Worker Lawmaking, Sit-Down Strikes, and the Shaping of American Industrial Relations, 1935-1958

James Gray Pope, Rutgers Law School (Newark)

Forthcoming in the Law and History Review.


This article recounts a legal history of the sit-down strike movement in the United States, focusing on the claim that the sit-downers were engaged in legal practice. It finds strong evidence that many were, and in five distinct forms. First, the sit-down made it possible for mass production workers to legislate and enforce unilateral rules directly regulating relations of production, for example restrictions on the pace of work. Second, sit-downers legislated, adjudicated, and enforced rules governing life in the facilities that they had seized. Third, sit-downers formulated and exercised a legal right of workers to stage a sit-down strike at their place of work. Fourth, sit-downers engaged in self-enforcement of the National Labor Relations Act and the United States Constitution, thereby pressuring the Supreme Court to uphold the Act in April of 1937. Finally, workers used sit-downs to enforce collective bargaining agreements. Courts rejected the strikers’ claims to legality and treated the sit-down as a lawless form of mob violence. After a protracted struggle, the courts’ position prevailed, and shop-floor lawmaking was gradually displaced by the now-familiar regime of bureaucratized collective bargaining.