A great new book tells the story of the United Auto Workers’ famous 1936 sit-down strike at General Motors in Flint, Michigan.
A Landmark Strike
In the history of the U.S. labor movement, one of the most consequential strikes is the famous General Motors Sit-Down strike in Flint, Michigan in 1936-37. It led to the United Auto Workers (UAW) organizing the company and then the auto industry, influenced further organizing in steel and other sectors, and changed the labor movement and the whole country.
The story of that strike is fairly well known in labor circles, but a new book captures the fascinating details of this conflict. Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike That Created the Middle Class, by journalist and historian Edward McClelland, brings us to Flint for the whole saga. He draws on memoirs, union and newspaper archives, and oral histories of the strikers to create a readable and fast paced account.
McClelland shows that the success of the strike was due to the union’s strategy, the workers’ boldness, and a masterful use of political allies.
The Growth of “Vehicle City”
In an introduction chapter, McClelland swiftly sets the scene. Around 1900, Flint was the premier center of horse carriage manufacturing, but the owner of one of the major companies, William Durant, saw the automobile as the future. A series of corporate deals assembled a conglomerate of auto companies – Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Pontiac – into a new giant, General Motors (GM).
The company grew along with the town, and in the first two decades of the 20th century, Flint’s population rose dramatically from 13,000 to 92,000 people. And it was a company town, as GM controlled nearly everything – the workplace, housing, press, local politics and police. By the 1930s, three-quarters of the town’s workforce worked for GM or its suppliers.
McClelland reminds us that there were a few failed organizing attempts in these early years. Then when the Depression hit, layoffs, speedups, and dangerous working conditions brought a few more unsuccessful attempts in 1930 and 1934. But then the arrival of the Committee (later Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO) changed everything.
GM Meets the CIO
The newly formed UAW-CIO sent organizers to Flint in 1936. They started to organize, talking to workers every day, often in secret. But GM knew everything that happened in town and hired spies to obstruct their organizing.
The fall of 1936 was a tumultuous time at the company. The changeover to the 1937 model caused problems for the workers, reducing their piece rate-based take home pay. Flint saw tremendous labor unrest and wildcat strikes. The union wanted a big strike when it was ready, and after January 1 when a new labor friendly governor, Frank Murphy, would take office.
One wildcat victory foreshadowed what was to come. After two brothers were fired for stopping work, the union coordinated more workers to shut down the entire plant. In a funny series of events, the workers agreed to resume work only after the brothers were back on the job. So the company mobilized the police to bring them back to work. The workers’ confidence was growing.
The Sit Down
The union scheduled a strike meeting for early January in Flint, but events overtook these plans. The GM Fisher plant in Cleveland went on strike at the end of December, and this changed the game. As McClelland makes clear, “Fisher Cleveland and Fisher One in Flint are the two plants the UAWA must occupy in order to shut down General Motors, since those plants contain dies that stamp out auto parts used in every GM facility.”
Soon afterward, workers at Fisher One reported that the company was loading these dies onto a train. So the union made a critical decision – one of the most important in the history of the labor movement – to occupy the plant. As the new year began, several hundred workers held the plant, and eventually organized 17 committees to handle food, security and other issues. The Fisher Two plant was also occupied, and strikes and takeovers spread to plants in other cities, cutting GM production by 75% that first week. A nice detail in the book is “The Fisher Strike” song, sung by the workers’ Hillbilly Orchestra:
These 4,000 Union Boys,
Oh, they sure made lots of noise,
They decided then and there to shut down tight,
In the office they get snooty,
So we started picket duty,
Now the Fisher Body Shop is on a strike.
GM’s attempt to turn off the heat to the Fisher plants and stop food deliveries instigated a fight at the plant doors. Police fired at strikers, who threw back car door hinges. This is the famous “Battle of the Running Bulls,” and was a victory for the workers, but 14 were shot. The governor called in the National Guard to restore order, a move welcomed by the union, since it was clear the troops wouldn’t evict the strikers.
McClelland provides a lot of rich detail about the drama in Flint during the strike. The community rallied in support, but an anti-strike Flint Alliance also formed. In a nice chapter, he describes the participation of women in the strike. Worker’s wives formed a Ladies’ Auxiliary to provide strike support, including food and first aid. They organized a thousand wives, arguing that better jobs would help their families. Incredibly, this effort included a Women’s Emergency Brigade, with hundreds of women armed with clubs ready to confront the cops at the picket line.
A complicated period of on-again, off-again mediation ensued. A truce broke down when GM agreed to meet with the Flint Alliance, which claimed to represent non-union auto workers. The UAW escalated with a takeover of the Flint Chevy 4 engine plant.
At this point U.S. Labor Secretary Perkins and President Roosevelt became involved. McClelland does a nice job outlining the back and forth as Perkins leaned on GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan to negotiate. Governor Murphy continued to mediate and was in a tough spot. He was under pressure to enforce an injunction against the Fisher plant occupation, but also needed labor support and didn’t want any violence. CIO leader John L. Lewis pressed hard on the governor and GM relentlessly.
And then, a breakthrough after 44 days. GM agreed to recognize and bargain with the UAW for its members. A month later they hammered out a first contract, with raises, a grievance procedure, layoffs by seniority, and a study of line speeds. This led to a contract soon after at Chrysler, and later on, a successful election at Ford in 1941.
The End of an Era
The GM strike occurred in a period of shifting labor relations, as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was passed the year before in 1935. However, the NLRA’s new system for union elections, certifications and contract negotiations, overseen by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) wasn’t yet fully evolved. At GM, the UAW organized under the more free-wheeling methods of the old ways. It didn’t file for a union election, instead it took over some plants and forced the company to recognize it and negotiate. In that sense this strike represents something of an end of an era before the current NLRB system solidified.
The NLRA labor-relations process has always been recognized as a somewhat double edged sword. It established government enforcement for the process for union formation, which enabled millions of workers to organize, raising union density to one-third of the workforce by the 1950s. But over time, this system also tended to shift the focus of action away from the shop floor and toward a more bureaucratic and legalistic process. The defining feature of the labor movement for the past half century is the decline in union membership and density, and part of the reason must be placed with the increasing straightjacket of the NLRA.
For some time after the Flint strike, the growing UAW attempted to challenge the industry on issues typically regarded as managerial. But with the famous 1950 “Treaty of Detroit,” the union, along with most of the labor movement, settled into the post-war bargain – company owners will manage, but must share the increasing wealth with the workers. This contributed to the so-called “golden age” of capitalism over the next few decades, with rising working class wages and benefits.
McClelland leans heavily on this “creation of the middle class” framework, and it’s not wrong. But this incorporation of labor as the “junior partner” of capitalism blocked a potential road not taken during an era when perhaps more could have been gained. Alfred P. Sloan summarized this struggle in his memoir, noting the “persistent union attempt to invade basic managerial prerogatives” regarding “production schedules,” “work standards,” the company’s right to “discipline workers,” and the “tendency of the union to inject itself into pricing policy.” However ultimately “we were fairly successful in combating these invasions of management rights…on the whole, we have retained all the basic powers to manage.”
Contrast this with the unionism discussed in the fantastic The Long Deep Grudge about the militant Farm Equipment (FE) workers union, which believed “management had no right to exist.” In that story, the UAW of the 1950s had fully transitioned to a “work now, grieve later” union. It raided and eventually took over the FE, extinguishing that union’s direct action organizing tradition. A UAW leadership increasingly distant from the rank and file would not support its own black members in Detroit in the 1970s, as discussed in Detroit, I Do Mind Dying, and would engage in corruption in more recent years.
Auto industry employment has declined over the decades, and the union presence even more so. Where the majority of industry workers after World War Two were organized, it’s now about 15%, partly because the foreign auto manufacturers are unorganized. Moreover, Flint is now known more for its lead poisoned water scandal than auto industry class struggle. In this rise and fall of the town and the union, is the story of the labor movement.
In our era of labor decline, it’s a real joy to see this inspiring example of a gutsy union move, creating leverage that was used for great gains. Any revival of labor will certainly require the kind of bold risk-taking shown by the UAW members in Flint on that cold December of 1936.