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Worker-unemployed solidarity defeats union-breaking injunction

1934 Toledo Auto-lite strike PART TWO

Published May 21, 2011 7:22 AM

With 70 percent of Toledo, Ohio’s workers unemployed in 1934 — more than double the U.S. average even during the Great Depression — Toledo was an unlikely place for a union drive to succeed. As management at Electric Auto-lite — one of the city’s several major auto parts suppliers — impressed upon the workers, they could be fired for any excuse and easily replaced. Yet the victory of the Auto-lite strike is recognized as one of the most important advances in U.S. working-class history.

In February 1934, 13 leaders waged a symbolic strike, earning respect after standing up to the company and winning their jobs back after being fired. Management agreed to recognize the union — Local 18384, a “federal labor union” of the American Federation of Labor — for 30 days. Yet no serious negotiations took place. On April 13, some 400 of the 1,500 production workers began walking a picket line. An equal number continued working inside the plant. The remainder avoided the conflict, staying home.

Company President C. O. Miniger and hated Vice President J. Arthur Minch could not conceive of a union victory. They had a million dollars set aside to break the union. Auto-lite spent $11,000 in company funds on tear gas and munitions; only General Motors had a more costly arsenal. They hired 300 additional workers and figured that many regular employees would eventually cross the line rather than go hungry. The likely sexist assumption was that the workforce — more than 70 percent female — would capitulate.

Yet for weeks the picketing went on, round the clock. As in the plant, nearly three-quarters of the pickets were women. Strikers were joined by autoworkers from other plants, by members of other unions and by the Lucas County Unemployed League.

The strike wasn’t strong enough to stop production, but output was definitely curtailed. Many of the scabs were new hires with no factory experience. Accidental damage to machinery was eating at the million-dollar war chest.

Neither side was advancing against the other, when on May 3 Judge Roy Stuart granted the company an injunction limiting pickets to 25. The judge assigned Sheriff David Krieger, elected with Miniger’s backing, the job of enforcement. Auto-lite paid for special deputies — vigilantes hired with no prior experience — whom Krieger employed to break the strike.

At first the injunction was obeyed. The strike committee was militant against the company, but the class struggle was new to them. What to do?

A decisive initiative came, but not from the strikers themselves.

Unemployed workers take the lead

Thousands of unemployed workers — who might otherwise have been easy recruits for Krieger’s strikebreaking apparatus — belonged to the Unemployed League. Like the Unemployed Councils led by the Communist Party in numerous other cities, the Unemployed League had class-conscious leadership. Ted Selander and Sam Pollock were Marxists, members of the American Workers Party. They had spent the past year building the league by holding numerous demonstrations, sitting in at government relief offices and blocking evictions.

On May 5 Pollock, the league’s secretary, announced in a public letter to Judge Stuart that the LCUL would “openly and publicly violate an injunction which, in our opinion, is a suppressive and oppressive act against all workers.” Two days later only four showed up — Pollock, Selander, and two Auto-lite strikers. Still, for this act of defiance, they were arrested for contempt of court. The courtroom, however, was packed with supporters, and the next day several dozen strikers and supporters violated the injunction.

Each day the crowd grew, as did the number of arrestees, but after a few days the scene in the jail and the courthouse was so rowdy that Judge Stuart gave up enforcing his ruling. By making the injunction ineffective, the strikers and unemployed scored a morale-boosting victory, and crowds surrounding the plant grew by hundreds and then thousands. By May 21 there were 6,000 outside the plant.

Auto-lite bought more munitions, and Krieger deputized more strikebreakers, including scabs inside the plant. On May 23 deputies, armed and well-supplied with tear gas, were stationed inside, around and on the roof of the plant.

Hell broke loose when a metal object, dropped from inside the plant, injured striker Anna Hahn in the ear and neck. Pickets attempting to storm the building and apprehend the perpetrator were pushed back by gas fired from inside the plant.

News of the incident spread fast, and by afternoon the rebellious crowd had grown to 10,000. Further attempts at dispersal were met with a hail of bricks and rocks until no window was left unbroken. At this point the plant was completely surrounded, the gates were impassable, and the tear gas supplies were exhausted. The scabs inside were trapped.

It took 1,350 members of the Ohio National Guard — the largest deployment in state history — to temporarily disperse the still-growing crowd and clear a path for scabs and bosses to exit the plant. Production came to a halt. Victory was possible!

Grevatt has been a UAW Chrysler worker for 23 years. Email: mgrevatt@workers.org

Source: “I Remember Like Today: the Auto-Lite Strike of 1934” by Philip A. Korth and Margaret R. Beegle. Michigan State University Press, 1988.

Next: General strike talk!