- Historic Sites
“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The talks were held in Detroit. On the GM side were Knudsen, Donaldson Brown, and John T. Smith. John L. Lewis headed the union delegation, seconded by CIO counsel Lee Pressman and UAW President Homer Martin. (The bumbling Martin was soon dispatched on a tour of faraway union locals to get him out of the way.) Murphy acted as chief negotiator, jumping back and forth between the parties “like a jack rabbit,” seeking leverage for a settlement. Machinery was agreed to for later bargaining on such specific issues as wages and working conditions, and the union agreed to give up the plants and return to work while those issues were hammered out. GM agreed to take the sit-downers back without penalty or prejudice. The stiffest battle was fought over GM’s recognition of the UAW as exclusive bargaining agent.
Hanging threateningly over the talks was the Gadola injunction. The very mention of using the National Guard to enforce the injunction provoked Lewis to one of his characteristic oratorical flights. According to his later recollection (perhaps embellished), he announced to Murphy: “Tomorrow morning, I shall personally enter General Motors plant Chevrolet Number Four. I shall order the men to disregard your order, to stand fast. I shall then walk up to the largest window in the plant, open it, divest myself of my outer raiment, remove my shirt, and bare my bosom. Then when you order your troops to fire, mine will be the first breast those bullets will strike!” In fact, the governor never had any notion of carrying out Judge Gadola’s ruling with National Guard arms: “I’m not going down in history as ‘Bloody Murphy’!” He did hint, however, at sealing, off the captured plants with Guardsmen to prevent food deliveries unless the union made concessions. GM was pushed into concessions of its own by a painful economic fact. In the first ten days of February, the nation’s largest auto maker produced exactly 151 cars.
Finally, at 2:35 on the morning of February 11, after sixteen grueling hours of final negotiating, the forty-four-day Flint sit-down strike came to an end. The agreement applied only to the seventeen plants that had gone out on strike, but they were GM’s most important plants. As a face-saving gesture, the company did not have to state categorically that it was recognizing the union. But in fact it was: the UAW had six months to sign up auto workers before a representational election, during which time management could not interfere or deal with any other workers’ body. “Well, Mr. Lewis,” GM negotiator Smith said, “you beat us, but I’m not going to forget it.” Production man Knudsen was not one to hold grudges. “Let us have peace and make automobiles,” he proclaimed.
Late on the afternoon of February 11 the sit-downers came out. Carrying American flags, surrounded by throngs of cheering, horn-tooting supporters, the men of Fisher One marched the two miles across town to collect their compatriots in Fisher Two and Chevrolet Four. Then, thousands strong, they held a spectacular torchlight parade through downtown Flint. As they tramped along, they sang what had become their anthem:
They had every reason to sing and celebrate; they had won a major victory. UAW locals throughout the auto industry were promptly flooded with workers clamoring to sign up; just eight months after the sit-down settlement, the UAW could count nearly four hundred thousand dues-paying members, a five-fold increase. It easily won the representational elections in plants throughout the GM empire. Independents—Packard, Studebaker, Hudson—soon recognized the union, as did leading parts makers. In April, 1937, after a sit-down, Chrysler also succumbed. Ford held out the longest, but in 1941 it too acknowledged the UAW as exclusive bargaining agent. An important factor in all this was the Supreme Court decision, in April, 1937, upholding the Wagner Act. Unionization without interference by management was confirmed as the law of the land.
The United Automobile Workers failed to handle its success gracefully, however. From the moment of its birth, the union’s high command had been rent with problems; its most decisive leaders, like those of Flint Local 156, came from the bottom. Rifts at the top were papered over during the sit-down by the overriding need for a united front, but with victory came chaos. Not until after World War II would the UAW, under the strong hand of Walter Reuther, finally put its house in order, purge itself of communists, and reach stable maturity. As for the CIO, the Flint victory, as John L. Lewis predicted, was industrial unionism’s foot in the door. Beginning with Big Steel in March, 1937, the CIO successfully organized one basic industry after another. Union membership in the United States spurted 156 per cent between 1936 and 1941, most of it CIO gains.