- Historic Sites
“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The population in Fisher One and Fisher Two varied widely during the six-week strike. Local 156 set up outside picket lines as an aid to maintaining traffic into and out of the plants, which enabled sit-downers to take leave and visit friends and families. The number of men in Fisher One varied from a high of something over one thousand to a low of ninety, in Fisher Two from upwards of four hundred and fifty to as few as seventeen. The problem for the Fisher Two strike leaders was the large number of married men in their ranks; concern for the welfare of families eroded their staying power as the strike dragged on. Fisher One had a higher percentage of single men of the “hard, reckless type” (in the words of a New York Times reporter) and who were better able to endure the strike’s pressures. Population fluctuated as hopes for a settlement waxed and waned, and when the number of sit-downers fell dangerously low, the UAW called on militant locals from Detroit and Toledo for reinforcements. The arrival of one such group moved Bud Simons to remark, “I have never seen a bunch of guys that were so ready for blood in my life.”
On the whole, however, the sitdowners maintained a remarkably strong sense of community. In a letter to his wife, one of them wrote, “I could of came out wen they went on strike But hunny I just thought I join the union and I look pretty yellow if I dident stick with them. …” A growing self-esteem strengthened the workers’ commitment. As labor historian Sidney Fine writes, they were “transformed from badge numbers and easily replaceable cogs in an impersonal industrial machine into heroes of American labor.” A striker remembered that “it started out kinda ugly because the guys were afraid they put their foot in it and all they was gonna do is lose their jobs. But as time went on, they begin to realize they could win this darn thing, ‘cause we had a lot of outside people comin’ in showin’ their sympathy.”
Meanwhile, on the outside, Bob Travis and Roy Reuther set up strike headquarters in the Pengelly Building, a down-at-the-heels firetrap in downtown Flint. The place was a beehive, with strikers and volunteer helpers cranking out publicity releases, raising money, mobilizing support, planning strategy. The most immediate problem was food. Dorothy Kraus, wife of the Flint Auto Worker editor Henry Kraus, directed a strike kitchen set up in a restaurant near Fisher One that was turned over to the union by its owner. Meals were prepared there three times a day and delivered to the plants in large kettles under heavy union guard. (The menus were the work of Max Gazan, former chef of the Detroit Athletic Club, a favorite haunt of the GM Establishment.) Food stocks were purchased or donated by sympathizers or by Flint merchants pressured to do so by the threat of boycott. As many as two hundred people took part in running the strike kitchen, many of them sitdowners’ wives. Wives also formed a Women’s Auxiliary and a Women’s Emergency Brigade. Kraus’s newspaper and the mimeographed Punch Press , put out by student volunteers from the University of Michigan, kept the men informed. Cars equipped with loudspeakers allowed instant communication with the sit-downers, and outside picket lines lent moral support.
Despite its espionage network, General Motors was caught flat-footed by the sit-down tactic. At first management tried harassment by sporadically cutting back heat and light to the two plants, but it was feared that any serious attempt to starve out or freeze out the strikers would result in violence—and they were right. Groping for a policy to deal with the crisis, the company discovered that nothing in the Michigan statute books forbade the peaceful occupation of a company’s property by its employees. Nor were the trespass laws much help: since the workers had entered the plants at management’s “invitation,” trespass presented a legal thicket. Nevertheless, GM quickly turned to the courts, petitioning on January 2, 1937, for an injunction to “restrain” the strikers from occupying Fisher One and Fisher Two. County Circuit Court Judge Edward D. Black, an eighty-three-year-old lifelong resident of Flint, granted it the same day.
To its subsequent great embarrassment, the corporation in its haste had failed to do its homework on Judge Black. On January 5 the UAW called a press conference to charge that in issuing the injunction Black was guilty of “unethical conduct,” for he owned 3,665 shares of GM stock with a market value of almost $220,000. In the ensuing uproar, the Black injunction became a dead letter.
Round One to the UAW.