Long before the formation of the United Auto Workers and the long and deadly strikes that followed during the 1930’s, Toledo was the scene of numerous strikes and several violent labor riots. One of the largest took place at the old Willys Overland plant in the year 1919.
A strike by over 7,000 workers had shut down the Overland motor plant for a number of weeks over the issue of a 48 hour work week. The unions wanted no more than 45 hours. Everyday as the strike lingered, more clashes developed between the strikers and those loyal employees who wanted to go back to work. Outside the plant, hundreds, if not thousands of striking workers, supporters and onlookers would gather to watch the drama unfold. On June 4th, in a culmination of tensions between the striking workers and the newly hired armed guards at the plant, a series of events between a large crowd of Polish workers and some of the armed guards, erupted in teargas and gunfire. The guards, many of them recently discharged soldiers reportedly shot into the crowd to keep them at bay. Dozens of people were wounded and at least two people were killed. The already highly charged situation was only aggravated by the shootings and Mayor Schreiber of Toledo tried to convince Ohio Governor Cox to send in troops “immediately” to quell the situation. Cox, however, refused to send troops. The mayor, himself, fearing that he and his family were in danger, actually moved to a downtown hotel where he was kept under secure guard.
While many people are aware of the notorious Auto-Lite strike and deadly riots of 1934, fewer people seem aware of this earlier Overland strike. A strike that eventually ended after an order of the federal court, demanding that strikers not interfere with the company or its operations. But even then, it will be remembered that Toledo’s legacy of collective labor action did not begin in the 1930’s , but began decades before with many brave men and women who helped lay the foundation upon which the labor movement would eventually be built.