recession, resistance, revolution, part two

Here's the rest of the great talk given by Pam Johnson, a member of International Socialists. (Part one is here.)

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[Pam outlined the ways that leadership from socialists helped workers fight back, often with organizational skills and critical-thinking perspectives. She briefly mentioned some of the organizations on the left at that time.]

Toledo Auto-Lite, 1934

One place where the presence of Marxists provided a lead was in Toledo in 1934, when a strike was called at Toledo Auto-Lite, an important factory in the burgeoning auto industry sector.

Two members of a group called the American Workers Party, who were organizing the unemployed, sent unemployed volunteers to reinforce picket lines. The strengthened lines provoked the company to file for an injunction restricting picketing.

At the urging of the American Workers Party members, the strikers decided to defy the injunction. The police began making arrests, but this only led to the picket numbers growing. Workers from other factories joined the strikers and the unemployed on the picket lines, as the strike came to be seen as a battle affecting the whole of the Toledo labour movement. Thousands joined the pickets lines, and pickets and police fought a pitched battle.

The giant crowd outside imprisoned 1,500 strike breakers inside the factory. Auto-Lite barricaded its doors and turned off the lights. From the roof and upper-story windows deputies rained tear gas bombs on the people in the streets below.

The crowd replied with a seven-hour barrage of stones and bricks. The strikers improvised catapults out of inner tubes and bombarded the factory through the night, breaking every window.

The National Guard arrived the following day to rescue the besieged scabs. The workers were in no mood to submit and the fighting continued, driving the guardsmen back to the factory gates with a hail of bricks. They responded with bayonet charges and when this failed they opened fire, shooting two pickets dead, both unemployed. Still the fighting continued.

At last, on May 31 with the Toledo Central Labour Union threatening a general strike, the company agreed to shut the plant. The troops were withdrawn and negotiations got under way. On 2 June the union won recognition and a wage increase. This victory would turn the tide in the auto industry, 19 auto plants would be organized before the end of 1934.

Ted Selander, one of the strike leaders, said,
I don't think there was any real difference between the Toledo Auto-Lite strikers and the workers involved in many of the lost strikes in the United States at that time. In practically every strike, the rank and file always displayed courage. The difference was in the leadership and their strategy and tactics. In nearly every strike the militancy of the rank and file was muzzled, many times snuffed out from the top.

Teamsters Rebellion, Minneapolis, 1934

Another place where there was a significant breakthrough for labour was in Minneapolis in 1934.

A small group of workers in non-unionized coal yards, primarily members of the Trotskyist Communist League, had been organizing truck drivers with warehouse workers toward an industrial union. In 1934, they called a strike for better conditions and pay, drivers in 67 out 69 yards in the city struck. The city was dependent on coal as fuel and with yards shut down business everywhere was grinding to a halt.

Employers hired scab drivers and the tactic that decided the strike was "the militant use of cruising picket squads". Instead of trying to maintain stationary pickets at 67 yards, the union put its men in cars and trucks and they patrolled the streets looking for scab trucks. They knew the routes, intercepted and stopped scab trucks, dumping their loads into the road. After three days, the employers surrendered.

Following on this success, the militants pushed for organizing the trucking industry across the city. After their defeat in the coal yards, the employers also began to organize: they formed a group called the Citizens Alliance...

The union knew that a strike would require closing the market district and prepared... With the aid of the Cooks and Waiters Union, volunteers were ready to serve food to 4,000 to 5,000 people daily. The union established its own medical centre - staffed by sympathetic doctors, nurses and volunteers - to treat those injured in the struggle, to prevent them from being taken to hospitals, then arrested there.

Once again they relied on "cruising picket squads", operating their own repair shop to keep dozens of cars and trucks on the road. The union headquarters itself was guarded by men "equipped with tommy guns" to deter vigilante attacks. The pickets were unarmed and included members of the Women's Auxiliary. Brutal beatings by police and deputised volunteers left many seriously injured. After this women were withdrawn from picket duty and pickets were armed with clubs.

The union prepared for confrontation and hid 600 men in the AFL hall, unnoticed by the police. When fighting broke out between pickets and police, instead of the pickets receiving a beating, 600 men armed with clubs marched to their assistance, taking the police completely by surprise. When the police brought in reinforcements the union motored in its reserve of 900 men from union headquarters and broke the police lines by the simple tactic of driving a truck through them.

Several more attempts by police - with support from the vigilante Citizens Alliance and the mayor - to break the strike were unsuccessful. The governor of Minnesota declared martial law, sent in 4,000 national guard, arrested the strike leader - and still the strikers would not back down.

At this point, a daily paper was being produced to counter the anti-union and red scare screeds of the local press. Finally Roosevelt was pulled into the struggle, threatening to cut off relief to local banks that did not release credit to employers to satisfy the strikers demands. The employers capitulated and the strikers won.

It was a huge victory that led to thousands of truckers across the US joining the Teamsters.

Farrell Dobbs wrote in his Trotskyist classic, Teamster Rebellion, "Seldom anywhere...has there been such a well-prepared strike". The teamsters rebellion is a incredible example of what is possible in an economic downturn and against all odds.

[Pam mentioned other victories that she didn't have time to go into: the 1934 west coast waterfront strike, which began with longshoremen in San Francisco and spread down the entire coast of California, including a four-day general strike in San Francisco, and the strikes of textile workers in the Northeast. Those clothing workers are my spiritual ancestors. Some of them were my actual ancestors.]

By late 1934 Roosevelt and the conciliatory leadership of the AFL were able to get ahead of the strike wave and damp it down. Although struggles would continue, there would not be the same kind of momentum and political clarity generated in 1934.

The successful struggles of 1934 paved the way for great sit-down strikes in Flint [Michigan] in 1936-37, entrenching industrial unionism, development of tactics such as flying pickets, building solidarity across sections and with unemployed people, and the legacy of effective leadership in the face of attacks and repression.

Canadian auto workers, Oshawa, 1937

The strike wave in the US was reverberating in Canada, which was also severely hit by the Great Depression. A significant strike at General Motors in Oshawa would pave the way for industrial trade unionism, which would be cemented in a strike wave following WWII.

In 1936, auto workers at General Motors in Oshawa - ignoring the existing but ineffectual employee's association - formed a union. Late in 1936, sit-downs occurred, with the union organizing secretly, as it was still illegal.

In January of 1937, General Motors declared the highest profits in its history in Canada and simultaneously announced that its Oshawa employees would receive their fifth consecutive wage cut in five years; a month later, the company announced a speed-up of the production line. The combination of these events precipitated the Oshawa strike, which coincided with the dramatic victory in February 1937 of the UAW in Flint Michigan.

Events in the Oshawa GM plant moved quickly. Two hundred and fifty men in the body shop struck first, and several Canadians contacted the UAW in Detroit to request organizational assistance. UAW organizer Hugh Thompson arrived on February 19 and signed up 4,000 GM employees within a month into the new UAW Local 222.

The UAW's affiliation with the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) ,a labour federation that rivaled the AFL, caused some problems locally. Thompson was unable to rent a local hall for a membership meeting until "the union announced it would hold its meeting at the busiest corner in Oshawa at noon on Saturday" - and got the hall.

The company refused to recognize the union. The workers refused to give up their union or its connection with the UAW. On April 18, 1937, the strike began.

Opposition to a "foreign union" persisted in the community, and also came from most of the Ontario press and from all levels of government - especially Mitchell Hepburn's Liberal government in Ontario. The Premier vowed that the CIO would never gain a foothold in Canada, and he decided to break the union. Hepburn's opposition resulted from his concern that, 'what is wrong with the CIO unions is not their foreign origin, nor their lawlessness and sit-down tactics, but their effectiveness."

Despite Mayor Alex Hall's assurances to him that the strikers were peaceful and that law and order prevailed, Hepburn sent in 400 policemen whom the press dubbed "Sons of Mitches". He instructed the Welfare Department to withhold relief from strikers (who received no strike pay) and their families. He opposed any assistance in settling the strike from the federal Department of Labour's conciliation service.

The Premier's forceful intervention in the dispute precipitated the resignation of two cabinet ministers -- Attorney General Arthur Roebuck and Labour Minister David Croll; Croll stated that his place was "marching with the workers rather than riding with General Motors." The strikers were also supported by the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), Canada's left-wing party at the time.

The strike held out. Hepburn and General Motors capitulated. Auto workers won a wage increase, reduced hours, breaks and the recognition of their union.

The 1937 Oshawa strike of GM employees was the first major breakthrough for industrial unionism in the mass production industries in Canada. It changed workers' relationship with management in the auto industry; it stimulated unionization in the auto and other industries; it created confidence and a new consciousness among many workers in the community, politicizing them.

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Pam went on to draw some parallels between the Depression of the 1930s and our present situation. Of course we have not reached the depths of that Depression (yet?), and in those days there was no social safety net.

But both crises were caused by the boom and bust nature of capitalism.

Both then and now, workers who did not create the crisis were made to bear the brunt of it.

Then and now, governments have been quick to prop up business, but offer little or nothing to struggling workers.

And today, here in Canada, union leadership and the NDP have been largely silent.

Once again, the people will have to lead and the leaders can then follow.

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