May 21, 2001
On May 12, the city of Toledo, Ohio dedicated a new memorial designed to commemorate the strike at the Toledo Auto-Lite company in 1934.
The memorial itself refers to this strike as "one of the three most important strikes in American history." Not only was it a victory during a very difficult period for all U.S. workers, it was a victory that paved the way for the subsequent building of the United Auto Workers and the CIO, in which the UAW played a key role. The largest single delegation at the founding convention of the auto workers union in 1935 were Auto-Lite workers.
The strike had among its leaders a number of revolutionaries who worked with the American Workers Party of A. J. Muste. The memorial just built does not mention Muste, nor any of the revolutionary militants like Art Preis, Ted Selander and Art Pollack, without whose leadership the strike would have gone down to defeat, like so many others of that time. Nor does the UAW itself want to remember not only these but the many other revolutionary militants whose battles brought it into existence.
Art Preis covered the labor movement in articles for "The Militant," the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party. He used many of these articles as the basis for a book he published in 1964 on the real history of the CIO: Labor's Giant Step –Twenty Years of the CIO.
(This book is available from Pathfinder bookstores, sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party in many cities, or from Pathfinder Publishers, 167 Charles St. New York, NY 10014.)
The following selection on the Toledo Auto-Lite strike is taken from this book.
"The wave of strikes following the enactment of NRA in June 1933 was ending in a series of defeats. Where the union leaders themselves did not rush the workers back on the job without gains -not even union recognition –the strikes were smashed by court injunctions and armed violence. Behind the legal restraining orders and the shotguns, rifles and machine guns of police, deputies and National Guardsmen, the scabs and strikebreakers were being herded into struck plants almost at will....
"One out of every three persons in Toledo was thrown on relief, standing in lines for food handouts at a central commissary. In 1933, the Unemployed League, led by followers of A. J. Muste, head of the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (later the American Workers Party), had organized militant mass actions of the unemployed and won cash relief. The League made it a policy to call for unity of the unemployed and employed workers; it mobilized the unemployed not to scab, but to aid all strikes.
"On February 23, 1934, the Toledo Auto Lite workers, newly organized in AFL Federal Local 18384, went on strike. This was quickly ended by the AFL leaders with a truce agreement for negotiations through the Regional Labor Board of the National Labor Board, which had been set up under the NRA.
"Refusing to be stalled further by the labor board or to submit to the special Auto Labor Board..., the AutoLite workers went on the picket lines again on April 13.
"The company followed the usual first gambit in such a contest. It went to a friendly judge and got him to issue an injunction limiting picketing. The strike had begun to die on its feet when a committee of Auto Lite workers came to the Unemployed League and asked for aid....
"The Lucas County Unemployed League, also enjoined, refused however to let the fight go in that way. Two of its officers, Ted Selander and Sam Pollock, and several auto local members wrote Judge R. R. Stuart, advising him that they would violate the injunction by encouraging mass picketing. They went out and did so. They were arrested, tried and released - the court warning them to picket no more. They answered by going directly from court, with all the strikers and unemployed league members who had been present, to the picket line. Through the mass trials, Selander and Pollock got a message as to the nature of the capitalist courts. The picket line grew.
"By May 23, there were more than 10,000 on the picket lines. County deputies with tear gas guns were lined up on the plant roof. A strike picket, Miss Alma Hahn, had been struck on the head by a bolt hurled from a plant window and had been taken to the hospital. By the time 100 more cops arrived, the workers were tremendously incensed. Police began roughing up individual pickets pulled from the line....
"The police charged and swung their clubs trying to clear a path for the scabs. The workers held their ground and fought back. Choked by the tear gas fired from inside the plant, it was the police who finally gave up the battle. Then the thousands of pickets laid siege to the plant, determined to maintain their picket line. The workers improvised giant slingshots from inner tubes. They hurled whole bricks through the plant windows. The plant soon was without lights. The scabs cowered in the dark. The frightened deputies set up machine guns inside every entranceway. It was not until the arrival of 900 National Guardsmen, 15 hours later, that the scabs were finally released, looking a sorry sight, as the press reported it.
"Then followed one of the most amazing battles in U. S. labor history.... With their bare fists and rocks, the workers fought a sixday pitched battle with the National Guard. They fought from rooftops, from behind billboards and came through alleys to flank the guardsmen. `The men in the mob shouted vile epithets at the troopers,' complained the Associated Press, and the women jeered them with suggestions that they `go home to mama and their paper dolls.'
"But the strikers and their thousands of sympathizers did more than shame the young National Guardsmen. They educated them and tried to win them over. Speakers stood on boxes in front of the troops and explained what the strike was about and the role the troops were playing as strikebreakers. World War I veterans put on their medals and spoke to the boys in uniform like Dutch uncles. The women explained what the strike meant to their families. The press reported that some of the guardsmen just quit and went home. Others voiced sympathy with the workers. (A year later, when Toledo unionists went to Defiance, Ohio, to aid the Pressed Steel Company strike, they found that eight% of the strikers had been National Guardsmen serving in uniform in the AutoLite strike. That was where they learned the lesson of unionism.)
"On May 24, the guardsmen fired pointblank into the Auto Lite strikers' ranks, killing two and wounding 25. But 6,000 workers returned at dusk to renew the battle. In the dark, they closed in on groups of guardsmen in the sixblock martial law zone. The fury of the onslaught twice drove the troops back into the plant. At one stage, a group of troops threw their last tear gas and vomit gas bombs, then quickly picked up rocks to hurl at the strikers; the strikers recovered the last gas bombs thrown before they exploded, flinging them back at the troops.
"On Friday, May 31, the troops were speedily ordered withdrawn from the strike area when the company agreed to keep the plant closed. This had not been the usual oneway battle with the workers getting shot down and unable to defend themselves. Scores of guardsmen had been sent to the hospitals. They had become demoralized. By June 1, 98 out of 99 AFL local unions had voted for a general strike.
"A monster rally on the evening of June 1 mobilized some 40,000 workers in the Lucas County Courthouse Square. There, however, the AFL leaders, frightened by this tremendous popular uprising, were silent about the general strike and instead assured the workers that Roosevelt would aid them.
"By June 4, with the whole community seething with anger, the company capitulated and signed a sixmonth contract, including a 5% wage increase with a 5% minimum above the auto industry code, naming Local 18384 as the exclusive bargaining agent in the struck plants.
"The path was opened for organization of the entire automobile industry. With the Auto Lite victory under their belts, the Toledo autoworkers were to organize 19 plants before the year was out and, before another 12 months, were to lead the first successful strike in a GM plant, the real beginning of the conquest of General Motors."