The city of Schenectady, New York, unbeknownst to many, holds a significant piece of labor history that has often gone ignored in both communist discourse and the historiography of organized labor. As this new wave of mass resignations continues to pulse through the United States, so too does the strike in question exemplify a once novel form of striking and resistance making a foothold in the twentieth century. Though this piece of labor history may be overshadowed by other, more prominently studied labor struggles such as the 1912 Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the 1906 Schenectady Sit-Down strike serves as a watershed moment in the development of direct action and organized labor. These developments require further examination and to be highlighted so that the modern working class may be able to understand the lessons of this strike.
It must be noted that based on what could be found on various online archives, along with other online resources, the amount of documentation available for this strike is less than desirable. Some aspects of the strike face contradictions between differing sources, so there will be a certain level of speculation for very particular aspects of this historical event within the confines of what can be built off of the information provided. Barring very brief mentions of the strike in anthologies and encyclopedias of labor, the available historiography is lacking. It is hoped that in the following attempt to expand the study of this strike, others will be inspired to dive further into the narrative of the 1906 Schenectady strike along with other more underappreciated pieces of labor history.
On the fateful day of December 10th, 1906, a large portion of General Electric workers from the Schenectady, New York plant initiated a strike in direct opposition to the actions of the plant’s management. Three workers of the GE plant were fired for claims of “incompetence.” The available literature provides no further context as to what exactly this “incompetence” entailed, leaving it up to speculation as to what the exact reason for this firing was. Given the state of labor law and protections in the early 1900s, however, that does allow the possibility that this “incompetence” could have been something completely mundane that warranted no termination. Despite the comrades of the fired workers pushing for their reinstatement, management ignored these pleas, nay, their demands that the released workers be rehired. Management acted directly in contrast to the will of the workers, crystallizing their antagonistic approach to the issue, and ensuring the construction of a strike.
The Strike Begins
It has been reported that numerous conferences were held between the General Electric workers and management regarding the situation that was at hand. The inability of the two parties to reach an agreement officially opened the opportunity of a strike. Though some sources are conflicting, it’s stated that between 2,000 and 3,000 workers were actively engaged in the striking process. The structure of the strike itself, at least in the early stages, held no endorsement from any particular labor organization. While many of the workers in this plant were members of the Industrial Workers of the World, this strike took on the mantle of a “wildcat strike” in its very early stages, as the IWW had not yet officially endorsed the actions of the Schenectady workers. However, this would not be the case for long.
Soon after the strike began, the IWW had officially become a factor in the strike. Although there is a lack of coverage and research regarding this historical event, particularly concerning both modern labor and communist struggles, the Schenectady strike of 1906 was primarily organized and overseen by one of the most significant Marxist figures of the 20th century. James Connolly, Irish Marxist and revolutionary republican, at one point held residence in the Mohawk Valley of New York State, was directly involved in the GE strike as the prime organizer. An often overlooked part of Connolly’s legacy, he was ultimately responsible for establishing a notable presence for the IWW in the Schenectady plant.
Strategy and Tactics
Proving once more that this particular piece of labor history has gone unnecessarily unknown in communist and labor studies, which is a great misfortune, the 1906 Schenectady Strike boasts having been the site of arguably being the first ever strike of its kind. The striking workers of the Schenectady General Electric plant are credited with implementing the first ever sit-down strike in the United States. Some have cited a brewery workers strike in late 1880s Cincinnati as the first ever sit-down strike in the country, however information regarding that particular spout of labor militancy is even less prevalent than information regarding the current strike in question.
Whereas striking consisted primarily of workers abandoning their work stations and engaging in pickets, the sit-down strike is an organizing technique where the workers refuse to leave their stations while simultaneously withholding their labor power. To a certain degree, as has been argued by one Brendan Maslauskas-Dunn, this method of striking is seen as a sort of primordial stage to the working class permanently seizing the means of production. One particular benefit of this methodology, is that the workers staying at their work stations served as deterrent against the plant managers attempting to bring in scabs to undermine the labor struggle. In at least some form, the workers of the Schenectady General Electric Plant were able to seize the means of production, if only in brief fashion.
Of the many factors that make this piece of history an unnecessarily forgotten phenomenon, the formulating of the tactics utilized further exemplifies the need to highlight some of the more underappreciated and obscure portions of labor history. The sit-down strike, at least in the twentieth century, is credited as being developed by one Lucy Parsons, a black woman with a diasporic ethnic heritage and a veteran of the socialist and labor struggles, being involved with the struggles at Haymarket Square in Chicago, Illinois in the mid 1880s. A founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World, Parsons saw the standard method of striking, while having its own benefits, as a method that ultimately brought about great issues of food security, access to shelter, and other such problems that at the time had led to in some cases more harm than good for the striking workers. In her speech at the IWW’s founding convention, advocating for both a general strike and a new method of striking, Parsons states;
I wish to say that my conception of the future method of taking possession of this is that of the general strike: that is my conception of it. The trouble with all the strikes in the past has been this: the workingmen like the teamsters in our cities, these hard-working teamsters, strike and go out and starve. Their children starve. Their wives get discouraged. Some feel that they have to go out and beg for relief, and to get a little coal to keep the children warm, or a little bread to keep the wife from starving, or a little something to keep the spark of life in them so that they can remain wage slaves. That is the way with the strikes in the past. My conception of the strike of the future is not to strike and go out and starve, but to strike and remain in and take possession of the necessary property of production. If any one is to starve—I do not say it is necessary—let it be the capitalist class. They have starved us long enough, while they have had wealth and luxury and all that is necessary.
Difficulties and Sabotage
As the IWW affiliated workers engaged in their strike, outside influences sought to undermine and ultimately sabotage the efforts of the Wobblies. Particularly, the notably conservative American Federation of Labor actively fought to weaken the impact of the strike and, in essence, the IWW presence as a whole in the GE plant. Members of the AFL that also worked at the Schenectady plant were under orders to show no support for the Wobblies and their cause, as doing so would result in disciplinary action up to and including the dissolving of the local AFL affiliated charter. That the American Federation of Labor would threaten their own members into not supporting the struggle of their fellow workers displays in explicit form the traitorous nature of how the pro-capitalist union truly functioned; as a tool of the ruling class, sabotaging the fight of more radical union members.
Paralleling cries of “nobody wanting to work” in the modern wave of resignations, local media likewise engaged in discourse aiming to discredit the struggle of the Schenectady Wobblies. As detailed by Patrick Murfin, local newspaper the Schenectady Union essentially claimed that the fight of the Schenectady Wobblies was nothing more than a petty squabble over a supposedly trivial issue. The paper stated, in essence, that going on strike over the termination of three workers was unnecessary. In line with the mantra that “an injury to one is an injury to all,” the IWW retorted in a leaflet directed towards the press; “…the question of numbers does not enter into the matter. For the simple reason that if discrimination is permitted in one case. Who then can feel protected? The principle of organization is that protection reaches down to the last man.”
Results of the Fight
Although the General Electric plant was ultimately hurting from the work stoppage and the other efforts of the Wobblies, the striking workers were themselves hurting more. After ten days of fighting, ten days of being fed through windows by family and other supporters so that they may hold their position in the sit-down strike, on December 20th the strike came to an end. As admirable as the struggle at hand was, the fruits of their labor were sadly rotting on the vine.
The desired outcome of the strike unfortunately did not come to fruition. Despite the efforts of the Wobblies and their allies, the three workers who were initially released along with a number of other workers were left without employment after the strike had reached its end point. As the short article states;
The strike leaders appeared before the officials of the works and asked to have the men taken back. The company expressed its willingness to re-employ some of the more efficient, but the great majority are still unemployed. The strikers waived the issue which caused the strike, namely the reinstatement of three discharged draughtsmen. The result is a complete victory for the company.
Though some sources state that there was an informal understanding that there would be no retaliation against the workers from the General Electric, the actions taken as described in the previously quoted news clipping display in blatant fashion a retaliatory attitude from the plant owners. Paralleling Kellogg’s attack on striking workers by hiring permanent replacements in four different states, the deliberate decision to reinstate only portions of the workers who were striking shows the reactionary basis of the plant owners’ approach to the end of the strike.
Perhaps the most damning of events that solidified the failure of the IWW in their Schenectady endeavors is the sabotage carried out by members of the AFL chapter, based solely on the union’s more conservative, pro-capitalist tendencies. As the strike reached its conclusion, the AFL sought to in essence instill a monopoly on union organizing in the Schenectady plant. In the aftermath of the strike, the local AFL moved to establish agreements and contracts with the General Electric plant, solidifying their own micro-hegemony within the realm of labor. Once the AFL wrapped their tentacles around the sphere of organized labor in the GE plant, the IWW had essentially been phased out of the plant after some time. Despite their valiant efforts, the Wobblies were defeated.
Though the efforts of the Industrial Workers of the World failed to produce the desired results, the actions taken in the Schenectady, New York General Electric plant represents a powerful evolution in the methodology of organized labor. Ultimately inspired by a radical black woman, the legendary Lucy Parsons, the workers in Schenectady implemented the first ever sit-down strike in the 20th century, three decades before the sit-down of auto workers in Flint, Michigan. The origin of the inspiration for this once novel form of struggle, in addition to the methods being ultimately the first of their kind, the lack of historical representation and scholarly research regarding this piece of labor and socialist history should be seen as criminal. While a new labor movement continues to grow even in its primordial stage, that is the trend of increasingly more workers quitting their jobs in search of better benefits, payment, and scheduling among other things, the experiences of the first sit-down strike display a powerful lesson in connection with the modern efforts; fight to avoid sabotage and other pressures to give in to the demands of the capitalists while you fight for the betterment of all working people.
 “Two Thousand Men On Strike.” The Sun. December 11, 1906. Available on the Library of Congress website.https://tile.loc.gov/storage-services/service/ndnp/nn/batch_nn_goodman2_ver01/data/sn83030272/100481273/1906121101/0778.pdf.
 “Today in Labor History: First Ever Sit-down Strike.” People's World, December 10, 2012. https://www.peoplesworld.org/article/today-in-labor-history-first-ever-sit-down-strike/.
 Maslauskas-Dunn, Brendan. “James Connolly – the Irish Revolutionary and Martyr Who Called the Mohawk Valley Home.” Love and Rage Media, August 17, 2015. https://loveandragemedia.org/2015/03/17/james-connolly-the-irish-revolutionary-and-martyr-who-called-the-mohawk-valley-home/.
 Murfin, Patrick. “Occupy GE-the IWW Pulled First Modern Sit-down Strike.” December 11, 2011. https://patrickmurfin.blogspot.com/2011/12/occupy-gethe-iww-pulled-first-modern.html.
 Industrial Workers of the World. “IWW Chronology (1904 – 1911).” Industrial Workers of the World (Static Archive), n.d. https://archive.iww.org/about/chronology/1/.
 Murfin, “Occupy GE- the IWW Pulled First Modern Sit-down Strike.”
 Maslauskas-Dunn. “James Connolly – the Irish Revolutionary and Martyr Who Called the Mohawk Valley Home.”
 People’s World. “Today in Labor History: First Ever Sit-down Strike.”
 Grevatt, Martha. “Women Warriors in Labor History.” Workers.org. Workers World Party, March 23, 2012. https://www.workers.org/2012/us/women_warriors_0329/.
 Parsons, Lucy. “The 1905 Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Industrial Workers of the World: Third Day, Afternoon Session.” Marxists.org, June 29, 1905. https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/unions/iww/1905/convention/ch06.htm.
 Murfin. “Occupy GE-the IWW Pulled First Modern Sit-down Strike.”
 Boyle, O.M. “News of the Labor World.” The San Francisco Call, January 1, 1907. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/data/batches/curiv_hercules_ver01/data/sn85066387/00175047669/1907010101/0014.pdf.
 Brookfield, James. “Kellogg's Threatens to Permanently Replace Striking Workers.” World Socialist Web Site, November 25, 2021. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/11/25/kell-n25.html.
 Maslauskas-Dunn. “James Connolly – the Irish Revolutionary and Martyr Who Called the Mohawk Valley Home.”
 “Flint Sit-down Strike, 1936-1937.” Zinn Education Project, April 27, 2018. https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/flint-sit-down-strike/.
Jymee C is an aspiring Marxist historian and teacher with a BA in history from Utica College, hoping to begin working towards his Master's degree in the near future. He's been studying Marxism-Leninism for the past five years and uses his knowledge and understanding of theory to strengthen and expand his historical analyses. His primary interests regarding Marxism-Leninism and history include the Soviet Union, China, the DPRK, and the various struggles throughout US history among other subjects. He is currently conducting research for a book on the Korean War and US-DPRK relations. In addition, he is a 3rd Degree black belt in karate and runs the YouTube channel "Jymee" where he releases videos regarding history, theory, self-defense, and the occasional jump into comedy https://www.youtube.com/c/Jymee