The 1937 Sit-Down Strike at Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation and Conservative Backlash Politics during the New Deal

Gregory Wood, Frostburg State University

While labor and working-class historians have long acknowledged how the roots of twentieth-century labor liberalism took hold and grew during the Great Depression, they know less about how the labor upheavals of the sit-down era fueled the emergence of an anti-labor conservatism that condemned militant workers, the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the Wagner Act, and the Democratic Party as the central components of a liberal threat to capitalism, private property, small government, and American democracy. This paper argues that as various local politicians, the print media, and many everyday Americans recoiled from the explosive sit-down strikes of 1937 they played a significant role in shaping the “liberal” and “conservative” fault lines and labels that would long persist in US politics. Focusing on debates that surrounded the February 1937 sit-down strike at the Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation plant in North Chicago, my essay examines how many Americans (in Chicago and elsewhere) responded to labor militancy during the late 1930s by arguing for a more conservative political worldview that honored private property rights, endorsed businessmen’s claims to leadership in the economy, and demanded a roll back of government intervention and regulation in the economy and the workplace. In particular, the conservative Chicago Daily Tribune transformed the proliferation of sit-down strikes into powerful justifications for the rejection of New Deal labor liberalism. As my paper suggests, the responses of local authorities and the print news media to the sit-downs would greatly shape understandings of liberalism and conservatism, and even map much of the terrain of the political tribalism that would overshadow US politics in recent decades.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 222. CIO History Redux: Seeking New Histories of Labor in the New Deal Era