On June 15, 1942, workers at a General Motors factory engaged in a wildcat strike to protest new policies that forbade them from smoking on the job. While this may seem like an odd incident, it actually shines quite a light on working class culture in the mid-twentieth century and conditions on the shop floor in a situation where unions were new and the nation was at war.
One might not think of smoking as a major issue in labor history. But it played a sizable role in twentieth century work culture. As everyone knows, a lot of people smoked during these years. For many companies, very much including the auto industry, banning workers from smoking was a normal thing to do. For one thing, they could start fires with their thrown away cigarettes; in fact, this was how the National Association of Manufacturers attempted to justify the Triangle Fire. Managers believed smoking distracted workers from concentrating on their jobs and the rise of scientific management made issues of control over work culture very important to the managerial class.
But of course employers themselves smoked. It might be in their offices, but they smoked. And the workers knew it. They seethed over this. It was hypocrisy. Meanwhile, the reality of nicotine addiction meant these workers really suffered. Many would try to sneak smoke breaks into their bathroom visits. If you did that at Ford, where Henry Ford‘s weird morality was a condition of employment, this led to an automatic firing. Moreover, in the auto factories, what was going to catch on fire? The floors were cement, not wood.
The late 1930s brought the United Auto Workers into GM and Chrysler and Packard and the other smaller car companies. It would take until 1941 for this to extend to Ford. But by the time World War II started, this was a unionized industry. Workers were at war every day with bitter foremen and managers over control of the shop floor. Part of the employers war against newly militant workers was suspension or firing over smoking.
Throughout the war then, the issue of smoking was both a very important one for workers and a proxy for the larger battle over control over the workplace. And again, the workers could sometimes actually see the managers smoking in their offices. It outraged them.
The GM Fisher Body tank manufacturing plant in Grand Blanc, Michigan, just outside of Flint, was a brand new facility. In fact, it was so new that it was not even officially unionized yet. But when it opened in the spring of 1942, many of the workers were UAW members transferring over from the other Fisher facilities, including the spot of the foundational moment of the UAW, the site of the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1937. The company pushed hard to enforce the smoking ban in the new factory. The workers were not having it. The organized action started with the welders, who demanded two five-minute smoke breaks per shift. The workers started intentionally smoking all at the same time to challenge the company. GM responded by writing them all up for violations. On June 15, the welders all left their job at the same time, walked outside, and lit up. When they came back in, managers suspended them all for three days.
Outraged, the workers in the plant almost all walked out on a collective wildcat strike. About 80 percent of the workers had enough and left their jobs. Remember that in World War II, strikes were not supposed to happen. This was part of the deal made between employers, labor, and the government to keep production rolling through the war. But the constant battles between workers and management over all sorts of things led to thousands of wildcat strikes, usually very brief, as workers just could not and would not take any more grief.
The UAW-CIO (as opposed to the small rump conservative UAW-AFL trying to compete) moved quickly to support the workers. Again, this wasn’t a union plant yet, but the UAW intended that it would be and moved to offer its services. Both the federal and state government acted quickly to end the strike. By its third day, the State Labor Mediation Board, a Michigan agency, attempted to broker a compromise, but GM wasn’t in the mood for that. It hoped public opinion over striking around an issue that seemed trivial during wartime would hold off and allow it power over the unions. The Detroit Free Press was happy to serve as a GM propaganda rag on the issue.
GM’s unwillingness to compromise meant the strike reached a week, which was a long time for a World War II wildcat, especially in a tank factory. After that week, despite the lack of a resolution, the workers decided to return to the job. This wasn’t from state pressure, as the state government played a mediating role throughout, despite growing frustration from both sides. The National War Labor Board mediated a compromise for the moment that moved the plant toward unionization with either the UAW-CIO or UAW-AFL (they could vote on that) and kicked the smoking can down the road.
By 1943, it became harder for workers to strike during the war. The Smith-Connolly Act restricted these rights and laid the groundwork for Taft-Hartley in 1947. The growing power of conservatives meant it was harder for unions. And yet, smoking remained a major issue in the plants. Moreover, in plants that had long-accepted smoking rights, GM sought to end them. The situation was similar at Ford, which sought to push back on unionization by busting workers for smoking. Fired workers there led to another smoking strike in 1944. There were smoking strikes in Virginia during the war as well. The last known smoking strike took place in 1946 in Alabama.
None of this ended with a solid resolution in favor of the workers. After all, it was still company authority to set basic conditions of employment and the contracts never explicitly allowed workers to smoke. But this is a great window into the incredibly tense relationships of the shop floor during the war.
I borrowed from Gregory Wood, “The Justice of a Rule That Forbids the Men Smoking on Their Jobs: Workers, Managers, and Cigarettes in World War II America,” from Labor in 2016 to write this post.
This is the 444th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.