Occupation strikes revolutionized the labor movement – could it happen again?

Joe Biden often says he wants to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt, the most revered president among American liberals (along with John F. Kennedy and, most recently, Barack Obama). In a way, he no doubt laments, Biden has indeed emulated FDR – seeing a pair of “centrists” from his own party (in this case, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema) undermine his platform. Roosevelt faced some of his fiercest opposition from conservative Democrats, including his own vice president, John Nance Garner, whose nickname was truly “Cactus Jack.”

Much like Manchin and Sinema, Garner used platitudes about tradition and limited government to mask his allegiance to what would today be dubbed “the percent.” For most of Roosevelt’s first term, Garner watched in silent dismay as FDR shed the ideologically muddled history of the Democratic Party and sharply moved to the left, at least in economic policy. Garner initially supported Roosevelt for the reasons of many conservatives, as he believed that saving democracy depended on allaying social unrest caused by the Great Depression. Once the immediate national distress began to ease, Garner again became as dogmatically pro-business as any modern-day Republican.

However, in the months following Roosevelt’s crushing re-election in 1936, Garner reached his breaking point. There was an issue where FDR took a position that Garner considered totally unacceptable, and that ended their relationship for good. Not only was Cactus Jack not on the ticket when FDR sought (and won) an unprecedented third term in 1940, Garner actually ran against Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination.

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What was the problem ? Roosevelt refused to take a firm stand against the “sit-down strike,” a controversial union 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” in a factory, for example, and refusing to budge. This made it nearly impossible for employers to replace strikers with scabs or remove equipment, at least not without resorting to physical force. Any strike that physically prevents employers from producing or marketing goods without literally going through their workers could be described as a sit-down strike, but the term is generally used in factories or other large industrial facilities.

The United States experienced a wave of sit-down strikes in the 1930s, but the concept seems to have emerged in France, where in June 1936 many workers occupied their factories. It also inspired American unions, and Georgetown history professor Joseph A. McCartin explained via email that a turning point came on December 30, 1936, when General Motors workers took control. from their resort in Flint, Michigan:

The militants used the tactic in Flint because they knew this was the crux of the GM system and they believed they had enough organization in the factories there to make it happen. Everyone was excited about FDR’s recent overwhelming re-election, which appeared to ratify public support for the Wagner Law [a landmark 1935 labor law] and other New Deal measures. And the organizers grew impatient with GM’s constant blockade and resistance to unionization. So they decided to force the hand of the company.

Conservatives like Garner have been intimidated because the strikes both challenged the central concept of industrial capitalism – the sanctity of private property – but also got results. FDR refused to order the forced withdrawal of workers from the Flint plant, and the strikers ultimately achieved their main goal: a union at GM. McCartin again:

Without Flint’s sit-down strike, it might have taken many more years to organize General Motors, and the whole industrial labor movement might not have come of age. The breakthrough spurred the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) and helped make other victories possible. Indeed, US Steel decided to voluntarily recognize the IOC Steelworkers Organizing Committee (SWOC) in hopes of avoiding the kind of disruption GM had experienced. GM and USS surrendered to the IOC even before anyone knew if the [Supreme Court] would uphold the constitutionality of the NLRA (Wagner Act), which it did later on April 12, 1937. This testified to how [much] take advantage of the sit-down strike gave workers.

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Flint’s sit-down strike, McCartin concluded, “was certainly the most crucial strike of the time.”

These were heady times for American work, but they did not last long. By 1939, the political tide had started to turn against Roosevelt, and the Supreme Court effectively declared the sit-down strikes illegal. Internal conflicts between Democrats meant the party could not support a tactic that directly attacked private property of wealthy special interests. To use a phrase favored by Richard Wolff, 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 described him as “an evil old man, poker player, whiskey drinker, and bad” – but he was not alone. While moderate or conservative Democrats had different views on FDR policies on the whole, they had no patience for sit-down strikes, describing them as agents of anarchy and tyranny, suggestive of communist influence. Roosevelt himself was forced to back down, remaining neutral during the “Little Steel Strike” of 1937 for fear of dividing the party and alienating Democratic voters. (Around this time, Garner also went to war with FDR’s attempt to reform the reactionary Supreme Court, which Conservatives called a “tribunal package” – and that story is a big part of why Biden doesn’t want not change the court.)

Occupation strikes have largely disappeared from the labor movement, in part because a declining proportion of Americans are working in large industrial facilities. There are conceptual echoes of the tactic, adjusted for the Zoom era, in the current era of the Great Resignation, which also challenges the implicit notion that workers must play by the rules of the game – as established. by owners of capital – and not have the power to change them. Like sit-down strikes, the Big Quit challenges the validity of this whole system, meaning pundits and pundits respond by gravely stating that it’s a terrible idea.

In an interview with Salon, Wolff observed that the very idea that there is something special or sacred about private property is ludicrous. Private property, like all other aspects of the economy, is a concept created by human beings, who can revise this concept and the social rules surrounding it at any time. Culture and history have caused us to be horrified when workers seek to make fundamental changes to the rules around property relations – but Wolff says the rich and powerful do it all the time.

“Private property is violated every day here in the United States,” he said. “It’s just a question of who rapes her and for what purpose. When workers occupy a place and a screaming capitalist speaks to you of “private property”, [that’s] a ploy. It is one way of trying to solve a problem. Practices like the Eminent Estate – in which a person can be forced to sell private property if a government agency declares it to be necessary for a presumed social purpose – have been around for centuries and are often manipulated by wealthy developers, for example. example.

While the sit-down strikes of the 1930s are unlikely to ever be repeated, Wolff suggests that these strikers be remembered for showing the way, towards a more humane way of working. “It was a very deep forward movement that these autoworkers made in Michigan by sitting down,” he said. Whether they know it or not, they were fighting not only for their own employment rights, but for something much larger, which Wolff describes as “a shift in the employee system through a democratization of the workplace.” where workers run their own businesses ”. The sit-down strikes, he said, were “a transitional stage from one to the other.”

Almost a century later, we are hardly any closer to a “complete democratization of the workplace”. But workers in the off-center odd-job economy and COVID work-from-home economy are coming to the same realization that industrial workers had during the Depression: It’s possible to change the rules, and maybe even the game.

More from Matthew Rozsa on unexplored corners of political history:

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