Labor, performance, and theatre: Strike culture and the emergence of organized labor in the 1930's
Table of Contents
Epigraph ii Dedication iii Acknowledgements iv Abstract vii Introduction 1 Chapter 1: Involuntary Actors: Performance Remakes the Industrial Working Body 15 The Working Class Body Performs 50 Chapter 2: Women on the Frontlines 61 The Strike Marches On as It Ceases 94 Chapter 3: Brookwood Labor College: Flint’s Sit-Down Becomes Sit-Down! 115 Brookwood on the March with Sit-Down! 140 Brookwood Beyond the Worker-Student: In Dialogue with Professional Workers’ Theatres 152 A New Kind of History: Workers Record the Sit-Down via Theatre 165 Chapter 4: The Messenger Matters: The Theatre Union as Professional Workers’ Theatre Versus Worker-Generated Dramatics 176 The Theatre Union: History and Innovation 180 Workers’ Theatre: Professional Versus Worker-Generated 198 Bibliography 225
Abstract This dissertation focuses on how industrial workers of the late 1930’s used theatre and performance to help achieve collective bargaining and improve working conditions. Organized labor is connected to performance via the sit-down strike, a labor resistance strategy of the late 1930’s in which workers continuously occupied their worksites in a performance of grievance to prevent the importation of scab labor. Serving as the primary case study is the United Automobile Workers’ (UAW) sit- down strike of 1936-37. This strike had nexus in Flint, Michigan and was the first major sit-down and the first to receive national and international news coverage. The UAW’s ultimate, and unanticipated, success over General Motors in early February 1937 spurred an imitative wave of nearly 5,000 sit-downs across the nation that same year. Educational institutions like Brookwood Labor College, which had a student population of workers, theatrically restaged Flint’s sit-down and toured nationally, sharing the autoworkers’ tactics with other laborers and forestalling cultural memory loss of labor struggles. Industrial labor strikes of the Great Depression have been traditionally read through the lens of labor history. Reframing such unmined narratives of working class history as performance and theatre offers an alternate dramatic history for the 1930’s, and more broadly, twentieth century American drama. The UAW sit-down strike of 1936-37 presents a position from which to argue that the sit-down predates, and anticipates, the academic burgeoning of both performance studies and working
class studies. Worker-driven performances both resonated with, and helped shaped, a larger working class culture.
Introduction Performance has broadened in definition with the birth and burgeoning of performance studies, but both the relative youth of the field and the expansiveness of performance still make the field somewhat analogous to the Oklahoma land rush, poised on the verge of possibility with still infinite arrangements, not a decimated, crowded landscape where the building spaces hinge on risky faultlines. One notably open vista ripe for exploration is the pairing of performance and working-class studies, another fledgling field; the two are intertwined to serve as the crux of my dissertation, which explores how performance was integral to the rise of the industrial labor union movement in the late 1930’s. Critics like Harry Elam have admirably and thoughtfully delved into the 1960’s agricultural performances of El Teatro Campesino, and Jan Cohen-Cruz’s anthology coalesces a range of street performances. The open-air venues adopted by El Teatro Campesino and Bread and Puppet Theater have the guarantee of visibility and an instant audience in those gathered who, whether by intention or coincidence, are coaxed or forced into the role of spectators, creating the potential for influence or change through performance. However, open-air performances, be they on the streets or in the fields, are vulnerable by nature of their exposure, which breeds the risk of disciplinary infraction to both participants and spectators as well as the threat of punishment from the powers that be, whether that’s the police or corporate recrimination. It’s hardly an original, or likely even contested, argument that contemporary American drama is granted little attention in twentieth-century American literature
courses. If a nod to the genre is given on a syllabus, the text will likely be from one of the canonically established greats: O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, Shepard or Mamet. This is not to suggest the works of these playwrights are not of great literary value, only that just as students need exposure to poetry outside of Shakespeare and Emily Dickinson, so too does drama need canonical expansion, by which I mean not just prying open the range of playwrights typically studied but also the types of plays. Early American literature courses are liberally doused with journal fragments, captivity narratives, religious tracts, and legal documents, so there’s no reason contemporary American literature and drama courses should be limited to the conventional. Many of the works discussed in this project are drafts or textual fragments that defy the notion of finality because they were loosely sketched or scripted to encourage performers to improvise their own words based on their actual experiences, largely as members of the working class. Such texts are enhanced by strong historical contextualization because they were generated in response to specific current events. In all likelihood, the works I’m campaigning for will never be syllabi regulars or even eke into an anthology, but a widening of drama’s literary doors might budge open the scope and diversity of what is taught. And I’m certainly not the first to rally for such a move. In The Other American Drama, Marc Robinson notes his boredom with the same repetitive, typical American theatre offerings spurred him to write his book to recover and revive deserving, underacknowledged American playwrights. While Robinson actively rallies for Gertrude Stein, whom he’s clearly passionate about, his feistiness abates the sizzle with the close of that opening chapter. After
completing his worthy mission to resuscitate Stein as a dramatist, subsequent chapters on “othered” playwrights like Tennessee Williams hardly seem justifiable when Williams is consistently ranked as top tier. Stein’s unique and original contributions to the dramatic world, which still remain largely unacknowledged, make her a worthy candidate as “other.” For Tennessee Williams, that label is downright puzzling and misplaced, and Robinson’s other chapters on Fornes and Kennedy seem half-hearted to the extent both women have reached a level of prominence that far exceeds Stein. This is not to argue all unknowns or “others” have to rise from an equal level of obscurity, just that Robinson’s choices are clearly out of sync, and the genre of drama is even closer to the sepulcher than we think if Williams ranks as “other.” My dissertation migrates to an industrially-based setting by working inside the framework of the late 1930’s sit-down strike technique. Focusing specifically on the seminal 1936-37 sit-down strike against General Motors by the nascent United Automobile Workers (UAW) allows for a consideration of the sit-down strike methodology as a sustained performance by industrial laborers. In sit-downs, workers enhanced the traditional picket line by filling in the dotted picket line periphery with the performance of sustained worksite occupation, making the workplace a site of occupation. By maintaining continual physical occupation of the factory during the strike, workers multiplied the singularity of worksite functionality into a multivalent site where the daily grind – the performance of one’s assigned labor – became a performance of grievance. The space designed for and defined by production became a new performance space, one of domesticity and negotiation, in the revised business model of performance. The sit-downers’ performance behind plant walls was largely
shielded from view by outsiders. Unlike aforementioned open-air counterparts, this invisibility exacerbated the threat and danger associated with such performance because its very invisibility created suspicion about its methods and outcomes, which is also to say its power and ability to influence. The privacy of the sit-down performance was enhanced and extended by another type of performance – performance as a public, alternative media source that transmitted strike strategies and contributed to the growth of national unionization efforts in the late 1930’s, particularly after the autoworkers’ win against General Motors. Theatre disassociated itself from the grandeur of velvet prosceniums and widened to include a profusion of new, often makeshift, stages in strike headquarters and union meeting halls, even inspiring professional workers’ theatres. With limited (or often no) access to traditional media forms, performance became a kind of public access channel on both a local and national level, giving union members and strikers a forum and medium to express what I call the performance of grievance and to coalesce as a community. Union members and hopefuls across the nation were inspired by the success of their predecessor sit-downers, particularly the UAW. Travelling theatre programs like Brookwood Labor College’s annual summer Labor Chautauqua, which I’ll examine in Chapter 3, transported the narrative and strike practices of success stories like the UAW in play format, reaching thousands of workers, unionists, students and citizens each summer. Such plays traced not just the sit-down but also the conditions that led to the strike, and the worker oppression that finally culminated in the strike was something many working class viewers could relate to. For people who weren’t as sympathetic to labor, there was the potential for
creating understanding in fleshing out a fuller picture that contextualized what some oversimplified as revolting workers and the threat of Communism. The UAW’s success was imitated on two performance levels: 1.) by other worker collectives staging their own sit-downs to garner rights and 2.) by performances that transmitted the motives and methodologies of the UAW sit-down. Performance was a vehicle to generate confidence and activism through witnessing the performed narrative of others’ successes. This inspired new audiences to stand up and coerce their corner of corporate America into making a companion for Adam Smith’s lone invisible hand that would recognize workers’ rights, collective bargaining, and unionization. Thanks to the outcomes of performance, union badges became a right for employee exhibition, a mini-performance of collectivity, a proud talisman symbolic of the hard- worn union through the efforts of performance. The central focus of this project is to move labor activism and its outgrowths from the more restrictive annals of history to its consideration as working-class performance. Labor history often imitates a Horatio Alger narrative in charting the rise of great men and lofty capitalists like Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Henry Ford, and even portrays worker advocates like CIO leader, John L. Lewis, as lone helmsmen. But the bulk of labor history, just like the majority of the labor force, is the story of the worker, the drone, the employee, those who are collectively needed to produce the good or execute the service that defines the great man’s career and creates wealth for the upper echelons of management and shareholders. This labor history of the majority is marked by surges in activism and worker protest, and the commonality uniting these performances is that they began in uncertainty. There was
no guarantee, no foreknowledge that any performance would end with applause or even recognition or continued employment, and the history of worker performances is blighted with tragic events like Chicago’s Haymarket massacre. Others were ultimately successful, like the emergence and recognition of the United Automobile Workers from the sit-down strike that this work will focus on more fully. These working class protests need to be examined through the lens of performance to revitalize them and reconstruct them with a language that shifts them away from the historical, recognizing the 1930’s as a precursor to performance studies, not limiting the era to an aged set of endangered, decaying documents. History has been written by historians, which is not to trivialize the vitality of that work in any way, only to point out that the space of the sit-down strike is ripe for analysis through the dual lenses of performance and working class studies, which opens labor and extends the existing vocabulary. Today, the concept of performance is inseparable from corporate lingo with phrases like performance review (to evaluate an employee’s work on the job); optimizing performance (to streamline an individual’s or department’s workflow, or the traffic to a website); and key performance indicators (or KPIs) (identifiable benchmarks that allow for gauging performance). With the rise of the internet as a medium for marketing and sales, a website’s performance in internet search rankings is increasingly essential for success and growth, creating the cottage industry of search engine optimization dedicated to increasing algorithmic performance in rankings, thereby guaranteeing more clicks and consequently, more customer conversions, or a higher performance rating for the company. In short, the language
of performance permeates today’s corporate atmosphere, suggesting how innate the link between labor and performance has become. We unconsciously think about labor in terms of performance, suggesting the need to expand Richard Schechner’s seven functions of performance to include a measure of labor in terms of employment contribution 1 . The strike I am focusing on in this dissertation is the 44-day sit-down strike by the fledgling United Automobile Workers staged against General Motors that began December 30, 1936 and concluded February 11, 1937. Depression-era images like those by Dorothea Lange that capture the woebegone faces of the unemployed and transient families in rattling jalopies moving towards unknown destinations of greater hope or what Michael Denning calls the “promise of narrative resolution” (qtd. in Casey x). Government-sponsored programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) were designed as back to work programs accurately chronicle the period as marked by economic struggle and the strain of prolonged financial uncertainty. The Lange images and programs like the CCC and the rural electrification made possible by the Tennessee Valley Authority represent key components of the 1930’s. However, and less obviously given the decade’s meteoric rise in unemployment, the Depression was also marked by intense labor activism, the rise of which was directly attributable to the sit-down strike. Seeing the Depression as a play between binaries is a common portrayal of the period, and this tendency towards polarity isn’t completely unmeaningful, of course. In the 1970’s, Andrew Bergman staged these binaries as
1 Schechner’s seven functions of performance include 1.) to entertain, 2.) to make something that is beautiful, 3.) to mark or change identity, 4.) to make or foster community, 5.) to heal, 6.) to teach, persuade, or convince and 7.) to deal with the sacred and/or the demonic (Performance Studies 38).
escapism versus engagement in his book about 1930’s cinema entitled We’re in the Money, and this formulation remained a dominant binary for the 1930’s. In the 1990’s, prominent critics like Barbara Foley, Alan Wald and Cary Nelson recast the engagement/escapism binary with the new oppositional tension of movement and stasis. In her 2004 work on Depression-era fiction, Janet Casey repeats the movement/stasis binary, and she even makes explicit labor references noting, “Terms such as speed-up, work stoppage, walkout, and strike collectively demonstrate how assertions of movement or nonmovement, action or inaction, became counteractive strategies in a socioeconomic war” (my emphasis, x). In her brief chronicle, Casey includes work stoppage, a lesser version of the sit-down that often implied the threat of an impending sit-down and was typically instigated as a pre-sit-down last resort to offer the company a last chance at a less contentious resolution. Alternately, a work stoppage was a sit-down substitute for the quick resolution of smaller issues, but Casey totally elides the term sit-down, one of the period’s most significant “nonmovements.” Casey raises an interesting set of questions, but I would revise her labor polarities of “movement” and “nonmovement” with a more appropriate descriptor of “movement exchange.” Using the term “nonmovement” to describe a sit-down risks adopting the sanctioned language standards created by corporate hierarchy, given the fact that GM was highly invested in portraying the strikers as lazy, unmotivated workers sans work ethic who were pursuing nothing more serious than a break from labor that they were attempting to publicly legitimize under the guise of union formation. The term “nonmovement” threatens to collude with that inimical corporate
tableau. “Movement exchange” is a more accurate description since the labor and movements required to perform one’s assigned job was replaced with the movement of activism. Exchange is also an appropriate term because workers who stayed inside the plants, be it for all or part of the strike’s duration, occupied the same physical space they did during their allotted shifts, and all of the strikers, regardless of where they spent the night, exchanged the shaky security of the intolerable movements bred by the speed-up for the insecurity of the movement of activism where Denning’s “promise of narrative resolution” was not a promise of a guaranteed outcome. Between 1932 and 1938, there were a startling 13,836 labor strikes with 4,740 of them in 1937 alone (qtd. in Fuoss 11). With a labor history legacy of nearly 14,000 labor strikes from which to choose, the decision to focus exclusively on the UAW is just cause for inquiry. The 1936-37 UAW strike was not the first sit-down. In fact, the most significant sit-down preceding the UAW strike was the United Rubber Workers (URW) sit-down against Goodyear in Akron, Ohio from February 18 to March 21, 1936. However, the prima facie statistics point to 1937, not 1936, as the seminal year in strike culture of the Depression, a transformation that is directly attributable to the success of the UAW at the outset of 1937, a strike which began in December 1936 and built on the foundation laid by the rubber workers. The sit-down technique had been used experimentally before 1936 but never with great success. However, the success of the UAW strikers set off a blitzkrieg of sit-downs for the precise reason that the strikers not only opposed General Motors, one of the era’s largest and most powerful corporations, but they were able to maintain a chronic sit-down presence for the duration of the strike. Consequently, they nearly halted General Motors’ national
production and ultimately triggered a domino effect of national plant closures. The string of plant closures was driven coterminously by two factors: 1.) a declining reserve of key automobile manufacturing parts produced solely in Michigan and 2.) increasing numbers of plants voluntarily striking for solidarity as the strike progressed and success seemed more plausible, or at least outright failure was a less distinct possibility. Ultimately, and most shockingly, General Motors awarded the strikers nearly everything they asked for. The incredulity of the corporate giant recognizing the workers’ contentions provided the stimulus, encouragement, and model for waves of oppressed workers to stand up for themselves by sitting down. The GM worker was transformed from undistinguished drone fearful of corporate retribution to an emboldened beholder and determiner of his own fate who also became an emblem for others of the potential for labor success. While the UAW strike was the first landslide sit-down success and instigated a flurry of imitators even before its conclusion, the strikers did not begin their sit- down with the luxury of that foreknowledge and the security they were making labor history. In fact, the extremity of the decision to stage this sit-down cannot be taken lightly and was not arrived at casually but culminated from a series of unanswered, or inadequately answered, complaints propelled to action by the national movement towards supporting labor reform. Worker protest is a narrative of collective action motivated by a shared grievance that results in some degree of success or failure, and in the case of the sit-down, an unresolved, unacknowledged, or inadequately resolved issue or series of issues created an impasse that made the sit-down the only feasible performance to garner a concrete response to the crises workers were facing. The
culminating sit-down performance was an escalation of a pre-existing performance, the performance of filing repeated complaints that were continually unheeded or inadequately resolved. GM’s policy towards unionization until the sit-down had followed these lines: the company maintained an in-house company union for employee representation, but since it was company-run, it was selectively and minimally responsive to worker complaints. The advantage of the sit-down was that workers continuously occupied the factory. Earlier strikes had been vulnerable because picketing workers could be easily replaced by scab laborers who, while less skilled, could complete the job in some fashion. By the mid-1930s, roughly 20% of all factory work was assembly-line based, and with 55% of the labor force performing semi-skilled labor, three-quarters of the employment positions could be hastily, if poorly, replaced and trained, allowing for the maintenance of partial production or service to prevent the complete bottoming out of the bottomline (Fine 54). Thanks to Depression-era unemployment rates soaring into the 20 th percentile, an abundant scab labor force was available. This eager worker influx and the transformative potential of Lange’s down-trodden to become the self-assured and gainfully employed, was a boon to corporations like General Motors who could bring in scab laborers and if necessary, easily convert them to full-time workers. This new workforce would lack the historically disgruntled memory of the dismissed cadres, and their gratefulness at employment would take time to diminish into discontent and even longer to mutate into any rebellion. Plus, the foreknowledge of replaceability would linger as a nagging, shadowy reminder to quell any desires to make demands or stage strikes.
In short, the proverbial cards were in the hands of General Motors, or any company, because the threatening power to dismiss and replace an entire workforce made employees understandably tentative to express discontent, particularly when workers who were perceived ringleaders of activism would often be dismissed as a red flag warning to others who were tempted towards dissention. The battle workers faced was how to get their demands recognized without losing their jobs and being instantaneously replaced and forgotten, making their demands as thin as southern Depression-era topsoil. The sit-down accomplished precisely this through continual occupation. It was a worker solution that maintained corporate attention and forced recognition of a particular set of existing workers. The sit-down trickled down to stop work and stifle production, which proved to be just the bargaining chip that motivated corporate America. The hiring of scab labor meant work continued, so the company wasn’t particularly vested in who was doing it, except for the inconvenience of job retraining, and thanks to the rise of the assembly line, most workers required little to no training. The sit-down forced the company to recognize the workers it had and at least pay heed to their issues, even if no new terms were reached. All of these sit-downs and plant occupations raise the inevitable question of how and who allowed workers to suddenly turn factories into mixed-use spaces that bred the residential, recreational, and recalcitrant atop commercial pilings. On June 16, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) into law; the most controversial aspect of this bill was the immediately infamous Section 7(a), which stated employees must be allowed the right to bargain collectively and choose representatives free from employer interference (Fine 28-29).
Two years later when the Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional, Roosevelt reparteed the following month on June 28, 1935 by signing the National Labor Relations Bill, which reasserted many of the NIRA’s policies, including collective bargaining, a hands-free employer approach to employee labor organizing, and anti-discrimination policies protecting unionized workers (49-50). The vagaries of a law are still only generalized guarantees without specific protections, but the NIRA and NLRB gave workers something of a promise that more willingly nudged them towards activism without as much fear of retribution. The success of any particular sit-down turned out to rely as much on state politics and legislation as federal guarantees. For instance, Michigan governor Frank Murphy’s opposition to violence, resistance to ousting the sit-downers, and persistant striving towards peaceful resolution largely contributed to the success of the GM strike. Indiana’s more conservative governor, M. Clifford Townsend, aligned himself more closely with corporate interests, ultimately making sit-downs in that state less potent and successful. Governors aside, the sit-down was such a new technique in terms of widespread use, and it rose to prominence and dominance so dizzily that laws had not yet been enacted to anticipate or respond to the particular set of circumstances, creating a legal lull period before the courts hammered out judicial responses. From the rise of sit-downs to Napster, history often leaps forward when the law is nebulous. While the Supreme Court banned the sit-down in 1939, cutting short the strike strategy’s short honeymoon of wild success, a legal loophole had become a galactic blackhole whereby thousands of workers had gained new union
and workplace rights, gains that were inextricably linked to performance and which inspired other performances.
Chapter 1 Involuntary Actors: Performance Remakes the Industrial Working Body At the conclusion of the 1936-1937 sit-down strike against General Motors, the sit-down strikers poured out of the auto plants they’d been occupying, the crowd growing as the procession started at one plant and moved to ceremoniously vacate two others before marching up Third Avenue through downtown Flint, Michigan. The workers’ 44-day voluntary internment inside General Motors’ plants had ended, and as the strikers marched through town, they paused for a collective, thunderous cheer outside of the Rialto Theatre (Fuoss 73). Proprietor Maxie Gealer was one of Flint’s few businessmen who had supported the strikers, which required openly opposing General Motors, the town’s corporate lifeline. Gealer had donated entertainment, including Charlie Chaplin’s film, Modern Times, to the strikers for two viewings inside the factory during the strike. Gealer’s heroism was undoubtedly heightened even more by his business practices. He not only supported the autoworkers but the unionization of his own employees in the Motion Picture Operators Union, making Gealer a counter to his Flint foil and rival, Lester Matt, moviehouse owner of the Strand who hired scabs during a strike (74). Intentionally or not, Gealer provided more than entertainment, escapism or mere distraction when he took Modern Times, which had been released in February 1936, out of downtown Flint’s Rialto theatre and premiered it inside of union headquarters at Pengelly Hall as well as one of the GM plants on strike. The sit-down