The recent decision to call up the National Guard at Standing Rock conjured up images of Guard–led repression throughout US history.
by Bradley J. Sommer
Photo: Strikers flee tear gas during the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite Strike. Libcom
Early last month, in anticipation of a federal court ruling on the Dakota Access oil pipeline, the governor of North Dakota called up the National Guard. “The Guardsmen will not be going to the actual protest site,” the state National Guard clarified, referring to the Standing Rock encampment, but added that “[t]he governor also placed additional Guardsmen on standby alert in the event they are needed to support law enforcement response efforts.”
The showdown didn’t materialize. The Obama administration, facing heightened pressure to nix the pipeline, requested that the pipeline company stop construction around the burgeoning occupation.
But the governor’s actions raised the specter of a forcible, wide-ranging crackdown, instantly conjuring up memories of National Guard–led repression throughout US history.
One of the most notable instances of such repression came more than eighty years ago, when the National Guard was deployed to the streets of Toledo, Ohio. Like the resisters at Standing Rock, the workers of Toledo sought dignity and sovereignty. Arrayed against them were the National Guard, state and private police, and the forces of exploitation.
The 1934 Auto-Lite Strike
Located in an area of Toledo dense with factories and working-class homes, the Electric Auto-Lite Company was one of many plants in the city’s vibrant auto parts manufacturing industry.
Strongly anti-union, Auto-Lite foremen and executives fired openly pro-union workers, forcing them to meet after dark and in secret. This anti-labor animus, coupled with a dangerous and hostile workplace (employees routinely lost fingers on the assembly line), made recruitment that much easier. An AFL union charter was soon granted to Auto-Lite workers.
But the company wasn’t going to give in that easily. While executives promised to negotiate, they refused to meet with union representatives.
In early February 1934, a dozen men walked out, seeking to goad Auto-Lite into recognizing the union. That number swelled to over a thousand by April 1. Community support mushroomed as well: for almost two months, the workers of AFL-FLU Local 18384 and their supporters occupied the streets, courtrooms, and jailhouses of Toledo.
In an attempt to discourage them, a local judge enjoined the strike, allowing Sheriff David Krieger — a suspected recipient of campaign funds from Auto-Lite founder C. O. Miniger — to form a special security force beholden not to the police or Toledoans but to him and the company.
Auto-Lite had wealth and the law on its side. The union, however, was not without allies of its own. AFL representatives, Communist Party members, pro-labor residents, and workers from across the city all joined in the collective protest.
So large was the pro-union coalition that the strike soon found its way into other unions. Dozens lent their support, with many striking in solidarity. A meeting of 103 local unions voted by simple majority to push for a general strike. Union organizer Thomas Ramsey delivered speeches to over six thousand people. By the middle of May, the deputies were besieged. Auto-Lite executives made an appeal to Governor George White.
On May 21, a dozen fully armed companies of the Ohio National Guard arrived outside the Auto-Lite plant and began to barricade the entrance. Mindful of public opinion, Governor White chose not to send the Toledo 107th Cavalry, opting instead to pull troops from other parts of the state.
Commanding the Guard was General Frank D. Henderson — who, earlier that year, had attempted to break a strike in Lima, Ohio by issuing the two thousand Federal Emergency Relief Administration workers a “fasting order,” cutting off food and supplies. (His tactics were quickly denounced in the press and in the court of public opinion.)
In Toledo, many viewed the Guard with disdain. More than $3,500 a day in public money was being spent to feed, house, and pay the deployed troops at the same time tear gas permeated considerable swaths of the city. Entire neighborhoods petitioned the mayor and the governor for the Guard’s removal.
Despite the large, well-armed contingency of troops — and the damage they were inflicting on the city — the strikers were relatively undaunted. Indeed, many strikers didn’t even take the Guardsmen seriously.
Union member and organizer Charles Rigby voiced the opinion of many on the picket-line when he stated that the Guardsmen were confident, “until they learned they was dealing with some old veterans in World War I. So, the boy scouts come out kind of mild.”
Many of the troopers were not even of age; journalist John Grigsby reported that several of them were crying, upset at missing their high school graduations that weekend. Finding the entire situation ridiculous — boys no older than their sons armed and marching in uniform — women on the picket line started chanting, “Go home to your mams and your paper dolls.”
With all of their bravado, though, the strikers still had to deal with a pronounced disparity in arms. On May 24, after days of pitched back-and-forth melees — throwing bricks and stones, fighting with guns and clubs — the tensions on the picket line burst asunder.
The order was given to fire into the crowd.
The volley of bullets found their marks, wounding hundreds and killing two men: Frank Hubay and Steve Cyigon. Colonel William Martin, commanding officer of the company responsible for the shots, steadfastly denied ever giving such an order.
The deaths of civilians galvanized an already-militant strike. Strikers swarmed the Guard and drove the battle into the surrounding neighborhood. Over the next week, hundreds of people would be treated for injuries ranging from bayonet wounds and tear gas blindness to burns and broken bones.
The hostilities continued for days, until on May 31, federal mediators — under the direction of President Roosevelt — ordered the Guard withdrawn.
The removal of the National Guard was the beginning of the end for the anti-union forces. The negative publicity stemming from the shootings, as well as the burgeoning Teamsters strike in Minneapolis, forced Roosevelt to press for a speedy resolution.
Local 18384 emerged from the strike with a qualified victory, winning many of its demands, including a 5 percent raise and seniority recognition. As for the city as a whole, the untrammeled use of force left an indelible mark on its psyche.
Not until the 1973 Kent State Massacre would the Ohio National Guard again be deployed in such numbers.
An Ongoing Struggle
Throughout American history, the National Guard has been used to reinforce state and corporate power at the expense of popular democracy. Far from safeguarding the citizenry, the Guard has simply repressed its radical elements.
While the Guard hasn’t marched on Standing Rock, on at least two occasions, private security guards and state law enforcement have stepped in to dragoon and arrest those blocking construction. Protesters have had dogs sicced on them and guns trained on them. Yet the encampment shows no signs of dying out, even with the harsh North Dakota winter ahead and the ever-present threat of state violence.
Throughout the history of colonialism, global capitalism, and neoliberalism, indigenous people have fought efforts to destroy and dispossess. Those resisting in North Dakota are part of that long, ongoing struggle, forcing themselves into a discussion that was designed to leave them out.
Their foes are similar to those of workers in 1934 Toledo. The forces of global capitalism and exploitation have yet to be subdued. But at Auto-Lite and Standing Rock, the dispossessed have shown a dogged determination to resist.
Whether it is the right to self-determination or the right to a livable planet, the lessons and challenges of 1934 are alive and well in 2016.
Bradley J. Sommer is a doctoral student in the history department at Carnegie Mellon University, studying working-class and African-American history.