Lest we forget: in tribute to the pioneers of the great Flint sit down strike - Ronda Hauben

Lest we forget: in tribute to the pioneers of the great Flint sit down strike - Ronda Hauben

Retrospective look at conditions workers endured prior to the Flint sit down strike of 1937-38, and how they went on to win.

Remember when the `Sit Down' came?
And all the papers laid the claim
Against each Union Member's name?
"SUBVERSIVE!"
from the poem "Subversive"
by Floyd Hoke-Miller*

Fifty years ago, on February 11, 1937, auto workers in Flint, Michigan marched triumphantly out of the factories they had occupied for 44-days. They had endured cold, tear gas, gun shot wounds, injunctions, etc., but they did indeed "Hold the Fort" until G.M. agreed to grant sole bargaining rights to their
union, the UAW. One historian, evaluating the significance of the Sit Down, writes:

The era of the New Deal was studded with great strikes, many
of them signifying an upheaval of unskilled labor in the
nation's mass production industries.
(Thomas Karman, "The Flint Sit-Down Strike,"
Michigan History, June, 1962, p. 98)

The strike wave of the 1930's made it possible, for the first time to have industry-wide, rather than craft unions in the United States. But to understand the strike wave of the 1930's, it is necessary to look back to its roots in the 1880's.

"There has been labor unrest ever since there was a factory
system," points out one commentator, "but the movement referred
to [in the 1930's-ed] can properly be traced back to 1886-87, a
period of open warfare characterized for the first time by a
series of important strikes on the issue of the right to organize
and bargain collectively through nationwide unions." (Fortune
Magazine, Nov. 1937)

The "right to organize and bargain collectively" was the long-sought goal of the labor movement through the fifty year period from the 1880's through the 1930's. That right had been conceeded in other industrial countries, while it was bitterly resisted in the U.S.

American businessmen adamantly opposed this right. 35% of the workers in Britain were in unions and 70% of the Swedish workers were unionized in the mid '30's. But the U.S. nonagricultural labor force had only 18% of its workers in unions. Now in 1987, once again only 18% of the U.S. labor
force--down from 37% in 1945--is unionized.

The period before and after the Depression of 1929 was one of radical technological change. The auto industry of the 1920's was heralded as the epitomy of the modern world. It was pointed to as proof that the "old-fashioned" features of modern industrial life like trade unions had been "eliminated."

But for workers, the situation was quite different. Ken Malone, a `37 sit-downer described what life in the shops was like before the Depression:

We were a pretty good bunch of guys in those days. No
Seniority. No Union. No Contract. No Committeeman. No Pay.
No Nothing but work, work, work, and more work. There wasn't
a war on then, but we worked 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Absenteeism was unheard of. Failure to report to work cost
you your "job".
("Whadda Yuh Mean, Tough Cookies,"
The Searchlight, Jan. 20, 1944, p. 2)

The assembly line had become the definition of modern labor relations.

With the stock market crash of '29 came even more intolerable working conditions. Malone describes the effect of the Depression on his working conditions at GM:

About this time the depression hit. Thousands...were laid
off without any means of making a living....I well remember
the boss coming to me and saying, Ken, production has been
cut out two-thirds and we are going to lay off a large
number of men and here is the way we are going to do it. The
next two weeks we are going to watch all men and see who runs
the most production and WE ARE GOING TO KEEP THE MEN WHO RUN
THE MOST....We all speeded up, so instead of 70% being laid
off it was 90%. After the lay off we worked about 2 days a
week, but in those 2 days we did about 4 days work, for
everyday the boss was threatening us if we didn't run more
stock.
(Ibid.)

By the mid 1930's the economy was recovering, but there were still more than 11 million out of work. The AFL called for a Congressional Investigation into the new technology that management was using to displace workers. The headlines of a typical article in an AFL newspaper during the period read:
"Business Recovers, but Millions are Kept Jobless."(Flint Weekly Review, Jan. 17, 1936)

Workers were organizing and looking for some mechanism of fighting their intolerable conditions. In 1936 the newly formed UAW sent an organizer to Flint, MI the heart of the GM empire. Wyndham Mortimer wrote a series of articles he sent to workers describing the problems brought about by the rapid technological change and outlining the UAW program. In one article he describes the kind of trouble auto workers were facing:

"In Cleveland," he wrote, "1,000 workers have permanently
lost their jobs as a result of the elimination of wood in the all
steel bodies. In Norwood, Ohio, 200 men are permanently out of
work for the same reason....There is the ever increasing
productivity of the improved machinery that produces prodigiously
with an ever decreasing number of workers." His articles proposed
shorter hours, higher wages, and unionization in the mass
production industries.("Mortimer Points Out the Evils of New
Machinery", "FWR", Sept. 18, 1936)

To combat the growing movement for industry-wide unions, companies like General Motors introduced company unions, known as Works Councils. An individual grievance procedure was set up, but workers found the Works Councils, controlled as they were by the centralized power of GM management, powerless.

On Dec. 30, 1936, management in the Fisher II factory in
Flint, MI tried to fire three UAW members. Fellow and sister
workers stopped work and occupied the factory. The major daily
newspaper in Flint reported: "A sit-down strike in which 22 men
are said to have taken part, halted all operations at the No. 2
plant of the Fisher Body Division here this morning...throwing
2,200 men out of work."
( "Strike Halts Car Assembly", Flint Journal,
Dec. 30, 1936.)

A sit-downer in the plant remembers the story quite differently. Not twenty-two workers, but everyone he worked with stopped work to join the sit-down.
"Everyone of those fellows,"
he recalls, "had pretty much the same idea and they weren't
taught by anybody....The idea was to stay put and to hold the
plant."
(Interview with Roscoe Rich, December 30, 1986)

"We were," he stressed, "all different people thinking the
same." Roscoe Rich, who was elected the Sit-downers' Chief of
Police in Fisher II, explains that before the sit-down strike
most of the men working in the plant didn't even know each
other's names. But they got to know each other once the sitdown
began. A lot, he explains, were young guys since GM usually threw
a man out by the time he was 40. But he and others felt that
working under such bad conditions meant "there were no tomorrows
so what have you got to lose."

An anonymous sit-downer, writing in his strike diary, describes the seizure of the Fisher II plant on December 30, 1936 at 6:45 a.m.

Men waving arms -- they have fired some more union men.
Stop the lines. Men shouting. Loud talking. The strike is
on. Well here we are Mr. Diary....This strike has been
coming for years. Speed-up system, seniority, overbearing
foremen. You can go just so far you know, even with working
men. So let's you and I stick it out with the rest of the
boys. We are right and when you're right you can't lose.
(from "Holding the Fort: A Sit-downer's
Diary", Flint, MI, 1986)

Several hours later, on the afternoon of Dec. 30, workers at the Standard Cotton Products Co. a supplier for GM, sat down. Then around 10 p.m. that night, workers at the big Fisher I factory in Flint took over their plant.

"Thus began the first great auto strike, one of the most
dramatic labor conflicts in our history," comments J. Raymond
Walsh in his book CIO:Industrial Unionism In Action, (N.Y, 1937)
He goes on to document how the impetus for the Flint Strike came
from the ranks of the auto workers, in opposition to the
leadership of the C.I.O. "The C.I.O. high command," he explains,
"preoccupied with the drive in steel, tried in vain to prevent
the strike; it was fed by deep springs of resentment among
thousands of men against a corporation grossly derelict in its
obligations..."(p.112)

Then on Jan. 3, 1937, 200 U.A.W. delegates from around the
country met in Flint to create a Board of Strategy. They elected
Kermit Johnson, a rank and file autoworker at the Chevrolet
Engine Plant as the head of their strategy committee. The
delegates authorized a formal corporation-wide strike and they
served GM with a set of the following 8 demands:
"first of all, that the representatives of the United Auto
Workers and General Motors meet for an industry wide
conference to discuss the differences between labor and
management; second, that all piece-work be abolished and
straight hourly rates of pay be adopted; third, that a thirty
hour work week and a six hour workday be established with time
and a half for overtime; fourth, that a minimum rate of pay
commensurate with the American standard of living be estab-
lished throughout the corporation's domestic plants; fifth,
that all employees unjustly discharged be reinstated; sixth,
that seniority rights be based upon length of service;
seventh, that the UAW be recognized as the sole bargaining
agent between General Motors and its employees; and , final-
ly, the speed of production be mutually agreed upon by
management and a union committee in all General Motors
plants." (Thomas A. Karman, "The Flint Sit-Down Strike",
"Michigan History", June, 1962, pages 105 and 106.)

General Motors responded to the strikes with a back-to-work movement called the Flint Alliance (The Flint Alliance for the Security of Our Jobs, Our Homes and Our Community). The Flint
Journal was filled with news of petitions signed by "happy" workers who wanted the strike ended. (Even in 1987, 50 years later, the Flint Journal is still trying to rewrite history, claiming that 91% of the workers in Chevrolet signed back-to-work petitions. See Flint Journal, Jan. 9, 1987, p. D1.)

A union newspaper called The Chevy Worker was started on Jan. 7, 1937 to counter the company back-to-work movement. One article in the first issue exposed how workers were being forced
to sign the Flint Alliance petitions and were threatened if they didn't sign. "A petition is supposed to be a voluntary expression of opinion," the article explained, "How voluntary are these petitions that you have had to sign Chevy workers:

Glance at a few facts.

1. Thursday morning, January 7th, a petition was circulated in Plant No 5 and those refusing to sign were told that their names would be referred to the office and that they would be ineligible for loans from the company thereafter."

The article goes on to give other examples of supervisors threatening workers to solicit their signatures.

While the petitions were being passed around and forced
on workers by supervision, a group of workers meeting outside the
Chevy union hall were attacked by some GM supervisors: "Violence
has been started in this strike by the co," Chevy workers
reported, "We know who the men were ...We are going to name the
dirty rats right here and now, so that they can be shunned by all
honest men." ("GM Starts Violence", Chevy Auto Workers, vol. 1,
no. 2, Jan. 8, 1937)

The police came and arrested not the attackers, but the victims of the attack. Two union men were taken off to jail. The police charged them with fighting with each other. 200 demonstrators went to the jail protesting the arrest and demanding the release of the two. In the meantime, a union member from Fisher I, William Coburn, leaving the demonstration, was hit by a car and died as a result of his injuries.

On Jan. 11, 1937, police tried to cut off food to the
strikers in Fisher II. A battle ensued when the police shot tear
gas and shot-gun bullets at the strikers and their supporters who
surrounded the plant. At midnight," reported Rose Pesotta, a CIO
organizer who was sent to the scene, "the police tried a second
time to force their way into the plant, but were met by a deluge
of cold water from a fire-hose and an avalanche of two-pound
steel automobile hinges. The cops' line broke under this defen-
sive onslaught. Defeated and shame-faced they left the scene at
top speed." (Bread Upon the Waters, N.Y., 1944, p. 241-2)

The victorious battle of Jan. 11 became known as the Battle of Bulls Run, for the police, who were at that time called "bulls", had been routed.

Pesota visited the sit-downers inside the occupied plants and describes how they endured the 44-day ordeal to hold to their goal. She writes:

Newspapers and periodicals of various political shades,
labor papers and mystery magazines were among the reading
matter in evidence....Most of these men had worked for
Fisher Body from four to 12 years. They told me it was tough
to sit around and do nothing after the speed-up had got into
their blood. `But I'll sit here till hell freezes under me,'
said one. `I won't give up the fight for I know where I'll
land if we don't win this time.' (p. 238-239)

Each occupied plant had its own governing body to make decisions and to carry out discipline. There was a kangaroo court charged with disciplining violations of the regulations passed. There were sanitation committees, recreation committes, educational committees, among others. "Punch Press", the official strike bulletin of the sit-downers, provided the following description of how strikers organized themselves in the plants:

The most astonishing feeling you get in the sit-down
plants is that of ORDER. Every activity is systematized.
Communications are automatic; each striker has his hours of
duty, his hours of play and rest; there is an organization
set up for every routine problem, plus a lot of other
problems; if you want first-aid, it is a department, a
subdivision of Welfare; Transportation? That also is a
section by itself. Would you beautify yourself? It has a
department. The plant has been re-administered. As one
striker said, "No matter what happens, this plant will never
be the same again!"
("Punch Press, Official Strike Bulletin", No.7
U.A.W.A. Local #156, p. 1)

By January, 1937 strikes had shut down a large part of GM's operations. Almost all of the company's 200,000 employees were out on strike or were out of work because of the lack of parts. Eighteen plants in ten cities were on strike. Besides Flint, the other cities hit by strikes were Detroit, St. Louis, Mo. Toledo,
Ohio, Cleveland, Ohio, Janesville, Wisc., Anderson, Indiana and Norwood, Ohio, Atlanta, Georgia, Kansas City, Mo.

GM seemed to be getting desperate. There were growing
indications that the company was willing to try to use violence
to break the strike. Mobs had attacked strikers in Anderson, Ind.
on Jan 27, in Bay City, MI on Jan 27, and in Anderson, Ind on
Jan. 28. The sit-downers felt that it was important to go on the
offensive. But they understood the need to take into
account the presence of company-planted stool pigeons inside
the union, as shown through the LaFollette investigation being
conducted by Congress. Rose Pesota, explains, "As in war,
something unexpected and startling was called for...." (p. 243)

What followed was one of the most skillful strategic plans used by labor in all of American history. Kermit Johnson, the rank and file chairman of the '37 strike strategy committee describes what was done:

A few of us on the strike committee had met almost
constantly for a week on a plan to shut down the Motor Plant
of Chevrolet....Plant 4 was huge and sprawling, a most
difficult target, but extremely important to us because the
corporation was running the plant, even though they had to
stockpile motors in anticipation of favorable court action;
G.M. had already recovered from the first shock of being
forced to surrender four of their largest body shops to sit-
down strikes. They already had the legal machinery in motion
that would, within a short time, expel by force if necessary
the strikers from the plants. If that happened, we knew the
strike would be broken.
(from "Lest We Forget",The Searchlight, Flint,
MI, Feb. 11, 1960.)

Kermit Johnson and the rest of the strike strategy committee realized that if they could get and hold Plant 4, they could stop production sufficiently to mortally wound GM. But 100 feet from plant 4 was the company personnel building which was used as an arsenal for the company police.

"Even the top leadership in the CIO, including John L.
Lewis," Kermit wrote, "were seriously worried about the GM
situation. When Lewis' right-hand man, John Brophy, approved our
plan of action, he did it with great reluctance and a complete
lack of confidence. He couldn't conceive of a successful strike
in a plant that was less than one-fourth organized."

The strike strategy committee developed a diversionary plan. They held a meeting of carefully chosen union men, but insuring that included was a General Motors' stool pigeon. They
convinced the men at the meeting that they would take Plant 9, despite the fact that Plant 4 was the vital plant for Chevrolet production. The stool pigeon convinced GM that the strikers planned to seize Plant 9. Thus the strikers lured the plant guards away from Plant 4. With the guards gone, the thousands of
workers in Plant 4 were able to fight the necessary battles against supervision and company goons to gain control of their plant. And when the police tried to enter Plant 4, they were stopped at the gate by the Women's Emergency Brigade, a paramilitary group of women wearing red tams and red armbands
who played a crucial role in defending the sit-downers.

Writers in Fortune Magazine in Nov. 1937 were compelled to admit, "Out of all the sensational news of the auto strike, the seizing of Chevy IV was the high point. " They saw it as an
"illustration of labor's growing initiative...it serves as a landmark," they acknowledged, " measuring how far labor had traveled in less than three years and through some 4,000 strikes."

On February 11, 1937, sit-downers emerged from their occupied factories and joined a long parade through the streets of downtown Flint. General Motors had been forced to sign a one page document conceding to the UAW the basis to become the sole bar- gaining agent for the auto workers.

The sit-downers went back to work by Feb. 18. They found
that GM had not changed. To the contrary, the LaFollette
Committee hearings document how GM management singled out union
people and threatened or tried to fire them when they returned to
work. In Chevrolet, Arnold Lenz, the anti-union plant manager,
marched 1000 men armed with clubs through the plant. And the
workers fought back, sometimes with slowdowns, sometimes with
sit-down strikes as their way to resolve grievances or settle
injustices. For example, there were sitdowns at plant No. 4 and
No. 8 in Flint on March 6 when 6500 workers sat down, and on
March 8, 500 workers in Plant 4 sat down. (Sidney Fine, Sit-Down,
Ann Arbor, Mi, 1969, p. 322)

Floyd Hoke-Miller, a sit-downer in Plant 4, sums up the victory of '37. "We didn't win the war, but we developed the unity to fight the coming battles."

The sit-downers of `37 went on to lead the fight for the contractual rights workers have today: seniority, a grievance procedure, vacation pay, COLA, pensions, 30 and out retirement, medical insurance, etc. The story of how they won these gains is even less known than the little known story of the Great Flint Sit Down Strike. But the story is a tremendously important one.

The Chevy Worker, the newspaper started by the Chevy workers on Jan. 7, 1937 to name the "dirty rats...so that they can be shunned by all honest men" became the precursor of shop papers put out by UAW locals across the country.

The newspaper put out by the Plant 4 sit-downers, was called
The Searchlight. It was subtitled,"The Voice of the Chevrolet
Worker." In testimony before the War Labor Board in Washington,
G.M.'s Director of Labor Relations complained," We always had a
tough bunch of cookies up at Chevrolet-Flint to deal with. That
was the breeding ground for the sit-down strikes...It is this
same group of people," he went on, "that we thought that through
the evolution of labor relationship...would probably be changed
and improved." He lamented, "They are now back in the saddle and
one very interesting paper (The Searchlight, official local
publication) they got out recently is directed at `Herr Thomas'
[Pres. of the UAW -ed]. So the worm has turned and they have
got their own union officials, some of whom they dislike, to
replace us in the news."(The Flint Journal, January 7, 1944)

In response, George Carroll, the first editor of The Searchlight, explained, "We have criticized (not attacked) R. J. Thomas [Pres. of UAW-ed] and Phillip Murray [Pres. of CIO -ed] and shall continue to exercise the right to criticize as long as they pursue a policy we feel to be detrimental to the best interests of the membership of this Local."

Floyd Hoke-Miller, co-editor of The Searchlight, replied in verse to the labeling the Chevy workers as "tough cookies":

You can't be nice to human lice
That feed upon your blood,
And boast with pride about their side

A liftin' you outta the mud."
(from "Tough Cookies:With No Apologies" by Floyd Hoke-
Miller.")

In 1987, all of the gains of the past 50 years won by the hard efforts of the sit-downers and the workers who followed in their footsteps, are under attack. And the sit-down pioneers are
still being treated as "subversives". UAW union officials have vetoed any appropriate commemoration to mark the 50th anniversary of Feb. 11 in Flint or elsewhere in Michigan. But if the history
is known of what was won and how, there will be the basis to carry on the proud tradition of Feb. 11, 1937.

*Note excerpts of poems are from a collection of poems by Floyd Hoke-Miller, "A Laborer Looks at Life: Then and Now," Flint, MI, 1984.

Taken from The Story of The Searchlight, 1987. Sourced from http://www.ais.org/~jrh/searchlight/lest.we.forget.txt