It’s December of 1936. America is now 7 years into the worst Depression in its history. At its peak over 1/3 of the labor force was unemployed, 1/3 working part time, and millions of people were without food and shelter. People all over the country rose in protest against forced impoverishment. There were hunger marches, strikes, protests against evictions and foreclosures, many of them organized by Socialists and Communists. but change came very slowly. It wasn’t until 1933, after the Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, that the first federal relief dollars came pouring into the states, and slowly began to reach individual families, allowing at least some of them to remain in their homes and apartments. This was soon followed up by programs of work relief, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration, and later the WPA, which created millions of jobs for unemployed Americas, many of them building roads and bridges, creating national parks in rural areas, even creating dams which gave people in poor rural area electricity for the first time in their lives
On the labor front, though, things were still extremely tense. When the Depression began, only 3 million workers were members of unions, and none of the nation’s largest industries were unionized. The big steel, auto and electronics companies all had been successful in keeping unions out. After FDR passed the National Industrial Recovery Act in 1933, unions all over the country began to organize again, a major strike wave broke out in 1934, leading to a significant growth of unions in transportation, particularly trucking and the mining and garment industries, but the nation’s biggest companies General Motors, Ford, US Steel, Westinghouse, General Electric, still refused to accept collective bargaining. In 1935, John L Lewis of the United Mine Workers left the American Federation of Labor to form a new federation, the Committee for Industrial Organization, aimed at organizing workers in the biggest companies across lines of craft and skill, and FDR and Congress passed the Wagner Labor Relations Act aimed at providing for workplace elections which could confer union recognition, but not one major companies targeted ended up granting union recognition to its workers. The stalemate continued into 1936 even as organizers were sent into the nation’s biggest factories. Executives in those firms held out, hoping the Wagner Act would be declared unconstitutional and that all the tactics that they had used in the pasty to keep workers from organizing- including spies and private police- would continue to be effective
One of the companies most infamous for use of spies and informers was General Motors. The newly formed United Automobile Workers decided to target GM by organizing its plants across the country, in cities ranging from Cleveland to Detroit to Atlanta, but much of its effort was focused on Flint, a General Motors company town, where the infamous Black Legion, Ku Klux Klan type organization had some influence in the plants. The organizers the UAW sent in first decided to create a secret organization of workers they could trust and then began doing actions in the plant to show workers that they could stop foreman and managers from intimidating workers on the job. Then, after they built a following with small actions, they decided to do something dangerous and dramatic to force General Motors to come to the bargaining table. They seized and barricaded two plants and refused to leave. General Motors tried everything to evict them. They used private guards, they organized vigilante groups, they called on the local police. Nothing could get the workers inside, who had thousands of supporters outside, to leave. They even drove off the Flint police who refused to use guns, and when the police finally used guns against picket outside, it backfired. The occupation went on for several weeks. General Motors asked the newly elected Democratic governor to send in the national guard, which he did, but he refused to use them to pull the workers out. He, and President Roosevelt, who refused to send in federal troops, thought the country would be better off if GM recognized the union. Then, at the fifth week of the Occupation, the Governor finally told workers in the plants he was going to use the guard to take the workers out. But the workers instead of leaving the plants, decided to up the ante. After half of those occupying the factories signed “Ready to Die” agreements, a phalanx of workers seized yet another factory in the 9 Plant General Motors complex and barricaded that.
The Occupation had now lasted six weeks, shutting General Motors production down almost completely on a national level. Half of the country wanted the workers in the plants taken out and shot; another half supported what they were doing. Finally, just as it looked like there was a bloodbath on the horizon as the National Guard prepared to take the plants, General Motors decided to negotiate with the UAW and give collective bargaining rights to workers in the occupied plants. Within two years, General Motors, the nation’s largest industrial corporation was completely unionized
But that wasn’t all, US. Steel the nation’s second largest corporation, which faced a similar organizing drive from the United Steelworkers Union, decided to voluntarily grant recognition in its plants to the USW rather than go through what General Motors just had. This meant that by the time the US economy started reviving in 1939, the nation’s two largest corporations were unionized, and workers in both of those companies were making far more money than they ever had in their lives, and could walk into factories knowing that foremen and managers would treat them with respect. This resulted, ultimately in those workers becoming bulwarks of a strong consumer economy that emerged right after WWII, and helped make the US a far more equal nation than it had been in the 1920’s.
It is March of 1963. It has been nine years since the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown V Topeka board of education which had declared the separate but equal doctrine, used to justify racial segregation in the South, unconstitutional. It was seven years since the Montgomery bus boycott, which ended bus segregation in that city, and two years since the student sit-in movement which ended segregation in some downtown business districts and two years since the Freedom Rides which ended segregation in terminals involved in interstate travel. Yet despite these landmark events, the vast majority of the South remained segregated. Hospitals, parks, swimming pools, restaurants, theaters, department stores, gas stations, factories and offices buildings, in both the private and public sector, all kept whites and blacks totally separate, in the process subjecting Black Southerners to almost daily humiliation. President Kennedy, preoccupied with foreign policy issues, refused to put the prestige of his office behind Civil Rights legislation that would compel the South to end these practices. Lobbying and legislation couldn’t move him. Even a year long protest in Albany Georgia, where there were thousands of arrests, but no violence, could not prompt federal intervention
Dr Martin Luther King, the most important leader of the non-violent protest movement was getting desperate. He saw the gains that Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam were making among frustrated blacks and feared that his entire movement could be disrupted unless he could force federal action to end segregation. So he decided on a gamble every bit as desperate as occupying the flint factories. He decided to lead a movement to desegregate the downtown business district of Birmingham Alabama, where the local sheriff, Eugene Bull Connor, would be almost certain to try to repress any protests with such extreme violence that it would create an international scandal. King moved to Birmingham and started mobilizing that city’s Black churches He persuaded hundreds of well dressed peaceful marchers to go into downtown Birmingham where they would enter Department stores and restaurants and demand to be served. Bull Connor, as expected, arrested them in enormous numbers, filling the jails, but avoiding for the most part, flamboyant acts of brutality for which he was known. The movement dragged on for a month, with thousands of arrests, but no visible results. People in the Black community were getting tired and discouraged. King had trouble getting enough people to march downtown to sustain the momentum of the movement. Finally, he decided on a truly desperate strategy. In the face of several local criticism, he organized thousands of Black high school and junior high schools students to march with him downtown. This so enraged Sheriff Connor that he decided to unleash police dogs and hoses on the youthful demonstrators, creating scenes of brutality sent around the world. Not only did this enrage people around the globe, it so enraged people in Birmignham’s black community that they started throwing rocks and bottles at police in the city’s Black neighborhoods.
This unrest finally forced the Kennedy administration into action. The President not only sent his brother Robert, who was US Attorney General, to Birmingham, to negotiate an end to segregation in that city’s downtown business district, he decided to make a nationally televised address putting his full support behind the goals of the Civil Rights movement and announcing that he would submit an omnibus Civil Rights Bill to congress that would put the full weight of the Federal Government’s power behind ending segregation, a bill that ultimately passed, after President Kennedy’s death, in 1964
These two examples show how protest movements that involved grave risk, that broke the law, and that used extremely controversial and disruptive practices, helped organize America’s workers and significantly raise their standard of living and bring an end to legal segregation in the American South.