What was good for General Motors wasn’t always good for GM workers. Sit-down strikes at the company’s Michigan plants sparked a wave of similar actions in workplaces across the country.

It was the height of the Saturday shopping rush in the big F.W. Woolworth’s five-and-ten-cent store in the heart of downtown Detroit. Customers thronged the aisles surveying the vast array of hair combs and knitting needles, lampshades and face creams, nearly everything on sale for only a nickel or a dime. The clerks stood by their counters as usual. All seemed normal. But this was February 27, 1937, more than seven years deep into the Great Depression, and what had once passed for normal had long since vanished from the American workplace. Suddenly, the bargain-hunting shoppers were startled by the screech of a whistle blown by a union organizer. The 150 women clerks knew just what to do. All of them, the lunch counter brigade in their white short-sleeved uniforms, and the others in their long, fitted skirts and knitted tops, stepped back from their counters and folded their arms, halting work in unison. “The jangle of cash registers stopped,” reported the Detroit News, “and bewildered customers found themselves holding out nickels and dimes in vain.”

The intrepid Woolworth clerks held their ground day and night for an entire week, taking command of the store.

Confounded, the company rewarded the strikers with a 20 percent raise and gave their union a say in hiring. The locally organized work stoppage in Woolworth’s was only one of many examples of the potency of a novel weapon—the sit down strike—that thousands of workers were taking up and using against their bosses across the land. The strikers demanded and frequently won higher wages, shorter working hours and, most commonly, recognition for their unions. Sparked by the signal triumph of the upstart United Auto Workers’ (UAW) sit-down strike against General Motors in December 1936, “sit-downers” were causing Americans to take organized labor more seriously than ever before.

Entrenched corporate interests, the indifference of lawmakers and the outright opposition of the courts had combined to beat back the organizing campaigns of labor unions for years. The Great Depression and the launching of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal offered unions hope for contending against big business on a more level playing field. But Roosevelt’s key legislative act in support of labor, a federal guarantee of collective bargaining, was torpedoed by the U.S. Supreme Court along with the rest of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the centerpiece of FDR’s reform program. The high court held that the NRA represented an unconstitutional grant of power over the economy to the executive branch of government. Meanwhile, the nation’s great corporations continued to use every weapon at their disposal to throttle and disrupt the union movement.

Workers were growing desperate. And nowhere was despair deeper than in the auto industry, particularly at General Motors, then the nation’s largest corporation. The pressure of the assembly line had always been a point of contention for autoworkers. But it became even harder to bear when GM stepped up the tempo to take advantage of the boost in the economy achieved by the early New Deal programs. Workers complained about what they considered the assembly line’s unbearable pace, which some claimed made them ill or so dizzy that when they left the plant, they could not remember where they had parked their cars.

Well aware that such conditions made its factories a breeding ground for labor unions, GM did all it could to crush any such movement before it could start. Since the beginning of 1934, the automaker had spent about $1 million for private detectives to spy on union activities. A Senate committee, probing interference with union organizing efforts, called GM’s espionage operation “a monument to the most colossal super-system of spies yet devised in any American corporation.”

Spurred by unrest among the rank and file, UAW leaders on December 16, 1936, sought a meeting with General Motors to discuss working conditions. The company declined to meet with the union. Frustrated and angry, the workers were attracted to the sit-down idea, with its guerrilla war motif. A song composed by a UAW leader caught the mood of the workers:

When they tie the can to a union man,

Sit down! Sit down!

When they give him the sack they’ll take him back,

Sit down! Sit down!

When the speed up comes, just twiddle your thumbs,

Sit down! Sit down!

When the boss won’t talk don’t take a walk,

Sit down! Sit down!

As auto industry national union strategists, led by the head of the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis, were still mulling over when to call a strike, the rank-and-file workers and their local leaders took the decision into their own hands. The catalyst was GM’s plan for relocating the dies—the cutting tools used to shape the bodies of Chevrolets and Oldsmobiles—from the Fisher Body plant No. 1 in Flint, Mich., to other plants that were relatively free from UAW penetration.

On the night of December 30, 1936, the local UAW leaders sounded the alarm to their assembled workers at a hastily called lunch break meeting by alerting them to GM’s plans for transferring the dies. The response was unanimous and swift. “Them’s our jobs!” one worker cried out about the crucial equipment. “Shut her down, shut the goddamn plant down!” another worker shouted. Others took up the call and began sitting down at their machinery, just as the starting whistle was set to blow. Within an hour the production line had shut down. “She’s ours!” one striker yelled. For good measure, sit-downers also seized control of the much smaller Fisher Body plant No. 2 nearby.

Sit-downs were by no means a brand-new tactic. As early as 1906, General Electric workers sat down at a Schenectady, N.Y., factory, and European workers staged various forms of sit-ins after World War I. But it was during the hard times and frustration of the Depression years that sit-downs caught on and mushroomed as never before.

As the Flint strike soon proved, the sitdown strategy offered great advantages to labor. It made it possible for a relatively small number of workers to completely shut down a huge factory. No more than 1,000 took over Fisher No. 1, and fewer than half that number controlled the smaller No. 2 plant. But their presence, standing guard at the machinery, was enough to keep management from using strikebreakers to reopen plants. While companies could get a court injunction against strikers, enforcing the order would mean driving the sit-downers out of the plant they controlled, a move that was hard to do without the violence and bloodshed that politicians wanted to avoid.

Grasping the sit-down’s potential, Lewis and the CIO plunged into the fray, hoping to get a foothold in mass production industries such as autos, which had resisted the efforts of the craft-based American Federation of Labor. A hulking figure of a man, with a personality to match, Lewis saw the unplanned sitdown of the Flint UAW as a golden opportunity.

On New Year’s Eve 1936, barely 24 hours after the Flint sit-downs started, Lewis went on the radio to bolster the strikers’ cause and to demand the help of President Roosevelt, to whose reelection the CIO had been a major contributor.

For GM the stakes were just as high as they were for Lewis, the CIO and the New Deal. The automaker could not ignore the fact that the strike was metastasizing across its vast empire. In the week following the seizure of the Flint plants, UAW sitdowns and walkouts had closed the other GM plants throughout the Midwest. But none of those were as menacing to the company’s profit margin as the sit-down at the Flint Fisher Body plants, the biggest producers of bodies and parts for all of GM.

On January 11, 1937, the 12th day of the strike, GM staged an assault on Fisher No. 2, the more lightly held of the two UAW bastions. A platoon of company guards rushed a group of workers handing food in through the main gate of the plant, overpowering them and slamming the gate shut. At the same time, with the outdoor temperature at just 16 degrees above zero, GM turned off the heat in the plant.

Union headquarters was alerted, and hundreds of workers rushed to the scene, reinforcing the union picket line outside the plant. To bolster the outnumbered company guards, Flint police soon arrived, brandishing revolvers and tear gas guns, laying siege to the plant. But the strikers inside dragged fire hoses to the windows and drenched the “bulls,” as they called the company agents and police, while bombarding them with tools and hardware, including two-pound car door hinges. To make matters worse for the police, strong winds blew the tear gas they had fired at the strikers back into their faces, forcing them to call off their attack.

Their victory in the “Battle of the Running Bulls,” as the union forces dubbed the confrontation, energized the strikers and buttressed their support among autoworkers in Flint and elsewhere. Just as important, the fracas at Fisher No. 2 brought Michigan’s newly elected pro-labor Governor Frank Murphy into the picture. His interest carried with it the promise of an even more important development—the potential for increasing involvement on the part of President Roosevelt, Murphy’s political patron as well as the beneficiary of union leader Lewis’ largesse during his 1936 reelection campaign.

Murphy mobilized the National Guard and vowed to preserve order. But he also made clear that he did not intend to use the Guard to evict the strikers, but only to quell violence that the local police could not control.

For their part, the strikers organized themselves into committees to deal with food, sanitation and health, safety and entertainment. Every worker had a specific duty for six hours a day, which he performed in two three-hour shifts. Every night at 8, the strikers’ six-piece band—three guitars, a violin, a mouth organ and a squeezebox—broadcast over a loudspeaker for the strikers and the women and children outside. Spirituals and country tunes made up most of their repertoire, but they always closed with “Solidarity Forever,” the anthem of the labor movement, sung to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” taking heart from its rousing chorus: “Solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.”

The sit-downers themselves were all men, but women played a major role in the effort. Wives came to the plant windows to distribute food, which went immediately into the general commissary, and clean laundry. Women were not allowed to enter, but children were passed through the windows for brief visits with their fathers.

The tenacity of the strikers and their families made it possible, within a month after the Battle of the Running Bulls, for the UAW to celebrate an even more significant victory. Facing an imminent collapse of its production schedule for the entire year, GM, prodded by Roosevelt and bulldozed by Lewis, came to an agreement with the UAW that paved the way for the long-term, quasi-partnership role the union would ultimately play in the auto industry.

The UAW’s triumph inspired an epidemic of sitdown strikes the likes of which neither the United States, nor any other country, had ever seen. Shipyards and textile mills, college campuses and even coffin factories all were hit in one town or another. The number of sit-downs, which had nearly doubled from 25 in January 1937 to 47 in February, made a quantum leap in March to 170. This figure was more than three times the total for 1936, and represented strikes involving nearly 170,000 workers. In Detroit, the center of the storm, “sitting-down has replaced baseball as a national pastime,” the Detroit News reported, “and sitter-downers clutter the landscape in every direction.”

Sit-downs were by no means confined to the workplace. At penitentiaries in Pennsylvania and Illinois, inmates sat down to get better treatment—but failed. In Zanesville, Ohio, housewives occupied the office of the director of public services, protesting against a dusty neighborhood street.

The spree had its lighter side. In the town of Neponset, Ill., schoolchildren sat down in the local drugstore demanding free candy—until a generous resident resolved their grievance with a $5 check to the storeowner. A divorced woman sat down in her ex-husband’s apartment demanding that he pay the back alimony he owed her. And in New York’s Madison Square Garden, the New York Rovers amateur hockey team kept 15,000 fans waiting for half an hour while they sat down in their dressing room because they had been denied the free tickets promised them.

But most strikes were in deadly earnest, sometimes accompanied by violence. In the Fansteel Metallurgical Corp. plant south of Waukegan, Ill., a two-hour battle raged with more than 100 sit-downers beating back a like number of police and deputy sheriffs who tried to drive them out of their plant. The police and deputies then besieged the plant, sent for reinforcements and a few days later launched another attack. This time they forced the strikers to evacuate.

Nevertheless, the pace of sit-downs continued to quicken. On one single day, March 8, 1937, 300 members of the United Electrical Workers sat down at the Emerson Electric plant in St. Louis, while in Springfield, Ohio, 300 workers at the Springfield Metallic Casket Company stopped production, and in Pittsburgh 200 workers at the American Trouser Company refused to work. The union demanded a return to the 1929 wage scale of $16 a week for a 40-hour week and intended to organize all 700 pants makers in the city.

Later in the same week, 215 strikers sat down at four stores of the H.L. Green department store chain in New York City. They presented the company with a 22-point program calling for union recognition, a 40-hour workweek and a minimum weekly wage of $20. While negotiations went forward, the union’s food distribution system provided workers at the largest of the stores in Manhattan with 85 pounds of veal, which they cheerfully made into goulash. At night a nearby Greek restaurant sent in dinner.

But the major battleground continued to be the starting point for the year’s imbroglios—Michigan and the auto industry. This time the principal target of the United Auto Workers was Chrysler, then the second largest of the auto companies. The struggle between the union and Chrysler soon reached the bitter intensity of the previous battle with GM.

The UAW’s victory over GM had led to concrete gains—pay raises, the rehiring of fired workers, the retiming of jobs to eliminate the speed-up—all of which helped fuel the UAW drive against Chrysler. The leaders of the Chrysler strike had sent observers to Flint and learned from the sit-down there. But so had Chrysler. When 6,000 strikers took over eight Chrysler plants in the Detroit area, the company lost no time in getting an injunction, giving the workers two days to evacuate.

The UAW’s friend, Michigan Governor Murphy, was on the spot. While vowing to support the law, he was reluctant to bring force to bear against the strikers, and with good reason. Neither police nor sheriff ’s deputies were up to the job, and to call on the National Guard would result in a bloody battle.

So the sit-downs continued, appearing to some to threaten chaos, not only in Detroit but also in other major cities. On March 16, 1937, the same day the Chrysler strikers defied the courts and challenged their governor, taxicab drivers battled strikebreakers and police in the heart of Chicago’s Loop as thousands watched from office windows. A mounted policeman who rode into the mob was pulled from his horse and beaten; nearby another officer chased away strikers by leveling a shotgun at them. The strikers stopped cabs driven by scab drivers, threw passengers into the street and in one case set a cab on fire.

In New York City, perhaps inspired by their peers’ success with their strike in Detroit, Woolworth clerks caught the sit-down fever. At a downtown Manhattan store of the five-and-ten-cent chain, union supporters clambered up onto a second-story ledge above the store entrance, opened windows and threw food, blankets and other provisions to the strikers inside, while private police tried in vain to stop them. The sit-downers sent a cablegram rebuking the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton Mdivani Haugwitz-Reventlow, whose extravagant lifestyle had become an embarrassment to the company’s executives. “Babs,” as the tabloids called her, had just recently bought $2 million worth of jewelry, two Rolls Royces, a 157-foot yacht and a mansion in London. The strikers condemned her profligacy in the face of the Depression-driven hunger and poverty that prevailed in New York and elsewhere in the country.

In Clifton, N.J., 150 employees of the Pacific Slipper Company sat down to demand higher wages and, among other things, cleaner toilets. The company appealed to the state’s governor, Republican Harold Hoffman, who had previously likened sit-down strikers to “gangsters” and vowed to crush any such outbreaks in his state with force. But Hoffman, like Democrat Murphy, was not eager to back up his words with actions. Dealing with sitdown strikes, he declared, was a matter best left to the courts.

But in the U.S. Senate, some decided that the time for dithering had passed. On March 17, 1937, with Chrysler under siege and smaller companies beset everywhere by sit-down strikes, one of the Senate’s aging lions, California Republican Hiram Johnson, called the outbreak of sit-downs “the most ominous thing in our national economic life today.” If public officials permit the strikes to go on, he declared, “then the warning signals are out, and down that road lays dictatorship.” Democrat James Hamilton Lewis of Illinois picked up on that theme, warning, “In every hour such as this there awaits another Hitler and there lurks in the shadows another Mussolini.”

Other voices joined the chorus in the chamber until Arkansas’ venerable Joseph Robinson, the Democratic majority leader of the Senate, unable to find any other way to silence the critics of the sitdown, adjourned the Senate. But adjournment came too late to erase the impact of the anti-sit-down oratory. The next day’s front page of The New York Times carried, along with more news of the continued Chrysler strike in Detroit and other sit-downs, a streaming headline that declared “SIT-INS HOTLY DENOUNCED IN SENATE,” with even more alarming subheads: “CHAOS IS FORESEEN” and “FASCISM HELD POSSIBLE.”

Labor’s friends in the Senate tried to counterattack by blaming the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court’s conservative majority had bedeviled Roosevelt, leading him to shock the nation with his controversial “court-packing” scheme. This would have allowed FDR to blunt the anti–New Deal thrust of the court by appointing six more justices, one for each of the present justices over age 70. Noting that the court had so far failed to rule on the constitutionality of the Wagner Act, which had been passed to reestablish the protections for union organizing that had been voided earlier by the Supreme Court, Democratic Senator Sherman Minton of Indiana quipped, “Apparently there is a sitdown strike over there.”

But such lame sarcasm was drowned out by the crash of events. In Detroit on March 19, city police broke up sit-down strikes in seven downtown shoe stores, smashing the glass doors to gain entrance when the strikers refused to leave. And as the Chrysler strike dragged on, sit-downers warned that if an attempt were made to evict them, they would meet force with force. Roosevelt privately fretted to his confidant, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, that the political storm stirred by the sit-down strikes might add to the difficulties facing his already beleaguered plan to overhaul the Supreme Court. He had more reason for anxiety on March 26, when a group of New England civic and business leaders, headed by Harvard University’s president emeritus, A. Lawrence Lowell, wired Vice President John Nance Garner demanding an end to what newspaper headlines were now calling the “sit-down revolt.” If such defiance of established authority and property rights continued, the distinguished group warned, “then freedom and liberty are at an end, government becomes a mockery, superseded by anarchy, mob rule and ruthless dictatorship.”

In Garner, who promised he would present the statement to the Senate at its next session, the Lowell group could not have found a more enthusiastic messenger. Though typically he did not speak out publicly on issues, he made no secret of his views within the administration’s inner councils. The sit-down strikes, he told Roosevelt’s erstwhile campaign manager, Jim Farley, were “mass lawlessness” and “intolerable” and would lead to “great difficulty if not destruction.” Garner was so frustrated about Roosevelt’s failure to lambaste the sit-down strikers, as Garner thought he should, that he let his feelings erupt during a Cabinet meeting. The vice president stood behind Labor Secretary Frances Perkins and berated her for being insufficiently rigorous in opposing such outbreaks, causing the nation’s first woman Cabinet secretary to weep.

Meanwhile, Lewis and other union leaders were not deaf to the outcry against the sit-downs. Fearful his political allies might desert him, Lewis went along with a compromise offered by Governor Murphy that ultimately led to a union agreement with Chrysler similar to the UAW’s landmark deal with General Motors.

In mid-April 1937, the Supreme Court at last handed down its ruling on the Wagner Act, upholding the rights the new law granted to union organizing efforts. The decision was a stunning reversal of the court’s previous labor decisions. Writing in his diary, Roosevelt’s Attorney General Homer Cummings called the ruling “amazing,” and court watchers speculated that the justices, already under pressure from Roosevelt’s court-packing scheme, had decided to do what they could to ease the labor turmoil roiling the nation.

That same April, sit-down strikes began to decline for the first time that year. With the backing of the Wagner Act, workers were now finding the drastic action of the sitdown less necessary, and at the same time much riskier because of increased public resentment. Public opinion pollster George Gallup found that by the fall of 1937 about 70 percent of Americans disapproved of sitdowns, a negative view that colored overall public attitudes toward labor unions in general. By December, the sit-downs declined from their all-time high to a mere four, involving only a handful of workers.

In 1939 the Supreme Court put an end to the tactic by finding it illegal. Ruling on a case stemming from the 1937 sit-down at the Fansteel metallurgical factory in Illinois, the court ruled that although the company had violated provisions of the Wagner Act in dealing with its employees, the sit-down staged by its workers was “a high handed proceeding without shadow of a legal right.”

But for labor, it was a great ride while it lasted. In a few stormy months in 1937, the sit-down strikers wrote a new chapter in the annals of American labor. They helped John L. Lewis fulfill his vision of industrial unionism, gaining the opportunity for unions to participate in decision-making within the American economy for decades to come. Just as important, they emboldened individual workers in their struggle for a living wage, the right to organize and a voice in working conditions.

The passion that infused the sit-down strikers faded over the years as the gains they helped to achieve came to be taken for granted by workers. Today some critics blame those gains for contributing to the decline and threatened financial ruin of the great auto giants of the past—GM, Ford and Chrysler. But, as organized labor once again faces stiff challenges from a combination of forces and foes, including a more competitive global economy, others feel that it is time for the union movement to recall the faith expressed in the opening verse of Ralph Chaplin’s theme song for the sit-down strikers, “Solidarity Forever”:

When the union’s inspiration through the workers blood shall run,

There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun.

Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,

But the union makes us strong.

 

This article is adapted from Robert Shogan’s new book, Backlash: The Killing of the New Deal, published by Ivan R. Dee.

Originally published in the December 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.