The world has recently experienced an economic depression the likes of which have not been seen since the Great Depression. World leaders have been struggling for over three years to keep this economic calamity from destroying social institutions and precipitating war as the last one did. Of the tools and techniques that were used in the 1930s to restore American economic prosperity there is one that has been neglected. Not only has this tool remained unused during the current depression, but it has been actively attacked. That tool is organized labor.
Like other labor movements, the American labor movement began to appear with the onset of industrialization. In its early years American labor was weak, decentralized, and probably not classifiable as a movement. It was not until the Great Depression that unionization gained the institutional acceptance that it needed to truly become a movement. However, as Americans learned with the “Nobel Experiment” of Prohibition, laws and institutional changes cannot alter society without the acceptance of the people. The 1936 Akron Rubber Strike marks the moment when the ideas of policy makers met the hands of labor and the American labor movement began its ascent.
It can be demonstrated that the 1936 Akron Rubber Strike was a pivotal event by examining the changed attitude of Goodyear’s management team. Prior to the rubber strike Goodyear felt that it had the upper hand, while afterwards management’s tone was much more conciliatory. The chronology of events will establish that this change in attitude was caused by the workers themselves and not simply foisted upon the company and its employees by “professional strike leaders” as Goodyear’s president at the time asserted.1
Although the 1936 Akron Rubber Strike has been called the first Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) strike2, that characterization marginalizes the role of workers in the labor movement and denies them power. Before 1936 the workers at Goodyear were members of a company sponsored union called the Industrial Assembly, but the Industrial Assembly had little influence over important issues such as pay and working hours. That impotence led to multiple wildcat strikes started by various groups of independent workers that ultimately precipitated the large strike in the winter of 1936. The CIO and the United Rubber Workers (URW) stepped in to provide cohesion between the various groups of workers, and even they had difficulty maintaining consensus among the workers. Wildcat strikes continued after Goodyear agreed to recognize the CIO and URW as the employees’ representatives.
The president of Goodyear during this period, Paul W. Litchfield, was an engineer who worked his way up the managerial ranks. Along the way he supported and enacted numerous worker-friendly policies. Litchfield worked to get worker insurance policies, company sponsored athletic clubs, as well as stock and home ownership plans. The crown jewel of the benefits packages he helped to enact was probably the Goodyear Industrial Assembly, which was established in 1919.
Litchfield was aware of what was happening in the world following the Great War. He saw what was happening Europe and Russia, and he understood the threat that those extreme reactions posed to America.3 In 1920, six years before he would become president of the company, Litchfield wrote a book describing his vision for a democratization of industry.4 However, it is not clear the level of sincerity he had when writing this book, by the time the Akron Rubber Strike began it was clear that the workers did not feel that the Industrial Assembly was woking for them. The workers may have felt that the Industrial Assembly was ineffective before 1936, but without the labor laws passed under the Roosevelt administration, making a change would have been impossible.
During the Great Depression, the Roosevelt administration was looking for ways to stop price deflation which was weighing down the economy and hindering recovery. In the rubber industry, for example, price wars were driving the price of products lower. Though seemingly good for the consumer, it posed a problem for labor. Through other initiatives, the government was able to affect the price of raw materials, so companies, such as Goodyear, had to squeeze labor to drop prices and maintain their desired profit margins. One of the first New Deal initiatives, called the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) was established, among other things, to encourage fair competition. The idea was to legalize business cartels to a limited extent, but also to empower labor so that they could be guaranteed a portion of the profits garnered by the cartels. In the end, the idea was to raise prices, lower unemployment and set the US on a growth path. Furthermore, NIRA prohibited companies from compelling employees to join company sponsored unions, such as Goodyear’s Industrial Assembly, and it made it illegal for employers to discriminate against other employee devised unions.
In 1935, the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), commonly referred to as the Wagner Act, was established to restrict techniques that businesses were using to circumvent labor’s right to organize as set forth in section 7a of NIRA. These set the legal foundation for the success of the URW over the Industrial Assembly.
After NIRA, workers began leaving Goodyear’s Industrial Assembly for the American Federation of Labor (AFL), but it was no more effective than the company sponsored union and quickly fell out of favor. The workers could choose from the AFL, the URW, or the Industrial Assembly, but none of them was particularly helpful and all lacked power to effect change at Goodyear. Furthermore, with allegations in the previous year that company agents had infiltrated the independent unions with help of the Akron Employers’ Association, the workers may have doubted that the independent unions were much different from the Industrial Assembly, hence they ultimately felt they had to take things into their own hands.
Goodyear had its own plans for 1936, none of which included the unionization of its employees. The economy had began recovering in 1935 and Goodyear’s main goal for 1936 was a further restoration of profits.5 Goodyear was intent upon increasing the number of hours each person worked while decreasing their rate of pay. The workers would see a larger paycheck which would obscure the fact that they were in fact working harder for less money, but this was not Goodyear’s primary concern.
The workers were afraid of switching from six to eight hour shifts, not because they were lazy and did not want to work two additional hours, but rather because they believed that the change would result in layoffs. In this regard the Great Depression had a profound impact upon workers; they wanted a job and were afraid of being out on the street. Although the company claimed that the longer workday was beneficial to employees, some members of the Industrial Assembly openly opposed the proposal.
The seeds for the 1936 Akron Rubber Strike were thus planted in 1935. The Industrial Assembly reluctantly supported management’s plan to move from six to eight hour work days based upon the management’s assurances that the company would switch back to six hour shifts if necessary to avoid layoffs. This demonstrates the condescending pre-strike attitude that Goodyear’s management had for the workers, and it created more skepticism among the workers of the Industrial Assembly’s independence. One of the Industrial Assemblymen even commented, “We’ve got to watch out or we’ll be just what they sometimes call us, a bunch of —— —— yes-men.”6
On November 5 of 1935, management attempted to reduce rates in the truck tire department; the workers began to initiate a sit-down strike which quickly spread to other departments. By the next day, Goodyear’s management decided to take a softer stance and revised the rates, even though it stated publicly that it believed the workers were being overpaid.7
Tension was building in Akron. Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, called for the formation of a fact forming board. The board was lead by Fred Croxton of Ohio State University. After making an intensive investigation of the situation, the board reported its findings back to Washington. Croxton found that there was no justifiable reason to switch to eight hour work days and further remarked that Goodyear was “evasive and confusing.”8 Croxton essentially accused Litchfield of being either a liar or a hypocrite; the report was downplayed so as not to further escalate the already tense situation.
When the holiday season passed tensions reemerged. Following the lead of Firestone Company, on January 31 Goodyear notified the pit workers in Plant 1 that they would receive a ten percent rate reduction. In a display of contempt towards the workers, Litchfield told them to either accept the rate cuts or find work elsewhere. Goodyear’s industrial assembly did nothing for the workers other than scheduling a conference that merely reiterated the workers’ intentions9. John House, the head of United Rubber Workers Local 2, the division of the URW that represented Goodyear, offered to represent them. Though they initially refused, they ultimately joined and let the union handle negotiations for them.
Another sit-down strike was started at Goodyear’s Plant 2 on February 14 after shift layoffs were announced. A committee of nonunion workers in the effected area was unable to assist the workers. They were given thirty minutes to return to work; of one hundred and forty workers only three, all members of thee elite flying squadron, went back to work. Facing termination the workers decided to stay idle at their work places. Management responded by issuing final checks, stamped with “quit, no notice.”
When more Plant 1 workers sat down on February 17, management acted quickly to close off the striking area. Many workers went hungry and left the plant, but others stayed and lowered buckets on ropes to the ground so that people on the outside could get them food. At this point the sit-down protests were still isolated events which management could handle on a case by case basis, but they were all related to Litchfield’s plans for increasing company profits: lower wages and more working hours.
That day a speech was given by one of the leaders in which he stated, “A small aggressive, organized force can go a long ways unless a majority whose interests are really adversely affected by those actions have the ‘guts’ to stand up and fight back.”10 However, that speech was not given by union organizers or disgruntled workers, it was given by Goodyear’s president Paul Litchfield at the Foremen’s club. He later said that, “Management cannot do it alone.” This speech may have inspired the formation of anti-strike groups such as the “non-strikers” and the Law and Order League.
By February 19 the company was claiming that it did not know what the workers were striking for11, since that morning Litchfield addressed the Industrial Assembly and stated that he would suspend rate reductions and the eight hour day.12 However, they also said they would not would confer with the strikers until they went back to work.13 Litchfield had a strategy for getting around NIRA and NLRA. He was not inter ested in letting his workers choose the URW over the Industrial Assembly, but since he could not legally do that, he would instead use public opinion as a proxy.
That day was also the first meeting of the “non-strikers” led by Lyle Carruthers. The URW officials believed that the non-strikers group was composed of supervisors and salary workers operating on behalf of the management, but they disavowed that charge. The non-strikers claimed to represent all twelve thousand people not actively striking, but only thirty-five hundred attended the meetings at its peak. It is worth noting that in the early days of the strike they did have more supporters than the strikers. Non-strikers were mainly older men who had managed to stay employed with the company through the Great Depression. These men would benefit from the additional two hours of work that would be created by removing the fourth shift. They tried to frame the debate as one between strikers and non-strikers rather than workers and management or URW and Industrial Assembly.
The union organizers knew that management was attempting to draw out the strike in order to turn public opinion,14 and they were wary of the non-strikers. So, the union leadership began using the media to plead their case to the public. Litchfield, who had been locked in the plant since February 19, responded on February 25 by making a speech on local radio station, WADC. He said, among other things, “As it is the duty of elected representatives of the people to govern under the constitution and the law, so it is the duty of a duly elected management, to manage under the law.”15 Later in the speech he explicitly stated that he would not yield to the demand of the strikers or their representatives, which he called a “law-defying group.” His justification for not accepting a proposed settlement was that the workers formally requested that three days notice be given prior to layoff and the company already had such a policy.
By February 26 Sherif James Flowers, an elected official who sided with the Goodyear management, was attempting to keep the plants open and his deputies began to have clashes with the picketers. The picketers were blocking one of the railroad entrances with a tent and the sherif’s deputies tried to tear it down which resulted in an altercation.16 The situation was diffused when the railroad workers removed the train back to the station. Sheriff Flower was intent upon enforcing the court’s order against the picketers and planned to used Akron police along with his deputies to try to break through the picket lines. Akron Mayor Schroy and Police Chief Boss overruled his idea. The sheriff was not pleased with the city’s response and went back to the judges to ask advice on how he could enforce the order. The judges said that the execution of the law was outside their constitutional authority and declined to give guidance.
Assistant Secretary of Labor Edward McGrady, who found Litchfield to be uncooperative, submitted a plan on February 27 to end the stalemate. However, by February 29 the city was on the verge of a general strike. With federal arbiters involved, Goodyear claimed that it was concerned about the “restoration of law and order”17. The anti-strikers told government negotiators that they wanted to return to work, and proposed that one thousand of them should be deputized by the sheriff so that they could clear the entrances to the company. Fortunately not even Sheriff Flowers thought this was a good idea.
In response to the forceful rhetoric of the opposition, all the local labor organizations met and announced that they would call a general strike if force was used against the Goodyear strikers in order to break the “peaceful picket line.”18 Concerned by the threat of civil unrest, Edward McGrady scrambled to end the strike “in a civilized manner instead of according to jungle law.”
By March 3, Litchfield himself was demanding that the sheriff enforce the injunction and do something that would allow the plants to open.19 Almost in a fit, and in spite of NIRA, the Goodyear president said that he would not make any agreements with the Unite Rubber Workers, even if the majority of the workers supported the fledgling organization. He still thought that he could wait out the strikers.
The strikers accepted two out of five points in the Company’s plan to end the strike on March 14. The strikers agreed that they should be hired back without prejudice and that meetings should occur between unions and management. The workers wanted wages to be rolled back to where they were at the beginning of the year and the company to agree that any wage changes be discussed after work was resumed. Goodyear considered their position a rejection and withdrew their proposal.20 The company claimed to be making plans to reopen the plant despite the strikers, while union President John House asserted that Goodyear employees would not return to work until the issues were resolved.
Litchfield went on local radio station WADC again to give a speech. He said, “neither the autocracy of the few, nor the economic chaos of the mass, can peacefully exist coincidentally with a representative democracy.”21 Foreshadowing that the impasse may have been ending, he further stated that, “All employees should have freedom of choice to select representatives to deal with management, or deal individually. Minority rights should be protected as well as majority rights.”
March 16, Labor Secretary Perkins urged both sides to start coming towards an agreement.22 She personally sent letters to both Litchfield and House. A seven point settlement was finally reached five days later on March 21.23 All employees as of February 12 would get their jobs back, management would deal with employees either individually or through their selected representatives, notice would be given prior to enacting wage rate changes, six hour shifts and thirty six hour weeks would be used in the tube and tire areas, changes to working hours would be discussed with the effected department, one twenty-four hour work week could be called by the company without explicit employee vote, layoff notices will be distributed in advance.
The agreement was less than the union wanted; the Industrial assembly was left in place and no rate adjustments were made, but it was a huge psychological win for the URW and the CIO. John house would comment that, “after the strike, instead of a weak 500 or 600 member union, we had more than 10,000 members.”24 The Industrial Assembly never recovered credibility and in just over a year it would effectively be dissolved.
Furthermore the confidence of management was visibly shaken. The company began defensively recording as many instances as it could have union employees harassing nonunion employees.25 At the meeting of stockholders in March of 1937 Litchfield attempted to minimize the importance of the strike, saying, “These strikes were not the result of anything that was inherently wrong at Goodyear, but were part and parcel of the labor unrest that had its seeds in the severity of the business depression.” He went on to say that, “With the passing of time an improvement has taken place in the relationship between Goodyear management and employees.”26 Considering management’s later actions, Goodyear was planning on improving relations by taking back the control of labor which they had lost to the unions.
Management announced plans to expand operations outside of Akron. Goodyear, and the rest of the tire industry, began to feel that it was too dangerous to have such a large percentage of its labor force concentrated in such a small area. When they did expand they learned their lesson from Akron, they would have to shatter any union sentiment in other regions before it had time to crystalize. United Rubber Workers International President Dalrymple was beaten nearly to death when he went to visit a nonunion Goodyear plant in Alabama.
Management did have some valid concerns, the URW was chaotic and decentralized. The workers were prone to use the “workers veto” whenever they felt in the smallest way slighted. There were many wildcat strikes.27 Even after the settlement the company complained of rogue sit-down strikes, Dalrymple had to threaten some of its workers to keep with the agreements. He said, “Unsanctioned work stoppages must end” and “violators may be dismissed from membership”28. The situation was bad enough that both local newspapers ran an article titled, “Killing the Golden Goose.”.28
Recognizing that newfound strength of the URW, Litchfield said at a meeting of the chamber of commerce in April of 1937 that, “There can be no assurance of economic stability under conditions approximating a labor dictatorship nor can we achieve progress with the working man oppressed by autocratic capital. These paths lead to communism or fascism, both of which are alien to the ideals of a nation of free men.”29
The CIO and URW used the credibility they gained by being associated with the 1936 Akron Rubber Strike to increase their reach. Union power continued to grow from this point on until it’s peak in the mid-1950s, and even after the peak the union movement held on to its diminishing power for a considerable amount of time. The 1936 Akron Rubber Strike lasted only a little over a month; it would take the rubber industry almost sixty years to get rid of the URW.