Workers Got Fed Up. Bosses Got Scared

A few weeks after the end of World War II, New York City came to a standstill. Thousands of elevators hung without operators, doors stood without doormen, and buildings languished without repairmen. Business districts closed down; the Garment District emptied out. Almost all deliveries other than the mail stopped coming into Manhattan. America’s commercial center was shuttered. “Make yourselves comfortable,” one union officer publicly warned. It wasn’t a government shutdown; it was a strike—one that started with the elevator operators, doormen, and maintenance workers, and spread to other unionists across the city. (“Fur workers do not want any scabs to run elevators in fur buildings,” declared one sympathy striker.)

While their collective action was monumental, it was also somewhat routine. After the war, these kinds of strikes were de rigueur: In 1946, 4.6 million people—nearly 10 percent of the American workforce—took to the picket line. General strikes rocked entire communities across the country, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Oakland, California, to Rochester, New York. “It was after the war and I think we needed to get our share,” one Oakland striker later explained. “Industry had sure made theirs during the war.”

Many of the country’s major waves of strikes have occurred like this, as postscripts to shattering events of the 20th century—in 1919, 1934, 1946. Each catastrophe redefined our

— source | Jacob Rosenberg | Jan+Feb 2022

Nullius in verba

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