Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: sit-down strike from Collins English Dictionary

n

1 a strike in which workers refuse to leave their place of employment until a settlement is reached


Summary Article: Sit-down Strikes
from Workers in America: A Historical Encyclopedia

Sit-down strikes occur when workers refuse to leave their place of employment or continue production until a grievance or contract is settled. Sit-down actions have been very powerful in the past. In a conventional strike, employers can use management personnel or import scabs to continue operations, even if on a limited basis. During a sit-down, however, protestors physically occupy a facility, thereby making it impossible to conduct business until they leave or are removed.

The first known use of a sit-down strike in industrial relations came in 1906, when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) coordinated a sit-in of some 3,000 workers at a General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York. Nevertheless, the IWW tactics did not catch on more broadly until a generation later during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) split from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in this period, and workers committed to industrial unionism found that a well-coordinated sit-down strike could completely handcuff an employer. The CIO employed a number of IWW labor-action methods, especially the sit-down strike.

The most famous example of this type of protest occurred during the General Motors sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, during 1936–1937. Although it was not the first time the CIO had used the tactic, the incident garnered national attention, established the credibility of the United Auto Workers of America (UAW) union, and touched off what was dubbed “sit-down fever” in which laborers ranging from rubber workers to Woolworth's clerks engaged in sit-downs. In 1937, some 477 sit-down strikes collectively idled more than 400,000 workers; the next year there were 52 more such labor actions, though by then a backlash had set in and steps had been taken to curtail the practice.

The seizing of facilities by workers claiming “sweat equity” in production units clashed with the sanctity with which private property is regarded in the United States, as well as with the free enterprise mentality. In some cases, strikers misjudged local sentiment; in 1937, for instance, non-striking chocolate workers in Hershey, Pennsylvania, cooperated with local authorities in removing sit-down strikers. The U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the practice in 1939, a decision reinforced by the 1948 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. Sit-downs nonetheless have occurred on occasion—usually in the context of a wildcat strike—and have proved popular outside the United States in nations with less restrictive labor laws.

The sit-down strike was very important in the 1930s, as it forced numerous reluctant employers to negotiate with unions lest they too suffer sit-down disruptions akin to those at Flint. The most enduring legacy of the sit-downs was the inspiration they provided for the civil rights movement and to the counterculture. Neither of those groups was constrained by labor laws. Sit-downs and sit-ins proved a powerful civil disobedience tactic for African Americans battling “Jim Crow” laws. The famed 1960 sit-in by black students at a Greensboro, North Carolina, Woolworth's lunch counter was one of many such actions used to challenge segregation laws. Campus protestors associated with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) also used tactics such as taking over administration buildings or occupying public parks to rally support for their causes. Not coincidentally, both the civil rights movement and SDS received logistical, tactical, and financial support from unions such as the UAW.

Suggested Reading
  • Bernstein, Irving , The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941, 1970;.
  • Brecher, Jeremy , Strike!, 1997;.
  • Lens, Sidney , The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit Downs, 1974.
Copyright 2013 by Robert E. Weir

Related Articles


Full text Article sit-in
Dictionary of Business

/'sIt In/ noun A strike where the employees stay in their place of work and refuse to work or leave ( NOTE: The plural is sit-ins.) ...

Full text Article Sit-Down Strikes
Historical Encyclopedia of American Labor

Sit-down strikes occur when workers refuse to leave their place of employment or continue production until a grievance or contract is settled....

Full text Article Sit-in Movement
Encyclopedia of African American Society

Nonviolent civil rights era movement, involving mostly young college students, that began in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960. Students would...

See more from Credo