Sit-down strikes revolutionized the labor movement — could it happen again?

At the height of American labor, seizing control of the means of production was a strategy — not just a slogan

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 5, 2021 6:00AM (EST)

Sit Downers Hail "Armistice Day." Sit down strikers at the Cadillac and Fleetwood Plants here, led by a hand playing "Hail to the Victors" march jubilantly from the plants after a truce had been declared permitting negotiation between G. M. officials and members of the United Automobile workers of America. General Motors is determined however not to surrender exclusive collective bargaining rights for employees to the United Automobile workers (Getty Images/Bettmann/Contributor)
Sit Downers Hail "Armistice Day." Sit down strikers at the Cadillac and Fleetwood Plants here, led by a hand playing "Hail to the Victors" march jubilantly from the plants after a truce had been declared permitting negotiation between G. M. officials and members of the United Automobile workers of America. General Motors is determined however not to surrender exclusive collective bargaining rights for employees to the United Automobile workers (Getty Images/Bettmann/Contributor)

Joe Biden frequently says that he wants to emulate Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president most revered among American liberals (along with 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 Sinema) undermine his 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 history and moved sharply to the left, at least on economic policy. Garner had initially supported Roosevelt for the reasons many conservatives did, because he believed that saving democracy depended on easing the social unrest caused by the Great Depression. Once the immediate national distress began to ease, Garner reverted to being as dogmatically pro-business as any modern-day Republican. 

In the months after Roosevelt's landslide re-election in 1936, however, Garner reached his breaking point. There was an issue where FDR took a stand that Garner saw as completely unacceptable, and that ruptured their relationship permanently. Not only was Cactus Jack off 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 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. This made it almost impossible for employers to replace the strikers with scab workers or remove the equipment, at least not without resorting to physical force. Any strike that physically prevents employers from producing or marketing commodities 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 U.S. 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. This inspired American organized labor as well, and Georgetown history professor Joseph A. McCartin explained by email that a turning point came on Dec. 30, 1936, when workers at General Motors seized control of their complex in Flint, Michigan:

The activists used the tactic in Flint because they knew it was the crucial node in the GM system and they believed they had enough organization in the plants there 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] and 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 to order the workers removed from the Flint plant by force, and the strikers ultimately achieved their primary goal: a union at GM. McCartin again:

Without the Flint sit-down strike, it might have taken many more years to unionize General Motors and the entire industrial union movement might have failed to mature. The breakthrough boosted the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) and helped make 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. Both GM and USS capitulated to the CIO before anyone even knew whether the [Supreme Court] would uphold the constitutionality of the NLRA (Wagner Act), which it later did on April 12, 1937. This was a testament to how [much] leverage the sit-down strike gave workers.

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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. By 1939, the political tide had begun to turn against Roosevelt, and the Supreme Court effectively declared sit-down strikes illegal. Internal conflicts among Democrats meant the party could not support a tactic that directly assaulted the private property of 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 have largely disappeared from the labor movement, partly because a dwindling proportion of Americans work 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. 

In an interview with Salon, Wolff observed that the entire idea that there is something special or sacred about private property is ridiculous. Private property, like every other aspect of economics, is a concept created by human beings, who can revise that concept and the social rules around it at any time. 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] 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.

More from Matthew Rozsa on the unexplored corners of political history:

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Big Quit Deep Dive Franklin D. Roosevelt Great Resignation History Labor Richard Wolff Strikes Unions