What is a Sit-Down Strike?

Jason C. Chavis

A sit-down strike is a process by which workers conduct a form of civil disobedience in order to resolve labor disputes. Generally, this form of protest involves an organized group attempting to make a statement about labor issues through physical inaction in the workplace. The concept of a sit-down strike is most commonly used to take control of the facility, such as a factory, in which the laborers work. This prevents the employers from bringing in workers to replace the striking laborers, a practice common in resolving strikes. Protest tactics conducted by a sit-down strike offset the influence of scab workers and usually force the facility to close, bringing extra attention to the labor disputes, both visually and economically.

Michigan has a long history of auto worker strikes.
Michigan has a long history of auto worker strikes.

Prior to the concept of a sit-down strike, labor issues were generally handled through a process by which the workers would walk off the job and the management would either hire scabs or attempt to force the workers back, sometimes with violence. This method was met with limited success through the late 1800s. With the dawn of the 20th century and the rise of labor unions throughout the United States and Europe, the method was adopted as the preferred way to address grievances by collective worker groups. During the first few decades of the century, the concept of taking over factories and other workplaces was directed heavily by the Industrial Workers of the World, an international union representing many different industries.

A sit-down strike may occur as a result of disagreements regarding employee pay.
A sit-down strike may occur as a result of disagreements regarding employee pay.

Perhaps the most famous sit-down strike in history was conducted in 1936 and 1937 by the United Automobile Workers (UAW) in Flint, Michigan. The union organized at the General Motors (GM) factories in the city, the primary producer of dies for much of the company's car designs, with the goal of leveraging its power through a sit-down strike. Over the course of 40 days, the workers occupied the factories and faced opposition from both police forces and the National Guard. Court injunctions and various meetings brokered by the governor of Michigan resulted in an agreement between GM and the UAW. The sit-down strike helped establish the union as a legitimate force throughout the country and gave workers better conditions for their labor.

Decisions in the United States' court system during the mid-20th century ultimately made strikes such as these illegal, namely the fact that the workers essentially seized others property. However, other nations, notably France, continued the practice. Following the success of the labor unions, the concept was later adopted by general protesters as the preferred form of civil disobedience. During the 1960s and 1970s, sit-down strikes were used frequently by protest groups to get their demands heard.

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