We'll let you know when to come back - Kermit Johnson

First hand account of Kermit Johnson, rank and file chairman for the strike committee during the Flint sit down strike of 1936-37.

Submitted by flaneur on September 25, 2012

"GM had already recovered from the first shock of being forced to surrender four of their largest body plants to sit-down strikers. 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, and the fight for a union in General Motors would be lost."

"The next few minutes seemed like hours, as I ambled toward the door, my previous confidence was rapidly giving way to fear--fear that we'd lost our one big gamble. My thoughts were moving a mile a minute, and I was rehashing the same plan over and over , but this time, all its weaknesses stood out like red lights." ".......then the door burst inward and there was Ed! Great big Ed, his hairy chest bare to his belly, carrying a little American flag and leading the most ferocious band of twenty men I had ever seen. He looked so funny with that tiny flag in comparison with his men, who were armed to the teeth with lead hammers, pipes, and chunks of sheet metal three feet long. I felt like laughing and crying at the same time."

"When I asked where the hell the three hundred men were that he had guaranteed to bring with him, he seemed dumbfounded. I don't think he'd ever looked back from the time he'd dropped his tools, picked up the flag, and started his line plunge to plant 4. It didn't take a master mind to know that trying to strike a roaring plant of more than three thousand men and almost as many machines with just twenty men was almost impossible. We huddled together and made a quick decision to go back to plant 6 for reinforcements, and if that failed to get out of Chevrolet in a hurry. Luckily we encountered little opposition in Ed's plant and in a short time we were back in Plant 4 with hundreds of determined men."

"Although we didn't know it then, a real war was going on in and around plant 9, the decoy. Every city cop and plant police were clubbing the strikers and using tear gas to evacuate the plant. In retaliation the men and women from the hall were smashing windows and yelling encouragement from the outside."

"Back in plant #4, a relatively peaceful operation was proceeding according to plan; a little late, but definitely moving now. Up and down the long aisles we marched, asking, pleading, and finally threatening the men who wouldn't get in line. For the first hour the men in plant #4 were being bullied not only by us but by management as well. Almost as fast as we could turn the machines off, the bosses, following our wake, would turn them on, and threaten the men with being fired. As the lines of marchers grew longer, the plant grew quieter, and finally after two hours every machine was silent."

"The men were standing around in small groups, sullenly eyeing members of supervision. No one knew who belonged to the Union because no one had any visible identification. We had successfully taken the plant, but we knew that our gains had to be immediately consolidated or we'd face counteraction. We had a few men go through the plant and give a general order that all who didn't belong to the Union should go upstairs to the dining room and sign up. While the vast majority were thus taken care of, a few hundred of us were left unhampered to round up the supervisors. It didn't take long to persuade them that leaving the plant under their own power was more dignified than being thrown out. Herding the foremen out of the plant, we sent them on their way with the same advice that most of us had been given year after year during layoffs. "We'll let you know when to come back." "

"The next day, when Judge Gadola issued his injunction setting a deadline for the following day, the strikers held meetings and decided to hold the plants at all costs. The Fisher #1 workers wired Governor Murphy "Unarmed as we are, the introduction of the militia, sheriffs, or police with murderous weapons will mean a blood bath of unarmed workers...We have decided to stay in the plant. We have no illusions about the sacrifices which this decision will entail. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us, many of us will be killed, and we take this means of making it known to our wives, to our children, to the people of the state of Michigan and the country that if this result follows from an attempt to reject us, you (Governor Murphy) are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths."

Excerpt from Art Preis' book, Labor's Giant Step. Taken from http://weknowwhatsup.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/american-values-but-whose-values-values.html