In 1906, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) began the first ever sit down strike at the General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York
Three thousand IWW members stopped work at a General Electric plant by remaining seated in the building. This action was taken in response to the firing of three IWW members and the company’s refusal to rehire them. This is the first record of a sit-down strike of the 20th Century. When management called in scabs, the striking workers stood in place and took control of the machinery, making it impossible for the plant to be run by scabs.
One of the principal organizers of the action was the famous Irish Marxist, James Connolly.
An IWW leaflet retorted, “…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.”
The Schenectady Union, the local daily paper, reported “The action of the strikers has crippled the works.”
For its part, the AFL did not support the strike. In fact it ordered its members to keep working and threatened disciplinary action against those who respected the IWW strike, “As to any individual organization affiliated with [AFL] going out sympathetic strike, such action will result in the forfeiture of its charter.” The AFL made it clear that it did not consider the IWW to be a “bona fide labor organization, or its members as union members.”
Despite the crippling effect of the strike on GE, such a lack of solidarity crippled the IWW cause. On December 20, after ten days with strikers being fed through windows of the shops by their families and supporters, the IWW members voted to return to work. Although no guarantee was made, it was tacitly understood that GE management would not retaliate against the strikers.