- Historic Sites
“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
In the midst of the feverish unionizing efforts in Flint’s Fisher One, a shop steward named Bud Simons was asked if his men were ready to strike. “Ready?” Simons exclaimed. “They’re like a pregnant woman in her tenth month!” Flint’s militants, however, were upstaged by militants in the Fisher Body plant in Cleveland. On December 28, 1936, Fisher Cleveland was shut tight by a sit-down. In Flint Bob Travis and his UAW organizers cast about desperately for some excuse to initiate a strike.
The report on December 30 that the company was moving the stamping dies out of Fisher One was the casus belli Travis needed. “Okay!” he said happily, “they’re asking for it!” By midnight that day the swing shift’s capture of the huge plant was complete. Two miles away the smaller Fisher Two was also taken over by sit-downers. As the new year began, production of Chevrolets and Buicks, General Motors’ bread-andbutter cars, ground to a halt. Soon other GM marques were effected, for the occupation of the two Fisher Body plants in Flint and the one in Cleveland had the potential for halting fully 75 per cent of the company’s passenger-car production. The sit-down gave David the weapon to use against Goliath.
Over the next few weeks, strikes would shut down more than a dozen other GM plants. Parts shortages forced many additional plant closings. The total number of idled men would reach 136,000. Yet from first to last, the spotlight remained on Flint. The strike’s success or failure—and to the strikers, success meant nothing less than management’s recognition of the UAW as exclusive bargaining agent—would be decided at the center of the General Motors empire.
The sit-downers began to organize themselves with military precision. Once all nonstrikers (and all female employees) left, the two plants were barricaded and patrolled. “It was like we were soldiers holding the fort,” one of them said. “It was like war. The guys with me became my buddies.” Everyone served a regular daily shift on a committee to manage such functions as defense, food supply, sanitation, and recreation. Discipline was strict: the strike leaders were determined to show the public that this was no rabblein-arms take-over. News reporters and other observers who toured the seized factories remarked on the organization and on the absence of wild-eyed fanatics. “We’re just here protecting our jobs,” a Fisher Two striker told The New fork Times . “We don’t aim to keep the plants or try to run them, but we want to see that nobody takes our jobs. …” Petty violations of strike committee rules meant extra cleanup or K. P. duty, serious offenses (possession of guns or liquor, the sabotaging of company property) meant expulsion. Roundthe-clock dining halb were established in the plant cafeterias, and sleeping quarters were improvised from car seats and bodies.
Keeping the men occupied during their new six-hour “work shifts” was not difficult, but it required more ingenuity to fill the offduty periods and keep morale high. Defense committees set up production lines for the making of blackjacks and billy clubs. Many hours were devoted to cards, checkers, and dominoes, and there was a steady flow of newspapers and magazines into the plants. UAW lecturers spoke on parliamentary procedures, collective bargaining, and labor history. There were improvised games of volleyball and Ping-pong, and here and there men could be seen roller skating between the long rows of idle machinery. Amateur theatricals, in which enthusiasm and raucous humor were more evident than acting skill, played to cheering, jeering audiences. A showing of Charlie Chaplin’s satire on assemblyline mass production, Modern Times , was greeted enthusiastically. Those who played banjos, mandolins, or harmonicas put on impromptu concerts and almost everyone took up community singing, sometimes writing their own lyrics; to the tune of “Gallagher and Shean,” for example, they belted out: