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This Day in Labor History: April 2, 1937

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On April 2, 1937, workers at the Hershey Chocolate Corporation in Hershey, Pennsylvania sat down on the job. Following the lead of the General Motors workers in Flint, Michigan a few months earlier, these workers demanded the company live up to the contract it had recently signed. Unlike that previous struggle however, Hershey would respond with violence, demonstrating the limitations of the tactic.

Milton Hershey founded his chocolate company in 1894. He, like many capitalists of the era, decided to construct a company town, of course named after himself. This he did in southeastern Pennsylvania. A bit like Henry Ford, he was worried about the terrible conditions of the cities and so wanted a nice-looking town for his employees. He even built an amusement park in 1907 for them. He was an early adopter of the welfare capitalism that would come to prominence in American industry during the 1920s. But while this was all better than living under the smokestacks in a steel mill, the point of a company town is to control workers and that was certainly the case for Hershey as well, just as it was for his contemporary George Pullman. Personal relationships meant everything when it came to hiring and firing, causing great resentment among workers. And Hershey worked them hard, up to 60 hours a week as late as the 1920s. When the Great Depression began, he reduced them to 40 hours and of course reduced their pay as well, although he tried to avoid layoffs. During the early 1930s, he spent up to $10 million building nice buildings in his company town while his workers faced dire poverty.

Near the end of 1936, workers began to organize. They created a newspaper called “The Chocolate Bar-B” that expressed their discontent and spread it around the factory. It was produced by workers at the factory who had converted to the communist cause and wanted workers to unionize over issues of long hours, low wages, and terrible workplace conditions, especially noise and heat in the factory. By January 1937, with the industrial organizing of the newly formed CIO coming more into the open, CIO organizers met secretly with Hershey workers. They immediately formed the United Chocolate Workers and soon had hundreds of members, with about 80% of the workforce joining. At first it looked like Hershey would cave. When they came to him, he immediately said he would raise wages to 60 cents an hour for men and 45 cents an hour for women and they came to initial agreement in March. But as part of that agreement, union organizers were not supposed to be fired.

Hershey had second thoughts about that. Claiming declining business required layoffs, he fired the organizers, which violated the seniority agreement in the new contract. On April 2, union president Red “Bull” Behman waved a red handkerchief to start the strike. The workers inside copied the tactics now becoming common in CIO organizing campaigns: they sat down on the job. About 1200 workers were involved. They did not want this to be a radical action that would destroy property. They set up cameras to make sure that no property was damaged and they banned smoking in the factory to be sure nothing burned. But there were problems from the beginning. The strike was not competently run and the strikers had to sit-down in shifts of 400, meaning the factory actually stayed open. The strikers were also indifferent to the 240,000 quarts of milk that would spoil, creating immediate divisions between the strikers and the local farmers supplying that milk, a rare localism in supply chains, even at this time.

By this point, Hershey himself was in semi-retirement and company president William Murrie was more of a hard-liner. He rallied the local farmers who were losing money by not selling their milk to Hershey, their only market. He started holding rallies in nearby towns to build opposition to the union. They created a mob to attack the factory and physically remove the strikers. Along with some workers loyal to the company, on April 8, they attacked the sit-down strikers. This may have happened semi-spontaneously at it seems that Behman and Murrie had already agreed to end the occupation. In any case, outnumbering the strikers inside about 4:1, they grabbed bats and bricks and started beating the strike leaders. By the end of the day, about 1000 workers had signed an anti-union loyalty pledge, some because of fear but some because they were genuinely disgusted by the CIO tactics.

This led to an investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, which forced Hershey to hold a union election. The creation of the NLRB cannot be overstated in its importance. In the past, Hershey would have simply fired all the organizers at this point and used violence to ensure their factory stayed union-free. Now, the government made sure an election would be held while taking no position on the sit-down strike, a tactic the Roosevelt administration was distinctly uncomfortable with. Intimidating the workers after the violence, the company ensure that a quasi-company union would win, a tactic used by a lot of employers in 1937 until the National Labor Relations Act was declared constitutional, which had banned company unions. The NLRB threw this election out and ordered a new one held. In 1939, that election happened and the workers chose the AFL-affiliated Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union. The company union was dead in the town but so was the CIO, and this was not by intimidation but rather by the poorly planned sit-down strike and failed organizing efforts after the strike ended. The CIO had misjudged the sit-down strikes’ popularity and the moderate tone taken by Pennsylvania governor George Earle’s to it led to the destruction of his political career and his resounding defeat in a Senate run in 1938. The new governor, the Republican Arthur James, immediately signed a law banning sit-down strikes when he took office in 1939. Finally, Hershey came to an agreement with the BCW, making it one of the first candy companies to be unionized. Old Milton Hershey himself was devastated, seeing his industrial utopia destroyed by strife he hoped to avoid through never allowing workers a voice on the job.

The sit-down strike declined precipitously after the Hershey failure. Even by the end of 1937, it was rarely used. These proved not only tremendously difficult to pull off, but also deeply alienating to the general public in this conservative nation. Workers themselves were rarely united around the issue and the early victories at Flint and other factories could not be replicated elsewhere. The Supreme Court ruled the sit-down strike illegal in 1939.

I borrowed from Robert Weir, “Dark Chocolate: Lessons from the 1937 Hershey Sit-Down Strike,” published in Labor History’s January 2015 issue in the writing of this post.

This is the 216th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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