Tag Archives: Unions

Not a Good Place to Sit

 

“Not a Good Place to Sit” (Knott)

The cartoon Not A Good Place to Sit by John Knott refers to the Sit-Down Strike Law proposed by Texas Democrat Senator Martin Dies and its continuation within Texas, which made it a felony for workers to perform sit-down strikes. Sit-down strikes are a form of civil disobedience in which an organized group of workers, usually employed at factories or other centralized locations, take possession of the workplace by “sitting down” at their stations. (Encyclopedia Britannica) These strikes occurred throughout America in the 1930’s as a result of unsafe labor conditions and inadequate pay. (Encyclopedia Britannica) The cartoon is a supplement to an editorial published in the Dallas Morning News titled Texas vs. Illegal Strikes published on April 7, 1937.

The cartoon itself is visually simple. It depicts a prickly pear cactus with the words “sit-down strike law” written on it. The cactus is growing out of the center of Texas. The humor in this cartoon can be found through the use of the cactus because if can be interpreted in two ways. At the most basic level and without knowledge of the sit-down strike law, it is obvious that Texas, a place with an abundance of cacti, is not a comfortable place to sit. Additionally, because the cactus is specifically a prickly pear, the name adds to the idea that Texas is inhospitable and prickly. It also strengthens the link to Texas because the prickly pear cactus has a long association with Texas and other southern states, and was even named the official state plant of Texas in 1995. (Cain) On a deeper level, it is clear that the cartoon is referring to the sit-down strikes and legislation taken against them at the time in the state of Texas. It is specifically referring to Texas because Texas legislation took the national sit-down strike law one step further. This made it, quite literally, more dangerous to “sit” in Texas than in other places in the United States.

Sit-down strikes were met with such intense opposition due to their ability to render huge businesses entirely helpless. They effectively prevented their employers from moving production to other locations because the strikers would need to be physically moved in order to continue production (Encyclopedia Britannica). Furthermore, this form of protest prevented their ability to bring in “strike breakers” (Encyclopedia Britannica). These were people brought into the company to replace the workers on strike alleviated pressure on the companies being protested against (Encyclopedia Britannica). Because sit-down strikes made it impossible for companies to get back on their feet without adhering to the strikers’ wishes, they were extremely controversial throughout the United States.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were the first American union to use the sit-down strike (White). On December 10, 1906, at the General Electric Works in Schenectady, New York, 3,000 workers sat down on the job and stopped production to protest the dismissal of three fellow IWW members (Authors of History.com). A decade later, the United Auto Workers staged successful sit-down strikes in the 1930s, most famously in the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937 (Authors of History.com).  GM argued that the strikers were trespassing and got a court order demanding their evacuation; still, the union men stayed put (Authors of History.com). GM turned off the heat in the buildings, but the strikers wrapped themselves in coats and blankets and hunkered down (Authors of History.com). On January 11, police tried to cut off the strikers’ food supply; in the resulting riot, known as the “Battle of the Running Bulls,” 16 workers and 11 policemen were injured and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) took over the adjacent Fisher Two plant (Authors of History.com). On February 1, the UAW won control of the enormous Chevrolet No. 4 engine factory. GM’s output went from a robust 50,000 cars in December to just 125 in February. Despite GM’s enormous political power, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy refused to use force to break the strike.
Though the sit-ins were illegal, he believed, he also believed that authorizing the National Guard to break the strike would be an enormous mistake. “If I send those soldiers right in on the men,” he said, “there’d be no telling how many would be killed.” (Authors of History.com) As a result, he declared, “The state authorities will not take sides. They are here only to protect the public peace.” (Authors of History.com). Meanwhile, President Roosevelt urged GM to recognize the union so that the plants could reopen (Authors of History.com).  In mid-February, the automaker signed an agreement with the UAW (White).  Among other things, the workers were given a 5 percent raise and permission to speak in the lunchroom. A wave of sit-down strikes followed, but diminished by the end of the decade (White). This was due to legislation proposed by Texas senator Dies, which led to the courts and the National Labor Relations Board holding that sit-down strikes were illegal and sit-down strikers could be fired (“Texas vs. Illegal Strikes”).

The editorial Texas vs. Illegal Strikes focuses on the legislation passed specifically in Texas in order to take the sit-down strike law a step further (White). The national anti-sit-down strike law had already been passed, but the Governor of Texas, James Allred, wanted to make sit-down striking a felony (White). This was a generally agreed-upon stance in Texas, so when the Welmert bill to make sit down strikes a felony was proposed, it was immediately and unanimously accepted by the Texas Senate (White).

Although this legislation was widely supported by Texans, it caused others to become fearful of being charged as felons for past actions. One of the most prominent dissenters of this legislation was John L. Lewis,  the driving force behind the founding of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which established the United Steel Workers of America and helped organize millions of other industrial workers in the 1930s (White). At the time, Lewis was attempting to organize the vast Texas Oil Industry and was worried that his unionizing activities would be stopped if he were to be charged for organizing any sort of sit-down strike.

The growth of the CIO was phenomenal in steel, rubber, meat, autos, glass and electrical equipment industries (White). In early 1937, Lewis’ CIO affiliates won collective-bargaining contracts with two of the most powerful anti-union corporations, General Motors and United States Steel (White). General Motors surrendered as a result of the great Flint Sit-Down Strike, during which Lewis negotiated with company executives, Governor Frank Murphy of Michigan, and President Roosevelt (White). U.S. Steel conceded without a strike as Lewis secretly negotiated an agreement with Myron Taylor, chairman of U.S. Steel (White). The CIO gained enormous strength and prestige from the victories in automobiles and steel and escalated its organizing drives, now targeting industries that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) have long claimed, especially meatpacking, textiles, and electrical products (White).

Harvey C. Fremming, a colleague of Lewis in Texas, demanded that Governor Allred look into Lewis’s activities and exonerate the CIO organizers completely (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”).  This was based on the grounds that the CIO had only fostered sit-down strikes in states other than Texas, and should therefore still be allowed to operate within Texas (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”). Lewis was never charged with as a felon, but the  entire CIO group was expelled from the AFL in November 1938 and became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), with Lewis as the first president (“Allred and Peery Against Sit-Downs”).

In conclusion, this cartoon is a commentary on the sit-down strike law and the turmoil it caused in Texas. It shows how the Texas government caused sit-down strikes to become almost non-existent due to legislation passed which made such strikes felonies. It clearly shows that this legislation made it exceedingly dangerous to attempt to perform a sit-down strike. In all its simplicity, the cartoon fully conveys the prickly climate of Texas at the time and all the turmoil that would come out of a group of workers simply wanting to be paid a decent wage. Though this seems ridiculous, echoes of this time are still heard today and these issues continue to fester in the broken labor force of America.

Works Cited:

“ALLRED AND PEERY AGAINST SIT-DOWNS.” New York Times (1923-Current file): 40. Apr 04 1937. ProQuest. Web. 22 Feb. 2017 .

The Authors of History.com. “Sit-down Strike Begins in Flint.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, 2010. Web. 16 Feb. 2017.

Cain, Delman. “Prickly Pear Cactus, Our State Plant.” Native Plant Society of Texas. Native Plant Society of Texas, 03 Aug. 2015. Web. 2 Jan. 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Strike.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 17 Sept. 2010. Web. 20 Dec. 2016.

Knott, John. “Not a Good Place to Sit.” Dallas Morning News [Dallas] 7 Apr. 1937: 6.America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

“Texas vs. Illegal Strikes.” Editorial. Dallas Morning News 7 Apr. 1937: 6. America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

White, Ahmed A. “The Depression Era Sit-Down Strikes and the Limits of Liberal Labor Law.” Seton Hall Law Review 40.1 (2010): 1-82.