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This Day in Labor History: February 17, 1936

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On February 17, 1936, workers at the Goodyear plant in Akron, Ohio went on strike. This is a key moment in the organizing of the rubber industry, which is almost completely gone in the United States but which was at the time a major industry and which would play a critical role in the creation and success of the CIO.

Organizing the rubber industry was key to the building a real union movement in the United States. But the success of this was hardly guaranteed. The United Rubber Workers was founded in Akron in 1935, but the leaders really had no idea what they were doing and they had no real way of knowing either. These were committed, but inexperienced workers. Moreover, the American Federation of Labor had little interest in helping, thanks to the URW’s commitment to industrial unionism instead of the out of date craft unionism AFL leaders held to like a scared kid to his blanket.

Goodyear traditionally was not a terrible employer. When the Depression hit and orders decreased, Goodyear management dropped everyone to a 6 hour day instead of firing a bunch of workers. This was tough on everyone but also allowed people to eat. This was implemented in 1931 and it was retained for the next five years. But in 1936, with conditions worsening for the company, it decided to lay off a lot of workers and have the rest work eight hours. This outraged workers and provided the catalyst for organizing. Already in 1935, an initial fear of a strike led the big three rubber makers–Goodyear, Firestone, and Goodrich–to make a deal with the Labor Department where they refused to recognize any union but agreed that if grievances were not hashed out, that the Secretary of Labor could name an arbitration board to settle them. So in late 1935, the new URW appealed to Frances Perkins to do so and she did, naming three neutral parties. But the investigation was very slow, too slow for increasingly activated and impatient workers.

Then Goodyear put its move to the 8-hour day up to a vote of its company union. These were designed to rubber stamp corporate policies while pretending to give workers a voice. But by the mid 30s, labor activists had taken them over in industries across the country. The company union rejected Goodyear’s proposal, much to the shock of management. So Goodyear did it anyway, destroying its own company union and stupidly opening the door to real organizing.

Over the next few months, organizing and outrage among workers grew. On January 19, John L. Lewis led a mass meeting of the workers that galvanized support. Little sit-down strikes began popping up after this. On February 10, Goodyear laid off 70 men immediately, violating its long-standing policy of a three-day notice. Then, on February 17, the Akron Beacon Journal ran a front page story showing that Goodyear had profits of over $5 million in 1935. That was the final straw.

Later that day, the workers gathered into the union hall and unanimously voted to strike. This was over 1,500 workers. It was a hard picket. The weather in Akron was terrible that February, with temperatures well below zero. The Goodyear plant was huge and hard to police for scabs. 14,000 people were soon on strike though. So Goodyear used its old friend the courts to issue an injunction against picketing. The URW simply refused to go along with the injunction. Said URW president Sherman Dalrymple, the workers “will resist the injunction if attempts are made by authorities to enforce it.” Neither the mayor nor the chief of police was willing to do so.

Resources poured into Akron from other industrial unionists. That included experienced unionists to advise and, most importantly, keep the peace to not give authorities a reason to send in the military. The Labor Department tried to get the workers back on the job through an arbitration offer, but that was completely rejected.

By early March, Goodyear management began to cave. It started to send out feelers to cut a deal. Workers pressed their advantage. The URW demanded the six-hour day, seniority in hiring and firing, and recognition of the union and its committees. But that was too far for management, at least for the moment. The company and other local leaders started creating militias to deal with the workers through extralegal violence.

But when the militias didn’t show any ability to crush the strike, management finally caved. URW leaders won all the major points and some minor ones too. Of course there were many in the union who wanted complete victory, but the other unions now involved strongly advised them to take the deal and get the union in the door. The URW agreed to the proposal on March 20, 1936.

The rubber industry was far from organized. Goodyear would attempt violent tactics to crush unionism in its Alabama plant and the next few years would see the other rubber companies do anything to prevent unions from entering their factories. But they were just killing time before the inevitability of the union reached them. URW power grew and so did the government’s impatience with anti-union employers. By the end of 1938, most of rubber was unionized and by 1941, the last Goodyear plants signed contracts. By this time as well, the CIO had broken from the AFL and the URW became one of its most important members. Unionism was established and the lives of rubber workers improved immensely.

I borrowed from Irving Bernstein’s classic institutional history of labor in the New Deal, Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 to write this post. It’s dated in some ways, but in terms of good information, it still holds up well.

This is the 471st post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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