sit down strikes
The sit-down strike movement began January 27, 1936, when workers at the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio, sat down on the job to protest the company’s suspension of an official in the workers’ union. Fifty-five hours later, the company capitulated, reinstating the union official with back pay and even compensating the strikers (at half-pay) for the time during which they occupied the plant. Successful imitation strikes were soon launched at other tire factories.
Workers were willing to use nonlethal force to defend their occupations, and they managed to repel attempts to forcibly remove them. The number of strikes mushroomed. In 1937 alone, roughly 400,000 workers participated in nearly 500 sit-down strikes. The GM sit-down strike in Flint involved tens of thousands of workers and was resolved just as the Supreme Court was hearing arguments in a pivotal case concerning the constitutionality of federal labor laws. Indeed, several legal historians attribute the court’s famous “switch in time” — upholding the National Labor Relations Act in the case of NLRB v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corp. — to the sit-down strikes.
A generation later, the 1960 sit-ins began as seemingly spontaneous lunch-counter occupations by college students in Greensboro, North Carolina. They quickly spread to dozens of cities throughout the South. Now canonized, at the time they were extremely controversial, even among African-American civil-rights veterans. Thurgood Marshall was notoriously furious with the students for violating private property rights in a way that he both opposed in principle and feared might generate a backlash.
Despite Marshall’s worries, the students were more successful than anyone could have hoped. They were well-organized and committed to nonviolence, and their quiet discipline was only made more visible by the hoodlums who frequently assaulted them. Their actions smoothed the road for the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which (among other things) prohibits racial discrimination at lunch counters.
Although political theorists typically make room in their accounts of democratic politics for principled disobedience, most distinguish conscientious lawbreaking from disobedience motivated by self-interest. But the categories of self-interested and conscientious lawbreaking are not easily separated. Moreover, far from discrediting acts of disobedience, an intermingling of the strategy of principled lawbreaking with a degree of self-interest can actually render a protest more intelligible to nonparticipants.
In shifting their efforts away from public parks and toward foreclosed homes, Occupy is forging a tighter link between its acts of occupation and its political objections. This will ultimately enhance the effectiveness of its message. It also brings Occupy Wall Street more closely into line with the most effective occupation movements of the past century.