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“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Round Two, if General Motors had its way, would find the sit-downers under irresistible pressure from the community. On January 5, GM President Alfred Sloan published an open letter to all employees. “Will a labor organization run the plants of General Motors … or will the Management continue to do so?” he asked. “You are being forced out of your jobs by sit-down strikes, by widespread intimidation.… You are being told that to bargain collectively you must be a member of a labor organization.… Do not be misled. Have no fear that any union or any labor dictator will dominate the plants of General Motors Corporation. No General Motors worker need join any organization to get a job or to keep a job.…” A campaign of mass meetings, balloting, and petitions—“I Love My Boss” petitions as strikers derisively tagged them—indicated that by company count four out of five Flint workers wanted to return to their jobs. (Only AC Spark Plug among GM’s Flint plants was still operating at full capacity.) The UAW charged that coercion and intimidation produced this outpouring of company loyalty. The truth lay somewhere in between. As Sidney Fine points out, there was in Flint “a large middle group of workers, who, although preferring work to idleness, were uncommitted to either side in the dispute and were awaiting its outcome to determine where their best interests lay.”
Two days after Sloan’s open letter, a local businessman and former mayor named George E. Boysen announced the formation of the Flint Alliance “for the Security of Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Community.” Membership was open to all Flint citizens, and within a week Boysen claimed that almost twenty-six thousand had signed up. Evidence that GM sponsored the alliance is sketchy, but it clearly had the company’s blessing. The UAW viewed the alliance with concern, seeing it as a possible umbrella group for organizing strikebreakers or triggering violence against the occupied plants.
Several main themes marked this campaign to turn public opinion against the strikers—the oppression of the majority by a militant minority; the presence of “outside agitators” disrupting the General Motors family; and the insistence that the sit-down was a “Red Plot” threatening the capitalist system. This last was one of the most persistent charges. It was pointed out that the seizure of private property was a favorite communist tactic, and that the auto workers’ union was honeycombed with Red radicals.
Hindsight has magnified this communist conspiracy theory, for such prominent UAW leaders as Wyndham Mortimer, Bob Travis, and Bud Simons, head of the strike committee in Fisher One, were in fact later involved in various communist or communist front activities. Indeed, the UAW itself, for a decade after 1937, was in constant fratricidal turmoil over the issue of communists within its ranks. It is clear, however, that the Flint sit-down strike was a grass-roots revolt owing no allegiance to communist ideology or conspiracy. The sit-downers were men driven to desperation by oppressive working conditions, men convinced that management’s attitude toward labor held no hope for improvement. “So I’m a Red?” a worker summed it up for a reporter. “I suppose it makes me a Red because I don’t like making time so hard on these goddamned machines. When I get home I’m so tired I can’t sleep with my wife.”
Tension continued to build in Flint. On January 11, 1937, the thirteenth day of the strike, it exploded into violence. The incident that triggered it was carefully staged. About noon that day General Motors abruptly cut off heat to the Fisher Two plant, where about one hundred sit-downers were holding the second floor. (Unlike more strongly fortified Fisher One two miles away, Fisher Two’s first floor and main gate were controlled by company security men.) It was a cold, raw day, with temperatures around sixteen degrees. During the afternoon an unusual number of police cars was seen in the neighborhood. At 6:00 P.M. , when the strikers’ evening meal was delivered to the Fisher Two main gate, guards refused to let it through. By 8:30, when Victor Reuther drove up in a union sound car to investigate, he found the cold and hungry strikers “in no pleasant mood.” It was decided to take over the main gate to link the sit-downers with the pickets outside.
A squad of strikers, armed with homemade billy clubs, marched up to the company guards blocking the gate and demanded the key. When they were refused, a striker yelled, “Get the hell out of there!” and the guards fled to the plant ladies’ room, locking themselves in. The head of the security detail telephoned Flint police headquarters to report that his men had been threatened and “captured.” Right on cue, squad cars arrived, carrying some thirty riotequipped city policemen. The police stormed the plant entrance, smashing windows and firing tear gas into the interior. The strikers fought back with a drumfire of bottles, rocks, nuts and bolts, heavy steel car-door hinges, and cascades of water from the plant’s fire hoses. Under this barrage, the attackers withdrew to rearm and await reinforcements. The sit-downers put the lull to good use, tossing door hinges and other stocks of “popular ammunition” to pickets outside and rushing a squad to vantage points on the roof.