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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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