The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

90 Years Ago:
The Toledo Electric Auto-Lite Strike—the Working Class Digs In Its Heels

May 20, 2024

In February of 1934, in the midst of the depression, several hundred workers at auto parts plants in Toledo, Ohio went out on strike. Many strikes in the automobile industry in the years before had failed. But in Toledo, the workers were joined on the picket lines by thousands of unemployed, who fought police, then company deputies, then hundreds of National Guard. The working class of Toledo, led by socialist militants, refused to back down. By early June, they had fought their way to a partial victory—with their battles and success inspiring others around the country to take the fight to the bosses.

Working people in Toledo were hit particularly hard by the depression. The largest manufacturer in town shut down for good, putting 28,000 workers on the street in a city of 280,000. Four local banks failed. Thousands of workers had to wait in long lines for relief. Unemployment ran as high as 80%.

The auto parts companies used the high unemployment to threaten those still on the job: they imposed a vicious, killing pace of work. Fed up, a few workers at some of the plants began to organize.

Militants Begin to Organize

Late in 1933, workers at four parts plants began holding meetings, forming a union through the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The main organizer had union experience in the IWW. They started small with just a dozen or so workers. By early 1934, the union meetings drew hundreds to meeting halls around town.

Late in February, 4,000 workers at the plants struck for three demands: a 20% raise, a procedure for bargaining, and recognition of their union. A good proportion of the strikers were women. Less than half of the workers struck—but production was nonetheless shut down at three of the plants. At Electric Auto-Lite, the largest plant, employing 1,800, production continued.

Roosevelt Steps In

Roosevelt’s government wanted to get out in front of worker unrest. The New Deal created a board that sent mediators, who succeeded in getting the workers to accept a 5% raise to go back to work. They were led to believe they had an understanding that the company would negotiate on outstanding issues, like union recognition, by April 1st.

April 1st rolled around—with no word from the companies. The workers set a deadline for the companies of April 11th. Meanwhile, executives at Auto-Lite stockpiled teargas for a battle they could see coming. The workers went out again. Four hundred workers struck at the Auto-Lite plant—not enough to shut down production there. The company hired scabs to cross the picket line.

The Bosses Respond

There were many unemployed, so the company could find people desperate enough to scab. But at the same time socialists, communists and other activists—many organized around A.J. Muste—had set up organizations of the unemployed in Toledo. In 1933, these organizations fought to establish and improve relief for the unemployed in the city. The union bureaucracy at the AFL offered little to no support for the strike, but the Unemployed Leagues enthusiastically brought workers out to bolster the picket lines.

In response, Auto-Lite repeatedly went to a friendly judge to get injunctions, limiting the picket to 25 strikers for each gate of the plant—and banning the unemployed from picketing. After one injunction was handed down on Saturday, May 5th, Sam Pollock, a militant with the Unemployed League, wrote the court, and published the letter in the local papers: “On Monday morning May 7, at the Auto-Lite plant, the Lucas County Unemployed League, in protest of the injunction issued by your court, will deliberately and specifically violate the injunction….” The court maneuver backfired—defying the injunction became a kind of sport in town. Hundreds of workers, unemployed or otherwise, joined the picket lines and packed the jails, making the injunction unenforceable.

A newspaperman reported, “It’s nothing new to see organized unemployed appear in the streets, fight police, and raise hell in general. But usually they do this for their own ends, to protest against unemployment or relief conditions. At Toledo, they appeared on the picket lines to help striking employees win a strike, though you would expect their interest would lie the other way—that is, in going down and getting the job the other men had lain down.” The strike became a battle between the working class of Toledo and the company. Auto-Lite found the city police to be too friendly to the strikers, so they got the same judge to deputize 150 goons, and paid them directly out of the company’s pocket.

Digging In and Fighting Back

A thousand, then four thousand, then six thousand packed the lines around the factory, refusing to allow scabs in or out. On May 23rd, scabs threw a hinge from a high floor, badly injuring a woman striker. The workers rushed the factory, barring the scabs and deputies inside. The crowd spent the day breaking out the plant’s windows, giving those inside a good dose of Auto-Lite’s own teargas.

The next morning over a thousand of the Ohio National Guard rolled in, trying to push the strikers away from the plant. For days, the crowd did battle with the Guard, pushing up and down the streets around Auto-Lite. The Guard shot two men dead, and still the picketers refused to disperse. The plant could not run, and then other unions in the city threatened a general strike. Finally, the National Guard was withdrawn.

June 3rd, workers came away with an agreement: a 5% raise, no discrimination against union members, and recognition of the union. Workers went back June 4th. In money terms, it may not have been a huge victory. But the working class of Toledo had put up a determined fight. Faced with repression by the police, by company goons and the National Guard, they continued to battle, refused to accept defeat and brought large numbers of Toledo workers to engage in the fight. This was a point where the tide turned for the working class in the country. Their fight inspired the Teamsters in Minneapolis, who struck in May, and then the dockworkers in San Francisco. Soon the whole country would be engulfed in battles by workers. And it was those battles, class battles, that changed the situation for the whole working class.