- Historic Sites
“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Soon the police charged a second time, firing their gas guns and hurling gas grenades through the plant windows and among the pickets outside. But now the defensive firepower was doubled as the pickets joined the battle. Fire hoses sent policemen sprawling. Others were felled by hinges, milk bottles, bricks, and pieces of roof coping. The county sheriff’s car was tipped over; as he crawled out, a hinge struck him on the head. Tear gas took a toll among the defenders, who were left choking and vomiting and half-blinded. Finally, drenched and bloodied, sliding on pavement icing over from the fire-hose torrents, the attack force fled once more. Watching the “bulls” scramble away, someone gave the struggle a derisive name that stuck—the Battle of the Running Bulls.
Frustrated and humiliated, the police suddenly stopped, turned on a band of strikers pursuing them, and opened fire with pistols and riot guns loaded with buckshot. Then it was the strikers’ turn to retreat, dragging their casualties with them. Thirteen suffered gunshot wounds, a dozen struck by buckshot and one hit seriously in the stomach by a pistol bullet. Eleven of the attackers also were hurt, most suffering from gashed heads but one having been hit in the leg by an errant police bullet. Retreating up a hill out of missile range, the police began sniping at the strikers in the plant, their bullets splattering against the walls and shattering windows. Clouds of acrid tear gas drifted across the icy battlefield, and above the shouting and the shooting could be heard the thundering amplified voice of Victor Reuther in the union sound car, directing the defenses and exhorting the men to stand fast. At last it was clear that the recapture effort had failed. Ambulances arrived to carry off the wounded and the injured. About midnight the sniping ceased.
But the battle had turned the sitdown onto a new course.
Hurrying to Flint from the state capital in Lansing, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy ordered in the National Guard troops and the state police. “It won’t happen again,” Murphy vowed. “Peace and order will prevail. The people of Flint are not going to be terrorized.” By January 13 there were almost thirteen hundred Guardsmen in the city; before the strike ended, the number would rise by another two thousand. Whether General Motors had orchestrated every detail of the attempted recapture of Fisher Two, as the UAW charged, remained a matter of heated debate, but Murphy’s action ensured that police violence would not “settle” the sit-down.
Organized labor had reason to fear National Guard and state police forces, which in the past had often been used to break strikes. In this instance, however, the union cheered their arrival, for it trusted the man who sent them. Indeed, the timing of the sit-down had been pegged to Democrat Murphy’s taking office on January 1, 1937. He had run for governor with strong labor support. “I am heart and soul in the labor movement, ” he had declared during the campaign. As Wyndham Mortimer later said, “We felt that while he may or may not have been on our side, he at least would not be against us.”
It was an accurate assessment. While Murphy disapproved of the sit-down tactic as an invasion of property rights, he strongly approved of the right to organize. Above all, he was determined to defuse the explosive atmosphere in Flint and get the two parties to the bargaining table. At first it appeared he would be quickly and brilliantly successful. On January 15, just four days after the Battle of the Running Bulk, Murphy announced a truce: the union agreed to evacuate Fisher One and Fisher Two, and GM agreed not to resume production while bargaining “in good faith.” Then a report leaked out that GM had invited the Flint Alliance, which claimed to speak for the “greatest majority” of the city’s idled workers, to attend the talks as a third party. Strike leaders saw this as fatal to their goal of winning exclusive UAW recognition; crying double-cross, they renounced the truce.
As the stalemate continued and positions hardened, new figures joined Frank Murphy in the limelight. On the GM side, Executive Vice President William Knudsen, a bluff, rough-andready production genius less concerned with how the strike was settled than when, was joined by two tougherminded negotiators, Du Font-trained financial expert Donaldson Brown and company attorney John T. Smith. On the union side, UAW President Homer Martin, an evangelical speaker but a poor negotiator, was eclipsed when the best-known figure in American labor strode onto the scene. John L. Lewis, head of the CIO, was determined to make the Flint sit-down the opening wedge in his crusade for industrial unionism. Supreme orator (“The economic royalists of General Motors—the Du Ponts and Sloans and others—” he thundered,“… have their fangs in labor”) and a master press agent (“Seeing John Lewis,” said journalist Heywood Broun, “is about as easy as seeing the Washington Monument”), Lewis was a figure to reckon with.