In the 1930s, unions grabbed headlines and won major battles with sit-down strikes, where striking workers occupied their workplaces. The fiery tactic put the Congress of Industrial Organizations on the map — but behind the scenes, union officials were wary.

Rubber workers prepare a heavy-duty tire for curing at the Goodyear production facility in Akron, Ohio, c. 1935. (Keystone View Company / FPG / Archive Photos via Getty Images)

This interview was conducted for Organize the Unorganized, a podcast from the Center for Work and Democracy about the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Beginning on January 9, 2024, Jacobin will be releasing episodes of this limited-run podcast on a weekly basis.

Daniel Nelson is professor emeritus of history at the University of Akron and author of American Rubber Workers and Organized Labor, 1900–1941. Professor Nelson and I discussed the origins and significance of the Akron rubber strike of 1936 — often dubbed “the first CIO strike,” as it happened less than two months after the founding of the CIO and was its first big victory. We also talked about the relationship between the top-down and bottom-up elements of the CIO moment, and how that manifested in the Akron case.

Rose Pesotta, an organizer with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, was dispatched to Akron to help with the strike. She later recounted:

In contrast to short-lived sit-downs of Akron rubber workers in the past, limited to a single department, the tire-builders’ sit-down on February 14 was a spark that fired the long dormant indignation of Goodyear employees generally. Here was mass revolt, which might at any moment spread through the Goodrich, Firestone, Mohawk, and General Rubber Company plants and shut them down also. . . . It was apparent that we were standing on the brink of a smoking volcano, which at any time might erupt.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you describe the genesis of the 1936 Akron rubber strike?

Daniel Nelson

The sit-down technique dated from 1934 and a confrontation at the General Tire Company in Akron. It had resulted in a very satisfactory agreement for the union. And so the idea of a sit-down as a protest technique was widely known by 1935, certainly by 1936. As a result of the employer initiatives in mid- to late 1935, there were a number of sit-down strikes, which culminated at the Goodyear company with a conventional strike in February of 1936.

The issue here was union recognition, and the company attempted to use traditional techniques to break the union. They sought to mobilize the local government and the state government. That proved to be unsuccessful because of the large number of union members in the local community. So the officials were reluctant to go along, and the strike extended then for several weeks.

Finally, after a number of initiatives failed, Goodyear executives sort of threw in the towel and agreed to the six-hour day, the wage rates that had existed before, and to talk to the union. There was no signed agreement and no exclusive union representation agreement at this time. But it was still quite an achievement, and it was facilitated in part by the CIO, which the rubber workers had joined shortly before.

John L. Lewis had sent in a number of important organizers who handled the union’s public relations, which were critical in maintaining the support of a large number of local people. And so it was considered to be a great achievement. It pretty well wiped out the company union at Goodyear, which had been a force before that time. It resulted in this modest collective bargaining agreement, and it made the CIO look very successful because it was able to be part of this victory. Often called the first CIO strike, the rubber workers’ strike began the period later called “Labor on the March” by various publicists and pro-labor people.

Benjamin Y. Fong

You have described the sit-downs as an intermediary link between the worker upsurges of the early 1930s and the wartime consolidation of the CIO’s gains. How important was the sit-down tactic to the success in the CIO?

Daniel Nelson

After the Goodyear strike, the sit-down became very popular both in the rubber industry and, by 1937, everywhere, especially because of the sit-down tactic in the auto industry at the Flint General Motors complex. Soon the sit-downs occurred everywhere, and very quickly unions wore out their welcome in many quarters. And while the CIO people were very encouraged by the militancy reflected in the sit-downs, they didn’t like the sit-downs as a union organizing technique. Too much power was in the hands of what they considered to be irresponsible shop-floor groups, and so they were very wary of encouraging additional sit-downs.

There were many, many sit-downs in the tire industry after the Goodyear strike, mostly at the Goodyear company, and mostly among disgruntled nighttime workers. So the CIO began to work with the union leaders to thwart the sit-down technique and to channel those energies into more conventional union activity. In summary, the sit-down was quite instrumental in publicizing the CIO and mobilizing workers, but it was quickly seen as something that could be very dangerous and undermine public support for the union movement and the CIO.

Lewis came to town and spoke to a rally and said, ‘I want you to do something for yourselves.’ And that just hit a chord.

And that’s exactly what happened in the rubber industry in 1937–38, the period when everything sort of collapsed. There was great concern that the industry was going to decline, and that employment and profits would decline. In late 1937 and ’38, the CIO sent Allan Haywood, one of Lewis’s closest associates, to Akron, and he worked diligently for almost a year to divert worker energies from the sit-down and other disruptive techniques to a more conventional collective bargaining mode.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Certain historians have argued that the CIO primarily played a constraining role on rank-and-file militancy, and that had it not been so concerned with taming and disciplining workers, there could have been a wider conflagration. But, as you just said, the CIO leaders themselves thought there was some danger to the new display of militancy that was going to invite backlash. So which do you think it is? Absent the CIO’s disciplining function, could there have been something bigger?

Daniel Nelson

Oh, I think that was very unlikely. And again, if I can cite the rubber industry, there were many plants in small towns and remote areas where the local officials were in league with the employers, mostly because they wanted jobs and the prosperity that accompanied the jobs. In those towns, they were absolutely hostile to any sort of union militancy or even a union presence. Locals there had a really tough time and generally were unsuccessful.

And so even in the late 1930s, despite all of this upheaval and a number of successful bargaining achievements, most of the workers in the rubber industry were nonunion, and they didn’t have any choice about it because of this hostility to them. So that, I think, is a model of what would’ve occurred if the CIO presence had not worked to divert attention to collective bargaining and union contracts.

Benjamin Y. Fong

You’ve described the rubber workers as, at the time, “aggressive, self-confident individuals.” Was there something about rubber work that lent itself to industrial unionism?

Daniel Nelson

In a way, the answer is yes. In that industry, there was no substantial group of skilled workers, or highly skilled workers. There were a lot of jobs that were difficult and required some training and experience, but there wasn’t anything that required extensive training or very detailed experience. The tire-building role was the key one in the factory, and it could be mastered in a few days or a couple of weeks. It required great strength, persistence, and concentration. It was very tough work, but it didn’t require great skill. And the other jobs were similar to that.

This is in contrast with the auto industry, where the tool- and diemakers were highly skilled people, and were very reluctant to work with the people on the assembly lines, for example. There was none of that in the rubber industry. There was a lot of solidarity as a result. The division wasn’t between skilled and unskilled; it was between younger and older workers, who had been around for a long time and identified with the employer, and very often had benefited from that identification. They were very wary of the rubber workers’ union and the CIO. They formed, in a number of companies, organizations that opposed the Rubber Workers and sought to displace it. Those organizations never really got off the ground, but they represented dissident groups that often became troublemakers.

In general, the rubber industry was, despite obvious differences, a little like the coal mining industry in that there were lots of people who were very similar in terms of what they brought to the job. And that was the basis of their enthusiasm in joining the union.

Benjamin Y. Fong

You quote Byron Larabee in one of your articles, saying that virtually all industrial sectors of the United States were destined to pass through the cycle that Akron, Ohio, had experienced. What did he mean by that, and how was Akron a “test-tube city,” as it were?

Daniel Nelson

Mostly in terms of chronology. These events in 1935, 1936, and 1937 heralded much more widespread examples in other industries, especially before the mid-1937 recession. There were parallels between the kinds of confrontations that occurred in the rubber industry and other industries: the steel industry, the auto industry, the electrical industry, and so on. The parallel isn’t exact, but the same general movements occurred in other places.

Benjamin Y. Fong

One interesting feature of the rubber workers’ strike was that, unlike in the case of auto, the communists did not play a significant role. I’m wondering if you could say a little bit about why that was. Why in Akron did the communists not have the kind of influence they had in Flint?

Daniel Nelson

The majority of local communists were not employees of the rubber companies. They were outsiders in craft unions and so on. To most rubber workers, they were outsiders, not part of the group that was considered to be important. Most of the rubber workers’ leaders who were considered to be communists — whether they actually were or not, they were considered as such — were from non-Akron locals in the eastern United States.

There was one Akron local, at the Mohawk Rubber Company, a tiny outfit, which had a couple of guys thought to be communists. And they were very able organizers. I was able to speak to one of them, named Harry Eagle, who was later kicked out of the union because of his radical associations. He was not very helpful to me. He had been asked about his political views so many times he was just sick of it.

But he was a terrific organizer regardless of whether he subscribed to communist doctrines or not. And that was what counted with the rubber workers. Rubber workers had all kinds of allegiances — religious, political, and everything else. And they didn’t really care as long as you were good at organizing and were a good union member. That was what really mattered.

Benjamin Y. Fong

You’ve written that rank-and-file militancy is not a synonym for union power. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Daniel Nelson

Well, rank-and-file militancy is a critically valuable component of union power if it can be mobilized. The problem in the years since the 1950s is that there has been too little of that, and instead frustration at what seems to be a bureaucratic process that individuals cannot affect. So it’s pretty important. But as the CIO organizers of the 1930s saw, it has to be tamed and directed, or it can have very adverse consequences.

It’s very easy for employers and others to turn public opinion against the unions if they seem to be chaotic, irresponsible, or if they seem to be doing things that are hostile to the interests of the community. It’s a very narrow path that has to be trod in order to encourage militancy but also maintain public support.

Benjamin Y. Fong

Could you talk a little bit more about the relationship between the bottom-up upsurges of the 1930s and the top-down elements in the CIO? There was something about the two things that went uncomfortably together in the CIO moment.

Daniel Nelson

Lewis was a master of exploiting that apparent paradox. He was a very autocratic guy, mostly interested in looking out for number one. But he was also a great showman, and he was terrific at mobilizing workers. There was a famous incident here in 1935 when the rubber workers’ union and other unions were having a tough time. And he came to town and spoke to a rally and said, “I want you to do something for yourselves.” And that just hit a chord. People went crazy with that sort of encouragement. They always looked up to him even though his record was somewhat mixed.

I would also emphasize the context, the state of the economy and the state of public opinion regarding organization and union militancy. If you go ahead a few years to the post–World War II period, when unions had become much more powerful, there was still some militancy but not nearly as much. The government role also receded in that period. And without the government being helpful to organized labor, unions had a really tough time. Union membership did not go down at that time, but it leveled off after the mid-1950s. It began to recede, and public opinion polls show growing public hostility to unions, on account of sporadic militancy, corruption in the Teamsters and a few other organizations, and the communist issue. Since the mid-1950s, it’s really been downhill in most parts of the country and for most unions.

Benjamin Y. Fong

We’re in a time of great interest in labor organizing. What kinds of lessons would you draw from the CIO moment for the present?

Daniel Nelson

It’s essential to have a supportive or at least a neutral federal government — and active support is much more helpful. That seems to me absolutely critical. You’re not going to get very far in the face of intense employer opposition with a government that is hostile or indifferent. I think union leaders recognize that fact and realize that they’ve got to do a better job of mobilizing government to help them.

The parallel with our present situation and the 1930s is that the public in general understands that a lot of these people are very poorly paid. Factory workers probably will not be the key to organizing successes in the future. The factories are so automated, and employers are so shrewd, that there are very limited opportunities in that sector. But low-wage service workers are ripe for organization. That is the place to start, and we are beginning to see that now.

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