Published on March 19, 1937 in The Dallas Morning News newspaper, the cartoon titled “There’s an idea” by John Knott illustrates the measures that the industrial unions took during the 1930s to attain better working conditions, higher wages and improved job security through the depiction of the Chrysler sit-down strike of 1937. In his cartoon, one man, labeled ‘STEEL WORKER,’ is sitting on top of a factory which is specified as ‘CHRYSLER CORP.’ With his hands clutching the two edges of the roof, the worker uses the building as a bench. Alongside the worker stands a man representing ‘STEEL CORP.’ as he holds a document which states ‘Injunction’ as well as having on a fancy suit and top hat. Both the men look off in the distance at themselves signing a contract for an ‘AGREEMENT TO AVOID STRIKES FOR ONE YEAR.’ The signing takes place atop a different structured factory while the men use the building as a table.
Sit-down strikes throughout 1936 and 1937, towards the end of the great depression, were important components in the social movements at this time that gave the Committee of Industrial Organization (CIO) power to unionize many workers in this era’s industries. In late December of 1936, a sit-down strike was held in Flint, Michigan against General Motors (GM). The strike was unplanned and pretty spontaneous. This 44 day strike eventually proved to be an extremely influential event during this time period. Initially, shop radicals, communists, and socialists had led the way but soon were replaced, as commanders, by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the CIO. Even though the proportion of who participated in the strike was outnumbered by the rest of the occupants in the factory, the whole ceased production. The ultimate goal of the protest was to urge and require management to obey and enforce labor law. A resolution was achieved on February 11, 1937, between General Motors and UAW. The Company recognized that the union is the consolidated voice of its workers and agreed to work with the UAW on a multi-plant basis. As a result, thousands of unsure auto workers beforehand, now joined the UAW. The chain reaction began with “47 sit-down strikes in March, 170 in April, and 52 in May.” (“Sit-Down Strikes” 2003) While many outside perspectives acknowledged that the act of sit-down striking legally violated corporate property rights, the worker viewed the act as an ethical response to the management’s misstep of not abiding by the law.
After the sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, around 60,000 workers sat down in all 6 Chrysler plants in Detroit and completely halted production on March 8, 1937. The workers demanded higher wages, better working conditions, and stronger job security. The author of the editorial, titled In the Chrysler Plant, and John Knott were definitely in agreement that the labor workers in the Chrysler plant organized there protest in the wrong way. The author of the editorial wrote, “The sit-down strike is not collective bargaining. It is organized hijacking.” It is evident that the author had strong feelings on the subject. Indisputably, he felt that the workers were in the wrong and should not have handled their dilemma the way they did, as they broke the law during their course of action. On the other hand, Knott titled his cartoon ‘There’s an Idea,’ as if to indicate the solution to the protest is obvious. Knott seems to feel that the decision the workers made, to do a sit-down strike, was ridiculous, that they should have just proposed there demands formally. When the strikes started, supervisors were given the boot, entrances and exits were blocked off and secured by workers, and security guards were replaced by union men. Because, in the plants the workers had established many communities and committees. Similar to the strike in Flint, the workers had committees such as publicity, security, and entertainment. Each committee had a job to perform respectively. For example, the entertainment were to keep the workers entertained.
As a result of this strike being in the midst of plenty of strikes during this period, the protesters had precedented expectations. The workers continued their sit-down strike for 17 days in the Chrysler plants. On March 24, the workers made an agreement to evacuate the plants in return for nothing other than continued negotiations. A week later they signed a contract that did not agree to a single one of the workers’ wants and gave Chrysler a no-strike pledge. However, the contract also recognized the UAW and showed the strength of the workers, potentially when they are united. The workers considered this a major victory. They may not have been able to get everything they wanted at once, but they continued to show their dedication. All the way through World War II, pushing past the next three decades they continued to make gains in their progression as a community because the workers were ready to strike at any time.
Even though the workers had, what they thought of as, success, they also had some missed opportunities to strengthen their act of protesting. For example, with all the committees the workers had set up, they failed to assign a committee responsible for monitoring the officials of the strike who could replace the officials that went against their demands. Instead they had overwhelming power over the protest: what they said went. Although the ones appointed to be officials were mostly well-respected workers and held high status’ with the workers, if any corruption was to go on, they should have had a group of people in charge of impeachment. Another missed opportunity they may have prolonged the protest and could have possibly prolonged the protest for more better benefits in the contract, was assigning a committee responsible for conducting hands-on activities and not just entertainment performances that were only visual.
Over the next many decades the UAW continued to grow and gain respect. People and the government began to take the UAW serious after these events. Around the 1970s was when Japanese and German auto companies opened plants in the US. The workers that worked at those plants were not part of unions. Soon, around the late 1970s, is when the peak membership of the UAW occurred and began declining at the point. By 2010, almost ⅔ of its members were retired and covered under pension and medical care plans.
“Little Steel Strike of 1937.” Little Steel Strike of 1937 – Ohio History Central, www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Little_Steel_Strike_of_1937.
“Minewar.org » Archive » Sit-Down In Wilsonville.” Minewar.org RSS, www.minewar.org/?p=643.
“Sit-Down Strikes.” Edited by The Gale Group Inc., Dictionary of American History, Encyclopedia.com, 2003, www.encyclopedia.com/history/united-states-and-canada/us-history/sit-down-strikes.
“The Chrysler Sit-down of 1937: The Workers Organize.” The Chrysler Sit-down of 1937: The Workers Organize – The Spark #796, The Spark, 16 Apr. 2007, www.the-spark.net/np796401.html.