United States: 'With babies & banners' -- 75 years since the 44-day Flint sit-down strike

December 30, 2011 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Flint-based filmmaker Michael Moore has described the 1936 Flint sit-down strike as the "first Occupy" movement. Whether this is strictly accurate or not, the 1936-37 occupation/strike was a ground-breaking development in the US labour movement. To mark this anniversary, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal  is making available the classic 1977 documentary on the strike and the role of women in it, With Babies & Banners (above, depending on your internet connection it is best to allow it to load on "pause" for a while; best watched in "full screen", click on the arrows on the far-right of the video player).

As Moore recounts, "On this day, December 30th, in 1936 -- 75 years ago today -- hundreds of workers at the General Motors (GM) factories in Flint, Michigan, took over the facilities and occupied them for 44 days. My uncle was one of them. The workers couldn't take the abuse from the corporation any longer. Their working conditions, the slave wages, no vacation, no health care, no overtime -- it was do as you're told or get tossed onto the curb.

"So on the day before New Year's Eve, emboldened by the recent re-election of Franklin Roosevelt, they sat down on the job and refused to leave. They began their occupation in the dead of winter. GM cut off the heat and water to the buildings. The police tried to raid the factories several times, to no avail. Even the National Guard was called in. But the workers held their ground, and after 44 days, the corporation gave in and recognized the UAW as the representative of the workers. It was a monumental historical moment as no other major company had ever been brought to its knees by their employees. Workers were given a raise to a dollar an hour -- and successful strikes and occupations spread like wildfire across the country."

With Babies & Banners

From the Flint History website:

With Babies & Banners is a 1977 Academy Award nominated documentary about the role women played during the great Flint sit-down strike of 1936-1937...

Introducing viewers to Genora Johnson Dollinger, a Flint-born woman who organized and led the Women’s Emergency Brigade – a militant, red armband and red beret wearing pro-union support group. The brigade acted as a self-appointed auxiliary army to the UAW which battled police, General Motors, strike opponents and anyone who stood in their way. These were very tough, very determined women. The brigade should be familiar to you if you’ve seen Roger & Me as Michael Moore used stock footage of the women during one particular event when they used large planks of wood to smash out windows of the auto factories when the police are tear gassing the workers inside the factory.

The film is a brilliant and intimate portrait, letting the women tell their stories as they sit in a private living room near the Chevy-In-The-Hole factory. With Babies & Banners is clearly influenced by the Maysles brothers and their cinema verite style, with no director narration or much of a story arc.

Genora Johnson Dollinger, “Babe” Gelles, Lillian Hatcher, Mary Handa, Helen Hauer, Laura Hayward, Nellie Bessons-Hendrix, Delia Parrish, and Sybil “Teeter” Walker are the women who sit around and tell tales, some of which are hard to believe (but all historically accurate). If these names sound like Chicago gangsters, you’re getting the idea. These women did not play around.

With Babies & Banners opened at the 40th anniversary of the sit-down strike held at the “new” IMA Sports Arena in 1976. This was during the height of the Women’s Equal Rights Amendment movement, and the film makes several references to it. When apparently not allowed to speak at the rally, the women shout, “The UAW needs an ERA! The UAW needs an ERA!” and only after repeated pleas with the event organizers do they finally allow Genora up to speak. She’s riveting and shows her natural leadership skills. She has a very strong midwestern accent and throughout the documentary I particularly like how she pronounces the word Michigan “mitch-ee-gun”.

She also hilariously proclaims that all Flint Michigan had in the 1930s were churches and bars (around the 08:30 mark in the video). Ms. Johnson-Dollinger, who passed away in 1995, is the subject of two books, Child Of The Sit-Downs: The Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger and Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers’ Union.

With Babies & Banners is noted for its folksy all-women soundtrack (I Am A Union Woman and Rebel Girl among others) and while its dated it’s still a good sampling of the singer/songwriter era of the 70s.

As the movie unfurls, you begin to realize that along with FDR and the New Deal, there was something profound that came out of the Flint sit-down strike that affects nearly ever working person in America. Nellie Bessons-Hendrix, who eventually married Fisher One strike leader Bud Simons, sums it up quite nicely at the 5-minute mark:

Sometimes we’d work two hours, maybe be sent home. No sick benefits, there was no health & welfare programs, no social security, no unemployment, or anything like that. All of that has been built since we founded the UAW.

With Babies & Banners was written, produced and directed by Lorraine Gray. Produced by Lyn Goldfard and Ann Bohlen. Edited by Mary Lampson and Melanie Maholick. Cinematography by Ting Barrow, Max Reid, and Lorraine Gray herself. The film won several major awards and festivals.