- Written by webmin
After three weeks, tensions started to run high in Cleveland. The city’s largest automotive factory, the Albert Kahn-designed seven-story Fisher Body plant on the corner of Coit Road and East 140th Street, which dated to 1921 and at the time built two-door Chevrolet bodies, had been strike-bound since the UAW-CIO – at the time a rival union to the AFL – called the strike among nearly a dozen GM plants in early July.
The 1937 sit-down strike in Flint had legitimized the UAW and led GM to first bargain with the unions (and actually had its beginnings at the Cleveland Fisher Body plant on December 30, 1936), but by the summer of 1939, with the UAW-CIO seeking a supplemental agreement to provide for GM’s tool and die workers, GM refused to bargain, claiming it didn’t know whether the UAW-CIO or the AFL held the legally binding contract with GM. GM President William “Big Bill” Knudsen told the newspapers that if the strike continued, it would delay production of company’s 1940 automobiles.
By all accounts, the early days of the strike seemed rather uneventful in Cleveland; GM officials said the Fisher Body plant continued to operate normally throughout the strike, though some newspaper accounts claimed it actually operated “at a curtailed rate.” The week before, UAW-CIO leader Robert Travis (an instrumental figure in the 1937 sit-down strike) had arrived in Cleveland to take command of the strike, promising to close the plant down. On the morning of July 31, a Monday following a weekend shutdown at the plant, a group of employees from the nearby White Motors factory on East 79th Street, along with another group of workers from Bender Body, massed outside the Fisher Body plant’s Coit Road entrance to bar non-striking employees from entering the factory and to support the picketers. Everybody expected trouble that morning; the strikers wore helmets of papier-mache, while about 100-150 Cleveland police officers showed up mounted on horses and brandishing tear gas cannons. “It was known that the beginning of the day shift would probably witness a test of the union’s picketing strength,” one newspaper reported. Cleveland Mayor Harold Burton was on hand along with an observer from the Ohio National Guard, Brigadier General Ludwig Conelly (and one of his captains, L.J. Abele), and Cleveland’s Safety Director, a former federal agent from Chicago named Eliot Ness.
The trouble started, almost right on cue, at 6 a.m. when a group of non-striking employees attempted to drive through the crowd, estimated at 5,000 to 6,000 people, to get to work. The crowd of strikers closed in around the cars, prompting the mounted police to charge into the crowd to make way for the non-striking employees. The crowd responded by pelting the cars and the mounted officers with rocks and pavers, initiating the fighting that continued over the next couple of hours, oftentimes directly in front of Ness and Mayor Burton. The police pelted the crowds with tear gas and water cannons while the strikers continued to harass non-striking employees, turning over cars and throwing tear gas canisters back at the police. Strikers and protesters armed themselves with picket sticks and makeshift clubs. One report told of a group of non-striking employees pulled from a car and beaten by strikers.
Just then a non-striker’s car approached from East 140th Street. There was a hoot and a chorus of shouts and the pickets surged toward it. A brick demolished the windshield. Other stones smashed the side windows. Pickets dragged the occupants out and began beating them. Men with clubs beat on the radiator. The crowd turned the car over. One of the occupants escaped and began to run with pickets in pursuit. Someone flung a match into the gasoline which had began to drip from the car. The rear end flamed up and firemen rushed in with hand extinguishers and snuffed the blaze. Once the firemen turned the hose on the strike sympathizers.
The police, ordered not to shoot into the crowds unless the strikers stormed the plant, nevertheless turned to force. At one point they were described as “swinging their clubs right and left,” and, aided by reinforcements taken off traffic duty in downtown Cleveland, they eventually pushed the crowds away from the Coit Road entrance to the plant and toward Donovan’s Loop, a local restaurant that became the makeshift headquarters for the union leaders orchestrating the strike. By mid-morning, Cleveland Police Chief George Matowitz met with Travis and negotiated a truce. Though fighting flared up later in the afternoon – prompted by Travis operating a sound truck and public address system from the top of Donovan’s Loop, promising that twice the crowd size would show up the next day – it was largely over. Forty-six people were reported injured in the fighting, and police arrested 13 strikers.
Ness declared a prohibited zone around the plant, barring “riotous assembly or mass formation” and told the strikers that they could post no more than five picketers at each plant entrance; he later described the proclamation as “virtual martial law” in that area, though he did make an exception for Donovan’s Loop, where he allowed no more than 10 union organizers at a time. The picketers moved from the plant to the homes of non-striking employees, but Ness later declared an absolute ban on picketing homes across the city of Cleveland. About 450 non-striking employees managed to make it inside the plant that morning, and about 200 of them remained in the plant overnight while the crowds – which swelled to an estimated 8,000 people throughout the day – slowly dispersed. Ness kept police officers posted at the plant overnight, just in case the promised 20,000 strikers showed up the next day, but they never materialized.
Clashes occurred over the following days in Detroit, but no further fighting flared up in Cleveland. With the general strike going on four weeks, however, and with production of the 1940 models looming, GM flinched. By that Friday, August 4, GM drew up a contract with the UAW-CIO granting tool and die workers an increase in overtime pay, bringing an end to the strike that had idled 7,000 workers at 12 different GM plants. “The union thus struck at a strategic moment,” The New York Times wrote. Indeed, GM was able to introduce its 1940 models in time that September. Perhaps more important to the UAW-CIO, the contract gave them exclusive recognition with GM, though editorials across the country denounced the UAW-CIO’s tactics during the strike.
The photographs below are part of a larger set documenting the strike and the riot which were included in a report submitted to the Ohio National Guard’s Adjutant General’s Department by Conelly and Abele and which are now in the Ohio Historical Society’s collection, hosted online at ohiomemory.org. Corbis Images has another couple photographs of the riot in their collection.
Ness, who was hired on as safety director in Cleveland in December 1935, continued in that position through 1942, then returned to Northeast Ohio two years later and made an unsuccessful run for mayor of Cleveland in 1947. The members of the UAW Local 45 at the Fisher Body plant in Cleveland did strike again in 1946, seeking a 30 percent wage increase and an end to piecemeal work at the plant; their demands were only partially met. The chapter was officially disbanded after GM shut down the Fisher Body plant in 1982. Today, the plant’s location now houses the Cleveland Job Corps Center.