“shut The Goddam Plant!”

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The Flint sit-down inspired a rash of imitators. In the early months of 1937 workers of every stripe, from garbage men and dogcatchers to rug weavers and pie bakers, tried the tactic. Public irritation mounted swiftly. Many Americans had accepted the UAW’s argument that the sit-down was the sole weapon it possessed to force intransigent General Motors to obey the law and permit union organizing and collective bargaining. Such an argument lost force after the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act; now, with both government and law behind it, organized labor was seen as achieving parity with management. Increasingly, the sitdown was condemned as an irresponsible act, and by 1939, when the Supreme Court outlawed the practice as a violation of property rights, it had long since gone out of vogue.

Victory in the Flint sit-down by no means ended the discontents of the auto worker. Yet now, for the first time, he could envision himself as something more than simply an insignificant part of a great impersonal machine; as “Solidarity” phrased it, the union had made him strong. “Even if we got not one damn thing out of it other than that,” a Fisher Body worker said, “we at least had a right to open our mouths without fear.”