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Once upon a time in America

This article is over 9 years, 6 months old
John Newsinger tells how struggles by US workers shook rulers in the heart of capitalism
Issue 2313
John Newsinger’s new book
John Newsinger’s new book

In March 1928, Richard Mellon told a congressional committee in Washington DC that you could not mine coal without machine guns.

Mellon was one of the richest and most powerful men in the US. His throwaway line illuminated the state of class struggle—that big business was prepared to use lethal force to keep unions out of industry.

The Roaring Twenties were a time of rapid expansion of industry with thousands of new factories churning out everything from textiles to tanks.

Cities such as Detroit became synonymous with their industrial skyline of chimneys and smoke. The factories sucked in labour from across the country. Millions of people, including black and women workers, joined the ranks of the industrial proletariat for the first time.

The bosses saw unions as a threat to their profits and something to be resisted at all costs. This had been clear during the steel workers strike of 1919. The battle for union recognition had cost the lives of 26 strikers, shot down by police and company guards.

It was demonstrated again during the Colorado Coal Strike of 1927, where Mellon’s company led the way in resisting union recognition. No one knows how many people died in this bitter 15-month strike, but company police were a law unto themselves. They evicted families, beat and tortured union men, and killed strikers.


Violence was not the only weapon in the bosses’ arsenal. Trade unions were only semi-legal in the 1920s, and barely tolerated by the courts.

During a 1922 railway strike a court injunction prohibited picketing, any attempt to persuade scabs not to work, and the use of union funds to further the dispute.

It even prevented the union from consulting their lawyers. The strike, which involved over 400,000 workers, was effectively declared illegal.

And there was the use of company spies. There were well over 40,000 “company men” at work in every industry. A host of private detective agencies specialised in strikebreaking, of which Pinkerton was the best known.

Many companies, such as US Steel and Ford Motors, operated their own extensive spy networks. These agencies compiled blacklists, wrecked union branches, sabotaged strikes, and beat up union organisers. They were an everyday feature of industrial life—and they were prepared to kill.

As the world economy nosedived into the Great Depression for more than a decade after 1930 the US working class faced catastrophe.

Millions were made destitute by years of unemployment. Those lucky enough to hold on to a job endured short-time working and wage cuts. People starved to death in what was still the richest country in the world.

The already weak unions seemed in no condition to resist. The US equivalent of the TUC, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was dominated by reactionary leaders who were opposed to any fightback. Instead they threw themselves on the mercies of the bosses.


But experience soon showed that if workers remained passive, the employers would walk over them. The only way to win concessions was to fight. With union leaders urging surrender, the initiative passed to the left.

The first wave of resistance came in 1934. Car workers in Toledo, truck drivers in Minneapolis, and dockers in San Francisco all fought massive struggles that started to turn the tide. All three strikes were led by the left.

Militant activists of the fledgling Communist Party, Trotskyists, socialists and remnants of the Industrial Workers of the World played a leading role in these battles.

New firebrand rank and file leaders swept aside the official union bureaucrats to lead action. They refused to trust establishment politicians and appealed for workers’ solidarity as the way to win.

The Communist Party’s membership rose from just 12,000 in 1932 to over 100,000 in 1938. Many new recruits came fresh from the struggle.

In all three cities, thousands of employed and unemployed workers rallied to the strikers’ cause, fighting the police with whatever came to hand. Women workers and children in sweatshops played a crucial role.

San Francisco was paralysed by a general strike as solidarity action spread. Meanwhile, sections of the ruling class began to recognise the need for concessions if they were to maintain their privileges.

The years 1935 and 1936 saw a mixture of victories and defeats. Where workers relied on union leaders and politicians they invariably went down to defeat.


But where they relied on class solidarity they often won. Even some union leaders were now worried by the AFL’s miserable record and feared the way many workers were looking to the left.

Led by the miners’ leader John L Lewis, they established a new union federation that was prepared to fight—the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO).

The decisive moment came at the very end of 1936. Members of the newly formed-United Auto Workers occupied General Motors (GM) factories in Flint, Michigan, demanding union recognition.

In a conventional strike the union takes its members out of work and tries to stop production by discouraging other workers from entering.

But in these new sit-down strikes, the workers physically occupied the plant, keeping management out. The Flint sit-down strikers did just that. They elected their own “mayor” and other officials and maintained the plant throughout the strike.

The union kept up a regular supply of food to strikers while sympathisers marched in support outside. For more than two months they beat off police attacks.

In a historic display of working class power they brought GM, the largest corporation in the world, to its knees. The union had started with just 122 members out of a workforce of 45,000—but now it was a force to be reckoned with.


The victory over GM led to a massive wave of militancy in US industry. Over 400,000 workers occupied in the course of 1937. Car giant Chrysler was seized, seamen sat down on ships, shop workers, hotel workers, clothing workers, engineers, miners, meatpackers and cigar workers occupied.

American workers showed incredible courage and creativity. As many bosses surrendered rather than risk occupation, the whole balance of class forces in the US shifted.

A section of the ruling class offered moderate union leaders recognition deals if they promised to keep their members in check. US Steel finally recognised the steelworkers’ union in March 1937 and many other firms followed.

Once recognised, union leaders found their relationship with the bosses was as important as their relationship with their members.

Legislation passed by the Franklin Roosevelt government that sought to create partnership between employers and unions deepened this process.

Militant workers lacked a sufficient organisation of their own with the politics to resist the move to the right. Rank and file initiative was replaced by bureaucratic control.

Some firms still refused to recognise the unions—and used violence to keep them out. Roosevelt predictably refused to help unions overcome this. The revolt was contained yet its gains transformed the US.

Today, as we face recession and an employers’ offensive again, the lessons and inspiration of the American workers’ movement are a gift to us all.

Left led fight and retreat

The fightback in the factories was inspired and often organised by the left. The American Workers Party in Toledo, the Trotskyist Communist League in Minneapolis and the Communist Party in San Francisco all led mass struggles to victory.

With the prestige of the Russian Revolution behind them, the Communists became the dominant force on the left and were far larger than their rivals.

Communists showed tremendous courage, carrying on the fight in the face of blacklisting and imprisonment, beatings and shootings.

But the Communist Party of America had a serious flaw—it followed the political line that came from Moscow. This meant subordinating the needs of the US working class to those of Stalin.

The Popular Front strategy pushed on the Communist Party between 1935 and 1939 involved a turn to the right—it supported Roosevelt in 1936.

It also affected its industrial policy. Class politics were blunted as the party sought allies among the “progressive bourgeoisie”.

At the start of 1937 Communists still championed rank and file control and initiative in the unions. But by the end of the year they were committed to becoming the left wing of the union bureaucracy.

Instead of championing working class militancy, the Communists increasingly found themselves bound by Russia’s foreign policy needs in the run-up to the Second World War. The blunting of resistance was a disaster for the whole of the left.

Revolting teachers

By April 1933, 5,000 teachers in Chicago had gone without pay for eight months. The overwhelmingly women workers decided to march on the city centre, chanting, “Pay us!”

Protesters stormed five leading banks in the city. The chairman of First National told them to “Go to hell!”—so they wrecked his premises.

Two days later another march saw two banks occupied and fighting with the police. The money was found to pay the owed wages.

Woolworth’s Sit-Down

Women workers at Woolworth’s in downtown Detroit were inspired by the union victory at GM. In February 1937, they decided to occupy their store demanding union recognition and a pay rise.

The young workforce evicted management and barricaded themselves in. After the company refused to negotiate another Woolworth’s store was also occupied.

Bosses quickly surrendered and the strikers held a victory dance at the Barlum Hotel. Workers at the hotel then themselves decided to occupy. The Woolworth’s movement then spread to New York.

John Newsinger’s new book Fighting Back—the American working class in the 1930s is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Go to

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