In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, factory workers faced poor working conditions, low wages, and almost no benefits. In attempts to alleviate their conditions, workers established unions and organized strikes. Most of these strikes were not very successful before the 1930s.
In 1935, workers at a rubber factory in Akron, Ohio, tried a new approach to strikes, which they called a sit-down strike. In the past, when workers went on strike they would leave the factory to join picket lines. Company owners often hired “scab” laborers to cross the picket lines and continue production. The practice of using scab labor made it difficult for striking workers to obtain their demands. In contrast, in a sit-down strike, workers quit working but still occupied their places within the factory. This process meant that the factory owners could not send in additional workers to continue the job. In addition, factory management was more reluctant to use private security forces or other strikebreakers to intimidate the striking workers, as this approach threatened destruction to plant property.
As a result of the 1935 strike, Akron’s rubber workers organized a new union that they named the United Rubber Workers. This union utilized the sit-down strike against Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company during the Akron Rubber Strike of 1936. In addition to the sit-down strike, the rubber workers also organized long picket lines in protest. Akron’s mayor, Lee D. Schroy, attempted to send in the police to put down the strike, but the police officers refused to do so when they faced the thousands of organized workers. In the long term, Goodyear was forced to recognize the United Rubber Workers and negotiate better contracts with workers.
Sit-down strikes were one reason why unions became more successful in improving wages and working conditions for the working class during the twentieth century. During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and the 1960s, activists used the concept of the sit-down strike as a way to force improvements for African Americans.