On November 13, 1933, in what historians have suggested was the first officially-recorded sitdown strike in U.S. history, victorious workers at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minnesota ended their labor action three days after it began.
Workers at the plant had organized themselves under the banner of the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW), a newly formed union inspired by Frank Ellis and the Independent Workers of the World (IWW) – the Wobblies.
Demanding recognition of their union, higher wages, and a safer workplace, the workers had used work stoppages and other direct action techniques in an effort to force owner Jay Hormel to agree to their demands. In response to one of the union actions, Hormel attempted to bring scabs in to replace the workers and the sitdown strike began.
The successful Hormel strike helped initiate a new wave of labor militancy, as the vast unemployment created by the Great Depression continued to put downward pressure on wages across the country, and new employment programs such as the Civil Works Administration, created by first year President Franklin Roosevelt, had only just begun.
In decline through the 1920s, the labor movement found strength through direct action and solidarity with other workers, both unionized and unorganized. Sitdown strikes were soon adopted elsewhere, though they were often not as successful.
“Four hundred men, many of them armed with clubs, sticks and rocks, crashed through the plant entrance, shattering the glass doors and sweeping the guards before them. The strikers quickly ran throughout the plant to chase out non-union workers. One . . . group crashed through the doors of a conference room where Jay Hormel and five company executives were meeting and declared “We’re taking possession. So move out!”
– (Larry Engelmann, “We Were the Poor — The Hormel Strike of 1933,” Labor History, Fall, 1974.)
Fortunately for the workers, the Minnesota governor’s office was at that time occupied by a friend of the working man, Floyd B. Olson, a member of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. Olson refused to send in the National Guard to break up the strike, as Hormel requested. With a plant full of meat sitting unprocessed, the ownership agreed to arbitration led by Olson himself, resulting in a substantial increase in wages and union recognition.
For more information, see the Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History, Vol. 1, edited by Eric Arnesen (p. 641-642)
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