|The sprawling GE plant complex in Schenectady about the time of the IWW sit-down strike.|
I almost missed this anniversary yesterday, but it was too good to let slip by unnoticed.
On December 10, 1906 more than three thousand members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) downed their tools at the giant General Electric (GE) complex of plants in Schenectady, New York. The wildcat action was in defense of just three IWW members who had been discriminated against in the plant. What made the strike different from hundreds of other labor disputes was that the workers did not leave the plant. They stayed in place and took possession of their machines so that they could not be replaced by scabs.
It has been called the first use of the sit-down strike in American labor history. That may, or may not be totally accurate. The great IWW historian Fred W. Thompson noted that Brewery Workers—one of the first industrial unions—were reported to have occupied their breweries in a Cincinnati strike in the late 1880s. Details of that earlier strike are at best sketchy. There are also reports of similar actions in small shops, usually involving striking apprentices and journeymen against master craftsmen/owners. But whatever the case, there was clearly never before anything on the scale of the IWW action.
The main IWW organizer at GE was an Irish socialist firebrand, 38 year old James Connolly. Connolly had been born in Edinburgh, Scotland in a ghetto of Irish laborers. He worked his way up through the ranks of the Scottish and British socialist movements before going “home” to Dublin where he organized the Irish Socialist Republican Party. He became enamored of the theories of American socialist Daniel DeLeon who advocated a two pronged program for social revolution—militant industrial unionism matched with electoral action. In 1903 Connolly and his family came to the U.S. to work with DeLeon’s Socialist Labor Party (SLP). DeLeon and the SLP became founding members of the IWW in 1905 and he saw the union as carrying out his program. Connolly signed on with the IWW as an organizer. He proved to be quite skillful. Posted to Schenectady, he quickly organized a massive presence at GE.
In those early days of the IWW there was still a good deal of experimentation on what form industrial unionism should take. At GE the workers were organized into craft locals “cooperating in solidarity on the principles of industrial union.” One IWW “craft” local included many of the semi-skilled and unskilled laborers usually left out of such a structure. The AFL also had craft locals in the plant. Neither union was recognized by the company and were at bitter odds.
Although not fond of any union, the company showed preference to workers with AFL cards.
The Schenectady Union, the local daily paper, reported “The action of the strikers has crippled the works.” It credited the fact that most workers at the power plant were in the IWW for being able to shut down production even in shops and areas with few members.
The same paper bitterly complained about such a huge fuss over “just three workers.” An IWW leaflet retorted, “…the question of numbers does not enter into the matter. For the simple reason that if discrimination is permitted in one case. Who then can feel protected? The principle of organization is that protection reaches down to the last man.”
For its part, the AFL did not support the strike. In fact it ordered its members to keep working and threatened disciplinary action against those who respected the IWW strike, “As to any individual organization affiliated with [AFL] going out sympathetic strike, such action will result in the forfeiture of its charter.” The AFL made it clear that it did not consider the IWW to be a “bona fide labor organization, or its members as union members.”
Despite the crippling effect of the strike on GE, such a lack of solidarity crippled the IWW cause. On December 20, after ten days with strikers being fed through windows of the shops by their families and supporters, the IWW members voted to return to work. Although no guarantee was made, it was tacitly understood that GE management would not retaliate against the strikers.
The promising beginning at GE did not last long. After the sit-down GE began making agreements with AFL craft locals. The infant IWW, just a little more than a year old, did not have the infrastructure or strength to yet sustain a long organizing drive to counter it. Within two years, the IWW presence at the plant evaporated.
Connolly, for his part, was soon making waves in opposition with his mentor, DeLeon. The two engaged in a spirited polemical debate in the pages of the Industrial Union Bulletin over whether it was a good idea to organize ethnic works into federations in support of industrial unionism. Connolly was in favor, DeLeon angrily and dogmatically opposed. He expelled Connolly from the SLP.
When the bulk of the IWW refused to endorse DeLeon’s platform of electoral action, he and the SLP split from the organization and set up a rump IWW headquartered in Detroit. This “phony” IWW never did any real job organizing and faded away after some years.
Connolly remained with then “Chicago” IWW and eventually switched his political allegiance to Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party. The Irishman went on to demonstrate his ideas about ethnic organizing by founding the Irish Socialist Federation in 1907.
When Connolly returned to Ireland, he became the chief aide to James Larkin and helped build the Irish Transport and General Workers Union into a “One Big Union” modeled on the IWW. Of course he later became involved in the militant socialist wing of the Republican movement when he founded the Irish Citizen Army. He was wounded and captured during the Easter Rebellion of 1916 and executed by a British firing squad. To this day he is both a working class and national hero in Ireland.
The sit-down strike was not widely used in the years immediately after the GE strike. But Fred Thompson, then an IWW organizer in the Detroit auto industry had some “silent agitator” printed up reading “sit down and watch your pay go up.” When IWW workers slapped the stickers on auto bodies going down the line at Briggs and Murray Body in 1933, bringing about the first use of the sit-down strike in the auto industry years before the United Auto Workers Flint sit down.