On April 12, 1934, workers at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo walked off the job in a strike that united unionized labor and the unemployed, creating a social movement that scared capitalists around the nation, helped spur more substantial labor legislation, and left two workers dead after a five day battle between strikers and the Ohio National Guard. If I had to point to a the most militant moment in American history, I’d choose the spring of 1934. Huge strikes roiled San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo.
The Electric Auto-Lite company made electrical starters and spark plugs at a factory in Toledo. Although we don’t think of the American Federation of Labor as organizing industrial workers–because usually they didn’t–by the early 1930s, the pressure to engage in industrial strikes was forcing the AFL to move in a limited way on this front, particularly after the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933. So the AFL sought to organize the Auto-Lite plant, as well as several other auto plants. It had some early success, establishing temporary industrial unions at a few plants by March 1934.
AFL president William Green was never comfortable with this arrangement. He saw himself as the sole mediator between workers and employers and these industrial workers were too independent for his tastes. When the auto unions decided on a strike in March 1934, Green tried to stamp it out, with the help of Franklin Roosevelt, who offered mediation because he feared an auto strike would hurt the recovery; Green felt the unions were not strong enough to win. When Green agreed, auto union membership plummeted since workers no longer trusted him to represent them.
In Toledo, workers had organized Federal Labor Union (the AFL name for these temp unions) Local 18384. This local focused on Auto-Lite but actually had members from multiple car and car part companies in Toledo. This gave the local a lot of power because they could go on strike at one company but still have dues money coming in, allowing it to pay strike dues without becoming insolvent. On February 23, 1934, workers briefly walked out for union recognition and a 10% pay increase. They came to an agreement in late March on a smallish pay increase (the union wanted another 20%) and an agreement to talk further. But when management refused to sign the new contract, a group of workers walked out.
Unfortunately for them, only about 25% initially came out for that second strike. Very fortunately, the American Workers Party under the leadership of the legendary radical and former Quaker minister here in Providence AJ Muste immediately joined the strike, organizing the city’s unemployed both to radicalize the general population over the terrible conditions of the Depression and to ensure that they wouldn’t take jobs as strikebreakers. Muste was in his Trotskyite phase at this point and like the Trotskyite Minneapolis Teamsters who would strike the next month, was more invested in direct action than obscure theoretical arguments. AWP executive secretary Louis Budenz led the party’s actions from Toledo.
The strike quickly became a social movement. When unemployed workers came to the aid of the strikers, employers and the agents of power were shocked. After a century of using the unemployed against unions, in the darkest days of the Great Depression, the employed and unemployed were uniting. The courts granted Auto-Lite an injunction against the strikers, limiting pickets to 25 at each of the plant’s 2 entrances, but that did not apply to the unemployed workers. The AWP responded that it would “deliberately and specifically violate the injunction enjoining us from sympathetically picketing peacefully in support of the striking auto workers’ federal union.” The AWP and the unemployed continued to block the entrance to Auto-Lite, organizing them in part so that they would not serve as strikebreakers. Leaders of the movement were arrested but the protests continued.
By early May, with the strike leaders on trial, Auto-Lite decided to break the strike and began importing strikebreakers. When the workers heard of it, the protests grew rapidly. On May 21, there were 1,000 picketers, 4,000 on May 22, and 6,000 on May 23. Between May 23 and May 28, the streets of Toledo were a battlefield and strikers battled the Ohio National Guard seeking to open the plant. It started when police beat on an old man. The crowd erupted, started breaking windows and throwing rocks at the police. The National Guard came in. FDR sent Charles Taft in to mediate. Son of the former president and a major political player in Ohio (you can also visit an animatronic Charles Taft at the William Howard Taft museum in Cincinnati), Roosevelt hoped he could calm the situation but he could not. He wanted the workers to submit their grievances to the federal Automobile Labor Board, but this would have forced the workers to give them their best weapon–the strike–and so they rejected it. The National Guard killed 2 workers on May 24 in a pitched battle with strikers. The next day, Auto-Lite agreed to keep the plant closed to avoid further violence. But on the same day, 51 of the city’s 103 unions agreed to begin a general strike. However, the violence began to die down on May 26 thanks to mass arrests, especially of local American Workers Party leaders.
Seeing the writing on the wall, the actual Auto-Lite workers lowered their request at Taft’s urging to a 10 percent wage increase. The company again became aggressive, attempting to create a company union and rejecting everything the auto workers proposed. As May turned into June, the chances for a renewal of violence grew. More unions geared up for a general strike while the company asked the Ohio governor to use the National Guard to keep the plant open by force. Workers appealed to FDR to intervene on their side. Finally what ended this was employers throughout the city granting pay raises to the unions, beginning with an IBEW local that won 20 percent. On June 2, the auto workers came to an agreement, getting only a 5 percent wage increase but also union recognition. The AWP urged the workers to reject the agreement, but the workers wanted to work and felt they had won what they wanted. The National Guard withdrew from Toledo on June 5. The Toledo Central Labor Council held a huge victory parade on June 9 with 20,000 people. Regardless of the AWP’s revolutionary aims, for labor itself, this was a gigantic win.
The power of workers at Auto-Lite helped build momentum for the National Labor Relations Act that followed the next year. It also increased the appeal of large-scale industrial unionism. The Toledo workers became United Auto Workers Local 12 when that union formed in 1937.
The factory closed in 1962 and was turned into a park in 1999. The Autolite company is now part of the Honeywell octopus.
This is the 102nd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.