Sit-Down Strikes Renewed Labor. Workers Today Could Benefit From That Lesson.

Joe Biden often says that he wants the best for America. emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt), the president most revered by American Liberals (along John F. Kennedy and, latterly, Barack Obama). In one way he no doubt laments, Biden has indeed emulated FDR — by seeing a pair of “centrists” from his own party (in this case, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten SinemaHis agenda. Roosevelt faced some of his fiercest opposition from conservative Democrats, including his own vice president, John Nance Garner, whose nickname really was “Cactus Jack.”

Somewhat like Manchin and Sinema, Garner mouthed platitudes about tradition and limited government to mask his allegiance to what today would be dubbed “the one percent.” For most of Roosevelt’s first term, Garner watched in silent dismay as FDR sloughed off the Democratic Party’s ideologically muddled historyshifted sharply to the left, at most on economic policy. Garner initially supported Roosevelt for the same reasons that many conservatives did. He believed that easing the Great Depression’s social unrest would save democracy. Garner became more pro-business after the immediate national crisis subsided.

In the months that followed Roosevelt’s landslide re-election in 1936Garner reached an unsustainable point. FDR took a position Garner found completely unacceptable and it ended their relationship. Cactus Jack was not only removed from the ticket in FDR’s quest for (and winning) a third term in 1940 but Garner ran against Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination.

What was the issue? Roosevelt refused to take a strong stand against the “sit-down strike,” a controversial labor tactic that posed a direct challenge to major industrial employers. In a sit-down strike, workers would literally (if only temporarily) seize the means of production, “sitting down” in a factory, for example, and refusing to budge. Employers found it difficult to replace the strikers by scab workers, or to remove the equipment. A strike that prevents employers from marketing or producing commodities physically without going through their workers can be called a sit-down strike. However, this term is usually used in factories and other large industrial facilities.

The 1930s saw a wave of strikes at the table in the United States. However, the idea was popularized in France in June 1936, when many workers occupied their factories. This inspired American organized labor. Joseph A. McCartin, a Georgetown history professor, explained via email that the turning point was Dec. 30, 1936 when workers at General Motors took control of their complex in Flint.

The activists used this tactic in Flint because it was a crucial node in GM’s system and they believed that they had enough organization to pull it off. Everyone was excited by FDR’s recent landslide reelection, which seemed to ratify public support of the Wagner Act [a landmark 1935 labor law]Other New Deal measures. And organizers were growing impatient with GM’s constant stalling and resistance to unionization. So they decided to force the company’s hand.

Conservatives like Garner were intimidated because the strikes both challenged the core concept of industrial capitalism — the sacred character of private property — but also got results. FDR refused forcefully to remove the workers from Flint’s plant. The strikers eventually achieved their primary goal, a union at GM. McCartin again

The Flint sit-down strikes would have meant that it might have taken years to unionize General Motors. Otherwise, the entire industrial union movement might not have matured. This breakthrough helped to boost the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), and made other victories possible. Indeed, U.S. Steel decided to voluntarily recognize the CIO’s Steelworker Organizing Committee (SWOC) in hopes of avoiding the kind of disruption GM had experienced. Before anyone knew whether the CIO was aware, both GM and USS gave in to the CIO. [Supreme Court]It would uphold the constitutionality and validity of the NLRA (Wagner Act), which it did later on April 12, 1937. This was a testimony of how [much]The workers were able leverage the sit down strike.

The Flint sit-down strike, McCartin concluded, “was certainly the single most pivotal strike of the era.”

Those were heady times for American labor, but they didn’t last long. In 1939, the political tide began to turn against Roosevelt and the Supreme Court declared that sit-down strikes were illegal. Because of internal conflicts within Democrats, the party couldn’t support a tactic which directly attacked the private property and wealthy special interests. To use a phrase favored by Richard Wolff, a retired economics professor at UMass Amherst, they had become “hostage to their donors.”

Garner was essentially the leader of the anti-union Democrats — United Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis famously described him as “a labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man” — but he was not alone. While moderate or conservative Democrats had varying views on FDR’s policies overall, they had zero patience for sit-down strikes, describing them as agents of anarchy and tyranny, redolent of Communist influence. Roosevelt himself was forced to back away, remaining neutral during the “Little Steel Strike” of 1937 out of fear of dividing the party and alienating Democratic voters. (Around this time Garner also went to war over FDR’s attempt to reform the reactionary Supreme Court, which conservatives derided as “court packing” — and that history is a big part of the reason Biden is unwilling to alter the court.)

Sit-down strikes are now almost nonexistent in the labor movement due to a shrinking number of Americans working in large industrial facilities. There are conceptual echoes of the tactic, adjusted for the Zoom era, in the current age of the Great Resignation, which also challenges the implicit notion that workers must play by the rules of the game — as set by the owners of capital — and have no power to change them. Like sit-down strikes, the Big Quit challenges the validity of that entire system, which means that experts and pundits respond by pronouncing gravely that it’s a terrible idea.

Interview with SalonWolff stated that private property does not have any special or sacred qualities. Private property, as with all other aspects of economics is a concept created and maintained by human beings. They have the ability to revise it and the social rules that surround it at any moment. Culture and history have trained us to be horrified when workers seek to make fundamental changes in the rules regarding property relations — but Wolff says that the rich and powerful do that all the time.

“Private property is violated every single day here in the United States,” he said. “It’s only a question of who’s violating it and for what purpose. When workers occupy a place and some yowling capitalist tells you about ‘private property,’ [that’s]It’s a ploy. It’s a way to try to solve a problem.” Practices like eminent domain — in which a person can be forced to sell private property if a government body declares it’s needed for an alleged social purpose — have existed for centuries, and are often manipulated by wealthy developers, for instance.

Although it’s unlikely the sit-down strikes of the 1930s will ever be repeated, Wolff suggests those strikers may be remembered for pointing the way forward, toward a more humane way to work. “It was a very profound movement forward that these auto workers did in Michigan by sitting in,” he said. Whether they knew it or not, they were fighting not just for their own employment rights but for something much larger, which Wolff describes as “a displacement of the employee system by a democratization of the workplace where workers run their own businesses.” Sit-down strikes, he said, were “a transitory step from the one to the other.”

Nearly a century later, we’re not much closer to a full “democratization of the workplace.” But workers of the decentered gig economy and the work-from-home COVID economy are arriving at the same realization industrial workers had during the Depression: It’s possible to change the rules, and maybe even the game.