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Their laws and ours

The Flint sit-down and the 'human property right' to a job

Published Apr 28, 2007 5:58 PM

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

One of the issues hotly debated in 1937, the year of the Flint sit-down strike, was the strike’s legality. Even some historians who viewed the sit-down as morally just saw it as being against “private property rights under the law.” (Lorena Hickok and Jean Gould, “Walter Reuther, Labor’s Rugged Individualist”)

In the eyes of General Motors it was clearly illegal, “striking at the very heart of the right of the possession of private property.” (Sidney Fine, “Sit Down”)

Regarding all other law as subordinate to its sacred right of possession, GM naturally marshaled all the forces of law and order to enforce court-ordered back-to-work injunctions.

Workers, who rendered the injunctions unenforceable, had their own interpretation of the law. GM, not the United Auto Workers’ union, was flouting the law by refusing to obey the Wagner Act granting unions the right to organize. This was proved when the government-sponsored LaFollette Committee on Civil Liberties uncovered GM’s vast network of company spies and its huge private arsenal, destroying any pretense of company neutrality.

To the cries that they were breaking the law by seizing private property, workers had their own arguments. “CIO lawyers placed the ‘worker’s right to his job,’ a concept which had been recommended for sympathetic consideration by the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1915, as the chief argument in favor of the worker sitting at his machine,” writes Edward Levinson in “Labor on the March.”

“What more sacred property right is there in the world today?” asked Homer Martin, UAW president at the time. “This property right involves the right to support [a worker’s] family, feed his children, and keep starvation away from the door.” (Foster Rhea Dulles, “Labor in America.”)

Other UAW officials and rank-and-file members also expressed these sentiments. And they advanced the argument that a job is a human right, and that human rights are more important than property rights. When their detractors saw a contradiction between their two lines of reasoning, the union countered that a job is a human property right.

University of Illinois Law School Dean Leon Green sided with the workers, calling the sit-down “an instrument of the industrial relation and in no sense unlawful.”

It was not until 1939, when the sit-down fever had subsided as more and more workers were winning union contracts, that Congress declared the tactic illegal.

Still, writers continued to develop legal arguments that a worker has a right to his or her job. In the 1950s and 1960s, writing on behalf of the typographical union, Arthur Porter and William Gomberg defended “Job Property Rights.”

Though pressed at the time of the sit-down, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins refused to characterize the sit-down as illegal. Sam Marcy referred to Perkins’ position years later in his 1984 work “High Tech, Low Pay.”

As Marcy points out, Perkins “defended the right of the workers to occupy the plants. She did so not before the occupation, but toward the end of it. It would be foolish, of course, to take this action as a literal example of what must be done today. But it is relevant and enlightening as a bare outline and guide to how the workers can fight today to extend their rights to include the right to seize and occupy the plants. It is a logical and inevitable phase in the struggle of the labor movement, as imperative a necessity and as vital to the existence of the trade union movement as any of the preceding phases in its history.”

These words are so relevant to auto workers today. In ways that Marcy had only begun to predict, workers in the auto and auto-parts industries continue to be ravaged by profit-hungry companies. More often than not their livelihoods are being destroyed with the aid of bankruptcy courts—at Dana, Delphi, Collins and Aikman, Tower Automotive, and the list goes on.

If Chrysler is sold, who is to say the new owners won’t follow suit, citing the loss of $1.5 billion in 2006.

Yet as this newspaper has often pointed out, when a corporation is in bankruptcy, it is no longer the owner but the debtor in possession. As the largest creditors, the auto unions could legally exercise the right to seize the plants. They would merely be defending their right to their property—their jobs.

Interestingly, the same 1915 government-sponsored Commission on Industrial Relations, cited above as at least casually supporting job property rights, actually called for the abolition of private ownership of the U.S. coal industry. Influencing this conclusion by the commission, which was set up to investigate the causes of labor unrest, was the massacre of Colorado coal miners by John D. Rockefeller’s hired guns.

The report recommended turning all of the mines over to the miners to run them collectively!

Now would be a good time for auto workers to speak out for their right to take over the plants. Could they possibly do a worse job than their bosses? Besides, they would only be defending their legal and human rights.

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10