The Flint sit-down strike, 1936-1937 - Jeremy Brecher

A strikers' orchestra in the occupied Flint plant

Jeremy Brecher's account of the great sit-down strike in the General Motors plants in Flint, 1936-1937, where workers occupied the factories and won big concessions.

Herbert Harris estimated that with the coming of the National Recovery Administration in the great depression, 210,000 auto workers joined the American Federation of Labor (A.F.L.) auto locals, though the figure may be excessive.1 Since the employers refused to give any significant concessions, important auto locals voted to strike and a strike throughout the industry seemed inevitable. Workers flooded into the unions to take part in the strike: 20,000 in Flint alone.2 The A.F.L. leadership, however, wanted no part in a strike, and managed to postpone it again and again.

Finally, William Collins, top A.F.L. official in the auto industry, asked President Roosevelt to intervene. Roosevelt immediately demanded that the strike be postponed. Collins told union leaders, "You have a wonderful man down there in Washington and he is trying hard to raise wages and working conditions."3 According to Henry Kraus, editor of the union paper in Flint, "The attitudes of the auto workers toward the President those days bordered on the mystical";4 The local representatives agreed to cancel the strike. Thereupon Roosevelt announced a settlement conceding nothing to the workers but an Automobile Labor Board to hear discrimination cases, legitimizing company unions, and virtually exempting the auto industry from Section 7 A.5

"We all feel tremendously happy over the outcome in Washington," a General Motors vice-president reported.6 In the words of Sidney Fine, "The President made the victory of the automobile manufacturers complete on the issue of representation and collective bargaining."7 Leonard Woodcock (today president of the United Auto Workers) recalls that when the workers in Flint heard of the settlement they felt "a deep sense of betrayal," and began to tear up union cards. By October, 1934, paid-up membership in Flint had plummeted to 528. In several subsequent local strikes, the A.F.L. played a strikebreaking role, even marching its members with a police escort into a motor products plant struck by another union. Those few, mostly young and militant, who remained in the auto union bitterly fought A.F.L. control, and eventually took control of the union and aligned it with the newly emerging C.I.O. (The C.I.O., the alliance of unions aiming to unionize the unorganized basic industries, was soon to be expelled from the AF.L. and establish itself as a new union federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations.)

Like rubberworkers in Akron, the auto workers turned to the sitdown and other forms of job action against the speed-up; we have given one example in a camshaft department above. Quickies occurred sporadically, especially in auto body plants in Cleveland and Detroit, from 1933 through 1935. By late 1936, the highly visible sitdowns in Akron were being imitated by auto workers all over, especially since it was the "grooving-in" period during which new models are introduced. Management as usual tried to increase speed and cut piece rates on new jobs, raising resentment to a peak.

In Flint, heart of the General Motors empire, there were seven work stoppages in the Fisher Body No.1 plant in one week. One day the trim shop knocked off an hour early as a protest. Workers in another shop struck for an extra man and got the line slowed from fifty to forty-five units. Another action won restoration of a twenty percent wage cut. Henry Kraus describes this as "largely a spontaneous movement onto which the union had not yet securely attached itself."8 He tells of Bud Simons, a union leader in the Fisher plant, coming to Bob Travis, the U.A.W. organizer in Flint, and saying, "Honest to God, Bob, you've got to let me pull a strike before one pops somewhere that we won't be able to control!"9

The union tried to win the confidence of the workers by supporting the sitdowns and making itself the agency through which they could be spread. On November 12th, for example, supervision reduced by one the number of "bow-men" who welded the angle irons across car roofs. The other bow-men were two brothers named Perkins and an Italian named Joe Urban; none of them was in the union, but they had been reading about a sitdown at Bendix. Adopting the idea, they simply stopped working. The foreman and superintendent rushed over and tried to talk them into going back to work, but the men just sat there arguing until twenty unfinished jobs had passed on the production line. The whole department followed the argument with intense excitement. Finally the bow-men agreed to go back to work till they could talk with the day-shift about it, but everyone left that night talking about the sitdown. Next day when the Perkins came to work they were sent to the employment office and told that they were fired. They showed their firing slips to Bud Simons and he and the other union committeemen ran through the "body-in-white" department where the main welding and soldering work was done, crying, "The Perkins boys were fired! Nobody starts working!"

The whistle blew. Every man in the department stood at his station, a deep, significant tenseness in him. The foreman pushed the button and the skeleton bodies, already partly assembled when they got to this point, began to rumble forward. But no one lifted a hand. All eyes were turned to Simons who stood out in the aisle by himself. The bosses ran about like mad.

"Whatsamatter? Whatsamatter? Get to work!" they shouted. But the men acted as though they never heard them. One or two of them couldn't stand the tension. Habit was deep in them and it was like physical agony for them to see the bodies pass untouched. They grabbed their tools and chased after them. "Rat! Rat!" the men growled without moving and the others came to their senses.

The superintendent stopped by the "bow-men." "You're to blame for this!" he snarled.

"So what if we are?" little Joe Urban, the Italian cried, overflowing with pride. "You ain't running your line, are you?"

That was altogether too much. The superintendent grabbed Joe and started for the office with him. The two went down along the entire line, while the men stood rigid as though awaiting the word of command. It was like that because they were organized but their organization only went that far and no further. What now?

Simons, a torch-solderer, was almost at the end of the line. He too was momentarily held in vise by the superintendent's overt act of authority. The latter had dragged Joe Urban past him when he finally found presence of mind to call out: "Hey, Teefee, where you going?"

It was spoken in just an ordinary conversational tone and the other was taken so aback he answered the really impertinent question.

"I'm taking him to the office to have a little talk with him." Then suddenly he realized and got mad. "Say, I think I'll take you along too!"

That was his mistake.

"No you won't!" Simons said calmly.

"Oh yes I will!" and he took hold of his shirt.

Simons yanked himself loose.

And suddenly at this simple act of insurgence Teefee realized his danger. He seemed to become acutely conscious of the long line of silent men and felt the threat of their potential strength. They had been transformed into something he had never known before and over which he no longer had any command. He let loose of Simons and started off again with Joe Urban, hastening his pace. Simons yelled: "Come on, fellows, don't let them fire little Joe!"

About a dozen boys shot out of line and started after Teefee. The superintendent dropped Joe like a hot poker and deer-footed it for the door.

The men returned to their places and all stood waiting. Now what? The next move was the company's. The moment tingled with expectancy. Teefee returned shortly, accompanied by Bill Lynch, the assistant plant manager. Lynch was a friendly sort of person and was liked by the men. He went straight to Simons.

"I hear we've got trouble here," he said in a chatty way. "What are we going to do about it?"

"I think we'll get a committee together and go in and see Parker," Simons replied.

Lynch agreed. So Simons began picking the solid men out as had been prearranged. The foreman tried to smuggle in a couple of company-minded individuals, so Simons chose a group of no less than eighteen to make sure that the scrappers would outnumber the others. Walt Moore went with him, but Joe Devitt remained behind to see that the bosses didn't try any monkeyshines. The others headed for the office where Evan Parker, the plant manager, greeted them as smooth as silk.

"You can smoke if you want to, boys," he said as he bid them to take the available chairs. "Well, what seems to be the trouble here? We ought to be able to settle this thing."

"Mr. Parker, it's the speed-up the boys are complaining about," Simons said, taking the lead. "It's absolutely beyond human endurance. And now we've organized ourselves into a union. It's the union you're talking to right now, Mr. Parker."

"Why that's perfectly all right, boys," Parker said affably. "Whatever a man does outside the plant is his own business."

The men were almost bowled over by this manner. They had never known Parker as anything but a tough cold tomato with an army sergeant's style. He was clearly trying to play to the weaker boys on the committee and began asking them leading questions. Simons or Walt Moore would try to break in and answer for them.

"Now I didn't ask you," Parker would say, "you can talk when it's your turn!" In this way he sought to split the committee up into so many individuals. Simons realized he had to put an end to that quickly.

"We might as well quit talking right now, Mr. Parker," he said, putting on a tough act. "Those men have got to go back and that's all there is to it!"

"That's what you say," Parker snapped back.

"No, that's what the men say. You can go out and see for yourself. Nobody is going to work until that happens."

Parker knew that was true. Joe Devitt and several other good men who had been left behind were seeing to that. The plant manager seemed to soften again. All right, he said, he'd agree to take the two men back if he found their attitude was okay.

"Who's to judge that?" Simons asked.

"I will, of course!"

"Uh-uh!" Simons smiled and shook his head.

The thing bogged down again. Finally Parker said the Perkins brothers could return unconditionally on Monday. This was Friday night and they'd already gone home so there was no point holding up thousands of men until they could be found and brought back. To make this arrangement final he agreed that the workers in the department would get paid for the time lost in the stoppage. But Simons held fast to the original demand. Who knew what might happen till Monday? The Perkins fellows would have to be back on the line that night or the entire incident might turn out a flop.

"They go back tonight," he insisted.

Parker was fit to be tied. What was this? Never before in his life had he seen anything like it!

"Those boys have left!" he shouted. "It might take hours to get them back. Are you going to keep the lines tied up all that time?"

"We'll see what the men say," Simons replied, realizing that a little rank and file backing would not be out of the way. The committee rose and started back for the shop.

As they entered a zealous foreman preceded them, hollering: "Everybody back to work!" The men dashed for their places.

Simons jumped onto a bench.

"Wait a minute!" he shouted. The men crowded around him. He waited till they were all there and then told them in full detail of the discussion in the office. Courage visibly mounted into the men's faces as they heard on the unwavering manner in which their committee had acted in the dread presence itself.

"What are we going to do, fellows," Simons asked, "take the company's word and go back to work or wait till the Perkins boys are right here at their jobs?"

"Bring them back first!" Walt Moore and Joe Devitt began yelling and the whole crowd took up the cry.

Simons seized the psychological moment to make it official.

"As many's in favor of bringing the Perkins boys back before we go to work, say Aye!" There was a roar in answer. "Opposed, Nay!" Only a few timid voices sounded -those of the company men and the foremen who had been circulating among the workers trying to influence them to go back to work. Simons turned to them.

"There you are," he said.

One of the foremen had taken out pencil and paper and after the vote he went around recording names. "You want to go to work?" he asked each of the men. Finally he came to one chap who stuck his chin out and said loudly, "Emphatically not!" which made the rest of the boys laugh and settled the issue.

Mr. Parker got the news and decided to terminate the matter as swiftly as possible. He contacted the police and asked them to bring the Perkins boys in. One was at home but the other had gone out with his girl. The police short-waved his license number to all scout cars. The local radio station cut into its program several times to announce that the brothers were wanted back at the plant. Such fame would probably never again come to these humble workers. By chance the second boy caught the announcement over the radio in his car and came to the plant all bewildered. When told what had happened the unappreciative chap refused to go to work until he had driven his girl home and changed his clothes! And a thousand men waited another half hour while the meticulous fellow was getting out of his Sunday duds.

When the two brothers came back into the shop at last, accompanied by the committee, the workers let out a deafening cheer that could be heard in the most distant reaches of the quarter-mile-long plant. There had never been anything quite like this happen in Flint before. The workers didn't have to be told to know the immense significance of their victory. Simons called the Perkins boys up on the impromptu platform. They were too shy to even stammer their thanks.

"You glad to get back?" Simons coached them.

"You bet!"

"Who did it for you?"

"You boys did."

Simons then gave a little talk though carefully refraining from mentioning the union.

"Fellows," he said amid a sudden silence, "you've seen what you can get by sticking together. All I want you to do is remember that."10

Largely in response to this victory, United Auto Workers' membership in Flint increased from 150 to 1,500 within two weeks. The union's objective was to win recognition as the bargaining representative for the auto workers. Discontent was seething in the auto plants and breaking out in strikes all over. Since the auto companies were not willing to recognize the union voluntarily, the obvious approach for the union was to "attach itself' to this strike movement, lead it on a company-wide basis, and use it to negotiate for recognition by the company. As one U.A.W. National Council member had put it some time before, "the only means we have now is to strike. . . we must prove to the automobile workers we can help them."11

Indeed, such "organizational strikes" became the basic tactic of the C.I.O. unions in winning union recognition. Yet the union leadership was ambivalent about a strike. According to J. Raymond Walsh, later research and education director for the C.I.O., "The C.I.O. high command, preoccupied with the drive in steel, tried in vain to prevent the strike. . . "12 Leadership of the U.A.W. believed a strike was necessary, but wanted to postpone it until they were better organized - membership from April to December, 1936, averaged only 27,000 for the entire industry - and resisted attempts to spread various strikes that broke out in November and December.

This attitude was based on the fact that General Motors would be little hurt by strikes in peripheral plants, whereas if the Fisher Body plants in Cleveland and Flint could be closed, perhaps three-quarters of General Motors' production could be crippled. On the other hand, local leaders often reflected the turbulence of the workers in the shops. Thus Adolph Germer, C.I.O. representative for the auto industry, complained,

There is . . . a strong undercurrent of revolt against the authority of the laws and rules of the organization. . . . It is not that the boys are defiant of the organization; I attribute it rather to their youth and dynamic natures. They want things done right now, and they are too impatient to wait for the orderly procedure involved in collective bargaining.13

The union finally requested a collective bargaining conference with General Motors, the key company in the industry. It also announced the goals with which it hoped to gain leadership of the workers: an annual wage adequate to provide "health, decency, and comfort," elimination of speed-up, seniority, an eight-hour day, overtime pay, spreading work through shorter hours, safety measures, and "true collective bargaining."14 It expected events to move toward a head sometime in January. Events, however, did not wait. The workers all over began striking on their own; as Germer complained, "It seems to be a custom for anybody or any group to call a strike at will. . . . "15

In Atlanta, on November 18th, the local called a sitdown over piece rate reductions, to the consternation of national officials of the U.A.W. A week later, the U.A.W.local at the Bendix Corporation in South Bend won a contract after a nine-day sitdown, and a sitdown at Midland Steel Frame Company in Detroit won a wage increase, seniority, and time and a half for overtime. In early December a sitdown at Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company in Detroit forced union recognition. In Kansas City on December 16th, workers sat down over the firing of a union man for jumping over the conveyor to go to the toilet. Detroit experienced a virtual sitdown wave in December, 1936, with workers at the Gordon Baking Company, Alcoa, National Automotive Fibers, and Bohn Aluminum and Brass Co. all sitting down.

Those union leaders who wanted a strike against General Motors were most worried about whether the Fisher plant in Cleveland would come out - many union workers there had lost their jobs in the wake of previous strikes, and no more than ten percent of the workers were in the union. But resentment was running high over grooving-in speed-up, and when on December 28th management postponed a long-awaited meeting to discuss grievances, workers in the quarter panel department said, "to hell with this stalling," and pulled the power switch. Workers in the steel stock, metal assembly and trim departments quit work and soon 7,000 workers were sitting down.16 The local leadership was "taken completely by surprise."17

Meanwhile, events in Flint moved toward the decisive conflict. Two days after the Cleveland strike began, fifty workers sat down spontaneously at the Fisher Body No.2 plant in Flint to protest the transfer of three inspectors who had been ordered to quit the union and refused. Later that night workers in Fisher plant No. 1 discovered that the company was loading dies - critical for the making of car bodies - onto railroad cars for shipment to plants elsewhere. General Motors followed a policy described by Knudson as "diversification of plants where local union strength is dangerous"; half the machinery in the Toledo Chevrolet plant, for example, had been removed after a strike in 1935, leaving hundreds out of work. The workers were furious, and streamed over to the union hall across from the plant where a meeting had been announced for lunchtime. Kraus, who was present, reports that "everybody's mind seemed made up before even a word was spoken."18 When an organizer asked what they wanted to do, they shouted, "Shut her down! Shut the goddam plant!"19 They raced back into the plant, and a few minutes later one of them opened a third story window and shouted, "Hurray, Bob! She's ours!"20

The occupiers rapidly faced the problem of organizing themselves for life inside the plant. (The following description is largely drawn from Fisher No.1, but the pattern was similar in the smaller sitdowns elsewhere.) The basic decision-making body was a daily meeting of all the strikers in the plant. "The entire life of the sitdown came into review here and most of its ideas and decisions originated on the spot," Henry Kraus reported.21 The chief administrative body was a committee of seventeen that reported to the strikers; available records indicate that virtually all its decisions were cleared with the general meeting of strikers. The strikers inside the plant, according to Sidney Fine, "displayed a fierce independence in their relationship with the U.A.W. leadership on the outside." For example, Flint U.A.W. organizer Bob Travis, though personally respected by the strikers, had to ask their permission to send one of his men into the plant to gather material for the press, and he was only allowed in on condition his notes were cleared by the strike executive. A sitdowner told a reporter that he and his companions would not leave the plant even under orders from the union president or John L. Lewis, "unless we get what we want."22

Social groups of fifteen, usually men who worked together in the shop, set up house and lived together family-style in their own corner of the plant, usually with close camaraderie. Each group had its own steward, and the stewards met together from time to time. The actual work of the strike was done by committees on food, recreation, information, education, postal services, sanitation, grievances, tracking down rumors, coordination with the outside, and the like. Each worker served on at least one committee, and was responsible for six hours of strike duty a day. The sitdowners sent out their own representatives to recruit union members, coordinate relief, and create an "outside defense squad."

Special attention was paid to the question of defense. A "special patrol" made hourly inspections of the entire plant day and night, looking for signs of company attack. Security groups were assigned to doorways and stairwells. Strikers set up "a regular production line"23 To make blackjacks out of rubber hoses, braided leather and lead, and covered the windows with metal sheets with holes for fire hoses. The men conducted regular drills with the hoses, and collected piles of bolts, nuts, and door hinges for ammunition.

Sanitation likewise was stressed. At 3 p.m., a crane whistle would blow and all the men would line up at one end of the plant. The first wave would pick up refuse, behind them the second would put things in order, and the third would sweep the floor. The commissary floor was cleaned once an hour. The men showered daily. These measures were aimed at preserving both morale and health. Likewise the workers protected the machinery, in some cases even oiling it, organized fire protection and inspected for fire hazards. Food was prepared on the outside by hundreds of volunteers and brought to the sitdowners by striking trolley coach employees.

Workers established courts to punish infractions of rules. The most serious "crimes" were failures to perform assigned duties by not showing up, sleeping on the job, or deserting the post. Others included failing to bus dirty dishes, littering, not participating in daily clean-up, smoking outside the plant cafeteria, failure to search everyone entering and leaving buildings, bringing in liquor, or making noise in sleeping areas or the "Quiet Zone" where absolute silence was available twenty-four hours a day. Punishments were designed to fit the crime; for example, men who failed to take a daily shower were "sentenced" to scrub the bathhouse. The ultimate punishment, applied only after repeated infractions, was expulsion from the plant. The courts were generally conducted with a good deal of humor and treated as a source of entertainment. For example, a striker who entered a plant without proper credentials was sentenced to make a speech to the court as his punishment; reporter Edwin Levinson observed that "there is more substantial humor in a single session of the Fisher strikers' kangaroo courts than in a season of Broadway musical comedies."24

This kind of informal gaiety and creativity seemed to burgeon in the strike community. A favorite pastime was for the men to gather in a circle and call out the name of a member, who would then have to sing, whistle, dance, or tell a story. Each plant had its own band, composed of mandolins, guitars, banjos and harmonicas. The strikers made up verse after verse about the strike to dozens of popular and country tunes. General meetings, by the strikers' decision, opened and closed with singing; the favorite was "Solidarity Forever." A sitdowner wrote home, "We are all one happy family now. We all feel fine and have plenty to eat. We have several good banjo players and singers. We sing and cheer the Fisher boys and they return it."25 Another wrote, "I am having a great time, something new, something different, lots of grub and music."26 A psychologist declared that, "the atmosphere of cooperativeness" created "a veritable revolution of personality," indicated, for example, by workers more frequently saying "we" and "I."27 As a reporter in Paul Gallico's novelette on the sitdown sensed, "They had made a palace out of what had been their prison."28

Outside the factories, a network of committees supported the strike, organizing defense, food, sound cars, picketing, transportation, strike relief, publicity, entertainment, and the like. Women were particularly important in the outside organization. (The union leadership had decided that only men would occupy the plants, to the anger of some women workers.) Wives' support was essential to strike morale, a fact recognized by the company, which sent representatives calling on them to pressure their husbands back to work. But strikers' wives and women workers poured into the commissary and worked on the various committees. Following a street dance New Year's Eve about fifty women decided to form a Women's Auxiliary, and set up their own speakers' bureau, day care center for mothers on strike duty, first-aid station, welfare committee and the like. After battles began with the police, women established a Women's Emergency Brigade of 350, organized on military lines, ready to battle police. "We will form a line around the men, and if the police want to fire then they'll just have to fire into us," announced a leader.29 "A new type of woman was born in the strike," one of the women said. "Women who only yesterday were horrified at unionism, who felt inferior to the task of organizing, speaking, leading, have, as if overnight, become the spearhead in the battle of unionism."30 Another recalled, "I found a common understanding and unselfishness I'd never known in my life. I'm living for the first time with a definite goal. . . . Just being a woman isn't enough anymore. I want to be a human being with the right to think for myself."31

The union coordinated the strike and put forward union recognition as its central demand. What recognition meant was never clarified, but workers assumed it meant a powerful say for them in industrial decisions and they supported it enthusiastically. The strike spread rapidly from Flint and other initial centers throughout the General Motors system. Auto workers sat down at Guide Lamp in Anderson, Indiana, at Chevrolet and Fisher Body in Janesville, Wisconsin, and Cadillac in Detroit; regular strikes developed at Norwood and Toledo, Ohio, and Ternstedt, Michigan. General Motors was forced to halt production at Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Deleo-Remy, and numerous other plants.32 G.M.'s projected production for January of 224,000 cars and trucks was cut to 60,000, and in the first ten days of February, it produced only 151 cars in the entire country.

General Motors refused to bargain until the plants were evacuated and started a counter-attack on three levels: legal action, organization of an anti-strike movement, and direct violence against the strikers. The third day of the strike, G.M. lawyers requested and received an injunction from Judge Edward Black ordering strikers to evacuate the plants, cease picketing, and allow those wanting to work to enter. The Sheriff read the injunction to the sitdowners, who jeered him menacingly until he fled. Then a quick-witted union lawyer checked and discovered that Judge Black owned 3,365 shares of General Motors stock valued at $219,900. This revealed the judge as a party in interest and made the injunction worthless, as well as showing dramatically the corporation's power over government.

The company's next move was to organize the Flint Alliance "for the Security of Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Community." It was headed by George Boysen, a past and future General Motors official, and as a state police investigator reported, it was "a product of General Motors brains." The Alliance worked in close cooperation with Flint City Manager Barringer.33 It began anti-strike publicity and started recruiting anti-union workers, businessmen, farmers, housewives, schoolchildren and anyone else who would sign a card; a large enrollment was desired, according to Boysen, for "its moral effect toward smothering the strike movement."34

For almost two weeks there was little violence in Flint. But on January 11th, supporters carrying dinner to the sitdowners in Fisher No.2 were stopped at the gate by plant guards, whom the strikers had allowed to hold the ground floor of the factory. The pickets started taking food up a twenty-four-foot ladder, but the guards formed a flying wedge and seized the ladder. Suddenly police closed off all traffic approaches to the plant. An attempt was clearly underway either to starve out the sitdowners or evict them by force, and unless the workers took the gates it would succeed. Twenty sitdowners, armed with blackjacks, marched downstairs and demanded the key to the gate. "My orders are to give it to nobody," the company policeman in charge replied.35 The sitdowners gave them to the count of ten, then charged the gate. The guards fled and locked themselves in the ladies room. The sitdowners put their shoulders to the wooden gates and splintered them, to the cheers of the pickets who had quickly gathered outside.

Then suddenly patrol cars drew up and city policemen began pouring out, throwing gas grenades at the pickets and into the plant. At this point the earlier defensive preparations came in handy; the sitdowners dragged firehoses to the windows and showered the police with two-pound door hinges. Within five minutes the police, drenched and battered, retreated from the vicinity. The police attacked again, but the outside pickets regrouped and drove them off. In retreat the police began firing their guns, wounding thirteen.

The conflict was quickly dubbed the Battle of the Running Bulls. It was considered a great victory for the strikers and a demonstration that they could hold out against police attack; in its wake, hitherto hostile workers flooded into the union. It also caused Governor Frank Murphy to order the National Guard into Flint.36

Murphy was a New Deal Governor par excellence. In Detroit he had been one of the most liberal mayors in the country, providing exceptional public assistance to the unemployed and preventing the police from suppressing radicals. He was elected Governor with overwhelming labor support, and had insisted on making welfare relief available to strikers. He was also on close terms with such auto magnates as Walter Chrysler and Lawrence Fisher of Fisher Body, whose plants were the chief target in Flint. Although it was not known at the time, Murphy was also the owner of 1,650 shares of General Motors stock worth $104,875.150 Murphy did not intend to use the Guard to drive the sitdowners out by force. In this decision he was fully supported by General Motors, whose officials told Murphy privately that they did not want the strikers "evicted by force."37 Knudson stated publicly that G.M. wanted the strike settled by negotiation rather than violence. Murphy, who believed the sitdown illegal but feared bloodshed in evicting the strikers, used the Guard to prevent vigilante attacks while holding the threat of a starve-out over the workers' heads. Murphy even succeeded in arranging a truce in which the union would evacuate the plants in exchange for a company pledge not to remove machinery or open the plants for fifteen days. This would have given away the strikers' strongest point, their possession of the plants, but it was scotched when the union labelled G.M.'s plans to negotiate with the Flint Alliance a double-cross and called off the truce.

Failing to evacuate the plants by negotiation, G.M. applied for a new injunction from a different judge. Meanwhile pressure built up as strikers were attacked by police in Detroit, vigilantes in Saginaw, and both in Anderson, Indiana. At this point the local leaders in Flint devised a bold initiative to shift the balance of forces by seizing the giant Chevrolet No.4 plant. The problem was that union strength at Chevrolet No.4 was limited and the plant was heavily protected by company guards. At a meeting of carefully selected Chevrolet workers which deliberately included company spies, Bob Travis announced a sitdown at Chevrolet No.9 at 3:20 the next day, February 1st. Key leaders at No.9 were told that they need only hold the plant for half an hour, as the real target was No.6. As expected, company guards next day had been tipped off and shifted from the No.4 to the No.9 area. At 3:20 201 workers sat down at No.9, company guards rushed in, and the diversionary battle began. Meanwhile, a handful of workers in Chevrolet No.4 who knew the plan marched around the factory shouting, "Shut 'er down!"38 But were too few even to be heard. Those in on the plan in plant No.6, meanwhile, led a small group over to No.4. They were still too few to close down the huge plant, however, and it seemed as if the plan had failed. But when they returned to No.6, they found the whole plant on strike, and the workers marched en masse back to No.4 and shut it down. About half the No.4 workers joined the sitdown, the rest dropping their lunches in gondolas for the sitdowners as they left.

The capture of Chevrolet No.4 changed the balance of forces. It demonstrated that the workers, far from being exhausted, were still able to expand their grip on the industry. As a result, General Motors agreed to negotiate without evacuation of the plants. The law and order forces tried one more offensive, however. January 2nd, Judge Gadola issued a new injunction ordering evacuation of the plants and an end to picketing within twenty-four hours; when the workers ignored it he issued a writ of attachment and claimed authority to have the National Guard enforce it without approval of the Governor. In the final crisis, thousands of workers poured into Flint from hundreds of miles around-auto plants in Detroit and Toledo were shut down by the exodus of workers to Flint. To avoid the appearance of provocation, the mobilization was declared Women's Day and women's brigades came in from Lansing, Pontiac, Toledo and Detroit. The crowd of perhaps 10,000 virtually occupied Flint, parading through the heart of the city, then surrounding the threatened Fisher No. 1 plant, armed with thirty-inch wooden braces provided from the factory.

Learning that the Guard would not evict the sitdowners, City Manager Barringer ordered all city police on duty and decided to organize a 500-man "army of our own." "We are going down there shooting," he announced. "The strikers have taken over this town and we are going to take it back."39

The tenor of events is suggested by a plan worked out without union knowledge by the Union War Vets, who had taken responsibility for guarding strike leaders outside the plants. Had leaders been arrested under the Gadola writ, the veterans "would muster an armed force among their own number and in defense of the U.S. Constitution, of 'real Patriotism,' and the union, would take over the city hall, the courthouse and police headquarters, capture and imprison all officials and release the union men."40

The rug was pulled from under City Manager Barringer's "army" when a G.M. official asked him to demobilize, saying, "The last thing we want is rioting in the streets,"41 A result the workers' mass mobilization would have made inevitable.

General Motors agreed to recognize and bargain with the union in the struck plants and promised not to deal with any other organization in them for six months. As Sidney Fine wrote,

What the U.A.W., like other unions at the time, understood by the term "recognition" has always been rather nebulous, but the union believed, and it had reason to, that it had been accorded a status of legitimacy in G.M. plants that it had never before enjoyed. It was confident that it would be able to consolidate its position in the 17 plants during the six-month period because it had no rivals to contend with.42

But if the agreement established the union firmly enough, it did little for the concrete grievances of the workers. When Bud Simons, head of the strike committee in Fisher No. 1, was awakened and told the terms of the settlement, he remarked, "That won't do for the men to hear. That ain't what we're striking for."43 When the union presented the settlement to the sitdowners, they asked, "How about the speed of the line? How about the bosses - would they be as tough as ever?" Did the settlement mean everything stood where it did when they started?44

The workers' forebodings were borne out by the negotiations which followed the evacuation of the plants. In the words of Irving Bernstein, "The corporation's policy was to contain the union, to yield no more than economic power compelled and, above all, to preserve managerial discretion in the productive process, particularly over the speed of the line."45 The fundamental demand of the strike from the point of view of the workers had been "mutual determination" of the speed of production, but under the collective bargaining agreement signed March 12th, local management was to have "full authority" in determining these matters - if a worker objected, "the job was to be restudied and an adjustment was to be made if the timing was found to be unfair."46 Further, instead of having a shop steward for every twenty-five workers, directly representing those they worked with, the union agreed to dealing with management through plant committees of no more than nine members per plant. Finally, the union agreed to become the agency for repressing workers' direct action against speed-up and other grievances, pledging that

There shall be no suspensions or stoppages of work until every effort has been exhausted to adjust them through the regular grievance procedure, and in no case without the approval of the international officers of the union.47

Such agreements were not enough to control workers who had just discovered their own power. Workers assumed victory in the strike "would produce some radical change in the structure of status and power in G.M. plants," and they "were reluctant to accept the customary discipline exercised by management"; they "ran wild in many plants for months."48 As one worker later recalled, "every time a dispute came up the fellows would have a tendency to sit down and just stop working."49 According to Knudson, there were 170 sitdowns in G.M. plants between March and June, 1937.50

For example, on March 18th, 200 women sat down in a sewing room in the Flint Fisher Body No.1 plant in a dispute over methods of payment. An hour later 280 sat down in sympathy with them in another sewing room. Next, sixty men sat down in the shipping department. Soon the entire plant was forced to shut down. "Since the strike was clearly in violation of the agreement. . . in which the union promised to protect the company against sitdowns during the life of the agreement, union officials hurried to Flint to settle the matter."51

Two weeks later 935 men struck in the final Chevrolet assembly plant. Then the parts and service plant struck in sympathy, closing Fisher Body Plant No.2. Finally, workers in all departments of the Chevrolet complex walked out in sympathy. Meanwhile, the Fisher Body Plant and the Yellow Truck and Coach Plant in Pontiac were closed by workers protesting discharge of fellow workers. In all, 30,000 workers were involved in the wildcats at this time. This indicated that the workers had developed the ability to coordinate action between plants and even between cities without the union. Union officials told Governor Murphy that they were "mystified" by the sitdowns and that "their representatives in the plants told them they had been 'pushed into' the new sitdowns without union authorization."52

Equally important, the workers won control over the rate of production, despite the union contract that conceded this authority to management. The New York Times reported April 2nd,

Production in the Chevrolet Motor plants has been slowed down to nearly 50 per cent of former output during the last several weeks by concerted action of the union workers, with key men on the mother line stopping work at intervals to slow down production.53

Despite the failure of the union to win control over the production rates, a Fisher No. 1 worker who had opposed the big strike wrote,

The inhuman high speed is no more. We now have a voice, and have slowed up the speed of the line. And [we] are now treated as human beings, and not as part of the machinery. The high pressure is taken off. . . . It proves clearly that united we stand, divided or alone we fall.54

Excepted and very slightly edited to make sense as a stand-alone article from Strike! - Jeremy Brecher.

  • 1. Harris, p. 281.
  • 2. Kraus, p. 10.
  • 3. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, pp. 182-3.
  • 4. Kraus, p. 12.
  • 5. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, pp. 184-5.
  • 6. Cited in Fine, p. 31.
  • 7. Ibid.
  • 8. Kraus, p. 42.
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. Ibid., pp. 48-54.
  • 11. Fine, p. 75.
  • 12. J. Raymond Walsh, C.I. O. -Industrial Unionism in Action
  • 13. Cited in Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 501.
  • 14. Fine, p. 97.
  • 15. Germer to Brophy, Nov. 30,1936, cited in Fine, p. 136.
  • 16. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 524.
  • 17. Ibid.
  • 18. Kraus, p. 87.
  • 19. Ibid., p. 88.
  • 20. Ibid., p. 89.
  • 21. Ibid., p. 93.
  • 22. New York Times, Feb. 1 &9,1937, cited in Fine, p. 172.
  • 23. Fine, p. 165.
  • 24. Edward Levinson, "Labor on the March," in Harper's Magazine CLXXIV (May 1937), cited in Fine, p. 160.
  • 25. Cited in Fine, pp. 173-4.
  • 26. Cited in Fine, p. 171.
  • 27. Solomon Diamond, "The Psychology of the Sit-Down," in New Masses, XX III (May 4, 1937), p. 16. cited in Fine, p. 157.
  • 28. Paul Gallico, "Sit-Down Strike," p. 159, cited in Fine, p. 171.
  • 29. Genora Johnson, cited in Fine, p. 201.
  • 30. Cited in Fine, p. 201.
  • 31. Ibid.
  • 32. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 525.
  • 33. Fine, p. 189.
  • 34. Ibid., p. 188.
  • 35. Kraus, p. 128.
  • 36. Fine, p. 155.
  • 37. Ibid., p. 236.
  • 38. Kraus, p. 211.
  • 39. Fine, p. 281.
  • 40. Kraus, p. 248.
  • 41. Fine, p. 282.
  • 42. Ibid., pp. 306-7.
  • 43. Ibid., p. 307.
  • 44. Kraus, p. 287.
  • 45. Bernstein, p. 551.
  • 46. Fine, p. 325.
  • 47. New York Times, April 11,1937.
  • 48. Fine, p. 321.
  • 49. Ibid.
  • 50. Bernstein, Turbulent Years, p. 559.
  • 51. New York Times, Mar. 19, 1937.
  • 52. New York Times, Apr. 2,1937.
  • 53. Ibid.
  • 54. Alfred H. Lockhart to Gernsley F. Gorton, Mar. 7, 1937, William H. Phelps Papers, Michigan Historical Collection, cited in Fine, p. 328.

Comments

Ed
Sep 4 2013 18:02

Nice one for putting this up! I think the story of the Perkins brothers is one of my favourites in possibly the entire history of the class struggle!

Steven.
Sep 4 2013 22:01
Ed wrote:
Nice one for putting this up! I think the story of the Perkins brothers is one of my favourites in possibly the entire history of the class struggle!

yeah, me too!