Monday, February 17, 2014

Remembering the class battles of the past

Today we remember the Akron Rubber Strike which begun on the 17th February, 1936

One big strike was staged in 1913 by the Industrial Workers of the World. The rubber companies broke that strike through the tactics of organizing a Citizens' Police Association, comprising 1,000 vigilantes, and the establishment of martial law. Other unionization efforts were thwarted, through the use of spies, widespread firing of men for union activities, and other forms of intimidation, and by factional warfare within labor's own ranks. The AFL instead of keeping these industrial workers together in one big union, distributed them among 13 separate ones. Under the cumbersome system of craft organization workers couldn't make headway. The Akron work-force pressed for a union of their own, and in 1935 William Green received a charter. The delegates insisted on electing their own officers.

Factory workers including those who worked for all three major rubber makers in Akron, Ohio faced poor working conditions, low wages, and benefits close none. In 1929 the average pay of rubberworkers was $1,377; in 1933 had been cut to $932. Thousands became jobless. Those who remained in the factories were driven mercilessly under the conveyor-belt system of production. These conditions resulted in workers establishing the United Rubber Workers in 1935, who organized the fist major strike in the Akron Rubber Industry. The United Rubber Workers belonged to a larger organization, the newly founded Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The CIO consisted of an umbrella organization for multiple unions, formed in 1935, out of a rebellion against the leadership of the AFL that was unwilling to support industrial union organization such as in the rubber industry. Workers in those industries felt betrayed & John L. Lewis, head of the United Miner Workers, led the split for an industrial union strategy (opposing the craft-worker approach of the AFL).

These unions worked together by providing both moral and material support to CIO-member unions, especially when these member unions went on strike. The strike began as a protest against a plan created by Goodyear to reduce wages and increase the pace of production. The workers utilized the concept of the "sit-down" strike. In the past, when workers went on strike they would leave the factory to join picket lines. Company owners often hired "scab" laborers to cross the picket lines and continue production. The practice of using scab labor made it difficult for striking workers to obtain their demands. In contrast, in a sit-down strike, workers quit working but still occupied their places within the factory. This process meant that the factory owners could not send in additional workers to continue the job. In addition, factory management was more reluctant to use private security forces or other strikebreakers to intimidate the striking workers, as that approach threatened destruction to plant property. Akron's mayor attempted use police force to put and end to the strike, but officers refused to do so when they confronted the thousands of organized workers. By conservative estimates, 10,000 pickets had gathered. Practically every one was armed with a baseball bat or stick.The strike was successful in getting Goodyear to negotiate better contracts for the worker with the United Rubber Workers.

The victory of the Akron rubber workers revealed the full power of the sit-down strike for the first time. The tactic of seizing possession of, and holding, great plants was not entirely unknown to the workers of the United States, but nothing like its mushrooming during the struggles of the mid-thirties had ever been seen before. In the sit-down strike the workers found a weapon. In the same year the Flint Sit-Down Strike changed the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from a collection of isolated locals on the fringes of the industry into a major labor union and led to the unionization of the domestic United States automobile industry.

Socialists unhesitatingly declare that the struggle on the economic field must be looked to and encouraged. But the workers must not be deluded into a false sense of power by occasional union victories, They have to strike and face lock-outs because they are slaves to the capitalist class. A year later in 1937 workers at Fansteel Corporation stage a sit-down strike to gain recognition of their union. This strike later led to a decision of the US Supreme Court declaring the illegality of such strikes.

In any war there are only two options: fight to win, or surrender. Both options produce casualties. There is no “safe” option for workers under attack in the class war. The Socialist Party does not advocate doing nothing and wait for some spontaneous, successful strike to resuscitate a dying labor movement. Our most urgent task is to reconnect the labour movement with the genuine socialist tradition. We can and must lay the foundation for renewed struggle in the here and now. Developing class solidarity is a process. Socialists require to provide the information and the arguments we need to build a new labour movement from the ground up – one that fights to win. Any goal short of victory for all is an injury to workers everywhere. The battleground is the shop floor, not the bargaining table. We can be certain that capital will continue to assault labour, and workers will continue to defend their rights. Whether workers prevail will depend on the extent to which they fight as a class, using their greatest power – the power to stop production. Workers must use their power as a class and fight as a class.

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