December 30, 1936: The GM Sit-Down Strike Spreads to Flint, Michigan

Fighting for recognition of their union, the United Auto Workers, General Motors (GM) workers at the Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan launched a historic sit-down strike on December 30, 1936, just days after a successful strike at a Ford Motor Co. supplier, Kelsey-Hayes, won union recognition there. This was a period of tremendous union activism in the auto industry, with momentum building and strikes also occurring before Flint in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Cleveland.

At the time, GM was the largest corporation in the world. It had refused to recognize or negotiate with the union despite the 1935 passage of the Wagner Act, which permitted workers to organize, in the belief that the law would be declared unconstitutional. – RR

The history below comes from the excellent Flint Sit-Down Strike website, courtesy of Michigan State University and the Walter Reuther Library. Visit the website for its exceptional collection of digitized audio clips of first hand accounts of the strike and its aftermath.

In an introduction to the site material, it states that

the strike itself has remained interesting because it was a classic case of David versus Goliath. In 1936, General Motors was the richest industrial corporation in the world, with plants in over fifty cities and towns across the United States. Moreover, the largest stockholders were the fabulously wealthy Du Ponts. The strikers, on the other hand, averaged about a tenth grade education, came from poor families, and consisted of many Southerners and Eastern European immigrants. As such, it was easy for strike opponents to claim that they were being forced into their acts of radicalism by “outside agitators” (code words for Communists and Socialists). To a certain degree this charge may have been true, yet it is untrue to say that the aim of most of the strikers was to take over the plants on a permanent basis. Like most of the country, they only wanted a “new deal” that might help them better their lot in life. This meant not only better working conditions and higher pay; it also meant an affirmation of their basic humanity.

Strike Organization

Working on the line at General Motors in Flint was a job many men needed desperately in the 1930’s, but it was also tremendously difficult. Terrible working conditions, combined with unfair and devious payroll practices, made the auto plants of Depression-era Flint into ripe locations for union organization.

Strikes had been attempted in Flint in 1930 and 1934, but had been viciously broken up by company stooges and the Flint police force. In 1935 Congress passed the Wagner Act, which legalized strikes and invigorated the new Congress of Industrial Organizations under the leadership of John L. Lewis. Among the first attempts at establishing independent unionization in industrial plants were the strikes at Cleveland’s White Motors and Toledo’s AutoLite factories in 1934 and 1935. These strikes were notable because of their use of a new tactic – the sit-down.

Workers did more than picket outside the plant and risk replacement by scabs; they actually occupied the plant itself in order to prevent further production. This gave labor an edge in negotiations that they had not enjoyed before. However, due to its infringement of the property rights of the company, it was a tactic that scared most Americans. Even after the strike was successful, some workers were uneasy about their participation in such an activity. Nevertheless, it proved to be a very effective strategy. And after years of abuses and failures to get the company’s ear, most of the men were ready for anything.

During the summer of 1936, Wyndham Mortimer, who had been a leader of the White Motors strike, came to Flint at the behest of the infant UAW to attempt an initial organization of workers there. It was a challenge no other organizer wanted, since the town of Flint was almost entirely controlled by General Motors. Yet Mortimer recognized that if Flint could be won for the union, the CIO and UAW would have established their most important beachhead within industrial America. Working from the obscurity of a hotel room, he began to send letters to workers whom he felt might be sympathetic, while in the evenings he held secret meetings in workers’ homes in order to elude the notice of company spies. Gradually, the union grew.

In October, tensions within the national UAW leadership forced Mortimer out of Flint. He was able to name his own replacement, though, and his choice for the job was Bob Travis. Travis had been a strike leader in Toledo, and was very good at convincing others of the value of a union. Though not a great public speaker, he had a genius for organization and for motivating small groups into action. His personality made it hard for people to dislike or distrust him. In retrospect, Mortimer could not have made a wiser choice. With the help of other transplanted leaders like the Reuther brothers – Victor, Roy, and Walter – Travis continued to hold meetings and sign up members throughout the fall and early winter of 1936, building on the foundation that Mortimer had established.

Travis’s major challenge was to contain the growing strike fever among the workers until the time was right, which he thought might be just after the new year. Workers would not be cheated out of their Christmas bonuses if they waited until then, and besides, a liberal, New Deal governor, Frank Murphy, was to be sworn into office on New Year’s Day. For the strike to begin before all the pieces were in place would be potentially disastrous.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. On December 29, word came to Travis that the company, in anticipation of a strike, was removing from the Fisher II plant the huge dies that were used for casting car bodies. If these dies were removed, GM would be able to produce car bodies elsewhere and weaken the union’s strategic position. Travis gave the word that the dies were to be protected at all costs and that the workers at Fisher II should occupy the plant to prevent any further company subterfuge. With this directive, the strike was on, two days early. The next day, workers at Fisher I sat down, and GM knew that it had something serious on its hands.

The Strike

On the night of December 30, the majority of employees who had been working their shift at Fisher 1 and Fisher 2 left the plants. Some left only to celebrate the New Year and returned later. Others took up picket and food-gathering activities on the outside. The lives of those who remained on the inside for the duration quickly fell into a disciplined and organized pattern. Committees for such things as cleaning up, exercise, security, entertainment, and defense were quickly assembled, and the property of the company was strictly kept from harm. This discipline and organization was maintained through the insistence of strike leaders Bob Travis and Roy Reuther, both of whom were already veterans of this new way of striking.

General Motors brass and many Flint residents were horrified at the sit-down tactic employed by the strikers. They saw it as an offense to the American tradition of property rights and assigned the blame for its introduction in Flint to “outside agitators”, “radicals”, and “reds.” The extent to which this was true is still unclear, yet it is obvious that most of the sit-downers were patriotic American citizens who were otherwise unworldly and reactionary in their views on politics and society. A good percentage of them supported Franklin Roosevelt and Frank Murphy simply because those politicians portrayed themselves as champions of the little guy, and not because of any perceived ideological slant to the Democratic platform. While several leaders of the strike, including the Reuther brothers, Bob Travis, Genora Johnson, Bud Simons, and Joe Devitt had leftist credentials, none passed out Communist or Socialist literature during the strike. Their politics, which came to light after the strike, simply helps to explain their great devotion to the strikers’ cause.

For those in Flint who opposed the strike or who were unsure what to think about it, there were plenty of influences in town to move the ambivalent towards hostility, and the hostile towards violent action. The Flint Journal, whose editorial board was planted firmly in GM’s pocket, carried headlines every day that either exaggerated the nature of the strike or spouted the company’s biased interpretations of events. Words like “chaos”, “radical”, and “mob” were prevalent. Schoolchildren, including sons and daughters of strikers, were told by their teachers to write essays about why the strike was wrong. Churches, for the most part, were piously silent or cautionary on the topic of the strike, and the judges who rendered decisions on the legality of the strike were preemptively opposed to it. Judge Black, for instance, handed down an injunction against the strikers even though his holding of over $200,000 in GM stock constituted a massive conflict of interest; Judge Gadola once said from the bench that the UAW would be required to compensate GM fully for all of its lost sales during the strike.

The two most famous events of the strike were the Battle of Bulls’ Run and the takeover of Chevrolet Plant No. 4. The former occurred January 11 when city police in riot gear tried to storm the weakly-held Fisher 2 plant. The latter occurred on February 1 and was accomplished through a remarkable diversionary tactic in which the union let it “leak out” that they were going to try to take over Chevrolet Plant No. 9. Company spies did their job, and on the night of February 1 all of the company’s resources were diverted to No. 9. In the meantime, workers from Chevy 6 came over to help shut down the massive No. 4 plant, encountering only token resistance. The Chevy 4 sit-downers constituted the largest group of strikers in Flint, and although they only had to occupy the plant for ten days, their actions precipitated a crisis for General Motors that ultimately forced its recognition of the union.

In both of the major battles of the strike, women played a key role in the union’s successes. From the beginning, a large number of non-working women refused to sit on the sidelines while the strike was going on. Instead, they formed the Women’s Auxiliary, which visited the homes of sit-downers to convince their wives that the strike was worth the sacrifice they were experiencing. Later, a smaller group formed the Women’s Emergency Brigade, which took the front lines on several occasions against the police and company “goons”. Many of these women even enlisted their children in picket duty and ended up giving them an education they could not have received in Flint’s schools. Genora (Dollinger) Johnson became the most famous of these women activists, though many dozens besides her put their lives on the line, daring GM to step over it.

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