The 74th anniversary of the 1937 Wilsonville Sit-Down Strike is quickly approaching and merits attention. While many labor actions are spurred by the struggle for better wages or working conditions, this strike was set in motion for a different reason.
In his memoirs Jack Battuello recalls: “Whenever they mechanized a mine with one type of machinery that would reduce the working force, we’d simply took ‘em in our ranks and divided whatever work remained. Day for day, hour for hour. … All these years under the United Mine Workers and under the Progressives we had unwritten agreement that …when one of these mines shut down then the miners whose mine had shut down had a right to divide work with the remaining three mines. And suddenly for some reason that we never discovered the coal companies decided they didn’t want to continue that system. And they refused to let the Number 1 men whose mine was shut down – a division of work in the other three mines.”
Responding to layoffs caused by the closure of Superior Mine Number 1, the workers at nearby Superior Mine Number 4 demanded that they be allowed to share their work hours with the laid off miners. 540 miners occupied the mine and remained underground in a nine-day “stay down” strike and attracted substantial media attention. The image above illustrates how the workers lived during the conflict. (Here’s the link to a previous post which shows Superior mine number 4 as it appears today.)
Sit-down strikes became a widespread tactic in the late 1930′s; indeed the Akron Beacon Journal editorialized that the use of sit-down strikes had become “epidemic”. The best-known example was the Flint Sit-Down Strike which occurred several months prior to Wilsonville.
Labor activists utilized sit-down strikes primarily because they were an effective and immediate way to halt production and win concessions. Of course, this wasn’t lost on factory owners. In May, 1936 Goodyear issued a report on the nineteen sit-downs strikes which had occurred in its Akron plants concluding: “resumption of production has been accomplished only by substantial concessions on the part of management in the interest of peace and continuing production during the present peak period.”
More importantly, sit-down strikes often constituted genuine expressions of rank-and-file democracy. In some cases these actions were used to force business leaders to formally accept unionization of the workplace. In other instances workers chose sit-down strikes as a substitute for union-management bureaucratic channels in order to quickly resolve workplace conflict. And in the event that the contractual grievance procedure was followed, the leverage created by a sit-down strike could speed the process considerably.
Shop-floor democracy was manifested in other ways during a sit-down strike. Typically excluded from decision-making in the workplace, striking workers seized the opportunity to practice direct democracy. Strikers often demonstrated exemplary cooperation and discipline during these actions.
The leaders of organized labor weren’t often enthusiastic about the sit-down tactic. Certainly they viewed these bottom-up actions as threats to their authority. Consequently labor’s heirarchy worked to regulate or fully usurp this expression of worker militancy. On May 29, 1937 the New York Times reported AFL President William Green said that sit-down strikes presented “grave implications detrimental to labor’s interests.”
The leadership of the fledgling CIO wasn’t elated either. Ever the opportunist, John L. Lewis attempted to leverage sit-downs in order to force employers to accept CIO contracts and collective bargaining. Lewis promised government and corporate leaders: “A C.I.O. contract is adequate protection against sit-downs, lie-downs, or any other kind of strike.”
The situation in Wilsonville mirrored that power struggle. That strike was called just as Progressive Miners of America President, Joe Ozanic courted the American Federation of Labor in order to win affiliation for the Progressive Miners. Much to Ozanic’s chagrin, the P.M.A. executive board and officers where completely in the dark. The strike had been called by P.M.A. Local 1 without the knowledge or support of the national union.
The Illinois State Register reported: “Joe Ozanic, president of the Progressive Miners, disclaimed responsibility for the action and said the strike was ‘unauthorized.’ ‘They’re on their own legs,’ Ozanic declared.” (5/21/37) Subsequently in a unanimous vote, the PMA’s executive board directed the local to end the strike.
The members of Local 1 didn’t support Ozanic’s efforts to join the AFL either. Local 1 member Jack Battuello later recalled: “We opposed the affiliation… Local number1 lead the fight. We even cut off dues for a while. We predicted William Green was not a proper organization with which to associate. There was not a proper leadership. Ineffectual leadership we maintained. And that we ought to be ashamed to affiliating with such a bankrupt, hopelessly outmoded organization.”
However, Ozanic and John Fisher, strike leader and P.M.A. Local 1 President agreed to meet.
The next day the Illinois State Register reported: “The conference yesterday afternoon was a brief one. For about five minutes Fisher and his committee met with [the] …executive board…National President Joe Ozanic, it was said, began with a critical statement about the strike. Fisher replied that he and the committee had not come to hear criticism from officers whose salaries they helped pay, but had expected aid in the strike and in arranging a conference with the company. Then they walked out.” (5/22/37)
In my next post, I’ll share the outcome of the strike, the PMA’s internal conflict as well as the after-effects of the wave of sit-down strikes in the U.S. in the late 1930′s.
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