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7 Occupations That Changed US History

With the spread of political occupations to all 50 states today, lessons can be gleaned from past occupations for a movement that shows no signs of going away.

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By 1934 the winds began to change. In Toledo, a faltering strike at the Electric Auto-Lite Company was bolstered by the radical Unemployed Leagues and local Communists. Defying court injunctions and mass arrests, more than 10,000 people shut down the Auto-Lite plant in May 1934. The crowd held their ground even after 900 Ohio National Guardsmen killed and wounded nearly 20 people. “With the threat of a general strike in the air,” Piven writes, the corporations agreed to a wage increase and limited union recognition.

At the same time, deadly battles raged in Minneapolis between vigilantes retained by the businessmen’s “Citizen Alliance” and workers led by the Teamsters and the Socialist Workers Party. Panic spread among the ruling class as more than 20,000 people joined the street fighting on the workers side, giving them effective control of the city. With the state government taking more of a neutral stance than usual, a settlement was reached that led to collective bargaining agreements with 500 Minneapolis companies by 1936.

The Longshoremen’s strike in San Francisco was less successful. In May 1934 a Communist-led union helped shut down most of the ports and teamsters honored the picket line. In July the police assaulted pickets, killing two and hospitalizing 115 others. Anger and sympathy swelled support for a general strike, but the AFL undermined it and it folded four days later.

It was the sit-down strike that changed the game, aided by government protections. In 1937 more than 500 sit-down strikes took place, building the United Automobile Workers and the Steel Workers Organizing Committee to more than 650,000 strong by 1938.

Piven describes why the sit-down strike was so effective: “With workers controlling the plant, employers could not import strikebreakers. In cases like General Motors, where many specialized factories depended on each other, a few sit-down strikes could, and did, stop the entire corporation. … Moreover, in the climate of the time, the sit-down strike, itself nonviolent, did not usually precipitate police action. And so the tactic spread, from factory workers to salesgirls, to hospital workers, garbage collectors, and watchmakers, to sailors, farmhands, opticians, and hotel employees.”

3) Harvard Building Women’s Takeover

On International Women’s Day in 1971, March 6, hundreds of women began a 10-day occupation of a Harvard-owned building in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Boston Phoenix reported at the time, “The idea originated with some members of Bread and Roses, a self-avowed socialist organization …. However, the plan was carried out by independent women from a least six different women’s organizations.” In the fall of 1970 Bread and Roses had  circulated a call for a Women’s Center that could provide space for counseling on healthcare, abortion and birth control, legal aid, day care, activities for high-school girls and other community projects, and a place for lesbians.

There were many feminist organizations, collectives, consciousness-raising groups and communes with different politics and purposes at the time, but almost all supported the takeover. Once the occupation began many women who saw it on television or read about it in the newspapers joined or donated food, bedding and other supplies.

The occupiers did not realize there was already a struggle over the building, which was located in an African-American working class community. Harvard's expansion into the community had wiped out some 500 units of affordable housing due to the subsequent rise in property values and rents. The community wanted Harvard to replace that building and an adjacent one with affordable housing. When the women who took over the building learned that they had stumbled into this fight, they adopted the community's demand as one of their own. The women received an anonymous $5,000 donation from a female trustee of Radcliffe. In 1972 they purchased a house for use as a women's center that continues to provide services for the community and which acts as a base of activism for the women's movement.