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This is not a happy time for American autoworkers. Their employers are cutting thousands of jobs, closing plants, and demanding - and getting - major pay and benefit concessions from their union.

Normally, February would be a time of celebration for the union, the United Auto Workers - a time to mark the anniversary of a UAW victory in a sit-down strike in 1937 that led to making its members the world's most secure and most highly compensated production workers.

But though they are losing that hard-won standing, autoworkers can draw important inspiration from that victory in Flint, Michigan, as they struggle against the severe employer pressures they're facing today.

The victory ended one of the most dramatic and important economic battles in U.S. history.  It pitted the UAW, then struggling for mere survival, against General Motors, then the world's largest and most profitable manufacturer of any kind. Nearly half the new cars sold in the United States were made by GM. Its operations, as Fortune magazine said at the time, were "not big but colossal" - 110 plants in 14 states and 18 other countries.

Mighty GM had vowed publicly that it would never allow the UAW to represent its employees. But the corporation ended up granting that crucial right - and more. It was a stunning victory. It swiftly led to unionization of workers throughout heavy industry and, ultimately, to unionization in most fields.

The UAW's strike target was well chosen. As labor historian Irving Bernstein noted, "If General Motors had a heart, it was in Flint."

As important was the workers' choice of the sit-down strike, an old but never widely used tactic, as their main weapon. An orthodox strike would not have worked. As soon as they walked off their jobs, they would have been replaced. Production would have continued unabated, while the strikers picketed outside, subject to arrest and the violence of police and others.

For 44 bitterly cold winter days the auto workers in Flint held out, eventually inspiring more than two-thirds of GM's other production workers to strike as well, at dozens of other plants. The strikers in Flint seized, shut down and occupied one, then two, then three of the key GM plants that stood within a few hundred yards of each other. That severely curtailed the production of bodies for several makes of GM cars and halted entirely the production of engines for Chevrolets, then GM's biggest sellers by far.

Flint, 65 miles north of Detroit, was a true company town. More than one-fourth of its 150,000 residents worked for General Motors, many of its municipal officials held or had held management positions with the corporation and many were stockholders. GM in effect controlled City Hall, the courts, the police, the schools and churches, the local newspaper and the local radio station.

But the sit-down strikers defied court orders to leave the plants. They hurled nuts and bolts and soda pop bottles and sprayed powerful jets of water from the plants' firehoses at the squads of local police and company guards who fired buckshot and tear gas canisters into the plants in attempts to oust the strikers.

"It was like we were soldiers holding the fort," a striker declared. "It was like war."

Marching just outside the plants were hundreds of pickets - members of the strikers' families, fellow unionists and other supporters from nearby and from elsewhere across the United States and Canada.

The supporters provided immense aid and comfort. That included, especially, three hot meals a day, prepared for what ultimately amounted to 5,000 strikers by volunteers at a rented restaurant across the road. The food was passed through open plant windows while municipal and company police stood by in frustration, fearing the publicity they would reap from an attack, given the heavy presence of women and children and reporters from all over the country. Nor did they stop supporters from entering the plants to entertain, reinforce and otherwise help the strikers.

A contingent of state guardsmen also stood by, but Michigan's newly-elected Democratic governor, Frank Murphy, was extremely reluctant to order the men into action. He finally did bow to severe employer pressure one evening just before the strike ended, announcing that the troopers would drive strikers from the key Chevrolet engine plant the next morning if they did not leave on their own. The governor backed off very quickly, however, after he was confronted by John L. Lewis, the flamboyant leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

If the eviction order was issued, Lewis told Gov. Murphy, he would go inside, tell the  strikers to disregard it, and "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 that those bullets will strike! And as my body falls from that window to the ground, you listen to the voice of your grandfather [an Irish rebel hanged by the British] as he whispers in your ear, 'Frank, are you sure you are doing the right thing?'"

Why were they so driven, so militant, the strikers and their supporters?

Albert Cline, a retired assembly line worker who took part in the strikes, recalled working "in an atmosphere where you got two cups outside the plant each morning - one for coffee and the other to urinate in. There were no cooling fans, no gloves, no relief men. You could see 150 people lined up at the front door, all wanting your job. Our backs were so bent we'd lie on the grass after work until we could straighten out and walk. We were ready to do anything we could to get dignity on the job."

Rose Kirtz, the wife of another former GM worker, said "we were an Italian family; we made wine - but not for our table. It was given to the foreman and general foreman to hold a job. There were no Christmas presents for our kids, only for the foreman and general foreman. You never questioned what was in your pay envelope, for fear of getting fired."

The rate of pay was indeed set by management whim. GM's president, vice presidents and other top executives averaged $200,000 a year, even in those years of general economic depression. Production workers averaged $1,000 a year, even with mandatory overtime work, paid at the same rate as any other work.

There were no health and safety regulations, no rules governing GM's unceasing efforts to speed up assembly lines. Layoffs were frequent and workers did not even have rehiring rights. They had to get in line with thousands of others desperate for jobs. They dared not complain about what they were getting on the job or what they were offered, and they did not dare to engage openly in union activity. GM hired dozens of private detectives and workers to spy on union organizers and help the corporation ferret out union sympathizers for firing.

"Before, foremen never called us by name, just by number," recalled George Edwards, who was one of the GM strikers' rank-and-file leaders. "But they damn well knew our names after that strike. We became people."

The autoworkers became people with rights most workers had only dreamed of. General Motors agreed to negotiate a contract with their uni0on representatives that would determine their wages, hours and working conditions. GM would rehire all strikers and would not discriminate against union members. The contract, signed just a month after the strike ended, included procedures for workers to effectively address their grievances. And the contract guaranteed that the jobs which were the workers' most important possessions would be theirs as long as they adhered to the conditions negotiated by their representatives and ratified by the workers themselves.

Suddenly, workers everywhere were sitting-down. There were 477 sit-down strikes by the end of 1937, involving more than 500,000 workers, mainly in industrial plants but also in mines, in hotels and restaurants, even in five-and-ten-cent stores.

Butchers, saleswomen, milliners, laundry workers, garbage collectors, sailors, glass blowers, movie projectionists and many others followed the autoworkers' lead. Most won at least partial victory, most importantly including the right to bargain with their employers.

Two years later, the Supreme Court declared sit-down strikes an unlawful seizure of property. By then, however, workers in virtually all private employment outside agriculture had won a firm legal right to collective bargaining and so could turn to other tactics and other demands.

It should not be forgotten that whatever their later tactics and demands, workers could have done nothing truly effective to improve their working lives - and can do nothing truly effective today - without the tool of collective bargaining. They would not have won the right to use that essential tool had it not been for the autoworkers who sat down on the job in Flint, Michigan, so long ago.

Copyright (c) 2009 Dick Meister