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You could say that these women are “sleeping on the job.” Most likely, their rest is well deserved. They are in the midst of a sit-down strike against their employer – the Farm Crest Bakery of Detroit. It is February 1937, and sit-down strikes have become “all the rage!”
Organized Labor and the Great Depression
The Great Depression, which began in 1929, ultimately led to a growth of labor unions. Financially strapped companies called on workers to do more with less staff, and thus, more workers saw the value of organization. In general, Americans’ view of unions began to change.
In 1933, the U.S. Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act. Among other matters, the Act recognized labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. The Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. Congress reacted by passing the Wagner Act in 1935. The Wagner Act included some – but not all – provisions of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively were among the provisions included.
There was some concern that the Supreme Court would strike down the Wagner Act, as well. The Court, however, sustained the Act in a 1937 ruling. Afterwards, Union membership rapidly increased.
Even before the 1937 Supreme Court ruling, union membership had been growing, and unrest grew with it. Earlier, in 1936, a new labor tactic had emerged: the sit-down strike!
Sitting Down for Victory
In a sit down strike, the striking employees remain in their place of employment during the strike. Rather than picketing the outside of a plant, they simply sit down and stop working.
Naturally, early historical examples of the tactic exist. The Great Depression-era sit-down strikes differed by being more conspicuous, with strikers overtly seeking public attention. The first such strike occurred at the Goodyear Rubber Company in February and March 1936. The sit-down phase of this strike was brief, and the world’s first mass sit-down strike occurred two months later in France. The French strike captured worldwide attention, and soon, sit-down strikes became more common.
The United States saw other sit-down strikes in 1936. The most dramatic of these began at the year’s end and continued into 1937. This was the famous Flint sit-down strike, initiated by auto workers against General Motors. It seems to have begun spontaneously on December 30, 1936. An agreement between GM and the United Auto Workers finally ended the strike on February 11, 1937.
The Flint sit-down strike began a trend, and in 1937, the tactic became widely utilized by workers in many professions and across the nation. For labor, it held definite advantages over more traditional strikes: Sit-down strikes were less likely to become violent, and strikers’ morale was more easily maintained.
The Farm Crest Strike
The Detroit Labor News reported on the Farm Crest Bakery strike on February 19, 1937. It noted that the Farm Crest strike was one of four strikes occurring simultaneously in Detroit (The other three were occurring at the Webster Cigar Company, the Fireside Press and Frigid Food Products, Inc.). According to the Labor News, Farm Crest employees were demanding “a ten cents per hour wage increase and a forty-eight hour week.” One week later, the Labor News reported that the Farm Crest strike had lasted three days and that employees were now back at work. The Labor News noted that management concessions included seniority in case of layoffs, and recognition of the union and of employee grievance committees. The Labor News also noted a ten cent an hour wage increase – with male employees now earning fifty five cents an hour and female employees earning forty five cents an hour (In future years, women workers would be fighting many battles for equal pay.).
Read More About It
The following sources were consulted for this article:
A Caring Society: The New Deal, the Worker and the Great Depression by Irving Bernstein. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.
Detroit Labor News. February 19, 1937 and February 26, 1937 issues.
Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State by Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May. Third Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.
Frank Murphy: The New Deal Years by Sidney Fine. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
“’We’ve Got ‘em on the Run, Brothers’: The 1937 Non-Automotive Sit Down Strikes in Detroit.” By Carlos Schwantes. Michigan History, vol. 56, no. 3 (1972), pp. 179-199.