- Historic Sites
“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
And when the strike came, there was no doubt it would focus on Flint, the General Motors citadel. William C. Durant founded the company there in 1908, and it had remained the center of GM auto production. The Flint of 1936 was a drab gray industrial city of 160,000, some sixty miles northwest of Detroit, ringed by GM installations. Fisher Body One was to the south, a huge Buick assembly plant to the north, Fisher Body Two and a Chevrolet complex to the west, AC Spark Plug to the east. Two out of three of the city’s breadwinners—more than 47,000 of them—worked for GM. Four out of five families, directly or indirectly, lived off the company payroll. Virtually every aspect of economic, social, and cultural life revolved around GM. Flint was very much a company town.
The union’s first job was what a later generation would call consciousness raising. Wyndham Mortimer, a veteran trade unionist, began this task even before the UAW defected to the CIO, combining the five weak Flint locals into one, Local 156, and planting the seeds of unionism. In October, 1936, however, the quiet, hard-working Mortimer was replaced by twenty-sevenyear-old Bob Travis, a more personable and energetic organizer. At Travis’ side was Roy Reuther, who, with his brothers Victor and Walter, would become a dominant force in the UAW. The sons of a German immigrant, the Reuthers were, in Victor’s words, “born into the labor movement.” Eloquent, ambitious, and like’his brothers deeply committed to trade unionism, Roy Reuther formed a strong partnership with Travis.
Facing a hostile management with a fearful company town infested with labor spies (the only safe topics of conversation in Flint, according to Mortimer, were “sports, women, dirty stories, and the weather”), UAW organizers did the bulk of their recruiting in workers’ homes and at clandestine meetings. The labor journalist Henry Kraus was brought in to edit the Flint Auto Worker , an important vehicle for airing worker grievances and spreading the UAW gospel. Much effort was devoted to involving workers’ wives in the movement. And rather than spreading themselves thin proselytizing the entire Flint GM work force, Travis and Reuther focused on the men in the city’s two key Fisher Body plants. Their efforts were made easier by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s overwhelming victory in the November elections, which labor took as a good omen for support from Washington.
By late December, Flint Local 156 had signed up 10 per cent of the city’s GM workers, largely in secret to foil the spies and mostly in Fisher One and Fisher Two. On December 22, GM Executive Vice-Président William S. Knudsen, meeting with UAW President Homer Martin, denied that issues such as union recognition, job security, pay rates, seniority rights, and the speed-up were “national in scope.” Corporate headquarters had no say in such matters, he piously declared: they must be settled on the local level with individual plant managers. Martin recognized this account of the workings of the General Motors Corporation for what it was—pure fiction. It was clear that the company had no intention of obeying the Wagner Act and seriously bargaining with any independent union. The stage was set for a strike.
But what kind of strike? Veteran Flint workers remembered an attempt to close Fisher One in 1930 that had been smashed by local lawmen abetted by the Michigan state police. Pickets were scattered and ridden down by mounted officers, and strike leaders were arrested and subsequently fired. Few UAW officials in Flint had any illusions that their forty-five hundred or so members could long sustain a conventional picket-line strike in the heart of General Motors country. The solution might lie in an entirely different kind of strike—a sit-down.
The tactic was ingeniously simple. Instead of walking off the job, strikers stopped work but stayed at their machines, holding valuable company property hostage to enforce their demands. A sit-down was far less vulnerable to police action than outside picketing, and it neutralized a primary weapon in management’s arsenal, the use of strikebreakers to resume production. Even more than a conventional striker, the sit-downer was taking his fight directly to management.
The sit-down was not new—some claimed to have traced its origins back to stone masons in ancient Egypt—but its baptism by fire took place in Europe in the twenties and thirties. Italian metal workers, Welsh coal miners, Spanish copper miners, and Greek rubber workers sat down at their jobs, and in the spring of 1936 mass sit-downs in France took on the proportions of a nationwide general strike. In the United States in 1936 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported forty-eight sit-down strikes. The ones most closely watched by auto workers took place at Bendix Products (owned in part by GM) in South Bend, Indiana, and at two Detroit parts makers, Midland Steel Products and Kelsey-Hayes Wheel. All three won limited worker gains and deeply impressed UAW militants. Thus far, however, no American sit-down had been played for truly high stakes.