Donate to Links


Click on Links masthead to clear previous query from search box

Read Green Left Weekly, our sister publication





Syndicate

Syndicate content

Anniversary of the 1937 US sit-down strike wave: Remembering another Occupy movement

Sit-in strikers at General Motors' Fisher No. 1 plant.

By Don Fitz

[See also With Babies & Banners, the classic 1977 documentary about the 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike, and the role of women in it.]

January 3, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The year 2012 marks the 75th anniversary of the great sit-down strike wave of 1937. It also begins the second year of the Occupy movement, which has more than a few similarities to the time when hundreds of thousands of Americans occupied their workplaces.

The first recorded sit-down strike in the US was actually in 1906 among General Electric workers of Schenectady, New York. When three organisers for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) were fired, 3000 of their fellow workers sat down and stopped production.

By the 1930s, the IWW was on the wane, but many of its organisers were active and workers across the US had seen its tactics first hand.

In 1933, workers in the Austin, Minnesota, Hormel plant had many complaints against the company: raises habitually went to foremen’s friends; workers were fired and then rehired in other departments at lower pay; before election day, foremen would threaten layoffs if Farmer-Labor Party candidates won, and employees who challenged the practices were told that they could quit. The final straw came when Jay Hormel, who fancied himself to be a “benevolent dictator”, attempted to impose a weekly pay deduction for an insurance plan.

When a worker in Hog Kill was pressured to sign up, other workers shut down the floor for 10 minutes, until his insurance card was torn up. News of the brief sit down spread throughout the plant. That July night, workers met at Austin’s Sutton Park to form a union.

The union charter followed the IWW pattern of grouping all workers into one big union regardless of craft. It invited membership from labourers throughout Austin and the surrounding area. The workers named themselves the Independent Union of All Workers (IUAW).

Jay Hormel promised to recognise the union, grant seniority rights and arbitrate grievances. But for six weeks, Hormel refused to put anything in writing and on November 10 workers voted to strike. The Farmer-Laborite Minnesota governor made public speeches backing the strikers while he secretly mobilised the National Guard 30 miles from Austin.

Support for the strike was overwhelming. Since the IUAW had endorsed farmers’ efforts to raise their prices, the Farmers’ Holiday Association patrolled roads leading into Austin to halt livestock and scabs. Strikers occupied the plant and, as Stan Weir recounted the story,

food, bedding, cigarettes, reading material and playing cards were brought to them by family and friends. They came out of the plant several days later with one of the first industrial union contracts in mass production history.

Great Goodyear Strike

The best-known early sit-down strikes were in Ohio. Jeremy Brecher described their humble beginnings in his book, Strike! Sometime in the early 1930s, two factory baseball teams in Akron, Ohio, objected to the umpire because he was not in the union. They stopped playing and sat in the field until a new umpire was found.

A few days later, a supervisor at a rubber factory insulted several workers. Remembering the ball game, they turned off their machines and sat at their work benches. The work stoppage spread throughout the plant and, in less than an hour, the company had given in. Between 1933 and 1936, the practice of sit-down strikes grew among Akron rubber workers.

In January 1936, Firestone announced a rate reduction and fired a union committee member. Workers in one area after another halted production and sat down. The company gave in on both issues. The Great Goodyear Strike began in February 1936 when 700 workers were laid off.

Though hundreds of workers held a sit-down, officers from the United Rubber Workers (URW) persuaded them to leave. Goodyear, US President Franklin Roosevelt and URW officials all tried to convince them to return to work and submit their grievances to arbitration. Instead, the Goodyear workers held out for a month and won. Since union recognition had not been established, the rubber workers enforced the agreement by dozens of sit-down strikes during the rest of 1936.

Flint, Michigan

During the early 1930s, resentment over speed-up and lack of freedom at work was rampant among auto workers. Sit-down strikes at Fisher Body Plants in Cleveland and Detroit caught the owners totally unprepared. When two welders were laid off at a plant in Flint, Michigan, the sit downers were so unified that Fisher management persuaded cops to drive all over town to tell the welders that they got their jobs back so other workers would start production again.

On December 30, 1936, workers at Fisher Body No. 1 in Flint discovered that the company was stockpiling dies (to outlast an expected strike) and occupied the plant. For several weeks, they governed themselves in their own committees that were a model of democracy unknown in the official union structure. When cops tried to stop supporters from bringing food into the plant, a fight of several hours resulted in the strikers chasing them off.

On January 11, 1937, the liberal New Deal state governor ordered the National Guard into Flint. Thousands of industrial unionists poured into Flint to protect the sit downers by preventing the “friend of labour” politician from using the National Guard. This began the great wave of 1937 sit-down strikes.

By the time General Motors signed its first contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW), nearly 50,000 workers had just been involved in strikes inside their plants. There were 60 sit-down strikes in Chicago in March 1937 alone. The 1800 blue-collar and white-collar workers who sat down together at the Chicago Mail Order Co. won a 10% pay increase. And the 450 waitresses and other employees who sat at the tables of Chicago’s three large de Met’s Tea Room won a 25% wage hike.

When the mayor of Amsterdam, New York, tried to hire a private firm to replace garbage men who were sitting at their trucks, the strikers convinced their “replacements” not to scab. Women at a Philadelphia hosiery mill halted the movement of machinery by sitting down.

In Milwaukee, the manager of Yahr Lange Drug Co. had the nasty habit of firing workers when their seniority earned them a raise. So, they sat down and radioed salespeople, who pulled their cars over and sat in them until the manager had been removed. There were thousands of strikes varying from a handful of workers to massive organising efforts. Altogether, these strikes involved close to half a million workers sitting down at their jobs.

The tactic made famous by rubber and auto workers was especially popular in Detroit. Employees at the Newton Packing Co. and Durable Laundry occupied their workplaces. Clerks sat down at Crowley-Milner and Frand & Cedar Department Stores. And, there were sit-down strikes at hotels, lumberyards, tobacco plants and electrical factories.  Drivers on Chicago freight subways sat down when their employer announced layoffs.

Sit-down strikes included furniture workers in St. Louis, shirt company employees in Pulaski, Tennessee, leather workers in Girard, Ohio, broom manufacturing workers in Pueblo, Colorado, and oil workers in Seminole, Oklahoma. Department stores were particularly prone to sit-down strikes because employees could be replaced so easily in regular strikes. In Pittsburgh, C.G. Murphy store employees had a “folded arms” strike when they found no chairs available for a sit down.

Sit-down strikes were successful even though unions had just been decimated by the Great Depression. They often occurred in shops where unions were weak. Workers at Yahr Lange Drug Co. had rejected unionisation shortly before their sit-down strike. In 1934, union membership among Flint auto workers was only 528. The 137 tyre builders who began the Great Goodyear Strike of 1936 with their sit-down strike included hardly any member of the rubber workers’ union.

In fact, sit-down strikes sometimes occurred because people distrusted union officials. Workers were frequently angry at delays in grievance procedures and the lack of attention to workplace demands. Since sit-down strikes are direct action by the people who see an injustice, there is no one to sell out the agreement. With a sit-down strike, workers do not go back to work until people are rehired, the workload is reduced to a human pace, dangerous chemicals are removed, sexual discrimination is stopped or wages are restored.

“Normal” strikes involve unions’ giving management weeks or months of advance notice, which allows the company time to stockpile goods or otherwise prepare to defeat the strike. But both management and union leaders are caught unprepared by sit-down strikes. Management must respond quickly because the action brings production to a grinding halt. Workers then have tremendous leverage. Since they are occupying their place of work, it is extremely difficult for management to find scabs to replace sit-downers.

Illegal?

If you ask “Why did sit-down strikes come to a halt in the US?” you may hear that it was because a Supreme Court ruling made them illegal. Though on February 27, 1939, the court ruled that sit-down strikes violated property owner rights, the ruling had little to do with their decline. For centuries, merely being in a union and taking any job action was illegal. If unions had never been willing to do anything illegal, they never would have come into existence.

As Brecher observes in Strike!, court injunctions were used repeatedly against sit downers during 1937. In other words, sit-down strikes were already illegal when they happened. And labour actions since the great sit-down strike wave have been won, despite being “illegal”. The most notable is the postal wildcat strike of March 1970. Though striking against the government is a felony which can result in a year in jail, more than 200,000 postal workers in 15 US states joined strikers in New York City. Their action forced US Congress to grant them a 24% wage increase.

It was repeated hostility by union officials that threw ice water on the sit-down movement. Union officials tend to want arbitration and negotiated settlements, which give them a place at the table without taking personal risks. Throughout 1937, many union officials urged workers not to sit down or to end strikes after they began. After 1937, collaboration between employers and union higher-ups increased.

Civil rights movement, 1960s

Nevertheless, the idea of sitting down has inspired generations of activists for three quarters of a century. Beginning in the late 1950s, civil rights marchers recalled the labour tactic as they held sit-ins against racism at lunch counters throughout the South. During the height of US attacks on Vietnam in the late 1960s, hundreds of thousands of students sat-in at administration offices to protest their universities’ complicity with militarism. By the late 1970s, hardly a month went by without a sit-in to call attention to the destructive effects of nuclear power or other ecological catastrophes.

The labour movement has not forgotten the tactic. During the 1968 upheavals in France, many workers struck by occupying their workplaces. In the first decade of the 21st century, there have been worker occupations in Canada, South Africa, England, France, Spain and Turkey. The most intense have been in Argentina.

With the financial crisis of 2001, one business after another looked like it would close and workers responded by taking over many. Moreover, they kept the companies running. According to Marie Trigona, 250 worker-occupied enterprises have employed more than 13,000 people. This has led Argentina to have some of the lengthiest recent experiences of worker management. Trigona believes that “the recuperated enterprises confirm that businesses don’t need bosses to produce”. For example, at the Zanon ceramics factory, workers hold general assemblies to make decisions about production.

The recent sit-down occupation best-known to Americans was at Republic Windows and Doors in December 2008. With construction business down, the Chicago company gave its more than 200 workers three days to clear out. Instead, the members of UE Local 1100 took over the plant and groups of 30 kept it occupied so management could not move out its expensive machinery. After six days, they won.

Occupy Wall Street can trace itself to a great tradition which began in the US, spread across the globe in one movement after another, and returned to the US in 2011, only to go global again. When people sit down at work, at a lunch counter, at school or in a park, they realise that they themselves have the power to collectively take back control of their lives from the 1%.

[Don Fitz is on the coordinating committee of the Greens/Green Party USA and produces Green Time TV in St. Louis, Missouri. He can be reached at fitzdon@aol.com.]

 

References

S. Bird, D. Georgakas & D. Shaffer (1985). Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW. Chicago: Lake View Press.

J. Brecher (1977). Strike! Boston: South End Press.

R. Dyer, M. Fiorentino, M. Hoke, M. Reese, A. Sanchez & K. Sweeney (December 15, 2008). “Solidarity with Republic workers”. Socialist Worker. http://socialistworker.org/2008/12/15/solidarity-with-republic-workers. This article appeared in “Workers’ Republic — Scenes from a Successful Factory Occupation”. LINKS International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Retrieved January 2, 2012 from http://links.org.au/node/804.

R. Horowitz. (March–April, 1986). Behind the Hormel Strike: The Fifty Years of Local P-9. Against the Current. 1 (2), pp. 13–18.

J.L. Kornbluh (ed.) (2011). Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

M. Trigona (Winter, 2010). Strategic Lessons from Latin America: Workplace Resistance and Self-Management. Synthesis/Regeneration: A Magazine of Green Social Thought, no. 51, pp. 22–26.

S. Wier (Fall, 1986). “Hormel Strike Reveals Two Kinds of Unionism”. Workers’ Democracy, no 21, pp. 1–7.

Comments

The Cogs Fight the Machine: The Great GM Sit-down Strike

From http://wpt.org/wisconsinstories/janesville/strike.cfm?strikePage=1

by Gillian King

 “They were the big wheel here. They had the judges behind them, they had the mayor behind them, and the little man had no chance.”
−Female factory worker1

In the last wintry days of 1936, disgruntled GM workers across the country halted their assembly lines, put down their tools, and began one of the most important events in American labor history: the Great GM Sit-down Strike. The workers’ action, or rather lack of action, caused GM, as well as the Steel, Electrical, and Textile industries, to recognize the power of their employees.

Until that time workers were treated like expendable cogs in the production process. They were under-paid, nearly crippled by the dizzying speed of production lines, laid off with no income or financial support for the three to five months between model years, and could be fired at the whim of their managers even for suspicion of being involved in union activity. As some workers used to put it, “once you pass the gates of General Motors forget about the United States Constitution.”2 The workers had been pushed down onto their knees in GM’s drive for faster production and greater profits, but they found a way to stand up for themselves: by sitting down.

At the center of the sit-down strike was Flint, Mich, where “most of the bodies for all GM cars, and all the engines for [GM’s] biggest money-maker, Chevrolet, were manufactured.”3 The United Auto Workers (UAW) Union leaders knew that if a strike were to succeed it would have to begin there, at the heart of GM’s production line. Flint was also a company town. “Eighty percent of the population of 150,000 were directly dependent on GM for livelihood.”4 Victory in a town like Flint would prove that workers had the desire and the strength to unionize.

Taking The Plant

GM knew a storm was on the horizon. Discontent, in the form of small strikes, had been rippling throughout their factories, but these strikes were easily put down because of poor planning, weak local unions, and the efforts of labor spies. GM feared that the tide of strikes would spread to Flint, where the union was growing stronger, so on December 30, 1936, the company began moving manufacturing tools out of Flint’s Fisher No. 1, “in an open attempt to shift production to a plant where the union was weak.”6

When word of this reached Robert Travis, head of the UAW in Flint, he called an emergency meeting at the union hall across the street from the plant. There, union members voted to shut production down immediately and the Great Sit-down Strike began.

Workers flooded out of the union hall, ran for the plant and set to work securing it. This scene is best described by Walter Linder in his Progressive Labor Party pamphlet, “The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike Against GM 1936-37.”

“They moved scores of unfinished Buick bodies in front of all the entrances to form a gigantic barricade. With acetylene torches, they welded a steel frame around every door. Bullet-proof metal sheets were put into position to cover every window, while holes were carved in them and threaded to allow the nozzles of fire hoses to be screwed into them. Wet clothes were kept in readiness to be placed on the face as protection against tear-gas attacks. Large supplies of metal parts were placed in strategic spots. Paint guns for spraying would-be invaders were located throughout the plant.”7

Men who had been separated and compartmentalized by the noise and restrictions of the assembly line were now working together not only to secure the plant from outside aggressors, but also to organize themselves into a community that could function and sustain itself within the plant.

GM officials knew they were in trouble; their normal strike-breaking tactics wouldn’t work against the sit-down. The company couldn’t easily stop the strike with violence. Instead of being outside of the factory in a picket line where they would be vulnerable to attack, the workers were protected by the company’s own walls. GM couldn’t hire scabs, who were often used to continue production and crush strikers’ morale, because the strikers were guarding their idle machines, holding them hostage. Trying to forcefully remove the workers would put at risk “millions of dollars of company property, vast assembly lines and unfinished products.”8 The workers were digging in deep and preparing to hold on tight.

A Well-Structured Strike

“We wasn’t individuals any longer; we were part of an organization.”
−Female worker at GM’s A.C. Spark Plug9

The sit-down strike had something else GM feared: organization. Once the plant was secure, and female employees were sent to the union hall to avoid accusations of scandal, the nearly 3,000 men settled in and made the plant their temporary home. To maintain order, the strikers held daily meetings and voted on a committee of fourteen members to act as a “little government.”10 All of the committee’s rules and actions had to be approved by democratic vote. The committee organized the men into sub-committees which controlled “food, police, information, sanitation and health, safety, ‘kangaroo court,’ entertainment, education and athletics.”11

While the police committee was probably the most important, patrolling the plant in rotating shifts twenty-four hours a day to insure against spies and strikebreakers, the entertainment committee provided a much-needed break from the monotony of the strike. One of the entertainment highlights was Charlie Chaplin’s film Modern Times, which Roger Ebert describes as, “a fable about (among other things) automation, assembly lines and the enslaving of man by machines.”12 Chaplin donated prints of the film and a local theater owner set up screenings in the plant. The themes of Modern Times and some of Chaplin’s other films later prompted the House Un-American Activities Committee to accuse Chaplin of being a communist, though he denied the charge.13

The workers also put rules in place to keep themselves morally upright. Smoking was only allowed in certain areas of the plant. Liquor and gambling were banned. They prided themselves on clean living; the plant was tidied up every day at 3p.m., and every man was encouraged to shower once a day.14 If a worker broke the law in the plant, he was tried by his fellow strikers in the kangaroo court. Any man who was convicted three times would be sent home.15

Because of the organization and commitment of the men inside, Fisher No. 1 and a smaller sit-down in Flint’s other body plant, Fisher No. 2, the strike quickly spread to plants across the country and GM’s production of auto bodies halted. By January 1, just two days after the strike began, every Chevrolet and Buick assembly plant had closed.

On January 2, 1937, Homer Martin, president of the national UAW, called Janesville, Wisconsin’s union presidents — Wesley Van Horn of local 95 and Elmer Yenney of local 121 — to a meeting in Flint. As a result of that meeting, workers at Janesville’s Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants joined in the sit-down strike on January 5, 1937.16

The strikes in Janesville and other cities such as Cleveland, Atlanta, Norwood and Kansas City were important strategically for the UAW, who wanted to expand the strike outside of Flint to push for a “national rather than local settlement.”17 “By January 7, 100,000 GM workers were idle.”18

While the UAW expanded their strike, they found another way to hurt GM: they aided the company’s competitors. UAW leaders helped end a strike at Bohn Aluminum, “to ensure the uninterrupted flow of pistons to the Ford Motor Company.”19 They also helped negotiate settlements of strikes at Pittsburgh Plate Glass and Libby-Owens-Ford so Chrysler could continue producing.20

The UAW and their strikers vowed to continue the fight against GM until their demands for “union recognition and a national contract, a shorter work week, seniority rights, minimum pay rates and an end to speed-ups” were met.21

Janesville Joins the Strike

“My God, My God, they are all union!”
−Janesville’s Fisher body plant manager22

When men at Janesville’s Fisher Body put down their tools and refused to go back to work, the plant manager, who was passionately anti-union but greatly out-numbered, did the only thing he could think of to stop the strike: he tried to pick up Elmer Yenney, president of local 121, and carry him out of the building.

After his attempt failed, the plant manager asked Yenney what he should do and Yenney replied, “I don’t give a damn what you do, but we’re staying here.”23

Union officers signed up new members and sent workers to the plant’s cafeteria to organize and prepare for the strike. In the cafeteria, union men made speeches and promised the strikers they would get the necessities: food and cigarettes.

But the sit-down tactic wouldn’t last long in Janesville. Thanks to the negotiations of City Manager Henry Traxler, workers only remained in the plants for nine hours and fifteen minutes. Traxler mediated a conference between Van Horn and Yenney, GM officials and local law enforcement to come to an agreement on evacuating the plants. Traxler and Janesville’s local newspaper were later praised for their neutrality during the strike.24

After Van Horn and Yenney talked with a representative from the UAW’s international office and put a vote to the workers in both plants, it was decided that the sit-down strikers would leave the Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants as long as they remained closed for the duration of the national GM strike and no equipment or stock was moved out of Janesville.25 GM sympathizers would soon try to break this truce.

Sabotage!

“Espionage is the most efficient method known to management to prevent unions from forming, to weaken them if they secure a foothold and to wreck them when they try their strength.”
−Findings of the La Follette Civil Liberties Committee26

While the union gained support and membership at the beginning of the sit-down strike, GM was plotting to retake and re-open their empire. One way they fought the strike was with labor spies. GM had employed the Pinkerton Detective Agency to spy on its workers for years. Plant managers even went as far as hiring lip readers to see if workers were discussing unionization along the noisy assembly lines.27 The La Follette Committee, a government body established to investigate tactics employers used to avoid collective bargaining, called the dealings between the Pinkerton Agency and GM, “the most colossal super-system of spies yet devised in any American corporation.”28 There were at least two Pinkerton agents among the sit-down strikers in Flint, who Robert Travis believed may have spread rumors to hurt morale and fed damaging information to anti-union reporters.29

The Pinkertons and other GM loyalists caused trouble outside the plant as well by targeting strikers’ families. Flint’s GM-controlled media reported that even if strikers made it home alive they would not only lose their jobs but would also be blacklisted from the auto industry. Anonymous letters were sent to strikers saying their wives were cheating on them and wives received letters saying their husbands were deathly ill.30 GM loyalists also spread rumors that prostitutes were going to the plants to entertain the men. Agents even managed to disguise a prostitute and sneak her into one of the plants, but she was quickly discovered and sent home.31 Other agents preyed on workers’ children, questioning them at school “to gain information about the strikers and weaken their morale.”32 These attacks on the home front prompted many wives to go to the factories and beg their husbands to give up the strike.

GM loyalists used more violent means of persuasion on union members who were coordinating the strike from outside the plants. A group known as the Black Legion. with strong ties to the KKK, threatened and terrorized union members. The Flint Alliance, which was mostly made up of GM supervisors and hired strikebreakers, was also formed. They called themselves “loyal GM workers who were laid off in other plants because of the Fisher Body strike and who were demanding an end to ‘minority rule.”33 ’’ Supervisors went to plants that weren’t on strike and forced workers to sign membership cards for the Flint Alliance. Workers who refused to join the new “union” were often physically assaulted.34

In Janesville, Plant Manager Fitzpatrick began violating the terms of the factory evacuations by allowing the Parts and Service divisions to operate and by removing loaded train cars from the plants. An anti-union group also formed and rented a meeting hall right next to the union headquarters, but when 250 UAW members confronted the anti-union group, they found only twenty men at anti-union headquarters, all of whom agreed to leave together and gave up on their meetings.35

While many of these small attempts to scare workers and their families away from the union were effective, GM was planning a large-scale attack to starve and freeze the sit-down strikers out of the factories and re-start their production lines.

The Battle of Bulls Run

“We were fighting for dignity. I don’t really remember fighting for more money, it was to be treated like human beings, because we were not treated like human beings.”
−Female factory worker36

With financial losses mounting, GM tried to provoke the sit-down strikers to violence. The company wanted to destroy the peaceful image of the sit-down strikers and portray them as a destructive mob so that Governor Murphy would have no choice but to declare martial law and use the National Guard to break up the strike.37

The battle that GM manufactured was fought between union supporters and GM company police over Flint’s Fisher Body No. 2, a plant not strongly held by strikers. Before the battle, only about 100 strikers occupied the plant and they only had control of the second floor. Company police controlled the rest of the building, but so far in the strike no major conflicts had occurred.

Then, a little after noon on January 11, 1937, with the temperature outside barely above zero, GM shut off the heat in Fisher No. 2 and a group of company police armed with clubs removed a ladder, which was the strikers’ main means of exit from the plant.38 Cold and worried strikers sent word to union headquarters that more picketers were needed.

Later that night, union members who tried to bring the strikers their dinner were turned away by company police at the plant gates. The strikers sent a committee of about 30 men to demand the gates be opened and when the company police refused, the committee forced the gate open.39 While strikers and picketers celebrated their small victory, the company police called Flint’s police and said that they were being kidnapped and then locked themselves in Fisher No. 2’s women’s bathroom.

Flint police, armed with “revolvers, gas guns, grenades, and supplies of tear and nauseating gas,” surrounded the factory and blockaded the streets so quickly that many believed the events leading up to the battle had been planned in advance by GM.40 The UAW sent more picketers to aid in the battle. Women dropped their children off at union headquarters and rushed to fight with their men at the plant.41 Union members even managed to get their sound car — a car equipped with a battery-powered public address system — to the plant to help encourage the strikers and direct their counterattacks.

The battle began at Fisher No. 2’s gate when police attacked the strike committee guarding the entrance. Then police threw gas bombs into the crowd of picketers surrounding Fisher No. 2, but the wind blew the tear gas back in the officers’ faces. Strikers and picketers began throwing spare car parts, empty milk bottles, and chunks of ice, pavement, and coal at the police.42 Workers pushed fire hoses through the factory windows and sprayed the police with water. Some officers managed to throw gas bombs in the windows, but workers extinguished the bombs in water buckets they’d kept at the ready.43

When the police tried to retreat they were followed by strikers and picketers, who continued throwing everything they could at them. At this point, the police turned, and “drew pistols and riot guns, and fired into the ranks of their pursuers.”44

The Home Front Fights Back

“Cowards! Cowards! Shooting unarmed and defenseless men. Women of Flint, this is your fight! Join the picket lines and defend your jobs, your husband’s job and your children’s homes.”
-Genora Johnson, president of the Women’s Emergency Brigade45

Fourteen union members and supporters were wounded in the battle, 13 of them by gunshot. The sheriff of Flint, a deputy sheriff and nine officers were wounded as well. But after the injured were carried away and the tear gas cleared, the strikers still controlled Fisher No. 2 and the police, or “bulls” as they were called at that time, had run away from the fight.46

Instead of discrediting the union and ending the strike, the Battle of Bulls Run actually boosted union membership and support. The day after the battle, men and women from Michigan and the surrounding states converged on Flint. “Eight thousand workers massed in front of Fisher No. 2 to celebrate the victory.”47

This victory also changed the way women participated in the strike effort. Before the battle women were mostly involved in preparing meals for the strikers, but at Bulls Run Genora Johnson, the 23-year-old wife of a striker, noticed how many other wives and mothers, and daughters came to fight alongside their men. As a result, she created the Women’s Emergency Brigade.

At their first meeting, Genora Johnson told would-be members of the brigade, “Expect to face tear gas and bullets on the picket lines, possibly be beaten and killed by police attacks and attempts to break the strike. There is no room in the brigade for squeamish and hysterical women. You will have to remain strong even when your sister falls by your side.”48

The Women’s Emergency Brigade with the help of the UAW’s Women’s Auxiliary, collected money for strikers’ families, visited strike widows to improve their morale, organized classes for women on the history of the labor movement and provided childcare for mothers who were busy with union duties such as maintaining picket lines day and night in front of the striking factories.49 Genora Johnson also organized a children’s picket line. Workers’ children marched through the streets of Flint carrying signs with messages like, “Our Daddies Fight For Us Little Tykes.”50 The children’s picket received international press coverage.

The Brigade also gave female factory workers, who were not allowed to stay in the striking factories, a chance to take a more active role in the fight. These women had endured the same physical and mental abuse as male workers, but many them were sexually abused as well. In Lorraine Gray’s film, With Babies and Banners, female factory workers said that the girls who kept their jobs were the girls who let the foremen touch them. At Flint’s AC Spark Plug factory, where many of GM’s female workers were employed, one whole department of women was “forced to go to the county hospital and be treated for a venereal disease traced to one foreman.”51 The brigade offered these women a way to regain their dignity.

The Women’s Emergency Brigade was organized along military lines and was ready to fight at a moment’s notice. Women with phones and cars were made captains so they could round up their female troops and transport them to battle. Brigade members began wearing red berets and arming themselves with two-by-fours that were whittled down at one end so they could be carried easily and swung like clubs.

The Women’s Emergency Brigade also countered GM’s claims that strikers were selfish and lazy. The women’s active role in supporting the sit-downers showed a strong bond between union men and their families.

Bait and Switch

On January 13, 1937, Michigan’s Gov. Murphy called UAW and GM leaders together for a conference. As a result, GM agreed to a truce. The company claimed they would negotiate with the UAW as the sole bargaining unit if strikers would evacuate the factories, but even as workers prepared to return home, GM was writing a press release stating that the company was going to discuss representation and union recognition with the Flint Alliance.54 A United Press reporter found the release and showed it to UAW leaders for comment. The UAW responded by calling off the plant evacuations immediately.

When the ruse failed, GM stepped up its efforts to stop the strike in the courts. The company had already attempted an injunction against the sit-downers early in the strike, which had been thrown out because Judge Edward D. Black, who ordered the injunction, was discovered to be a major GM stockholder. Now the company found a judge who didn’t own GM stock and filed for another injunction to evacuate the factories and stop the picketing, claiming that the strike was causing them to lose money to their competitors.

Politicians in Michigan also attacked the legality of the strike, sponsoring a bill to make sit-down strikes against the law.55 These mounting tensions caused Gov. Murphy to move National Guard troops into Flint but he tried to remain neutral saying the troops were there to protect against violence from the strikers as well as GM loyalists.56

GM began re-opening plants that it had closed across the country at the beginning of the strike, and although they could only make and stockpile parts instead of assembling cars, the move caused serious damage to the union’s morale. Robert Travis and other union organizers in Flint knew they had to strike another blow against GM. They began planning a bait-and-switch operation of their own.

The union’s real target was “the largest single unit of the GM empire,” Flint’s Chevy No. 4 plant, which had remained open and productive during the first month of the strike.57 But the plant was heavily guarded and few of its 14,000 workers were union members. The strikers would have to draw GM’s company police and loyalists away from Chevy No. 4. To achieve this, Travis spread the word that another strike was coming. Then, in a series of secret meetings in darkened rooms, he revealed to “trusted” union men that the strike would take place at Chevy No. 9.

Travis actually revealed the plan to strike at Chevy No. 9 to men he suspected to be GM informants in order to use GM’s own spy network against them. And his plan worked; GM took the bait. Soon after the secret meetings, GM officials shifted security forces from Chevy No. 4 to Chevy No. 9.

On February 1 at 3:20 m., unionists in Chevy No. 9 began their sit-down. They were quickly met by GM loyalists, company police and city police armed with clubs and tear gas. Robert Travis headed to Chevy No. 9 with between three to four hundred union sympathizers and about 50 Women’s Emergency Brigade members armed with their two-by-fours to support the strikers.58 Brigade members marched into the cloud of tear gas surrounding the plant and began smashing windows so the men inside could breathe. A woman later described the scene saying, “we have been gassed before and we went right on.”59

The battle at Chevy No. 9 only lasted about an hour but it gave union members in Chevy No. 4 enough time to start the real sit-down strike. Travis and his followers dispersed and regrouped at Chevy No. 4 along with union men from nearby Chevy No. 6 and the union sound car. Strikers inside had already shut down the assembly lines and were clearing out anyone who didn’t want to participate in the strike. Many workers who chose not to strike left their lunches for the men who stayed. Outside, Genora Johnson announced from the sound car that the Women’s Emergency Brigade would arrive as soon as they wiped the tear gas out of their eyes.60

Soon hundreds of Brigade members in their red berets marched to Chevy No. 4 singing “Hold the Fort for We are Coming.” The women locked arms and formed a revolving picket line around the plant and no one was allowed in or out. The workers had taken Chevy No. 4.

Aftermath

“We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong.”
-Lyrics to “Solidarity Forever”61

The union victory at Chevy No. 4 turned the tide of the strike and on February 4, GM resumed negotiations with the UAW. This time GM did not demand an evacuation of their factories, but the strikers didn’t trust the company or the National Guard troops still stationed in Flint. Many of the men inside the plants signed up for the fight-to-the-death committee. They wrote a letter to Gov. Murphy saying that if he allowed GM to use National Guard troops to invade the plants, several of the unarmed strikers would be killed and their blood would be on the Governor’s hands.62

On February 11, with profits still falling and thousands of workers vowing to fight to the death, GM agreed to sign a contract with the UAW. GM would end discrimination against union members and rehire all the members who had been laid-off. Workers were also given a five cent an hour raise and would be allowed to wear union buttons to work. GM also agreed to begin negotiations on working conditions and wages.63

After 44 days, the Great Sit-Down Strike was over. The sit-downers evacuated the plants at 5 m. on February 11, 1937. They reunited with their families and paraded through the streets of Flint like a victorious army.

The success of the sit-down prompted industrial workers across the country to begin their own strikes. Packard, Goodyear, Goodrich and General Electric all immediately increased their workers’ wages. Chrysler also raised wages and signed a contract with the UAW for its workers.64

Perhaps one of the biggest victories came about without a strike. United States Steel, a company who had been violently battling union organizers for years, signed a contract with the Steel Workers Organizing Committee. America’s working class had won their rights, their wages and their dignity.

Solidarity Forever?

“We will continue to win only if we remember that through solidarity we have been made free.”
-John Thrasher, sit-down striker66

Today General Motors is still one of the largest employers in Janesville, Wis. GM’s Janesville plant is the largest plant under one roof in the United States. The plant’s 3,900 employees manufacture GM’s Suburban/Tahoe line.67 However, during the 1980’s and ’90s, while they were making record-breaking profits, General Motors closed nearly all of its plants in Flint, Mich., a move that has cost the company town nearly 80,000 jobs. These lay-offs plunged Flint into a financial depression that led to the town’s bankruptcy.68

When GM announced they would close Flint’s Fisher No. 1 plant, where the sit-down strike began, the UAW promised massive demonstrations. But on the day of the plant closing only four workers showed up to protest. They had one sign with one simple message — a question mark. The plant closed two weeks before Christmas in 1988.69

During the making of Roger and Me, Michael Moore’s documentary about how the lay-offs were affecting his hometown, Moore interviewed Owen Bieber, then-president of the UAW, asking him, “Do you think we need another sit-down strike?” Bieber responded, “A sit-down strike today would not necessarily resemble or be able to bring about the same thing that it did in 1937.” Moore later asked the same question to James Blanchard, then-Governor of Michigan, who simply said, “I don’t know that that will do any good.”

[Gillian King is a researcher and production assistant for WPT’s History Unit. She has a BA in Film Production and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southern Illinois University and has written, produced, and directed several short films, including Desmond! and Little Muddy Film Festival Winner Virginia Versus the Martians, with her independent production company Johnny Hustle Ltd.]

Notes

1Lorraine Gray, dir., With Babies and Banners: the Dramatic Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, VHS New Day Films, 1978.
2Sol Dollinger and Genora Johnson Dollinger. Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers Union. (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000) 125.
3 Howard Linder, How Industrial Unionism Was Won: The Great Flint Sit-Down Strike Against GM 1936-37. Progressive Labor Party Pamphlet, 1965. Reprinted in 1999
4Linder 5.
5Linder 24.
6Linder 11.
7Linder 11.
8Linder 5.
9Gray
10Sidney Fine, Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-37. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969) 157.
11Linder, 12.
12Roger Ebert, “Modern Times.” 25 Jan 1972. <http://www.rogerebert.com>.
13IMDb,“Trivia for Modern Times.” ‹http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0027977/trivia›.
14Linder 12.
15Linder 12.
16Local 95, The Sit Down Strike in Janesville Parts I and II.
<http://www.local95.org/history>. 1.
17Fine 76.
18Linder 11.
19Fine 208.
20Linder 208-209.
21United Auto Workers Union,“Wisconsin Monument Honors All Sitdowners, Including Local 95 Members in Janesville.” Solidarity. November, 2000. <http://www.uaw.org/solidarity/00/100/union06.html>.
22Local 95 2.
23Local 95 1.
24Fine 209.
25Local 95 2.
26Fine 37.
27Dollinger 126.
28Fine 38.
29Fine 195.
30Patricia Yeghissian, Emergence of the Red Berets. (Ann Arbor: Michigan Feminist Studies, 1980) 8.
31Linder 12.
32Yeghissian 7.
33Linder 16.
34Fine 16.
35Local 95 2.
36Gray
37Linder 18.
38Fine 1.
39Fine 4.
40Linder 17.
41Fine 17.
42Fine 4.
43Linder 17.
44Fine 5.
45Linder 17.
46Fine 5.
47Linder 18.
48Yeghissian 11.
49Yeghissian 6.
50Gray
51Dollinger 124.
52Linder 18.
53Linder 27.
54Linder 19.
55Linder 21.
56Linder 19.
57Linder 21.
58Fine 269.
59Linder 23.
60Yeghissian 14.
61Gray
62Linder 26.
63Linder 26.
64Linder 29.
65Linder 29.
66Linder 28.
67Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau,“Tour Opportunities: General Motors Truck Assembly,” ‹http://www.janesvillecvb.com/tourgm.asp›.
68Michael Moore, dir., Roger and Me. DVD. Warner Brothers: 1989.
69Moore.

 

Powered by Drupal - Design by Artinet