In February, 1934, in the midst of the Great Depression, a small group of unionized workers at the Electric Auto-Lite company of Toledo, Ohio, went on strike. When management failed to sign a promised contract by the April 1 deadline, more workers went on strike. And this time they had help from the Unemployed League. What started as a small walkout turned into a massive demonstration by 10,000 strikers, and a battle with the Ohio National Guard, and is now regarded as one of the most important strikes in U.S. history.
Joining me on this episode to help us learn more about the Auto-Lite strike is labor historian Dr. Bradley Sommer.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is the front page of The Toledo News-Bee on May 24, 1934.
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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.
Today's story is about the 1934 strike at the Electric Auto-Lite Company in Toledo, Ohio. In June of 1933, during the Great Depression, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act. The Act established the Public Works Administration and it gave authorization to the president to regulate industry in ways that would stimulate economic recovery. Although the Act would be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court two years later, one immediate effect was widespread union organizing in the US. The largest union group in the United States at the time, was the American Federation of Labor (AFL). AFL was founded by craft unions and remained committed to them. But AFL President William Green wanted to focus organizing efforts on automaking as well. The solution was Federal Labor Unions (FLUs), which were temporary unions organized on an industrial basis that would later be divided among the appropriate craft unions. In September, 1933, AFL assigned a national organizer to Detroit to begin organizing in the auto industry. By March, 1934, approximately 32,500 auto workers had joined the Federation. On February 23, 1934, Toledo Auto-Lite workers who had been organized as AFL Federal Local 18384 the year before went on strike, asking for 10% wage increase. The initial strike was small and lasted only five days. When management agreed to negotiate a contract by April 1, the employees went back to work. However, in early April, management was not ready to sign a contract, and FLU 18384. authorized a second strike. The second strike likely would not have lasted long on its own, but the Unemployed League stepped in to assist the strike. The Unemployed League was affiliated with the Socialist American Workers Party (AWP). AWP executive secretary Louis F. Budenz, became involved in strike strategy, and Ted Selander and Sam Pollock, the leaders of the Lucas County Unemployed League, an offshoot of AWP, helped on the ground. Electric Auto-Lite asked for a court injunction against the picketing. Judge Roy R. Stuart of the Court of Common Pleas issued an injunction that limited the pickets so there could be no more than 25 picketers at each entrance to the plant. Budenz instructed the local leaders to defy the injunction. By May 23, at least 10,000 people had joined the Auto-Lite picket line, including many unemployed workers. The strikebreakers that the company had hired, had to be escorted through the lines by deputies armed with clubs and a fire hose. On the afternoon of May 23, sheriff's deputies arrested Budenz and four picketers, and a fight broke out between the deputies and the crowd. The deputies fled inside the plant and shot tear gas bombs into the crowd from the roof, while the strikers hurled bricks and stones at the plant for seven hours. No one was killed, but at least 20 people were injured in the melee. Early the next morning, 900 Ohio National Guardsmen came on the scene. They cleared a path through the picket line so that the deputies and replacement workers could leave the plant. That night fighting broke out between the huge crowd and the National Guard. When the crowd advanced, the National Guard fired, killing two men and injuring at least 15 others. Fighting continued through the night, and 400 more National Guardsmen were ordered to the area, bringing the total to the largest peacetime military buildup in Ohio History. The picketing and rioting continued through Sunday, May 27. President Roosevelt had sent Charles Phelps Taft, son of President William Howard Taft to be a special mediator in the dispute. And he continued to negotiate between the company and the union.
By June 2, Auto-Lite and FLU 18384. had finally reached a tentative agreement, which was ratified by workers on June 3. The last of the National Guard troops were withdrawn on June 5, and on June 9, the Toledo Central Labor Council held a victory parade. When the Toledo Auto-Lite plant closed in 1962, the property was deeded to the city of Toledo. Eventually the site was turned into the Union Memorial Park. And in May, 2001, the city dedicated a memorial there to commemorate the strike. To help us understand more about the 1934 Auto-Lite strike, I'm joined now by historian Dr. Bradley Sommer, whose dissertation is entitled "Tomorrow Never Came: Race, Class, Reform, Conflict, and the Decline of an Industrial City, Toledo, Ohio 1930 to 1980." Hi, Brad, thank you for joining me.
Dr. Bradley Sommer 6:40
Yeah, no, this is great.
Kelly Therese Pollock 6:41
Yeah. And I'm excited to be doing a piece on Ohio History, since I am from the great state of Ohio, but haven't had a chance to do much in the way of Ohio History. So tell me a little bit about how you got interested in studying Toledo. You wrote a whole dissertation on Toledo. So what got you interested specifically in that region?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 7:00
I actually did my undergraduate at the University of Toledo. And when I was there, I ended up switching into the Honors Program at UT. And one of the requirements of the Honors College is that you had to do an original or semi original thesis. You know that they're not expecting super revelatory work from college juniors and seniors, but it needed to be something that was at least kind of original. And truth be told, at that point, halfway into my junior year or so I think, I didn't really have an area of history that I thought I wanted to even like specialize in or major in, you know, sort of just like a general history major. Grad school wasn't even really on the radar yet. This is actually the thing that got me to want to go to grad school. At that point, I had had sort of the eclectic all over the place, history education that a lot of undergraduate history majors had. I took classes on Atlantic history, Southeast Asian history, European history, a lot of US history, obviously. So I didn't really have a clear idea. But I was trying to be kind of practical. And I knew that it needed to be something that I would have kind of access to. They're not going to fund a 21- year- old to go study the history of someplace somewhere else, you know. I was talking to my Honors College advisor who had been in the area for a long time. He wasn't from there, but he knew the area really well. And he asked me if I had ever heard of the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, and I hadn't, you know, like a lot of people probably don't. And I wasn't really sure what it was other than it happened here in Toledo, and it was it was a strike. And at this point, again, I wasn't really a labor historian, but I was kind of into that sort of, you know, history from below kind of thing that was that was that was the age I was at. I had just read Howard Zinn in a history course and I was ready to take on the world. And so I looked into it a little bit. And it was kind of one of those interesting subjects where a lot of contemporary events to the Auto-Lite strike, have a very big literature of their own, but Auto-Lite doesn't. And the more I read into it, the more I realized, "Well, this seems to be something that does need to have a little bit more on it, because it's always put in conversation with these bigger events from the same period, let alone in really the same year." Like the Minneapolis Teamster strike of 1934, you know, same same exact time, they were fairly contemporary. The Teamster strike has all of this literature, multiple books written on it, and Auto-Lite, couple of articles, a few other master's theses that were from the 50s and 60s that were our standard, kind of like narrative history explaining the event, outlining the event. There had been a couple of anniversary news pieces in the Toledo Blade. I think they did something for the 50th and the 80th anniversary. But there had really not been anything that was like a sort of holistic critical analysis of Auto-Lite as a standalone event, but also Auto-Lite's relationship to American labor history, more broadly, urban history more broadly, or even to the history of Toledo, which is that's how it ended up spinning off into my dissertation. I took this discrete subject of Auto-Lite, and then it became the basis for my master's project, which then became the basis of my dissertation. It got much, much bigger than 1934, my dissertation encompassed about 50 or 60 years. But it all started with this, you know, kind of significant, kind of insignificant auto parts manufacturer in Toledo, Ohio, that for a couple of weeks in 1934, captured national news.
Kelly Therese Pollock 10:20
So what was Toledo like? So, I will admit, I lived in Ohio for many years. I've only ever really driven past Toledo, never spent any real time in it. But what was Toledo like then? So in the lead- up to 1934, we're in the Depression. This is a not great time in industrial cities generally. But what do things look like in Toledo?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 10:44
Toledo, it's not harder hit than than other cities. That's always a hard argument to make, but you could kind of make an argument that Toledo had had a rougher go of it than a lot of other cities. Toledo was kind of a unique city, when we're putting it in the context of the entire American manufacturing economy, or even specifically in the Midwest. You made the the joke and it's accurate. A lot of people's only experience of driving in Toledo is driving through it. Because you know, Interstate 80, Interstate 75, they bisect it like a compass. People are often going somewhere else when they're in Toledo, which is unfortunate because it's a lovely city. But Toledo in the Depression was pretty bad. So prior to 1934, Toledo had had the largest relative collapse of the banking industry of any city in the country. So the amount of money that was lost, compared to the cost or the amount of money that was in holdings in places like Cleveland, Detroit, or even obviously, bigger cities, like Chicago and New York is fairly de minimis. But as a percentage, it was the largest. Toledo had six banks that collapsed. And it was, you know, a super majority of the money that was in circulation in the city. So Toledo had a pretty dramatic like, drop in, in overall circulation. And Toledo, you know, it never, it never had that sort of, like, larger, sustained economy that some of the cities around it did. One of the things about Toledo that was sort of unique at the time is it was kind of a newer city. You know, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, even places like Indianapolis, other cities up in Michigan, a little bit older, a little bit more established cities, they kind of had a name recognition. They had a larger economy that surprisingly, wasn't actually completely dominated by one thing. You know, Detroit gets a lot of a lot of attention because of the auto industry. But Detroit had a lot of other industries that propped it up. Toledo didn't really have that. Toledo's two main things at the time were auto but really more auto part manufacturing companies like Auto-Lite. They didn't make cars, they made things to making cars. And then the glass industry, which, you know, was starting to get big at this point. But it wasn't as big as it became in the 50s and in the 60s, when companies like Owens Corning developed fiberglass insulation and stuff like that. So Toledo didn't really have a lot to fall back on. And it was right on the edge of becoming a bigger city, when the Depression hit, like you could see that it was starting to kind of turn over and look a little bit more like its neighbors. And then the Depression hit and all of that just abruptly stopped. So Toledo, you know, on one hand, not being as big of a city lent it a little bit of reprieve. It didn't have these, you know, masses and masses of unemployed people flooding into the streets. But Toledo did have a Hooverville, they did have unemployed lines. It was not uncommon to see, you know, people sleeping on the front of the steps of the house that they used to own. So but Toledo was not in a good way. Toledo was was doing pretty poor and without anything to fall back on a lot of Toledoans who did have jobs were kind of reticent to, to rock the boat a whole lot, because there really wasn't gainful employment to be had, whether it was a union job or non union job. If you had a job at this point, you were pretty, pretty slow to get rid of it, or do anything that might cause you to lose it.
Kelly Therese Pollock 14:04
Given that that's the circumstance then how do we explain something like this, like the Auto-Lite strike happening, or sort of what are the circumstances that lead these people who are reticent to rock the boat at all to engage in the strike?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 14:19
So there are a lot of factors that all sort of seemingly disparate factors that converge at Auto-Lite that make it happen. So Auto-Lite again, it didn't make cars there. They made parts for cars. They made lights, fenders stamped materials. So they had sort of a niche market, but it was still a market that was tied to other places. And because they weren't necessarily making full-on automobiles, because they're making parts and they were making parts specifically for orders that they got, they weren't just cranking out cars hoping that people were going to buy them. They could only make so many headlights. If there's no cars for the headlights, there's no other means you don't know there's no other application for just how having a headlight. So when they when they did get orders Auto-Lite was one of those really big companies on like, B's units per person hour. And if you were at or slightly below that person, you know, units per person hour, you got in trouble. And if you went over it, you didn't get any of the extra benefit of "Oh, you went over your limit. Congratulations, we did so well, here's a bonus." So there was really no incentive for people to work super hard at Auto-Lite, but there was incentive enough to to not get fired. So you had a you had a system where nobody who worked there really enjoyed it. Now, the other thing that's going on at the same time, is that Toledo had a longish history of militant labor kind of protests and stuff. The 1919 Willys- Overland strike was a really, really big strike. Willys-Overland at the time was the biggest employer in Toledo. It also got the news for a little bit, ended up being sort of a modest outcome, nothing really substantive change. But it was the first really big strike in Toledo's history at that point. It was really the first, you know, industrial strike that Toledo had had. And a lot of the people who were part of the Willys-Overland strike, their sons and daughters were working now. And they kind of have this, you know, this history of militant labor protest in their in their background. And so it was always kind of there. But it never really exploded on its own. One of the things that made Toledo an interesting case is how small the moment started. A lot of these bigger strikes in this period, they sort of explode in one kind of like tinderbox moment. It was really a tinderbox moment at Auto-Lite. The original original strike because there are really two Auto-Lite strikes, if we're being super technical about it. The first Auto-Lite strike was 15 men. Now most of the people who were part of the bargaining agent or bargaining union that was going on were men. The women who worked in the in the in the, mostly in the office, were not part of the eventual UAW Local that it became. So there are 15 men that decided, "You know, what working here stinks. The wages aren't very good. We don't get overtime. There's no seniority benefits, you know, people get fired, who have been here for a long time and are good workers," a lot of the stuff that you're kind of accustomed to hearing when you're talking about this era, or, unfortunately, even now, and they decided they were going to walk out. They went and got a charter from the Toledo Central Labor Union, Local 18384. And they decided in February, they were going to leave. And so they did, they walked out, and nothing happened. They stood outside. They had a big oil salamander that they lit on fire with, you know, rags or something. They stood there with their signs, you know, protesting, yelling to people as they walked in and out. And nothing really happened. But the look of it was still bad enough for management, that they decided to go, "Well, how about this? Come in and talk to us, and we'll figure something out." So the strikers, they stopped temporarily, they went in and they talked to management. And the the sort of deal if you can call it that was well, "Well, we don't have a deal. But we'll have a deal," by this point. There's nothing on the table. Right? There was there was no offer, like there were plenty of offers by the local, the local was very clear. "We want a 10% wage increase. We want seniority, we want union recognition. We want overtime pay." And Auto-Lite kept going, "Well, let's go ahead and punt on this. But we will have a thing for you by the deadline." So they walked out in middle of February and April 1 was the deadline. Come April 1, well, of course, probably anybody listening can guess there was not actually a deal. The management of Auto-Lite lied. And never really all the records indicate that there was never even really any negotiation. There were meetings, but they were more meetings where the union would say, "So what's going on?" and management would go, " April 1, man, April 1, it's gonna be ready." But by that point, those 15 had done a pretty good job of letting it be known as much as they could what was going on inside. So when they would walk out, they'd go, you know, kind of over the shoulder like, "Okay, so April 1, we're gonna have a deal, right?" So everyone could hear that. And by the time April 1 came around, a couple 1000 people walked out. Now Auto-Lite was not, you know, a huge employer. So a couple 1000 people was a substantial number. It was most of the manufacturing part of the workforce, and a few people from the office too. So by April, what was really, you know, just a little over a dozen guys kind of complaining on their own grousing around a fire had now turned into a pretty substantial walkout.
Kelly Therese Pollock 19:44
And do you think that that could have been avoided like the management could have given a little bit and probably avoided this kind of lockout?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 19:54
I think so. The the real problem at Auto-Lite is that the person who was in charge was not actually the person in charge. So auto light was officially owned and run by a man named Clement Miniger. He did not actually run the day- to -day. Most of the day- to- day was run by his Vice President of Operations, Art Minch, who by all accounts, very, very anti union. So it's entirely possible that they could have because the demands of the Union were making, they weren't even really the typical, always shoot over what you're asking for, because you know, you're gonna bargain your way down. They weren't even really like super lofty demands. They were kind of consistent with what would have been pretty natural in other places. So it wasn't like they're making unrealistic demands, and Minch was trying to negotiate and try and lowball them or anything. There was really no attempt made at all. And the record kind of indicates that, like, it probably was never going to be an actual negotiated settlement. It was only ever going to be one of two things more than likely; either the workers on strike, those 15 would just go back and go, "Oh, well, shucks, McGillicuddy we tried," or it was going to be a walkout of some size. You know, the extent was always going to be in doubt, because you never know how much other people are going to walk out. I think it was only ever going to be one of those two things. Because for for there have been resolved with an actual peaceable negotiation, somebody would have needed to negotiate on the other side.
Kelly Therese Pollock 21:18
And you just said the record show what what are the kinds of records that we have about this? Does it only come from the management? Do we have sort of the the side of the workers, you know, what, what do we have that tells us what was happening?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 21:31
There's a small, but fairly nice and diverse array of records on on Auto-lite. So my dissertation and the thesis before it, I utilized a lot of newspapers, both Toledo city newspapers that carried it, that ran pretty consistent stories on it, also some local newspapers, because this is, you know, the era of, you know, multiple presses running, you know, multiple times a day. But there were actually some good union records, because eventually, you know, the local that was formed became a fairly prominent UAW local, actually, it still is, to this day. They have pretty good minutes, the Toledo Central Labor Union, who was the original union for these workers, they have really good records at you know, I think they're at the Bowling Green State University, if I remember rightly. They're really good records. But also Auto-lite, as a company has pretty good records. The city of Toledo had some records on this because the city as a municipality gets involved later on in the strike. Probably the best source, though, was really fabulous oral history done in 1988, called, "I Remember Like Today," by Philip Korth. And Margaret Beegle. They interviewed gosh, couple dozen, several dozen people who work at Auto-Lite, but they also interviewed people from the Sheriff's Department, the lawyer that represented the strikers, when they ended up going to jail. They interviewed people from Auto-Lite. They interviewed people from the National Guard. It's a really, really fabulous oral history. And that was a really good resource. And then the published edition, the book itself is 200 pages, 220 pages, something like that. But the entirety of their interviews are like quite literally voluminous, I think there's three thick bound volumes at the local History Reading Room at the downtown Toledo library. So for not having like a huge, like secondary literature, there's a lot of really good primary source material on the strike that's been tapped into here and there. But it was never really put together in the way that I tried to put it together, I should say.
Kelly Therese Pollock 23:32
So 1000s of people walk out, you know, big, huge thing. But as we've mentioned, there's a ton of unemployed people hanging around Toledo. So we know how do we get to the point that there's actually conflict, when presumably, Auto-Lite could have just brought in a bunch of workers and gotten a whole bunch of other people working.
Dr. Bradley Sommer 23:50
So a lot of stuff happens in a sort of chaotic, seemingly random kind of fashion, but all kind of makes sense later. So we'll, we'll try and go kind of chronologically here. So April 1, more people walk out pretty sizable chunk of the workforce at Auto-Lite, is now on strike. Auto-Lite immediately does bring in new workers. They they bring in people to break the picket line and start working. But in a very reduced capacity. They're not making as much stuff as they were making, which was surprisingly, a steady business despite being you know, the throes of the Depression. They're still doing some some business. The problem that the union faces, though, is this. Nobody has any experience running a union and in this, in this group of people, nobody at Auto-Lite actually knows what they're doing. They know what they want to accomplish, and they can see what the goal is going to look like. And there's more than enough examples to draw from in recent history and contemporary moment, but they don't really know exactly how they're doing it themselves. So for the first couple of weeks, there's 1000 people, 2000 people on strike, but it's it's quite literally just a group of people standing outside with signs going, you know, "Hell no, we won't go. Don't cross the picket line," and people walking past the picket line going, "Okay, thanks for that." Like, there's, it's a very, you know, you don't want to say boring, but it's a very uneventful first couple of weeks, because they don't really know how to effectively because it's the same underlying problem that those 15 men had at the beginning. How do you actually compel somebody to negotiate? I mean, like, unless somebody is already going to negotiate in good faith, the size isn't the size of your protest isn't inherently going to make them come to the negotiating table, and it won't make them come in good faith. So they're, they're running into the same issue. And it's exacerbated by the fact that, like you said, there's a lot of unemployed people in the city of Toledo in 1934, who are, you know, it's hard to criticize people, despite, you know, wanting to be union solidarity. It's hard to criticize those people for taking that job because it was unemployment or that job. So so how exactly do they overcome this problem of not really having the experience, both in terms of you know, the formal union rep, kind of experience? How do they overcome their lack of legal expertise, because there's a lot of legal mumbo jumbo that you have to know when you're going to go on strike, because you know, if the strike gets enjoined, where can you go? Where can you not go? You know, what is protesting on the grounds, you know, there's a lot of technical aspects that you need to be versed in. And also, you know, there's a lot of like, human organizational logistical stuff that goes in place. You don't just say, "Hey, everybody, we're going to plop ourselves right here on the front lawn and strike." You know, you have shifts, because you can't stand there for 24 hours a day, you just, you just can't, you need to get food to people, because these are people who already worked without a lot of means. Now they're on strike, they have no means, you know, a lot of picket lines are broken, because people don't have food and water and whatever. So there's a lot of technical stuff that they don't really have the expertise to do, the spirit is there, but they're not entirely sure how they do it. And so there's a couple of outside forces that actually become really essential to the Auto-Lite strike, and, in my opinion, the Auto-Lite strike probably isn't a success for the workers if these outside forces don't participate. So the first two are a couple of really wonderful characters, Ted Selander and Samuel Pollock,
Kelly Therese Pollock 27:19
No relation to me by the way.
Dr. Bradley Sommer 27:22
I don't think there's any relation that I'd have nothing I know if it is it is spelled the same. A couple of young let's say radical fellas, they were graduates of AJ Muste's Brookwood Labor College in New York. For those of you not not aware, Brookwood it's it truly it is what it sounds like, it's a labor college. It's a place where people went to be trained on generally passive nonviolent resistance. AJ Muste was a Dutch- born clergyman who was a big advocate of passive resistance in the face of you know, oppression or whatever in the US. And he found he had a college, and you could go there and you could take classes on like, how to do a peaceful sit-in, how to agitate without agitating. And they were graduates of that college. Despite that, that you would think inclination towards peace, very rowdy and rough guys, Ted and Sam. They came in with a fair amount of experience doing sort of like general protesting and rabble-rousing to use the language that was used in the court documents radical rabble-rousing and they came in along with another individual, Thomas Ramsey, who was a labor organizer from Detroit, and quite literally just came down from Detroit and decided to help. UAW affiliation, so there was probably some sort of, you know, well, maybe we can get these guys in the union with us. But those three individuals: Ramsey, Selander, and Pollock sort of galvanized the strikers and sort of gave them a little bit more of a logistical hand. But really, their their big contribution was was in rhetoric and experience. Ramsey was known for giving these really long stirring speeches where he'd gather a whole bunch of people and, you know, rail about, you know, the the evils of capitalism and the problems of industrialized America and Selander and Pollock were really, really good at aggravating the police and getting the police to aggravate back and Selander and Pollock were arrested almost 100 times I think, between the two of them over the course of a couple of months. I mean, it was it was mostly like a daily occurrence for them, like, they'd show up, and then they would immediately just get arrested, they'd show up, they'd immediately get arrested, but they were good at that sort of thing. And you need that kind of person. You need those kinds of people, when you're when you're striking and nothing is really happening. So they come in, those three, and they start to push the buttons a little bit, but then Auto-Lite decides to push buttons back. So Auto-Lite, specifically the management I should say, had a, a well known relationship with some of the more influential figures in Toledo's city government, specifically with Sheriff David Krieger, and with Judge Roy R. Stuart from the Common Pleas Court, and Auto-Lite was successfully able to lobby Judge Stuart to get the strike enjoined. So he issued an injunction limiting the number of strikers to was 15 strikers per number of feet, like together. So like you'd have a clump of 15, some space, 15 more, some space. He enjoined when they were allowed to be there, like it was technically a crime if they were striking during non business hours, which they weren't running 24/7 because, you know, it was the depression. Fines were increased. And but the biggest part of the injunction was that the sheriff was allowed to deputize people to basically be like, again, deputies, in theory, they were working for the city of Toledo. But in reality in practice, they were Auto-Lite Pinkertons. You know, they were working basically at the behest of the sheriff who was being told to do what he was doing by the judge and, you know, kind of getting his marching orders then from Miniger and from Minch, So there are stories in the oral history and in the papers when they when they report on this. This this one guy who had been a worker at Auto-Lite, and he did not join the strike, the sheriff said, "Hey, do you want to be a deputy?" and he handed them a 22 revolver that in his his words were, "as big as my arm," so I don't know if this was like some really ostentatious you know, like, Dirty Harry pistol or something or what but he just handed them a 22 and a badge and said, "You're a deputy now." And that's that's how Auto-Lite fought back. They they've made themselves a little private security force out of random people from around the city, some of them in the factory. And they patroled the the front of the gates armed.
Kelly Therese Pollock 31:57
Shocking that we went from there to violence.
Dr. Bradley Sommer 32:00
I know it's it's a pretty quick path from "Hell, no, we won't go," to you know, "click, click," you know, whatever the sound of a gun. I'm not a gun person. But yeah.
Kelly Therese Pollock 32:10
So the the most sort of distressing part of reading this history for someone who grew up in Ohio and had parents who were at Kent State in 1970, is that the National Guard shows up in force. Tell us a little bit about that, you know, what, why did the National Guard come and and then, you know, as always happens when the National Guard shows up at these sorts of things what, you know, what, what transpires?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 32:33
It's, it's a really funny little little aspect of the story that the National Guard is there for only about a week or so if I remember correctly. But if you look up the Auto-Lite strike, the images that come up, the first things that come up, are the National Guard. So I mean, it escalates pretty fast. So for for a couple of weeks, we have, you know, these these non union affiliated agitators who come in and help the union; you have these special deputies that are now like walking around the perimeter with guns; but it doesn't really get a whole lot worse than that for a little bit. For a little while, it kind of just stays, those two sides, arguing, yelling, pushing back and forth. It never really gets any worse than some bumps and bruises. You know, someone throws a bottle, somebody, you know, smacks somebody with a club. It's that kind of thing. But then May 23, what you have is, last couple of days, more and more arrests, the arrests had been going up, probably about by degree of half or so for about three or four days, and everything was getting really, really tense. And on May 23, the pushing and shoving started. And again, it's one of those instances where the sources themselves aren't even clear on who actually started the pushing and the shoving. Probably both sides started simultaneously. I don't think that there's anything to indicate that one side was more hostile than the other at this point. Because you know, the strikers were getting a little frazzled here too. But the sheriff had put more people out front than in previous days. He actually had people on the roof; he had people out front; they had erected sort of like semi barricades as much as they were allowed to do. And what happened was a young woman named Alma Hahn was struck in the neck with the the reporting kind of goes back and forth just you know, by a piece of debris a piece of random, like trash or whatever. The one that was cited the most made it sound like it was a piece of rebar, maybe like a large piece of maybe corrugated metal. She gets stuck in the neck. And it's a it's a very grisly, very, very serious injury. The records indicate that Miss Hahn survived but the severity of the injury and the implication being that she was maybe like not even like in the main thrust of the crowd. The crowd saw that and just exploded. They rush forward and they start just attacking the the people that are there. Pretty quickly the cops start to use their tear gas, they had a lot of it. The crowd disperses and everything goes away. And while it was happening, while this, you know, sort of pitch back and forth was happening, Governor George White was, you know, harassed on the phone for a while by Miniger, Minch, and the sheriff to bring in the National Guard. And eventually, after hearing what happened, he does bring in the National Guard. He calls in, I think they're from somewhere nearby, like Fostoria, Ohio, somewhere like in the area, but they're not actually the Toledo National Guard, which I always thought was an interesting point, because the Toledo National Guard would have been, like, two blocks down the street, you know, it was there was not far away. They call in a rather large contingent of National Guardsmen from from nearby. And immediately Auto-Lite is turned into, you know, battleground, Ground Zero, like barbed wire fences; they've got the sandboxes; they've got the not Jeeps but armored vehicles, you know, they've, they've got all the stuff that you would expect when the military gets called in, when the National Guard gets called in. The hope was that that was going to discourage people. It had the inverse effect. So by this point, the crowd had grown even more so from the group that had originally walked out on April 1, April 2. We're at over about 10,000 people now, which is about two and a half three times the size of the number of people that were total employed at Auto-Lite in terms of like shipping and receiving, the factory floor, in the office, the sales people, like this, this this strike has gone way bigger than than the place where the strike was taking place.
Kelly Therese Pollock 36:37
That's the other side of having a bunch of unemployed people hanging around Toledo is yeah, there's a lot of people has nothing else to do probably.
Dr. Bradley Sommer 36:44
I was gonna say, if you're walking downtown and it's like, "Well, we don't have any money. We can't go get a beer or a sandwich. Oh, what's going on over there?" And there actually are examples in the in the sources of people like watching from their front porches. There's actually a cafe tavern bar owner a couple blocks away who brought the strikers free beer and coffee and sandwiches, notably did not give any to the National Guard or to the sheriff's men, just just to the strikers, which which I thought was an amusing little anecdote. And a lot of nearby people participated either willingly or unwillingly by letting the strikers like take bricks from their front porch to use as missiles to throw became a city wide event. As it gets to this point where now we have 10,000 people over here on one side, who rightly or wrongly view the recent escalation as the fault of the sheriff's deputies. Again, people on both sides had been throwing debris back and forth. Obviously, only one side had guns. But you know, it's it's a it's a fact that the the sheriff's men did not fire their guns in the crowd. They were, they were pretty quick to keep those in their holsters. Now, that being said, they did throw things. They did use batons and clubs and tear gas; but they didn't use overtly lethal force. So small, small credit to them, but rightly or wrongly, the crowd that's amassed, their view is this is a retaliation by the other side. And when the National Guard gets called in, well, they're not going to suddenly feel less aggrieved. If anything, they now feel angrier, because in their mind, and again, there's there's some source material to back this up, they had really not been doing more than just violating the the number of people who can gather at one time part of the injunction. A lot of people were getting arrested for throwing stuff, but it's like, well, you point into that crowd of 10,000 people and you tell me definitively who threw something and who didn't like, you know, this is an age before there are security cameras everywhere, like it was it was kind of an arbitrary thing. A lot of the same people were getting arrested over and over again in the police ledgers. A couple of days later, National Guard over there, they've got their little encampment set up, they have a kind of a no man's land between them and the strikers. And there's really nothing to suggest exactly what happened that made this clash get so intense after a little bit of time of just typical back and forth pushing and shoving, you know, "The National Guard should get out of here." "No, you should get out of here." "No, you should get out of here." But after a few days of them being there, all of a sudden, things just blew up. And it ends up being called the Battle of Toledo. And if you look up the Auto-Lite strike, if you just do a quick image search, almost certainly the images you're going to see are going to be of the Battle of Toledo. The National Guard fires into the crowd. Now the two commanding officers that were in charge of the National Guard both adamantly deny issuing an order to fire into the crowd. They don't really deny an order to fire. The consensus from what I read and the the takeaway that I actually have is that the order was probably given to fire overhead to try and scare the strikers, to try and scare the protesters. But we're not dealing with combat veterans here. Most of these National Guardsmen were high school students. And there was actually a small contingent of them that wrote in their diaries how annoyed they were that they had to miss prom for this. I mean, so we're talking about actual children. I mean, some of the women who were protesting were yelling at their sons and their nephews because they were in the National Guard. So I mean, we're not dealing with battle hardened veterans, you know. A lot of the strikers were actually veterans of the First World War. We're not dealing with, you know, grizzled combat, but we're dealing with, you know, young men and boys. And so my assumption is that the chaos of the moment there's tear gas everywhere, the tear gas actually caught a crosswind and blew back into the National Guard. I think what happened was an order to fire over the crowd was given, and panicked young men with guns ended up firing into the crowd. That's not any sort of absolution for what happened. But I think that that's probably more than likely what happened. The men who were in charge of the of the of the National Guard were by no means friends of labor. They had experienced busting up strikes in other parts of Ohio the previous year, and actually earlier 1934. But I don't I don't know that there was, I don't know that we had a Pinkerton situation, per se, but the result, you know, intentions are one thing results or another; two men were killed in the in the fire. That set the crowd off. At that point, the crowd's animosity has been growing and growing. And that was the thing that to use a cliche broke the dam, the reporting at the time, because at this point, like we were saying it nationwide event, city wide event, there's reporters covering all over the place. I mean, there's a press crew just on the other side of the picket line. The word that they used was surged. After the two men were killed, Frank Hubay and Steven, I've never learned how to pronounce this, this man's last name, CYIGON. After they were killed, the crowd surged forward and like pretty quickly overwhelmed the guard. And at that point, the sort of contained area that there was because this was all taking place in front of the main entrance of the factory and kind of spilling over around the street corner a bit. Any containment, it had went away. And pretty soon you have people tearing off down alleyways and street corners; National Guardsmen are pulling back in jeeps and trying to set up like perimeters in other places. That whole section of downtown Toledo just becomes kind of a war zone. No, no more fatalities fortunately, but several hundreds of people, you know, which I find that number to be kind of low, several 100 people injured lots of people to the hospital, several 1000 arrests. And it takes pretty much the entire day before before the the fighting stops. But it doesn't stop on that day. So you would think that okay, well, now something's going to happen. There's going to be a resolution here. There was not. The fighting continued for a couple more days. And it again, just like it escalated because of outside presence, whether it was the National Guard or Selander and Pollock and Ramsey, it ended because of outside influence as well.
Kelly Therese Pollock 43:12
It's kind of striking, you know, having done an episode on the shootings at Jackson State, having talked to my parents about Kent State and those experiences, it's a very similar kind of like, no one quite knows what sets it off. It was just start happening and also I did an episode on in the mid 19th century, the fires in Philadelphia in a very similar thing there too that, you know, it just sort of when you get crowds together, and of course, we're recording this the day before the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, which different kinds of forces at work there, but a very similar kind of like crowd mentality. Crowd just starts becoming a thing of itself and working in ways that you can't predict.
Dr. Bradley Sommer 43:56
Yeah, I'm Tommy Lee Jones in the classically underrated "Men in "Black" makes the point that people are smart and reasonable. Generally, if you get a person, you can talk to that person and find some way to like, maybe not necessarily understand each other but two people can generally work out a situation to the point where shooting like this doesn't take place. People are loud, dangerous and scared and you know, they're they're prone to these sorts of fits of passion or they they sort of like lose themselves into the larger moment of the crowd. And that's that's really what happens here. I mean, when you consider the the much more coordinated and like strategic violence of other strikes in this period, because again, Auto-Lite is a contemporary of a couple other major strike events. You have the Minneapolis Teamster strike, you have the general strike over in San Francisco, there's actually a nut picker strike going on throughout different parts of the South and the lower Midwest. The violence in all of these events was pretty pronounced and unfortunately fatal. But in places like the Minneapolis Teamster strike I mean, you have roving bands of Teamsters, in trucks driving around the city to try and cut off the National Guard and cut off and sort of divert the police and the National Guard away. You have like actual shooting and fighting. Auto-Lite, it just sort of is it's there. It's there. It's there. And then one thing happened. And, you know, we try not to talk about inevitabilities in history because nothing's inevitable. But it seems like as you're reading through the narrative of how the day goes, you're like, "Oh, man, something is going to happen." Like if Auto-Lite was a serialized Netflix special, the episode would end with Alma Hahn getting hit by a piece of rebar and you would go, "Oh, the next episode, they're going to fight." Yeah. Like it just it seemed like it was going to get to that point. And it did, I think every single side, because there's not just the two sides, there's a lot of, you know, extraneous, you know, in and out of different people who have passing interest in the strike. I think all of the sides involved never expected it to get to this point. I truly think that at various points, the strikers thought they were going to win when they had these huge numbers. I think that Auto-Lite thought they were going to win when they got the injunction. I think that, Auto-Lite thought they were going to win when they got the deputies, like much more enforced. I think they thought they were going to win. I think the strikers thought they were going to win when Miss Hahn was was, was injured, because that was a really, you know, PR, it's kind of a big deal and strikes and Auto-Lite had a lot of bad press at this point. Yeah, I think that Auto-Lite thought they were going to win when the National Guard got called in. I think there are four or five different moments in this in this strike, where both of the major sides and all the different sides thought, "Oh, it's going to end now. Oh, it has to end now. Like there's no way it's Oh, no. Okay, it's still going well, this is clearly going to be Oh, no, it's it's still going. So like..."
Kelly Therese Pollock 46:50
It's like the end of "Lord of the Rings."
Dr. Bradley Sommer 46:52
It really is. It's like, "Okay, well, Aragorn is the king, so there's no way there's no way, wait, there's what?" So, yeah, it's again, like, it's hard to say exactly what happened to cause the National Guard to fire. I think it's the result of a lot of confusion. No, no small amount of inexperience on the part of the National Guard, because the leadership might be career military men, but those are boys. So I think there's a lot of stuff that happened that sort of, again, just a weird confluence of seemingly sort of disparate circumstances that just met at the, at a time where the result that happened, just seemed like it was probably going to be the thing that happened.
Kelly Therese Pollock 47:34
So I've seen that a lot of labor historians have called this one of the most important strikes in in US history. So what is the resolution of this that makes it so important?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 47:44
So the resolution of the strike is actually not really that important towards this overall legacy. The resolution of the strike is actually fairly quick. So President Roosevelt, who has been watching this strike and other strikes, realizes this, this can't go on, because there's a real fear that we're going to start to just see city wide, massive general strike. Auto-Lite became a general strike, no one calls it the Auto-Lite general strike. It was right on the edge of being a general strike. So Roosevelt actually sent Charles P. Taft to negotiate and, within a couple of days brokered a, you know, a labor contract that was slightly towards the union. You know, again, we talked earlier about how the union at first didn't really shoot like crazy, crazy high, hoping to negotiate down. They kind of got the stuff they were asking for at the beginning. Their their wage increase wasn't as high but it was still a decent wage increase. They got seniority recognition, they got overtime pay, and the union was was recognized. Now, the like I said that the the legacy of Auto-Lite isn't this piece, because this goes away pretty quickly. The National Guard is pulled almost immediately that's like the second thing that Taft does when he shows up as he says, "They're out of here." And then everything just kind of kind of goes back. Most of the people who were involved in the leadership of the strike, go back to work. The sort of outside involved people go back to whatever it is they were doing. Some of them go and work in other places, and other strikes or whatever. The legacy of Auto-Lite is, is a shared one. So Autol-Lite, and Minneapolis and San Francisco, they all happen in a few months span of 1934. And what the legacy is the Wagner Act. So Roosevelt and his cabinet, they look at this series of increasingly violent, increasingly large strikes, and they realize it had been in the works for a while. It's not like this was a completely new idea. It's not like these strikes ended and Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, who's one of my all time favorite historical figures, I love Frances Perkins. They don't just decide, "You know what, let's form the, pass let's promote the Wagner Act. Let's get Congress to pass it. Let's form the National Labor Relations Board. Let's let's do it." But It gets done much faster because of these strikes, because it's becoming increasingly apparent that America has a labor problem. But they call it a labor problem. It's really an employer problem, which is, you know, the same the same phrasing I use now. We don't have a worker shortage, we have an employment shortage, we have a pay shortage. But the legacy of Auto-Lite, if you if you go and look at the the actual discussions around the Wagner Act, they specifically reference Auto-Lite and Minneapolis and San Francisco. Like they mentioned, "You know, we can't have another Toledo because the next Toledo or the next Minneapolis or the next San Francisco, it could be in Chicago; it could be in New York; it could be here." So like, there's a real sense that there's something wrong in America's workforce, whether it's the workers, whether it's the companies, whether it's the the general, like overall class structure of America, there's something wrong. And so the Wagner Act is not a direct response to Auto-Lite, singularly. But that's really the legacy of Auto-Lite is that it sort of pushes the Wagner Act a little further, a little faster into being.
Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure that we talked about?
There was one other thing specifically about Auto-Lite that I wanted to reference, and it's, it's a it's a thing about Auto-Lite, and I only bring it up because I was listening to one of your interviews the other day, and there was a lot of back and forth about like, "Well, is historiography actually interesting?" And I personally say, "Yes," only because I've been conditioned to enjoy historiography, having gone through all that rigmarole of grad school. One of the things about Auto-Lite that I think is interesting is it's both an important moment in American history, but I think it's also an important kind of an example of an important kind of thing in American labor historiography. There's a lot of lessons to be learned from Auto-Lite, you know, the sort of bottom up approach to unionizing that we see at Auto-Lite, what historians have called the bottom up to unionizing, alternative unionism, horizontal unionism. It has a couple of different names. But one of the things about Auto-Lite that's not an unfortunate reality of the event, but it's an example of a larger problem in the literature is that most of the attention in Auto-Lite and a lot of the other strikes of this period, focused heavily on the sort of classic white male industrial union, sort of the inspiration for many a Bruce Springsteen song. That that kind of unionism, that hasn't existed for a long time, but still seems to dominate the way that we think about labor, both just kind of in American society in general, but also within within the discipline. You know, fortunately, a lot of labor historians like myself have started to push away from the sort of white male centric dominated narratives both because, frankly, they're kind of tired out at this point, if we're being alone, if we're being completely honest, but also the face of labor in this country is is qualitatively and quantitatively different. It's no longer white industrial men with union cards with a W at the end, or a U at the front. You know, that's it's it's not, that's not it. You know, the the new kind of focus that we're seeing both contemporarily but also within the the more recent literature focusing on like the 80s, 90s, and even the aughts are now far enough in the past that they're being studied, are things like the teachers unions and service workers unions, and even more recently, graduate workers unionization. And so I think that there are things that we can learn from events like Auto-Lite, like the Teamster strike, like the like, like Flint, you know, a few years later. There are things that we can learn from those events in terms of like, looking at how they happened, how they developed, what the results were, but without kind of lionizing that group of people and that sort of, you know, historical actor or group of actors. You know, we can absolutely study Auto-Lite and go, "Well, you know, maybe bottom up worker led unionizing is a good thing." And we saw that to a certain extent. I can't remember net 2018, when the that was a massive teacher strike in West Virginia, and Oklahoma and North Carolina, I think it was 18. You know, a lot of that was led just by teachers unions, and those those places going, "You know, what dammit, this is, this is kind of ridiculous," and just sort of taken it on themselves. But we can also study that without having to go, "Well, it's not white steel workers. It's not white male auto workers. It's not stevedores. So it must not be important." Llike Auto-Lite is a good example of how we can learn lessons from the past without being tied to the actors of the past. And I think that's an important distinction, especially when we're talking about a group of people who have been sort of the dominant, not sort of, who have been the dominant narrative in American labor history. So that that was kind of the last thing that I wanted to talk about with Auto-Lite. And it's one of the things that I talked about in my dissertation was that like, you need to, you need to understand how the labor movement has developed. But you don't need to be beholden to what it was when it clearly is no longer what it was; and frankly, I don't think should be what it was because you can't have the same labor movement in a substantially different economy. I mean, you don't even recognize the American economy now versus, you know, 1934. But even, you know, 1984. So that's, that's kind of the last thing with Auto-Lite that I always like to talk about is that we don't need to necessarily focus too much on these individuals, although we shouldn't necessarily forget them. But the things that they did I think are sometimes a little bit more influential than than who did them, and if we can understand the things that they did, I think that we can still find relevancy in studying it without getting too carried away.
Kelly Therese Pollock 55:45
Yeah, excellent. Well, if people would like to find you to give you a job where can they find you?
Dr. Bradley Sommer 55:51
Yes, I am. You can follow me on Twitter @doctorhistorybrad. You can find me on my personal website bradleyjsommer.com, all lower case all one word. Yeah, I've become sort of semi famous and on history Twitter for railing against the job market as an unemployed person. So if anybody listened to that and was impressed and has a job opening... You can find me on Twitter frequently ranting about all things history, but also all things Lord of the Rings and Star Wars related and all kinds of fun stuff over there.
Kelly Therese Pollock 56:27
Excellent. Well, thank you. I have learned so so much about a city that now next time I'm driving past I need to stop in and spend some time in. So thank you.
Dr. Bradley Sommer 56:36
If you stop in Toledo, you have to go to Netty's Hot Dogs, far and away the best hotdog place in Toledo.
Kelly Therese Pollock 56:42
All right, excellent.
Thanks for listening to Unsung History, you can find the sources used for this episode at UnsungHistoryPodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistoryPodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistoryPodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.
I’m originally from a small Midwestern city (go local tourist attraction!). I did my undergraduate work at the University of Toledo and my Master’s at the University of Cincinnati. I recently lived in Pittsburgh, where I earned my Doctorate in American History from Carnegie Mellon University. While there, I was a lucky enough to be a TA for a variety of classes and for hundreds of wonderful students, winning awards for my teaching (which I am sure I did not deserve, but I’m not complaining).
Because I am incapable of not being busy, while I was working on my PhD, I was doing a lot of nonprofit work. From 2017-2020, I was involved with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS), the last years as President & CEO. In my time with NAGPS I worked on a variety of issues, all related to higher education, such as F-1 visa reauthorization, research funding, protecting DACA, student loan interest, public service loan forgiveness, food insecurity, and the advisor-advisee relationship. Additionally, I worked on NAGPS’ finances, partnerships, strategic plan, SOPs, and supervised the Board of Directors, all under the impending existential doom that was/is a global pandemic.
I am currently back in my hometown looking for full-time employment all while trying to be a historian and to perfect the art of the snarky, yet informative, tweet.
When not running, applying for jobs, writing, or talking about history with anyone who will listen, I spend most of my time reading, walking, watching sports, and adding to my collection of records and books. The books are getting to be a bit of a problem, as I now have over 2,000 of them (please send shelves).