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This Day in Labor History: February 11, 1937

[ 51 ] February 11, 2012 |

On this date in 1937, the Flint Sit-Down strike ended after General Motors recognized the United Auto Workers at the bargaining agent for GM employees. This titanic victory legitimized the AFL and the CIO more broadly, ushering in the nation’s great period of industrial unionism.

Flint, a city of 150,000 was an auto industry town. Auto companies employed 80% of the city’s workers directly. The largest, General Motors, effectively owned the city. The police force did its beck and call and outsiders were closely watched, lest they be agitators ready to unionize the auto workers. The auto industry was vociferously open shop; along with steel, big auto resisted unionization with all its might. The UAW had sought to unionize GM plants, but its numbers rose and fell depending on the campaign. Its inability to win a union contract made its future tenuous. To raise the stakes, UAW organizers in Flint and Cleveland decided to shut the industry down in January 1937. But workers in Cleveland walked out on a wildcat strike in late December, causing the UAW to speed up its plans. On December 29, 1936, the UAW shut down the Fisher Body plant. Fisher Body supplied bodies for Buick, one of the most profitable GM brands. In the Fisher Body plant, militants sat down on the job and refused to leave until GM agreed to a union contract. At this time, the UAW only had about a 10% unionization rate among the city’s GM plants, which employed 47,000 workers. Most of the workers had migrated from the rural Midwest and Appalachia, not areas with strong unionization rates. The UAW’s militant organizers had to teach unionism to workers at the same time that they battled the auto companies.

Strikers inside the Fisher Body plant.

The sit-down strike put the company in a tricky position. Violence against the strikers threatened the capital of the plant itself, making a forceful eviction potentially costly. However, the success of the Fisher Body occupiers in galvanizing attention led to a huge wave of workers signing up for UAW membership and spawned radical actions throughout the GM system. In response, on January 11, GM ordered the city’s compliant police force to attack the occupiers. But the workers inside began spraying fire hoses and hurling metal objects onto the police below, quickly convincing GM that a frontal assault was not a good idea.

GM also hoped to convince the state or federal government to crack down, in the style of what corporations might soon call “the good old days.” Vice-President John Nance Garner wanted to send in the military to crush the strikers (side note, how disastrous would a Garner presidency have been had FDR not run for the 3rd term in 1940? Horrible). GM attempted to use an injunction to declare the sit-down strike illegal. A judge complied but UAW officials discovered he owned $200,000 in GM stock, which disqualified him from ruling on GM-related cases. More importantly, Frank Murphy took over as governor of Michigan. A committed New Dealer, Murphy has previously been the pro-working class mayor Detroit. He would later serve as Attorney General for Roosevelt and Supreme Court justice, where he dissented strongly in Korematsu v. U.S. In fact, the UAW had originally hoped to time the sit-in to coincide with Murphy taking office. Finally, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rejected federal intervention out of hand, despite the desires of his Dixiecrat Vice-President.

The strike worked because it galvanized the community. While workers might have feared for their jobs by joining the UAW in 1936, after the strike started, it unleashed enormous pent-up desires for justice, decent wages, and good working conditions within the people of Flint. The UAW did an outstanding job of tapping into the community. An women’s auxiliary quickly formed to support the workers inside, bringing them food, clean clothing, newspapers, and other items to wile away the long days of boredom inside the plant. While the whole idea of a women’s auxiliary reinforces the male-dominated single-income family, it was 1937 so it was a good strategy at the time. The workers both inside and outside the plant also showed a tremendous amount of discipline. Conditions inside the plant could have deteriorated quickly, giving the police a clear reason to evict the strikers. Strong leadership within the UAW and first-rate organizers worked closely with the workers and community to stay on message, keep the pressure on GM, and not allow frustrations to boil over in counter-productive ways. Today, In a world where a return to street-based organizing is giving anarchist-fringe groups room to hijack movements and engage in personally satisfying violence at the expense of larger movements, the actions of the UAW in 1937 should provide a lesson on how to organize. Self-discipline and community-discipline are both key tenets of successful organizing campaigns.

Another key lesson of the GM strike is the absolutely vital role state and federal governments play in deciding labor battles. Labor had been routinely crushed by the state before 1933. During the GM strike it was the neutral and even pro-labor attitudes of Murphy and Roosevelt that allowed the UAW to win. Recently, in a comment to one of my labor posts, a libertarian linked to a piece arguing that the state actually prevents unions from succeeding when it gets involved in labor disputes. This was patently absurd because the effect of the state depends entirely on which side it takes in the conflict. Traditionally, the American state had oppressed workers. The Roosevelt years saw a marked change in this attitude. Not surprisingly, millions of Americans joined unions. This seems self-evident, yet people seem to misunderstand this basic equation.

March in support of Flint sit-down strikers, Cadillac Square, Detroit

GM obtained a second injunction on February 1. The UAW not only ignored it, but occupied another GM plant in Flint on February 4. CIO leader John L. Lewis arrived to lend his considerable weight and seriously furrowed eyebrows to the negotiations. GM leaders refused to sit in the same room with UAW members, but Governor Murphy then stepped in, sending in the National Guard, not to serve as GM’s private army, but to protect the striking workers from strikebreakers. Murphy’s move was the last straw for GM. On February 11, GM agreed to a 1 page union contract recognizing the UAW as the bargaining agent for all union members in its plants, not only in Flint but throughout the nation. The workers left the Fisher Body plant in a state of jubilation.

The UAW quickly signed 100,000 new workers to membership cards at GM plants around the country. The UAW would build off this victory to organize the other auto plants over the next few years and the other major CIO members unions would use similar tactics to unionize the steel and rubber plants of the Great Lakes states, turning America into a union nation, however briefly.

Remembering the Flint sit-down strike.

The Flint sit-down strike is arguably the most important moment in the history of American labor. After a century of struggling, failing, and dying for the right to form a union, workers’ own militancy coincided with a new attitude from the government to create the greatest period for American workers in the nation’s history. Sadly, the CIO never could turn the overall tide of this nation against suspicion of labor and over the decades, the gains labor made in the mid-20th century faded under withering corporate and government attacks. But we have much to learn from the success of Flint for our reorganization of the nation’s workforce.

For more information, here’s a great audio archive of the strike full of oral histories and all sorts of information.

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Comments (51)

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  1. David Kaib says:

    The Flint sit-down strike is arguably the most important moment in the history of American labor.

    Agreed. Also one the most important tactical innovations for social justice. Thanks for highlighting it.

    In addition, Frank Murphy was a vastly underrated SC justice.

  2. Vance Maverick says:

    Thanks for this (indeed the whole series). Pretty sure, though, that Cadillac Square (in the caption) is in Detroit.

  3. rjcoy06 says:

    This was indeed a great day in history. I was born and raised in Flint, MI. I am a 3rd generation UAW worker at GM and feel very fortunate to be a union member. Unfortunately, most of the newer generation of workers at GM have no sense of history or what the people before us fought so hard for. It’s sad to hear union members complain about paying union dues or say they don’t need the union. If not for the UAW, we would not have anything. Hopefully things won’t have to get really bad for these people to wake up and realize how important solidarity is to our cause.

  4. efgoldman says:

    Eric, did you ever get to the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsockett? Good little history of unions in the fabric mills.

  5. Dzerzhinsky says:

    75 years since the Flint sit-down strike:

    …The Flint strike was the climax of an enormous upsurge of the American working class, inspired in part by the example of workers internationally. The militants who led the sit-down strikes in the US took their lead from the mass strikes that had erupted in the spring and summer of 1936 in France.

    </emThe Great Depression had reduced the already impoverished conditions of American workers to outright industrial slavery. General strikes erupted in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and San Francisco, California. These struggles were led by militant workers influenced by the ideals of socialism and the Russian Revolution, who saw wrenching union rights from the corporations as a step toward revolutionary social change.

    <emFrom the outset, the aims of the workers in the forefront of the struggle for industrial unions were in conflict with the limited aims of the leaders of the CIO and UAW. The Flint strike was called by second tier national and local UAW officials who considered themselves socialists. Kermit Johnson, a Trotskyist, led the occupation of Chevy No. 4.
    The incipiently revolutionary movement of the American working class was aborted by the reformist, pro-capitalist and nationalist policies of the UAW and CIO leadership. With the support of the Stalinist Communist Party, the union bureaucracy rejected the independent political organization of the labor movement and instead tied the new industrial unions to Roosevelt and the Democratic Party…

    http://wsws.org/articles/2011/dec2011/pers-d30.shtml

    • Davis X. Machina says:

      No axes being ground there, no sir…

    • Mark Centz says:

      The 4th International is lacking on html technique. Find a web cadre. Oh, wait, those are Stalinist slogans. Never mind. BTW, Iron Felix was no friend to the Left Opposition, even though the Old Man was his pallbearer.

      So, Eric, did you mention the AFL as a winner simply because all Labor gained traction from the victory, or were there more direct connections unmentioned?

    • This is bad history. What made Flint work wasn’t “an enormous upsurge of the American working class” – the mass of auto workers were scared sh*tless about unions because a previous drive had been broken just a few years earlier.

      Rather, the Flint sit-down strike was a top-down elite effort – you don’t need the majority of workers to be on your side if all you have to do is throw the shut-down switch and bar the doors. The mass participation came later, when auto workers saw UAW stewards rehired for the first time after a strike and realized that they could join the union without losing their jobs.

      Finally, I’d point out that those notorious reformists the Reuther brothers were in the strike up to the hilt.

      • Karl Radek says:

        The fate of the UAW is the outcome of long historical processes bound up with the fortunes of American capitalism. When it was built in the 1930s, the rank-and-file leadership of the union was dominated by socialists—including Trotskyists—and militants. Even Walter Reuther (UAW president, 1946-1970) in the 1930s presented himself as a socialist.

        However, Reuther and the UAW—and the American trade unions as a whole—made a pact with American capitalism, agreeing not to challenge the profit system and eschewing all earlier demands for expanding democratic control of the production process. This was closely bound up with a political marriage to the Democratic Party.
        http://wsws.org/articles/2009/jun2009/auto-j04.shtml

      • Erik Loomis says:

        Yes, clearly if you think it is so bad you could start your own site. No doubt you could write a far superior post on Flint in the 1000 words or so that is reasonable for a blog post. In fact, I urge you to try.

        • Murc says:

          Er… Steven was very clearly calling out the WSWS article as bad history, Erik, not your own work. And given the usual quality of the articles to be found there, and some of the rather extraordinary claims this specific one makes, it would seem he has a point.

          Although if he were calling out your own work, I would question your ‘If you don’t like it, stop bitching and go do better’ response. This is a blog with comments. People are gonna call you out. Sometimes they’ll even be right.

    • Murc says:

      I keep wondering what the hell is up with Dzerhinsky, who I suspect isn’t a person but a handle meant to be used to generate traffic back to WSWS.

      I mean, his posts are always germane in some way, and they don’t look bot-generated; there’s always text in them that doesn’t come from the article they link to, implying a real human typed them out. And they only really appear in labor or history threads.

      But they’re consistently badly formatted, with the EXACT SAME tag failure in EVERY SINGLE POST. And I’ve never seen him reply to responses or indeed take part in other sub-threads. It’s always a swoop in and a link, always with the same HTML mistake, which implies he/they don’t actually read what they’ve posted.

      In conclusion: what the fuck?

  6. lawguy says:

    Interesting write up. It does kind of get over looked that there were many communists doing the organising and I don’t think that the AFL had a lot of skin in that game. Still.

    On another note. Years ago I watched a documentary called “Union Maids” about three women who were involved in union organising in the 30s one of whom was involved with the Flint uprising. I’ve been trying to find the thing again for a reasonable cost, but can’t find it anywhere. Anybody know where?

  7. creature says:

    Erik, once again, thanks for the slice of labor history, served up nice and proper. Whatever nuances and varied viewpoints regarding the sit-down strike, it did provide a catalyst for further labor actions and advances. That lead to the rise of a middle class and new opportunities to more Americans. Labor activists were just part of an awakening of visionaries of what America could be, and their collective actions got us closer to realization of a harmonious society.

  8. Western Dave says:

    Pretty much the only upside of TAing for Sidney Fine in his later years was learning about Frank Murphy. I do think somebody needs to do a one-volume history (as opposed to Fine’s two or three massive volumes, and Fine was never a stylist).

  9. Joseph Slater says:

    Great post.

  10. sue says:

    Thanks for the write-up Erik. Today is also the anniversary of when Walker “dropped the bomb” (in his own words) on Wisconsin, and we’re having a week of commemorative events here. One of the speakers at today’s rally, a grad student and TAA rep, talked about the Flint strike, so it’s great to get more background on it. She focused on how everyone worked together, men and women, and linked it to the need today for solidarity in all aspects of trying make people’s lives better and get our government functioning for the people again.

  11. cpinva says:

    i’m curious to know if there was any african-american participation in this strike? were any working in the auto industry at all, at this time? if there were, were they invited to join the union, or ignored, as if they didn’t exist?

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I can’t speak if there was any per se at Flint. Certainly there was African-American members of the UAW in large numbers during World War II, which caused some major problems in the membership. I hope to address this issue relatively soon in a post in this series. In short, the UAW leadership was quite progressive on racial issues, but there was major tension between leadership and rank and file. In the end, the fact that so many UAW members were from Appalachia was a major barrier to racial equality within the union.

      • StevenAttewell says:

        Probably not a lot at Flint, but black workers were absolutely pivotal during the Ford strikes, as Ford had hired and forged deep links with the African American community in return for a no union policy.

        UAW’s racial progressivism really emerged out of a necessity for survival in Ford, especially at River Rouge. It became much more so, especially when anti fascism became a pivotal issue.

  12. LosGatosCA says:

    This series is great because it really highlights that the freedom this country enjoys (waxing and waning, as it may be) has generally been one by heroes who stand up to injustice and exploitation in principled, assertive, non-violent, manner.

    Yes, we have the military to protect our freedoms, but the right to extend and exercise them comes from people who stand up without any force of arms to enforce their claim. Indeed, it is much more likely that they are standing against adversaries willing to use force to enforce their power to maintain injustice and continue the exploitation.

    That’s personal courage that’s rare in any form, in any walk of life.

  13. Alex says:

    The auto industry was vociferously open shop

    “Open Shop” is a term which refers to places of employment where the employees are represented by a union but the employees are not required by the contract to join the union. It isn’t used to describe an employer who wishes to continue to exclude a union from obtaining representative status. Its use became common after the passage of Taft-Hartley, when right to work laws effectively mandated open shop in those states. Union securtity clauses containing open shop provisions are rare in CBAs otherwise.

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  15. [...] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}When discussing the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 last weekend, I noted John Nance Garner’s support for using soldiers to bust the strike. It [...]

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