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“shut The Goddam Plant!”
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
Just how potent a publicist he could be was evident when the spotlight shifted from Flint to Washington. The Roosevelt administration, led by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, tried to get the strike off dead center by bringing together Lewis and Alfred Sloan, whom Miss Perkins described as “the real principals.” For all his brilliance as an administrator, the president was saddled with a colorless personality and did not relish taking on the theatrical Lewis. Furthermore, the intense loathing he felt for the New Deal made any dealings with the administration difficult for him. In the end he called off the talks, angering both the President and Miss Perkins. For Sloan the sticking point was bargaining with “a group that holds our plants for ransom without regard to law or justice.” Lewis announced to the nation that the GM high command had “run away” to New York “to consult with their allies [a barb at the GM-Du Pont connection] to determine how far they can go in their organized defiance of labor and the law.” GM gained no friends in the exchange.
General Motors, in fact, was not doing as well mustering support as might have been expected of the world’s largest corporation. Its disdain for the Wagner Act, the fiasco of the Black injunction, and the violence of the Battle of the Running Bulls did little for its corporate image. Despite strong and widespread public concern over the sit-down’s threat to cherished property rights, the company’s position won only a fifty-three to forty-seven edge in a Gallup poll published on January 31; apparently there was considerable sympathy for the union’s stated—and lawful—goal of organizing and bargaining collectively without management interference. Business Week analyzed the public’s view as “it’s ‘not right’ for the strikers to stay in or for the company to throw them out.”
There is little doubt that the union would have done less well on any poll taken in Flint. The city’s blue-collar workers were suffering intensely now. By January 20, a full 88 per cent of the city’s GM work force was unemployed. The percentage on the relief rolls was greater than it had been during the depths of the Depression. General Motors also was suffering: its January output was just 60,000 cars, instead of a projected figure of 224,000. Yet neither side would budge. Tension began again to build, fueled by violent incidents at GM plants in Anderson, Indiana, on January 25 and in Saginaw, Michigan, two days later. Then two events occurred that would push the sit-down to its climax.
On January 28 General Motors turned once more to the courts, applying for a second injunction to compel the strikers to leave. This time the company first checked out the circuit court judge, Paul V. Gadola, to be sure he was clean. Flint’s strike leaders, meanwhile, planned a move of their own, one considerably more dramatic.
To regain the initiative and to demonstrate to General Motors that none of its properties was safe from seizure by sit-down, Travis, Roy Reuther, and other UAW strategists plotted the capture of Chevrolet Four, the Flint factory that produced all Chevrolet engines. Their plan had to be a daring one, for the engine plant was heavily guarded by GM police. Within hearing of auto workers whom their counterintelligence had identified as company spies, the strike leaders “secretly” revealed their next target to be a bearings plant, Chevrolet Nine. Company security snapped up the bait. On February 1, when the diversionary attempt was made on Chevrolet Nine, it was met by every Chevrolet guard the company could muster. After tear gas and wild, club-swinging melees, the unionists were driven out in apparent defeat. While the battle was raging inside Chevrolet Nine, however, three hundred yards away other strikers had swept through unguarded Chevrolet Four and secured the huge plant. “We have the key plant of the GM …,” one of the sit-downers would write to his wife. “We shure done a thing that GM said never could be done. …” He was right; the brilliantly executed capture of Chevrolet Four was the turning point.
Events now swiftly combined to bring the United Automobile Workers and General Motors to the negotiating table. On February 2 Judge Gadola issued a sweeping injunction that called for evacuation of the Flint Fisher Body plants within twenty-four hours, and the imposition of a $15,000,000 fine if the UAW did not comply. Although there was nothing like that sum to collect from the union treasury—“If the judge can get fifteen million bucks from us, he’s welcome to it,” a striker scoffed—the injunction did pressure the UAW to bargain. It also pressured Governor Murphy to find a quick strikeending formula; as chief executive of the state of Michigan, he was obliged to decide how and when to enforce the injunction and uphold the law. As for GM, a massive demonstration of support by unionists outside Fisher One on February 3 seemed proof enough that any attempt to drive out the sit-downers would produce certain bloodshed and probable destruction of three of its most important plants. Reluctantly, like “a skittish virgin” in Fortune ’s irreverent phrase, the company surrendered to collective bargaining.