside mass mobilisation”. It was this that “rendered the use of the sitdown most effective”. Daily meetings were held outside the plant together with “large-scale demonstrations…to meet any critical situation”.38And thousands of workers from Toledo, Detroit and elsewhere poured into Flint to support the sitdown.

Another crucial feature of the strike was the involvement of women. A very effective Women’s Auxiliary was established by Dorothy Kraus to support the strikers and their families. Socialist Party member Genora Johnson set up a Women’s Emergency Brigade to reinforce the picket lines. The brigade, which eventually numbered over 350 women, mobilised “every time there was a threatened battle”. “We carried heavy wooden clubs”, Johnson recalled.39

GM responded to the occupation by securing an injunction from a sympathetic judge, but this ploy collapsed when the union revealed that he owned over $200,000 worth of GM shares. Having failed to recover their plants by legal means, on 11 January they tried to retake them by force. The Flint police attempted to storm the weakly held Fisher Body Number Two, attacking pickets and firing tear gas into the plant. “The Battle of the Running Bulls” saw the police drenched by the strikers’ hoses in sub-zero temperatures and pelted with door hinges. With Victor Reuther rallying the strikers and their supporters from the union sound car, the police were humiliatingly driven off.

Governor Frank Murphy, a New Deal Democrat, responded by sending in the National Guard to prevent any further violence. He tried to persuade the union to evacuate the plants and GM to open negotiations. Under intense pressure the UAW president, Homer Martin, agreed to a “truce” whereby the strikers would evacuate the plants which would remain closed while negotiations began. The strikers were to march out on 17 January. This would have been a recipe for defeat, but fortunately GM’s bad faith led to the union repudiating the agreement and the occupation continued. This episode seems to have decided the CIO leadership that Martin could not be left to handle the negotiations. As far as Lewis was concerned, the fate of the CIO itself was at stake in Flint.

As the strike continued, the union felt that its position was weakening. Some dramatic stroke was necessary to regain the initiative or the struggle might well be lost. Kermit Johnson (the husband of Genora Johnson) proposed the seizure of Chevrolet Number Four plant, where he worked. This would restore morale and deal the company a crippling blow: Number Four produced all the engines for the Chevrolet (a million engines in 1936).40

The plan was opposed by Walter Reuther but supported by Bob Travis. They decided that a diversion of some sort was necessary and came up with a feint, a fake attempt to seize Chevrolet Number Nine that company spies would leak to the management. Only four people knew that the real plan was to take the Number Four plant once all the company guards had been lured to Number Nine. On 1 February the plan was put into effect with a fierce fight taking place at Number Nine plant, leaving the way clear for the occupation of Number Four. A vital role was played by the Women’s Emergency Brigade that blocked one of the entrances to Number Four and stopped police getting into the plant and evicting the strikers. This turned the tide.

For GM the situation was now desperate. Instead of the defeat of the strike being imminent, it had been revitalised and promised to continue through February into March. Whereas GM had produced 50,000 cars in December 1936, in the first week of February production was down to 125. The strike had to be ended either by force or through negotiation. The company secured another injunction ordering the evacuation of its plants by 3 February.

By now Governor Murphy had before him a National Guard appreciation of the situation. This made it clear that any attempt to retake the plants by force would require a declaration of martial law in Flint, the arrest of union leaders and left wing activists and an effective ban on all union activity. Even then there was no guarantee that the troops would actually be able to retake the plants in the face of determined resistance. A telegram from the strikers in Fisher Body Number One warned Murphy that any attempt to evict them would “mean a bloodbath of unarmed strikers, and that “you are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths”.41 And Lewis raised the stakes when he made it clear to Murphy that if troops were sent in, he would join the workers in the plants so that “the militia will have the pleasure of shooting me out of the plants”.42

On 3 February the union faced down the injunction. Murphy refused to send in the troops. With force not available, GM had no option but to negotiate. As Bob Travis whispered to Lewis during the negotiations in words that will warm the heart of every militant, “We’ve got ‘em by the balls—squeeze a little”.43 An attempt by the AFL to derail the proceedings was brushed aside by Lewis with contempt.44 On 11 February an agreement was reached that recognised the UAW in the plants where it had struck, but more important, gave it the green light to organise throughout the company. By February 1937 UAW membership had already increased to 88,000. By March it had risen to 166,000, by April to over 250,000 and by the middle of October to over 400,000. The CIO had won a decisive victory. By that same October CIO membership was to be some four million.

On the attack

The victory over GM inspired a working class revolt that was spearheaded by the sitdown strike. During the course of 1937 there were 477 sitdown strikes lasting at least one day with over 400,000 workers involved. There were 25 sitdowns in January, 47 in February, 170 in March (the peak month) and 58 in April. Over a hundred of the sitdowns involved AFL members. And, of course, there were many more sitdowns that lasted less than a day before the employer gave in.45

While the sitdown offensive was nationwide, it was centred on Detroit. As Steve Babson points out, the victory over GM “had an electrifying effect” there:

[It] sparked excited debate among workers in a wide range of industries. “little by little we were getting information”, recalled Estelle Gornie, a machine operator in one of Detroit’s largest cigar factories. “And we sat down, we can also do it… So we decided on a certain day, a certain hour. And we sat down… We got rid of the manager and took the factory over.” Estelle and her militant co-workers at General Cigar were not alone as they fortified their plant against possible counter-attack. By 20 February 1937, little more than a week after the end of the GM sitdown, two thousand women cigar makers had occupied Detroit’s five largest cigar plants. They were soon joined by thousands of others in every major Detroit industry.

In February and March in Detroit some 35,000 workers sat down in “nearly 130 factories, offices and stores…constituting a virtual ‘rolling’ general strike”.46

On 27 February staff at the Woolworth’s downtown store in Detroit, overwhelmingly young women and many of them teenagers, staged a sitdown strike, evicting the management and barricading themselves in. The company refused to negotiate until staff at another Detroit Woolworth’s occupied. They won a 5 cents an hour pay rise, union recognition and half pay for the duration of the occupation when the company surrendered on 6 March. Two days later the victorious strikers celebrated with a dance at the Barlum Hotel, where the staff promptly occupied, winning a substantial pay rise. The Detroit Woolworth occupations inspired shop workers in New York, where on 14 March 12 stores were occupied, eventually winning union recognition and a substantial pay rise.47

The most important struggle in this working class offensive, however, was the occupation of the giant Chrysler corporation’s car plants that began on 8 March. When the company announced that all the strikers had “terminated their employment” on 11 March, they occupied the corporation’s Detroit headquarters, evicting company executives. Chrysler secured a court injunction ordering the evacuation of the plants on 15 March, but the UAW once again mobilised for battle and the authorities backed down.

Elsewhere in the city the police did act. On 20 March they stormed the Bernard Schwartz cigar factory, evicting the strikers. At the same time police threw strikers out of Newton Packing and a number of shoe shops that had been occupied. This police action provoked outrage. A protest demonstration was called for 23 March. Over 100,000 people filled Cadillac Square to hear calls for a general strike if the police action continued. By now, however, the CIO leaders were trying to rein in the offensive. They got their way at Chrysler where, in the face of considerable opposition, they persuaded the workers to evacuate the plants on 25 March with the promise that they would not reopen while negotiations took place. At the giant Dodge plant the recommendation to evacuate had to be put to the vote five times before the leadership got their way. Lewis finally concluded “a GM-style agreement” with Chrysler on 6 April.48

Looking back at these months, Sidney Lens, at the time a member of a small Trotskyist sect, the Revolutionary Workers League, remembered that “the militancy of the workers in those days was quite an experience”. He remembered a sitdown at a sheet metal works where the police prepared to evict the strikers by force. The strikers threatened to tip the sheet metal on them if they invaded the factory and when “they actually began to move the big overhead crane, the police withdrew”. Lens chronicles the gap that was opening up between the CIO leadership and the militants. After the GM victory Lewis’s strategy was to tell employers to “give me recognition and I’ll stop irresponsibility”. Decisive for Lens was the Yale and Towne Lock Company sitdown in Detroit that began on 9 March. Here the strikers refused to evacuate the plant despite an offer to keep it closed while negotiations took place. On 15 April the police moved in:

During the ejection…the police beat up quite a few young girls who were sitting in. Tear gas was all over the place. Spontaneously workers from Kelley-Hayes Wheel Company, Babcock and Bartell and many other plants came to protect the women and free Walter Reuther from the paddy wagon… The UAW sound truck, singing an entirely different tune from that played during the victory in Flint, now told the men to go back to their jobs or to the union headquarters; the whole matter would be settled “peacefully”. When more than half the men had gone the police surrounded the sound truck and destroyed it. Another attack against the decimated crowd led to the complete abandonment of the plan to put the girls back into the plant.49

Lewis assured employers that “a CIO contract is adequate protection for any employer against sitdowns, lie-downs, or any other kind of strikes”.50 Militancy might be necessary if employers refused to recognise the unions, but if they were reasonable then the CIO would collaborate as a responsible partner and they could avoid trouble. As far as he was concerned this strategy was triumphantly vindicated when, only a week after the GM victory, US Steel, long a bastion of the open shop, recognised the Steel Workers Organising Committee (SWOC) without a fight. This success was achieved by a campaign that very deliberately excluded any rank and file initiative. Indeed, as Len De Caux observed, “SWOC was as totalitarian as any big business”.51

As far as US Steel was concerned resisting the union might well provoke its workers into full-scale rebellion, whereas Philip Murray promised that SWOC would be a defence against militancy. Certainly, for an important section of the capitalist class, the trade union leadership was coming to be seen as a defence against shop floor radicalism. This was without any doubt one of the reasons why, against all expectations, the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner act on 12 April 1937, the alternative was escalating class war.52

The problem for Lewis and Murray came when they tried to organise the large independent steel companies, known collectively as Little Steel. Here there was no management surrender and the steel workers were called out on strike on 26 May 1937. They were met with ferocious repression with the Roosevelt administration just standing by. In the Little Steel strike 18 workers were killed by police and company guards. Ten were shot dead on 30 May in the Memorial Day massacre in Chicago by armed thugs and murderers better known as the Chicago police. They beat the wounded and denied them medical attention, costing the life of at least one wounded man. The strike was broken. As Lens points out, “the sitdown tactic was not used once in the whole strike”, something he puts down to the fact that by now the CIO leadership “was anxious to show that it was responsible, that it would be moderate, rather than inflammatory”.53 The result was defeat.

“Communism is 20th century Americanism”

According to Lens, by 1938 “the radicalisation process was fully under control”. The CIO leadership “had achieved their purpose. The spontaneous and ‘unauthorised’ action of the rank and file…was corralled. In its place was an increasing emphasis on respectability and responsibility”.54

How was this achieved? Certainly one should not underestimate the credibility that Lewis and other union leaders had established by their willingness to fight when they had to. Lewis in particular was widely idolised. Nor should one underestimate the impact of the “Roosevelt Recession” of 1937-8—output fell sharply and unemployment soared, damping down militancy. But what of the left? The Trotskyist left remained riven with factionalism, unable to achieve critical mass. Moreover, it was subjected to sustained attack by the Communist Party and its allies.55 The Socialist Party continued to decline. What of the stance taken by the largest organisation on the left, the Communist Party?56

When Roosevelt had been elected president in 1932, the CP had still been faithfully following the Third Period line adopted by the Communist International (Comintern) in 1928. This involved ferociously sectarian hostility to the rest of the left. In March 1930 a cable from the Comintern patiently explained to its American disciples that the unions were “PLAINLY FASCIST”, and, thereafter the AFL was routinely referred to as “the fascist American Federation of Labour”. Lewis was inevitably a “fascist”, while Sidney Hillman was a “fascist gangster”.57 The election of Roosevelt was seen as a step along the road to fascism.

This all changed with the Comintern’s Popular Front turn in 1935. The Roosevelt administration became a bulwark against fascism overnight. In March 1936 Earl Browder, the CP general secretary, was summoned to Moscow to be told that the Comintern wanted the party to support Roosevelt in that year’s presidential election. In an interesting demonstration of Stalinist dialectics, Browder convinced the Comintern that if the CP supported Roosevelt it would cost him millions of votes. The best way the CP could assist his re-election was to stand a candidate but only to campaign against the Republicans.

The party’s nominating convention at Madison Square Garden had bands playing “Yankee Doodle” and the slogan “Communism is 20th century Americanism” everywhere. The party’s manifesto was “clearly reformist”. Browder’s strategy was, as his biographer points out, “to make the Communists a small but vociferous part of the New Deal coalition”. He “endorsed the New Deal as the Popular Front’s specifically American form”. 58 This was all part of the Soviet Union’s search for allies against Nazi Germany.

The Communist Party’s political turn had inevitable consequences for its industrial work. While many party members remained among the best rank and file militants, the CP leadership increasingly looked to an alliance with the leadership of the CIO. As early as November 1936 Browder had a secret meeting with CIO director John Brophy at which an agreement was reached for the party to provide organisers, particularly for the campaign to organise steel. According to William Z Foster, “Lewis, Hillman, the Communists, and other progressives” formed a “left-centre bloc…a working alliance”. Out of the 200 full-time organisers in steel, “some 60 were party members”. Steel, Foster writes, became the party’s “first order of business” with William Gebert designated as “the party’s liaison with the SWOC”. What was crucial, however, was that the CP was actively collaborating in the top-down organisation of steel on the trade union bureaucracy’s terms, and this involved the determined exclusion of any rank and file initiative.59

As part of the Popular Front turn, the CP effectively abandoned its efforts to build among the rank and file, and instead directed its efforts to securing positions in the trade union bureaucracy. To this end, in 1938-9 the party disbanded its union fractions and closed down its shop papers, ostensibly as a gesture of good faith to the CIO leadership. More important, however, is that they were becoming an increasing embarrassment for the party’s own union officials as the defence of the interests of the shop floor came into conflict with the imperatives of bureaucratic politics.

One consequence of disbanding union fractions was to remove Communist union officials from the influence of rank and file party members on the shop floor. The party’s leadership was increasingly concerned with delivering the right resolutions, particularly with regard to foreign policy. The struggle on the shop floor was subordinated to the bureaucratic politics of “the left-centre bloc”. The dangers this involved were nowhere better demonstrated than in the UAW.

In November 1937 the night shift at the Fisher Body plant in Pontiac staged a sitdown strike in protest against management failure to honour agreements. GM responded by sacking four leading militants. Workers respnded on 17 November when they “again occupied the Fisher Body plant, welded shut the gates and moved in blankets and food”. Other GM plants in Pontiac came out in sympathy. Both Communist Party and Socialist Party members were involved in leading the strike, which had the support of Walter Reuther, Wyndham Mortimer and William Weinstone, the Michigan CP leader. Initially the Daily Worker supported the strikers.

The CIO leadership, however, demanded that the strike be brought to an end. Rather than fall out with its allies in the bureaucracy, the CP leadership insisted that party members in Pontiac come out and condemn the strike they were helping to lead. The result was disaster. The strikers returned to work defeated, the four men remained sacked, the UAW suspended the leadership of the Pontiac local, and union membership in the Pontiac plants collapsed. Browder subsequently removed Weinstone from the leadership of the Michigan CP for compromising the party’s relations with the CIO leadership.60

Even more telling were developments at the UAW convention in March 1939. Here the left candidate, George Addes, was assured of victory in the election for union president, with Mortimer as first vice-president. But it was not to be. Party members at the convention were confronted with a deal that had been struck by Browder and Sidney Hillman of the CIO whereby the CP would support RJ Thomas, the CIO leadership’s candidate for the presidency. Moreover, they were to support the abolition of the post of vice-president, even though this was explicitly aimed at removing Mortimer from the union leadership. This was never so much as discussed with party members working in the car industry. Browder actually attended the convention to make sure they toed the line.

As one veteran party member, Al Richmond, later put it:

There was no prior consultation with Communist auto workers, who were most intimately acquainted with conditions in the union and the industry. They did not participate in making the decision although the burden of implementing it would be theirs, they would have to live with its direct consequences and would be held accountable for them by their fellow workers. The growing consideration was the left-centre bloc at the top, or more specifically the relationship with Hillman and Murray.

As far as Richmond was concerned, the party line in industry increasingly involved “a rape of principle by tactic” that only “eroded left strength and moral authority”. The party’s concessions to the trade union bureaucracy only served to “vitiate the character of the CIO as a militant, progressive movement”.61 Such concerns were, however, soon to be overtaken by the problems that first the Hitler-Stalin Pact and later the Second World War posed for the Communist Party.

At the inauguration of his second term as president on 20 January 1937 Roosevelt pledged his administration to the service of the “one-third of the nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished”. “The test of progress”, he insisted, “is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little”.62 As is often the case, these worthy sentiments presaged an all-out assault on the “ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” with savage cuts in government spending and regressive tax increases.

Roosevelt was always a fiscal conservative at heart. The impact of this on the US economy was to once again plunge it into the depths of recession. Industrial production fell by more than 40 percent and four million workers lost their jobs over the winter of 1937-8. By early 1938, “many Americans once more neared starvation”.63 Instead of leading the fight against the “Roosevelt Recession”, the Communist Party rallied to the New Deal, even though the administration had abandoned it.


1: The “Sit Down” song was written by the socialist lawyer Maurice Sugar for the UAW in 1937. See Johnson, 1988, pp212-213.

2: See Newsinger, 2009. Open shop employers were those that did not require their employees to be members of a trade union.

3: Foster, 1927, pp133-134.

4: Brophy, 1964, pp213, 218.

5: Foster, 1927, pp290, 294.

6: For more on Powers Hapgood, see Bussel, 1999.

7: Galenson, 1960, p195.

8: Dubofsky and Van Tine, 1977, pp96, 109.

9: Zieger, 1988, pp81-82.

10: Reuther, 1976, p125.

11: Pope, 2006, p50. This is a very interesting article that has not received enough attention.

12: Levinson, 1995, pp144, 146.

13: Peterson, 1987, pp130-1.

14: Mortimer, 1971, p51.

15: Bernard, 2004, p45.

16: Fine, 1963, p148.

17: Bernstein, 1971, p98.

18: Bernstein, 1971, p182.

19: Lens, 1949, p295.

20: Howe and Widick, 1973, p 50.

21: Fine, 1969, p38.

22: Edsforth, 1987, pp163-4.

23: Mortimer, 1971, pp104, 112. The Black Legion without any doubt had connections with GM. Many foremen were members and on 1 June 1936 Harry Anderson, GM’s labour relations director, actually wrote to Edward Cowdrick that “you could use a little Black Legion down in your country”-Johnson, 1988, pp181-182. More particularly, see Amann, 1983.

24: Fine, 1969, p128.

25: Edsforth and Asher, 1995, p78.

26: Mortimer, 1971, pp123-124.

27: Babson and others, 1986, p72.

28: Reuther, 1976, pp 34-141.

29: Leuchtenburg, 1963, pp132, 166.

30: Fearon, 1987, p 74.

31: Milton, 1982, p 74.

32: For the right wing opposition to the New Deal see in particular Wolfskill, 1962, and Colby, 1984. Also of considerable interest is Farber, 2002.

33: Kraus, 1985, p42.

34: De Caux, 1970, p228. For a good overview of the sitdown strikes, see Sherry, 2010.

35: Henry Ford’s Service Department actually placed a spy, Nick Torres, in a boys’ club, working as a boxing instructor, to report on what he could learn of their fathers’ sympathies. See Kahn, 1951, p171.

36: Edsforth, 1987, p171.

37: Kraus, 1985, pp90-105. See also Fuoss, 1997, and Lynch, 2001, pp85-123. For an academic rendering of the CP version of these events, see Keeran, 1980.

38: Weinstone, 1937, p23. Weinstone actually acknowledges the contribution of individual Socialist Party members: those, that is, “who were not infected with the poison of Trotskyism” (p 40).

39: Dollinger and Dollinger, 2000, pp135-136. This book is an important corrective to Kraus’s account in The Many and the Few, which minimises the contribution of non-Communists to the struggle as well as the part played by women. See also Jackson, 2008.

40: In his account of this decisive episode, Henry Kraus gives credit for the plan to fellow Communist Bob Travis and goes out of his way to slander Kermit Johnson as “this scared kid” with “a case of funk” (Kraus, 1985, p200). This is part of his attempt to diminish the contribution of Socialist Party members in the struggle, particularly when, like the Johnsons, they were to become Trotskyists. For his part, Travis acknowledged Johnson’s contribution.

41: Levinson, 1995, pp164-5

42: Fine, 1979, p318.

43: Dubofsky and Van Tine, 1977, p270.

44: William Green was, of course, completely opposed to sitdown strikes and on one occasion described them as “sabotage beyond the wildest dreams of the IWW”-Phelan, 1989, p145.

45: Fine, 1969, p331.

46: Babson, 1999, pp98-9.

47: Babson, 1986, pp77-9; Opler, 2007, pp64-65.

48: Jefferys, 1986, p74.

49: Lens, 1949, pp310-312.

50: Zieger, 1988, p98.

51: De Caux, 1970, p 280.

52: According to Jim Pope “the court was plainly and simply yielding to pressure from the sitdown strikers”-Pope, 2006, p97.

53: Lens, 1949, p314.

54: Lens, 1949, p320.

55: According to one recent account, the KGB “devoted enormous resources to surveilling, infiltrating and discrediting the American Trotskyist movement”. Not only was James Cannon’s phone tapped, but his personal secretary was a KGB agent. See Haynes, Klehr and Vassiliev, 2009, pp473-81.

56: Communist Party membership increased from 18,000 in 1932 to 43,000 in 1936.

57: Klehr, 1984, pp17, 94.

58: Ryan, 1997, pp348-350.

59: Foster, 1952, pp348-350.

60: Lichtenstein, 1995, pp119-121. Pope describes the Pontiac strike as “a serious defeat for shop floor activism and worker lawmaking”-Pope, 2006, p102. The significance of the Pontiac strike is quite incredibly not discussed in Keeran’s book on the CP in auto.

61: Richmond, 1973, pp243-244.

62: Smith, 2008, p376.

63: Leuchtenburg, 1963, p249.


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