The Flint Sit-Down Strike, the most important strike in American history, changed the United Automobile Workers from a collection of isolated locals on the fringes of the industry into a major union and led to the unionization of the United States automobile industry.
The UAW had only been formed in 1935 and held its first convention in 1936. Shortly thereafter the union decided that it could not survive by piecemeal organizing campaigns at smaller plants, as it had in the past, but that it could only organize the automobile industry by going after its biggest and most powerful employer, General Motors Corporation, focusing on GM’s production complex in Flint, Michigan.
Organizing Flint was a difficult and dangerous plan. GM controlled city politics in Flint and kept a close eye on outsiders. As Wyndham Mortimer, the UAW officer put in charge of the organizing campaign in Flint, recalled, when he visited Flint in 1936 he received a telephone call within a few minutes of checking into his hotel from an anonymous caller telling him to get back where he came from if he didn’t “want to be carried out in a wooden box.”
GM also maintained an extensive network of spies throughout its plants. Mortimer concluded after talking to Flint autoworkers that the existing locals, which had only 122 members out of 45,000 autoworkers in Flint, were riddled with spies. Accordingly, he decided that the only safe way to organize Flint was simply to bypass those locals. Mortimer, Bob Travis, Roy Reuther, Henry Kraus and Ralph Dale began meeting with Flint autoworkers in their homes, keeping the names of new members a closely guarded secret from others in Flint and in UAW headquarters.
As the UAW studied its target it discovered that GM had only two factories that produced the dies from which car body components were stamped: one in Flint that produced the parts for Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles and another in Cleveland that produced Chevrolet parts. The union planned to strike these plants after the New Year, when Frank Murphy would become Governor of Michigan.
Events forced the union to accelerate its plans, however, when the workers at Cleveland’s Fisher body plant went on strike on December 26, 1936. The UAW immediately announced that it would not settle the Cleveland strike until it reached a national agreement with GM covering all of its plants. At the same time the Union made plans to shut down Fisher # 1 in Flint.
On December 29, 1936 the Union learned that GM was planning to move the dies out of Fisher # 1. Travis immediately called a meeting at lunchtime at the union hall across the street from the plant, explained the situation, then sent the members across the street to occupy the plant. The Flint sit-down strike began.
In a conventional strike the union takes its members outside the plant and attempts to prevent the employer from operating by discouraging other employees from entering. In a sit-down strike, the workers physically occupy the plant, keeping management and others out.
The Flint sit-down strikers did just that, electing their own “Mayor” and other civic officials and maintaining the plant throughout the strike. The Union kept up a regular supply of food to the strikers inside while sympathizers marched in support outside.
A state court judge issued an injunction ordering the strikers to leave the plant. The UAW discovered, through investigative work, that the judge held roughly $200,000 in GM stock, which disqualified him from hearing any case involving GM.
The Flint police attempted to enter the plant on January 11, 1937. The strikers inside the plant turned the fire hoses on the police while pelting them with hinges and other auto parts while members of the women’s auxiliary broke windows in the plant to give strikers some relief from the tear gas the police were using against them. The police made several charges, but withdrew after six hours. The strikers dubbed this “The Battle of Bulls Run,” a mocking reference to the police (“bulls”).
GM obtained a second injunction against the strike on February 1, 1937. The union not only ignored the order, but spread the strike to Chevrolet Plant # 4. To avoid tipping its hand, the union let it be known in the hours before the move that it intended to go after another plant, only changing directions at the last minute. GM, tipped off by an informant within the UAW, was ready and waiting for the union at the other plant and caught completely off guard at Plant # 4.
That development forced GM to bargain with the Union. John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers and founder and leader of the CIO, spoke for the UAW in those negotiations, while the UAW sent its President Homer Martin on a speaking tour to keep him out of the way. GM’s representatives refused to be in the same room as the UAW’s, so Governor Murphy acted as courier and intermediary between the two groups.
The parties finally reached agreement on February 11, 1937 on a one page agreement that recognized the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for GM’s employees who were members of the union for the next six months.
As short as this agreement was, it gave the UAW instant legitimacy. The UAW capitalized on that opportunity, signing up 100,000 GM employees and building the Union’s strength through grievance strikes.
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The Inside story told by a striker
University of Illinois Press