Friday, June 10, 2011

The sit-down strikes

The sit-down strikes by Sharon Smith at

The years 1936 and 1937 represented the highest point of class struggle in the U.S. to date--when a wave of sit-down strikes swept across U.S. industry. Those strikes built the Congress of Industrial Organizations and changed the face of the labor movement.

Ever watched a modern corporate manager try to handle the job of someone beneath them? Its usually pretty funny. I first worked in the restaurant industry, and there it was very common for a restaurant manager to be able to do any job in the place if needed. They could step in and cook, or tend bar, or wait tables or whatever. I found the corporate world to be very different. Most corporate managers would be able to very little of the work that the people who work from them do every day.

Wonder what they'd do if they came out of the conference rooms and found no one there?

Thus, the Flint sit-downers had daily meetings of all strikers in the plant. They organized routine clean-up rituals, defense drills, recreation and even "courts" where grievances could be raised (many, apparently, in jest, as a form of entertainment.)

Strike supporters and families organized the picket lines and food supplies, and raised money for the strikers. Solidarity networks of union activists organized unionists to come to Flint to take part in solidarity actions and mass picketing.

In short, factory occupations give workers a taste of taking real control over their own lives. That's why after the strike was over, many of the Flint sit-downers recalled their experience inside the plant with genuine affection.

As one worker, quoted in Jeremy Brecher's book Strike, put it, "We are all one happy family now. We all feel fine and have plenty to eat. We have several good banjo players and singers. We sing and cheer the Fisher boys and they return it."

According to one historian, there were 170 sit-downs in GM plants alone between March and June 1937. One GM worker later recalled, "every time a dispute came up, the fellows would have a tendency to sit down and just stop working."

The use of the sit-down made the strike wave of 1936-37, which built the CIO, the highest point of class struggle in the history of the U.S. labor movement. And the workers who were involved were changed forever by the sit-downs, in their awareness of their own power as a class.

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