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
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
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
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
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
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
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: [email protected]
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!
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