- Historic Sites
“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
At General Motors’ Flint, Michigan, Fisher Body Number One, the largest auto-body factory in the world, it was early evening of a chill winter day. Suddenly a bright red light began flashing in the window of the United Automobile Workers union hall across the street from the plant’s main gate. It was the signal for an emergency union meeting.
When the swing shift took its dinner break at 8:00 P.M. , excited workers crowded into the hall. UAW organizer Robert C. Travis confirmed the rumor crackling through the huge plant: dies for the presses that stamped out car body panels were being loaded into freight cars on a Fisher One spur track. Two days earlier, he reminded the men, fellow unionists had struck the Fisher Body plant in Cleveland; now, fearing Flint would be next, General Motors was trying to transfer the vital stamping dies to its other plants. “Well, what are we going to do about it?” Travis asked.
“Well, them’s our jobs,” a man said. “We want them left right here in Flint.” There was a chorus of agreement. “What do you want to do?” Travis asked.
“Shut her down! Shut the goddam plant!” In a moment the hall was a bedlam of cheering.
As the dinner break ended, the men streamed back into Fisher One. Travis was watching anxiously in front of the union hall when the starting whistle blew. Instead of the usual answering pound of machinery, there was only silence. For long minutes nothing seemed to be happening. Then a third-floor window swung open and a worker leaned out, waving exultantly to Travis. “She’s ours!” he shouted.
Thus began, on December 30, 1936, the great Flint sit-down strike, the most momentous confrontation between American labor and management in this century. For the next six weeks Flint would be a lead story in newspapers, newsreels, and radio news-casts. Events there dramatized the new militancy of the American worker, a mass movement that was to produce basic changes in the relationship of capital and labor. To those in sympathy with labor’s goal of unionizing the auto industry, the rambunctious young United Automobile Workers union was David challenging the General Motors Goliath. To those dedicated to the sanctity of property, the UAW and its methods posed a radical, revolutionary threat to industrial capitalism. Few observers were neutral about the Flint sit-down.
There was no disputing the fact that the UAW faced a giant. Auto making was America’s number-one industry, and General Motors was the numberone auto maker. Indeed, it was the largest manufacturing concern in the world. GM’s 1936 sales of 1,500,000 Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, La Salles, and Cadillacs represented better than 43 per cent of the domestic passenger-car market. It had sixty-nine auto plants in thirty-five cities. Business analysts regarded GM President Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., as a genius and his company as the best managed in America. It was unquestionably the most profitable—$284,000,000 in 1936 pretax profits on $1,400,000,000 in sales. This was a matter of great satisfaction to its 342,384 stockholders, and to one in particular. E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Company owned nearly one-quarter of GM’s common stock, good that year for nearly $45,000,000 in dividends. In short, General Motors was the paragon of industrial capitalism, and there was heavy pressure, both from within and without, to maintain the status quo that produced so many golden eggs.
One fundamental tenet of the status quo was a fiercely anti-union stance. In this General Motors acted in perfect unanimity with its competitors. Nineteen thirty-six marked the fortieth anniversary of the American automobile industry, and never in those four decades had the open shop seriously been threatened. The very notion of unionism was anathema to captains of the auto industry. “As a businessman, I was unaccustomed to the whole idea,” Alfred Sloan wrote blandly in his memoirs.
Before the Great Depression, unionism was in truth not much of an issue in Detroit. The vast labor army recruited during the auto boom of the twenties—white dirt farmers, poor city dwellers, southern blacks, recent immigrants—was docile and innocent of trade-union experience. Any labor grievances were defused by pay scales higher than those in most other industries and by a system of “welfare capitalism” (group insurance, savings programs, housing subsidies, recreational facilities, and the like) in which General Motors was a pioneer. Openshop Detroit had little to fear from the nation’s largest union, the American Federation of Labor. The craft-minded AFL devoted itself to horizontal unionism—organizing all the machinists, for example, regardless of industry. It studiously ignored industrial unionism, the vertical organization of the unskilled or semiskilled workers within a particular industry such as autos, steel, or rubber.