April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The great sit-down strike that transformed American industry
At General Motors’ Flint, Michigan, Fisher Body Number One, the largest auto-body factory in the world, it was early evening of a chill winter day. Suddenly a bright red light began flashing in the window of the United Automobile Workers union hall across the street from the plant’s main gate. It was the signal for an emergency union meeting.
When the swing shift took its dinner break at 8:00 P.M. , excited workers crowded into the hall. UAW organizer Robert C. Travis confirmed the rumor crackling through the huge plant: dies for the presses that stamped out car body panels were being loaded into freight cars on a Fisher One spur track. Two days earlier, he reminded the men, fellow unionists had struck the Fisher Body plant in Cleveland; now, fearing Flint would be next, General Motors was trying to transfer the vital stamping dies to its other plants. “Well, what are we going to do about it?” Travis asked.
“Well, them’s our jobs,” a man said. “We want them left right here in Flint.” There was a chorus of agreement. “What do you want to do?” Travis asked.
“Shut her down! Shut the goddam plant!” In a moment the hall was a bedlam of cheering.
As the dinner break ended, the men streamed back into Fisher One. Travis was watching anxiously in front of the union hall when the starting whistle blew. Instead of the usual answering pound of machinery, there was only silence. For long minutes nothing seemed to be happening. Then a third-floor window swung open and a worker leaned out, waving exultantly to Travis. “She’s ours!” he shouted.
Thus began, on December 30, 1936, the great Flint sit-down strike, the most momentous confrontation between American labor and management in this century. For the next six weeks Flint would be a lead story in newspapers, newsreels, and radio news-casts. Events there dramatized the new militancy of the American worker, a mass movement that was to produce basic changes in the relationship of capital and labor. To those in sympathy with labor’s goal of unionizing the auto industry, the rambunctious young United Automobile Workers union was David challenging the General Motors Goliath. To those dedicated to the sanctity of property, the UAW and its methods posed a radical, revolutionary threat to industrial capitalism. Few observers were neutral about the Flint sit-down.
There was no disputing the fact that the UAW faced a giant. Auto making was America’s number-one industry, and General Motors was the numberone auto maker. Indeed, it was the largest manufacturing concern in the world. GM’s 1936 sales of 1,500,000 Chevrolets, Pontiacs, Buicks, Oldsmobiles, La Salles, and Cadillacs represented better than 43 per cent of the domestic passenger-car market. It had sixty-nine auto plants in thirty-five cities. Business analysts regarded GM President Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., as a genius and his company as the best managed in America. It was unquestionably the most profitable—$284,000,000 in 1936 pretax profits on $1,400,000,000 in sales. This was a matter of great satisfaction to its 342,384 stockholders, and to one in particular. E. I. Du Pont de Nemours & Company owned nearly one-quarter of GM’s common stock, good that year for nearly $45,000,000 in dividends. In short, General Motors was the paragon of industrial capitalism, and there was heavy pressure, both from within and without, to maintain the status quo that produced so many golden eggs.
One fundamental tenet of the status quo was a fiercely anti-union stance. In this General Motors acted in perfect unanimity with its competitors. Nineteen thirty-six marked the fortieth anniversary of the American automobile industry, and never in those four decades had the open shop seriously been threatened. The very notion of unionism was anathema to captains of the auto industry. “As a businessman, I was unaccustomed to the whole idea,” Alfred Sloan wrote blandly in his memoirs.
Before the Great Depression, unionism was in truth not much of an issue in Detroit. The vast labor army recruited during the auto boom of the twenties—white dirt farmers, poor city dwellers, southern blacks, recent immigrants—was docile and innocent of trade-union experience. Any labor grievances were defused by pay scales higher than those in most other industries and by a system of “welfare capitalism” (group insurance, savings programs, housing subsidies, recreational facilities, and the like) in which General Motors was a pioneer. Openshop Detroit had little to fear from the nation’s largest union, the American Federation of Labor. The craft-minded AFL devoted itself to horizontal unionism—organizing all the machinists, for example, regardless of industry. It studiously ignored industrial unionism, the vertical organization of the unskilled or semiskilled workers within a particular industry such as autos, steel, or rubber.
Then the Depression knocked everything haywire. In the early 1930's Detroit auto workers found themselves powerless as the industry collapsed like a punctured balloon. Welfare capitalism was silent on job security. Wages and work time were slashed. As layoffs mounted, workers with ten or twenty years’ experience discovered that their seniority counted for nothing; it counted for nothing, either, in the call-backs that marked an upturn in auto sales beginning in 1933. Assembly lines were speeded up mercilessly to raise productivity and restore profit levels. Bitter men protested. “You might call yourself a man if you was on the street,” a Fisher Body worker recalled, “but as soon as you went through the door and punched your card, you was nothing more or less than a robot. ” “It takes your guts out, that line. The speed-up, that’s the trouble,” another said. “You should see him come home at night, him and the rest of the men … ,” a Flint auto worker’s wife testified. “So tired like they was dead.… And then at night in bed, he shakes, his whole body, he shakes. …”
More and more auto workers began to see unionism as their only hope to redress the balance. In this they detected an ally in the New Deal. The National Industrial Recovery Act (1933) recognized labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively. The NIRA, however, was too weak a reed to support labor’s aspirations, for it was largely unenforceable and easily evaded by management; and in any event, the Supreme Court knocked it down in 1935. But labor’s hopes were raised anew by the passage of the National Labor Relations Act—the so-called Wagner Act, named for its chief sponsor, New York Senator Robert F. Wagner. The act established a National Labor Relations Board and gave it teeth to enforce collective bargaining and permit unionization efforts without interference by management.
The auto companies ignored the Wagner Act, confidently expecting the Supreme Court to do its duty. While they waited, they turned increasingly to labor spies to quash unionizing efforts. The most notorious spy system flourished at Ford, where goon squads instituted a bloody reign of terror in the massive River Rouge complex in Dearborn, outside Detroit. The General Motors espionage network was nonviolent but no less widespread. Evidence gathered by a Senate investigating committee chaired by Wisconsin’s Robert M. La Follette, Jr., revealed that from 1934 to mid-1936 GM hired no fewer than fourteen private detective and security agencies, at a cost of $994,000, to ferret out and fire employees with union sympathies. This “most colossal super-system of spies yet devised in any American corporation,” the La Follette committee charged, enveloped the worker in a web of fear. “Fear harries his every footstep, caution muffles his words. He is in no sense any longer a free American.”
Launching an effective union in such turbulent waters would be difficult enough, and it was made no easier by an upheaval in labor’s ranks. In 1933, prodded into action by the collective bargaining section of the NIRA, the American Federation of Labor had made a cautious stab at organizing Detroit’s work force by chartering the United Automobile Workers union. However, leadership in the AFLaffiliated UAW was far too conservative to suit the rank and file. Three years’ work produced a few toeholds among independent auto makers but barely a dent in the Big Three. In GM’s Flint factories, for example, there was a grand total of 150 paid-up UAW members in June, 1936, just six months before the great sit-down.
This stumbling effort to organize the auto workers reflected the fratricidal conflict within the AFL. Advocates of industrial unionism, led by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, formed a rump group, the Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organization. In the summer of 1936 the CIO seceded from the AFL ranks, taking with it the United Automobile Workers locals. Marching under the new CIO banner, the UAW prepared to do battle with the auto industry. It would be the first modern test of the theory of industrial unionism.
The revitalized UAW settled on General Motors as its first target. Chrysler’s Walter Chrysler, who had climbed Horatio Alger-like up through the ranks, was considered the auto magnate most sympathetic to labor; if number-one GM Could be conquered, number-two Chrysler might follow along. Ford was simply too tough a nut to crack yet. In addition, General Motors was particularly vulnerable. All bodies for the low-priced Chevrolet and the medium-priced Pontiac, Buick, and Oldsmobile were built by its Fisher Body division. If it came down to a strike—and no labor leader doubted that it would—the closing of only a few selected Fisher Body plants would immediately cripple the company.
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.
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:
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.
Round Two, if General Motors had its way, would find the sit-downers under irresistible pressure from the community. On January 5, GM President Alfred Sloan published an open letter to all employees. “Will a labor organization run the plants of General Motors … or will the Management continue to do so?” he asked. “You are being forced out of your jobs by sit-down strikes, by widespread intimidation.… You are being told that to bargain collectively you must be a member of a labor organization.… Do not be misled. Have no fear that any union or any labor dictator will dominate the plants of General Motors Corporation. No General Motors worker need join any organization to get a job or to keep a job.…” A campaign of mass meetings, balloting, and petitions—“I Love My Boss” petitions as strikers derisively tagged them—indicated that by company count four out of five Flint workers wanted to return to their jobs. (Only AC Spark Plug among GM’s Flint plants was still operating at full capacity.) The UAW charged that coercion and intimidation produced this outpouring of company loyalty. The truth lay somewhere in between. As Sidney Fine points out, there was in Flint “a large middle group of workers, who, although preferring work to idleness, were uncommitted to either side in the dispute and were awaiting its outcome to determine where their best interests lay.”
Two days after Sloan’s open letter, a local businessman and former mayor named George E. Boysen announced the formation of the Flint Alliance “for the Security of Our Jobs, Our Homes, and Our Community.” Membership was open to all Flint citizens, and within a week Boysen claimed that almost twenty-six thousand had signed up. Evidence that GM sponsored the alliance is sketchy, but it clearly had the company’s blessing. The UAW viewed the alliance with concern, seeing it as a possible umbrella group for organizing strikebreakers or triggering violence against the occupied plants.
Several main themes marked this campaign to turn public opinion against the strikers—the oppression of the majority by a militant minority; the presence of “outside agitators” disrupting the General Motors family; and the insistence that the sit-down was a “Red Plot” threatening the capitalist system. This last was one of the most persistent charges. It was pointed out that the seizure of private property was a favorite communist tactic, and that the auto workers’ union was honeycombed with Red radicals.
Hindsight has magnified this communist conspiracy theory, for such prominent UAW leaders as Wyndham Mortimer, Bob Travis, and Bud Simons, head of the strike committee in Fisher One, were in fact later involved in various communist or communist front activities. Indeed, the UAW itself, for a decade after 1937, was in constant fratricidal turmoil over the issue of communists within its ranks. It is clear, however, that the Flint sit-down strike was a grass-roots revolt owing no allegiance to communist ideology or conspiracy. The sit-downers were men driven to desperation by oppressive working conditions, men convinced that management’s attitude toward labor held no hope for improvement. “So I’m a Red?” a worker summed it up for a reporter. “I suppose it makes me a Red because I don’t like making time so hard on these goddamned machines. When I get home I’m so tired I can’t sleep with my wife.”
Tension continued to build in Flint. On January 11, 1937, the thirteenth day of the strike, it exploded into violence. The incident that triggered it was carefully staged. About noon that day General Motors abruptly cut off heat to the Fisher Two plant, where about one hundred sit-downers were holding the second floor. (Unlike more strongly fortified Fisher One two miles away, Fisher Two’s first floor and main gate were controlled by company security men.) It was a cold, raw day, with temperatures around sixteen degrees. During the afternoon an unusual number of police cars was seen in the neighborhood. At 6:00 P.M. , when the strikers’ evening meal was delivered to the Fisher Two main gate, guards refused to let it through. By 8:30, when Victor Reuther drove up in a union sound car to investigate, he found the cold and hungry strikers “in no pleasant mood.” It was decided to take over the main gate to link the sit-downers with the pickets outside.
A squad of strikers, armed with homemade billy clubs, marched up to the company guards blocking the gate and demanded the key. When they were refused, a striker yelled, “Get the hell out of there!” and the guards fled to the plant ladies’ room, locking themselves in. The head of the security detail telephoned Flint police headquarters to report that his men had been threatened and “captured.” Right on cue, squad cars arrived, carrying some thirty riotequipped city policemen. The police stormed the plant entrance, smashing windows and firing tear gas into the interior. The strikers fought back with a drumfire of bottles, rocks, nuts and bolts, heavy steel car-door hinges, and cascades of water from the plant’s fire hoses. Under this barrage, the attackers withdrew to rearm and await reinforcements. The sit-downers put the lull to good use, tossing door hinges and other stocks of “popular ammunition” to pickets outside and rushing a squad to vantage points on the roof.
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.
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.
The talks were held in Detroit. On the GM side were Knudsen, Donaldson Brown, and John T. Smith. John L. Lewis headed the union delegation, seconded by CIO counsel Lee Pressman and UAW President Homer Martin. (The bumbling Martin was soon dispatched on a tour of faraway union locals to get him out of the way.) Murphy acted as chief negotiator, jumping back and forth between the parties “like a jack rabbit,” seeking leverage for a settlement. Machinery was agreed to for later bargaining on such specific issues as wages and working conditions, and the union agreed to give up the plants and return to work while those issues were hammered out. GM agreed to take the sit-downers back without penalty or prejudice. The stiffest battle was fought over GM’s recognition of the UAW as exclusive bargaining agent.
Hanging threateningly over the talks was the Gadola injunction. The very mention of using the National Guard to enforce the injunction provoked Lewis to one of his characteristic oratorical flights. According to his later recollection (perhaps embellished), he announced to Murphy: “Tomorrow morning, I shall personally enter General Motors plant Chevrolet Number Four. I shall order the men to disregard your order, to stand fast. I shall then walk up to the largest window in the plant, open it, divest myself of my outer raiment, remove my shirt, and bare my bosom. Then when you order your troops to fire, mine will be the first breast those bullets will strike!” In fact, the governor never had any notion of carrying out Judge Gadola’s ruling with National Guard arms: “I’m not going down in history as ‘Bloody Murphy’!” He did hint, however, at sealing, off the captured plants with Guardsmen to prevent food deliveries unless the union made concessions. GM was pushed into concessions of its own by a painful economic fact. In the first ten days of February, the nation’s largest auto maker produced exactly 151 cars.
Finally, at 2:35 on the morning of February 11, after sixteen grueling hours of final negotiating, the forty-four-day Flint sit-down strike came to an end. The agreement applied only to the seventeen plants that had gone out on strike, but they were GM’s most important plants. As a face-saving gesture, the company did not have to state categorically that it was recognizing the union. But in fact it was: the UAW had six months to sign up auto workers before a representational election, during which time management could not interfere or deal with any other workers’ body. “Well, Mr. Lewis,” GM negotiator Smith said, “you beat us, but I’m not going to forget it.” Production man Knudsen was not one to hold grudges. “Let us have peace and make automobiles,” he proclaimed.
Late on the afternoon of February 11 the sit-downers came out. Carrying American flags, surrounded by throngs of cheering, horn-tooting supporters, the men of Fisher One marched the two miles across town to collect their compatriots in Fisher Two and Chevrolet Four. Then, thousands strong, they held a spectacular torchlight parade through downtown Flint. As they tramped along, they sang what had become their anthem:
They had every reason to sing and celebrate; they had won a major victory. UAW locals throughout the auto industry were promptly flooded with workers clamoring to sign up; just eight months after the sit-down settlement, the UAW could count nearly four hundred thousand dues-paying members, a five-fold increase. It easily won the representational elections in plants throughout the GM empire. Independents—Packard, Studebaker, Hudson—soon recognized the union, as did leading parts makers. In April, 1937, after a sit-down, Chrysler also succumbed. Ford held out the longest, but in 1941 it too acknowledged the UAW as exclusive bargaining agent. An important factor in all this was the Supreme Court decision, in April, 1937, upholding the Wagner Act. Unionization without interference by management was confirmed as the law of the land.
The United Automobile Workers failed to handle its success gracefully, however. From the moment of its birth, the union’s high command had been rent with problems; its most decisive leaders, like those of Flint Local 156, came from the bottom. Rifts at the top were papered over during the sit-down by the overriding need for a united front, but with victory came chaos. Not until after World War II would the UAW, under the strong hand of Walter Reuther, finally put its house in order, purge itself of communists, and reach stable maturity. As for the CIO, the Flint victory, as John L. Lewis predicted, was industrial unionism’s foot in the door. Beginning with Big Steel in March, 1937, the CIO successfully organized one basic industry after another. Union membership in the United States spurted 156 per cent between 1936 and 1941, most of it CIO gains.
The Flint sit-down inspired a rash of imitators. In the early months of 1937 workers of every stripe, from garbage men and dogcatchers to rug weavers and pie bakers, tried the tactic. Public irritation mounted swiftly. Many Americans had accepted the UAW’s argument that the sit-down was the sole weapon it possessed to force intransigent General Motors to obey the law and permit union organizing and collective bargaining. Such an argument lost force after the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act; now, with both government and law behind it, organized labor was seen as achieving parity with management. Increasingly, the sitdown was condemned as an irresponsible act, and by 1939, when the Supreme Court outlawed the practice as a violation of property rights, it had long since gone out of vogue.
Victory in the Flint sit-down by no means ended the discontents of the auto worker. Yet now, for the first time, he could envision himself as something more than simply an insignificant part of a great impersonal machine; as “Solidarity” phrased it, the union had made him strong. “Even if we got not one damn thing out of it other than that,” a Fisher Body worker said, “we at least had a right to open our mouths without fear.”