[Marxism] Fwd: The Day in 1937 When Casco's Workers Sat Down on the Job

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 14 13:44:53 MST 2017


This article was published recently at the website of the Bridgeport 
Public Library. Peace and Solidarity,


***The Day in 1937 When Casco's Workers Sat Down on the Job***
by Andy Piascik

It was an event that lasted less than a day and involved only 50 people 
directly. It was organized, led and carried out by everyday workers and 
thus contradicted the mainstream narrative that only big people make 
history. Many of the participants were women so their actions were thus 
further dismissed, even ridiculed. Yet as the great historian Howard 
Zinn might have put it, mostly unknown and forgotten people occupied the 
Casco factory in Bridgeport in 1937 and struck a blow for themselves and 
workers in the city as a whole.

In the long history of class conflict in the United States, the decade 
of the 1930’s was a particularly contentious period. In Bridgeport, as 
in virtually every other part of the country, workers fought back 
against plant closures, unemployment and poverty as well as for 
democratization of the workplace. And as the Park City was one of the 
nation’s great industrial hubs, it was only natural that the sit-down 
strike was one of many tactics Bridgeport workers utilized.
*The Sit-Down Strike*

The sit-down strike is a tactic used most effectively by the Industrial 
Workers of the World (IWW) three decades before the action at Casco. The 
idea of a sit-down is to stop production by occupying the workplace, 
rather than by withdrawing from it, as leaving the workplace and 
striking from the outside leaves open the possibility of employers 
bringing in replacements (scabs). The sit-down was revived to great 
fanfare and with remarkable success when autoworkers began a long 
occupation of General Motors plants in Cleveland and Flint on December 
30, 1936.


Set on Bridgeport’s West End next to the railroad tracks, Casco 
(Connecticut Automotive Specialty Company) opened in 1924. Workers there 
made products for cars including pop-out cigarette lighters that were 
then a relatively new feature on many automobile dashboards. Tensions 
between workers and management had been escalating for some time prior 
to the sit-down strike. Management was actively soliciting workers to 
join its company union, the Casco Employees Association (CEA), while at 
least several hundred workers had signed cards with the United 
Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), one of the 
rapidly growing affiliates of the newly-formed Congress of Industrial 
Organizations (CIO). Alarmed at the growth in the plant of the UE, and 
in an apparent attempt to cripple the workers’ organizing efforts, Casco 
President Joseph Cohen issued an order the morning of April 6, 1937 that 
the plant would temporarily close at noon that day for inventory.

Caught off guard, 850 of the 900 workers left at noon including many who 
undoubtedly would have remained had they known that 50 of their 
co-workers had decided to occupy the plant. The 50 sit-down strikers 
announced that they intended to remain until a set of demands that 
included management recognition of the UE as their bargaining 
representative were met. Supportive workers who had left formed picket 
lines outside the plant on Railroad and Hancock Avenues, sent word of 
the action to the families of those inside and contacted organizers from 
the UE.

Cohen and other company officials responded by declaring that the 
factory was closed and would not reopen until /their/ demands were met. 
They also announced hundreds of layoffs. While refusing to accept that 
reductions were necessary, the workers and the UE immediately countered 
with a plan to prevent any layoffs by temporarily reducing the hours of 
all. Cohen unconditionally rejected the proposal, saying, as quoted in a 
story in the /Bridgeport Post/, “Positively no. I’ll run my own plant.”

Cohen’s words cut to the heart of what was at stake. At Casco, as 
elsewhere, the sit-down strike was a direct challenge to management’s 
control of production. A plant occupation starkly poses the question, a 
question workers in many places in 1937 had begun to seriously consider, 
of whether owners and managers are necessary or even desirable. Cohen’s 
unease was the unease that haunts all business owners, whether of 
small-ish operations like Casco or of the massive empire of General 
Motors: that through collective action, and especially workplace 
occupations, workers would come to envision and, more importantly, act 
on constructing a society without bosses.

*Support for the Strike*

Meetings of the parties carried into the evening. On Railroad Avenue, 
meanwhile, Casco workers and others continued picketing in support of 
the strike. In anticipation of a potentially lengthy standoff, they also 
tied mattresses and food to ropes that the occupiers pulled up through 
open windows. A photographer from the /Bridgeport Post/ and /Bridgeport 
Telegram /was allowed inside and took two photos that appeared in both 
papers the following day.


Early on the morning of April 7^th , an agreement was reached. A 
significant wage increase would be implemented and management agreed to 
recognize the UE (soon to be a major force in Bridgeport as the 
representative of workers at GE, Westinghouse/Bryant Electric and many 
other city shops). All talk of layoffs ceased, the occupiers would not 
be disciplined and the plant would remain closed while management took 
stock and made way for new production lines. On virtually every count, 
it was a resounding victory for the workers.

As in Flint and many other instances, the Casco workers utilized 
collective action to make significant gains. That should be celebrated 
all these years later as much as the Casco workers themselves 
undoubtedly celebrated in the days after the occupation. Still, there 
are also nagging questions that began to present themselves in 1937 that 
plague workers to this day.

Wittingly or not, for example, organizers from even the most radical 
unions like the UE helped pull workers away from the very awareness and 
possible action owners like Cohen feared. The objectives of the UE and 
the CIO as a whole were state-sanctioned exclusive representation as 
embodied in the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), class peace and 
collective bargaining agreements predicated on the corporation’s right 
to rule. Strikers taking over plants was fine as a temporary tactic but 
long term, labor’s vision and its relationship with workers was 
ultimately not so different from that of the business class, as became 
more apparent over time. Not long after the Casco strike, for example, 
the UE and other CIO unions signed contracts that almost without 
exception forbade work stoppages that they did not authorize. Also 
included in the standard CIO contracts were management prerogative 
clauses that ceded all decisions about production, including the right 
to permanently close the plant, to the company.

That does not diminish what the Casco workers accomplished in 1937. On 
the contrary, it is in their spirit that we struggle for a way out of a 
framework that workers today are trapped in.

/Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and 
award-winning author whose novel /In Motion/was recently published by 
Sunshine Publishers. He can be reached at andypiascik at yahoo.com./

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