“shut The Goddam Plant!”

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Then the Depression knocked everything haywire. In the early 1930's Detroit auto workers found themselves powerless as the industry collapsed like a punctured balloon. Welfare capitalism was silent on job security. Wages and work time were slashed. As layoffs mounted, workers with ten or twenty years’ experience discovered that their seniority counted for nothing; it counted for nothing, either, in the call-backs that marked an upturn in auto sales beginning in 1933. Assembly lines were speeded up mercilessly to raise productivity and restore profit levels. Bitter men protested. “You might call yourself a man if you was on the street,” a Fisher Body worker recalled, “but as soon as you went through the door and punched your card, you was nothing more or less than a robot. ” “It takes your guts out, that line. The speed-up, that’s the trouble,” another said. “You should see him come home at night, him and the rest of the men … ,” a Flint auto worker’s wife testified. “So tired like they was dead.… And then at night in bed, he shakes, his whole body, he shakes. …”

 
 

More and more auto workers began to see unionism as their only hope to redress the balance. In this they detected an ally in the New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) recognized labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. The NIRA, however, was too weak a reed to support labor’s aspirations, for it was largely unenforceable and easily evaded by management; and in any event, the Supreme Court knocked it down in 1935. But labor’s hopes were raised anew by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act—the so-called Wagner Act, named for its chief sponsor, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner. The act established a National Labor Relations Board and gave it teeth to enforce collective bargaining and permit unionization efforts without interference by management.

The auto companies ignored the Wagner Act, confidently expecting the Supreme Court to do its duty. While they waited, they turned increasingly to labor spies to quash unionizing efforts. The most notorious spy system flourished at Ford, where goon squads instituted a bloody reign of terror in the massive River Rouge complex in Dearborn, outside Detroit. The General Motors espionage network was nonviolent but no less widespread. Evidence gathered by a Senate investigating committee chaired by Wisconsin’s Robert M. La Follette, Jr., revealed that from 1934 to mid-1936 GM hired no fewer than fourteen private detective and security agencies, at a cost of $994,000, to ferret out and fire employees with union sympathies. This “most colossal super-system of spies yet devised in any American corporation,” the La Follette committee charged, enveloped the worker in a web of fear. “Fear harries his every footstep, caution muffles his words. He is in no sense any longer a free American.”

Launching an effective union in such turbulent waters would be difficult enough, and it was made no easier by an upheaval in labor’s ranks. In 1933, prodded into action by the collective bargaining section of the NIRA, the American Federation of Labor had made a cautious stab at organizing Detroit’s work force by chartering the United Automobile Workers union. However, leadership in the AFLaffiliated UAW was far too conservative to suit the rank and file. Three years’ work produced a few toeholds among independent auto makers but barely a dent in the Big Three. In GM’s Flint factories, for example, there was a grand total of 150 paid-up UAW members in June, 1936, just six months before the great sit-down.

This stumbling effort to organize the auto workers reflected the fratricidal conflict within the AFL. Advocates of industrial unionism, led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, formed a rump group, the Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organization. In the summer of 1936 the CIO seceded from the AFL ranks, taking with it the United Automobile Workers locals. Marching under the new CIO banner, the UAW prepared to do battle with the auto industry. It would be the first modern test of the theory of industrial unionism.

The revitalized UAW settled on General Motors as its first target. Chrysler’s Walter Chrysler, who had climbed Horatio Alger-like up through the ranks, was considered the auto magnate most sympathetic to labor; if number-one GM Could be conquered, number-two Chrysler might follow along. Ford was simply too tough a nut to crack yet. In addition, General Motors was particularly vulnerable. All bodies for the low-priced Chevrolet and the medium-priced Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile were built by its Fisher Body division. If it came down to a strike—and no labor leader doubted that it would—the closing of only a few selected Fisher Body plants would immediately cripple the company.