Rose Rosenfeld was just 17 years old. Born in a small town near Vienna, she had emigrated with her family  to the United States in 1909 and settled in New York. She found work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company who ran a factory in the top three floors of the 10-story building at 23-29 Washington Place near Washington Square Park. The company made women’s blouses, then called “shirtwaists” and employed about 500 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women like Rose. They worked nine hours a day on weekdays and seven hours on Saturdays and were paid $7 to $12 a week, the equivalent of $191 to $327 a week today.

March 25, 1911 was a Saturday. At about 4:45 PM just as the workday was ending, a basket of cloth scraps in a bin under one of the cutter’s tables caught fire, possibly from a discarded cigarette. Within minutes, Rose’s life changed as a blaze spread up and across the three top floors. The owners of the factory had kept the doors locked to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks or taking scraps of cloth  with them when they left. It also served to keep out union organizers who were seeking to organize the garment trades.

But it also prevented the workers from escaping the rapidly spreading fire. The ensuing scene was probably one of the most horrific episodes in the history of New York. Firefighters arriving could not get at the blaze since their ladders were too short. People gathered in the street below watched in shock as the young women, to escape being burned to death, leaped from the windows, their billowing skirts aflame, to their deaths on the pavement below.

When it was over, 146 garment workers, 123 women and 23 men were dead. Rose escaped by somehow being able to make it up to the 10th floor where the company’s executives were and then following them to the roof where people on the roof of an adjoining building were able to pull them to safety.

Much has been written about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire over the years. There have been scores of books, films, historic commemorations and other events in memory of the terrible tragedy and its victims. In its aftermath, numerous laws were passed to safeguard workers from a repeat of the horror. It also led to the growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union as workers sought to protect themselves on jobs like this.

Rose Rosenfeld later married a man named Harry Freedman and became a lifelong supporter of unions and a crusader for worker safety, constantly re-telling her story that 146 workers died horrible deaths because owners were not concerned with their safety. She died in 2001 at the age of 107.

For fuller depictions of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, click here to see some of the literature and other media accounts.

We are reprinting below an item that appeared on our Labor News page last year. It deals with na landmark law that was the opening shot in the war against labor, the Taft-Hartley Act  of 1947 and has continued to this day

We describe on this page some episodes in the history of the American labor movement in the hope that it will prove inspiring to the generation of young workers in offices and restaurants and coffee shops and warehouses and factories around our country  who are fighting to build their unions, and in the process, to rebuild the union movement today

This current US Supreme Court has people worrying about some of its recent horrible decisions. Now the country is awaiting a decision that could virtually cripple a union’s right to strike (see item Pending Supreme Court case … on then Labor News page of this website). But a reactionary Supreme Court is nothing new. Privileged men in their black robes have long stood in the way of progress in the United States. And their record on decisions favoring workers is a case in point . We cite below one of is more egregious examples:

In 2023, it is worth recalling a decision handed down a hundred years ago. The case was Adkins v. Children’s Hospital. The District of Columbia had enacted a law setting a minimum wage for women and children which was challenged in court. In a 1923 decision that set a standard for twisted reasoning, the Court held that the law was unconstitutional since it interfered with “liberty of contract” which they said was guaranteed by the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. According to the Court, employers and employees “have an equal right to obtain from each other the best terms they can as the result of private bargaining.”

In his dissent, Chief Justice William Howard Taft noted the reality that ‘employees in the class receiving least pay are not upon a full level of equality of choice with their employer… (and) are prone to accept pretty much anything that is offered. They are peculiarly subject to the overreaching of the harsh and greedy employer.”

This decision was overturned by the Supreme Court in its 1937 decision upholding the National Labor Relations Act, that protected the right of workers and their unions to bargain collectively.

The notion that an individual worker, particularly one in a class that is most exploited, has equal bargaining power with a large corporation, conjures up the image of “equality before the law” satirized by Anatole France, the French writer, in his oft-quoted line, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread,”

Work History News, newsletter published by the New York Labor History Association, Winter/Spring 2023

By Paul Becker

His physical appearance was not very impressive. Small and slender, he liked to sing and recite poetry. His parents died when he was five and he grew up living with his older brother in Texas, raised by a Black woman slave, Aunt Esther, who became his substitute mother. He was 13 when the Civil War broke out and he concealed his age to join the Confederate army where he served for the entire four years of the war. At the war’s end, he returned home gnawed by the feeling that he had fought on the wrong side. His feelings were enhanced by subsequent conversations with Aunt Esther who was now a free woman. It turned Albert Parsons’ life around.

In the aftermath of the war, Parsons established a small newspaper devoted to fighting for the rights of the newly liberated slave. Labeled a “scalawag” he survived threats of being lynched, tarred and feathered, or flogged. Very few white people in Waco, Texas, would speak to him but he continued to publish until he ran out of money. Moving to northwest Texas, he met and married Lucy Gonzales, a young woman of Mexican-Indian heritage, and the couple subsequently moved to Chicago.

They arrived in Chicago just as the great depression of 1873 broke out. Disgruntled working people, aroused by the depressed wages, slave-like working conditions, 12 and 14 hour days, and squalid living conditions, were looking for ways to fight back against their misery and were turning toward labor organizing in growing numbers. By 1873, their fight became focused on pressing for an eight-hour day. And Chicago workers became the spearhead of the fight.

The predominant labor organization at the time was the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869 originally as a secret society, it had evolved into a national body dedicated to uniting all workers. But its leadership, headed by Terence Powderly, was more conservative. Powderly shunned strikes as a workers’ tactic, putting his faith in convincing legislators to pass laws favorable to workers. He viewed the growing worker demand as “eight-hour madness” and did everything he could to scuttle it. But, spurred by the pressure from below, it could not be suppressed. Chapter after chapter of the Knights of Labor around the country passed resolutions in support of the demand for the eight-hour day.

Shortly after arriving in Chicago, Albert Parsons threw himself into the fight. He joined the Knights of Labor but defied its leadership by making speeches at meetings and rallies in support of eight hours. He began a journal called Alarm championing the rights of workers. Lucy was a frequent contributor to the journal and Albert became a national figure. And the movement grew, year by year, into tens of thousands of Chicago’s workers and tens of thousands more around the country.

Someone somewhere composed a song that became popular:

 “We mean to make things over,
We’re tired of toil for naught
But bare enough to live on,
Never an hour for thought.
We want to feel the sunshine,
We want to smell the flowers,
We’re sure that God has willed it
And we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces
From shipyard, shop and mill,
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest,
Eight hours for what we will.”

But the opposition, fueled by the growth of giant corporations, was not silent. As the trader union movement and the demand for eight hours grew so did the voices of  big money. Virtually the entire press condemned the movement as “communism.” The New York Times labeled the workers’ movement one that would induce “ loafing and gambling, rioting, debauchery and drunkenness” and lead to “lower wages, poverty and social degradation for the American worker.” It was “un-American,”, the paper wrote. “Labor disturbances are brought about by foreigners.”

Meanwhile, dissatisfied with the conservative leadership of the Knights of Labor, a new labor group was rising, the American Federation of Labor, organized along craft lines but committed to worker action, including strikes if necessary. And strikes were breaking out all across the Midwest. Defying Powderly and the national leadership, members of the Knights of Labor staged strikes against pay cuts that brought about violent reactions from corporations and their henchmen in and out of government. The National Guard was called out in state after state to suppress the strikers. The Pinkerton detective agency was employed to help break the unions. In St. Louis, 1,300 strikers were arrested for violating a federal court injunction and in East St. Louis, militia, police, and deputy sheriffs killed seven striking workers.

In the midst of this, the young AFL issued a call for all labor to join together on May 1, 1886 for an eight-hour day. The call was heeded by the labor movements around the country. In Chicago, a march was scheduled down Michigan Avenue. As the date approached, the vitriol against it and the workers grew more poisonous. The Chicago Tribune, commenting on a meeting of fifty workers that called for relief for the unemployed, shed all restraints. “Every lamp-post in Chicago,” it seethed, “will be decorated with a communistic carcass if necessary to prevent wholesale incendiarism or prevent any attempt at it.”

Parsons was now recognized as the defacto leader of the Chicago labor movement. Prior to May 1, he and others worked feverishly to build the demonstration. Newspapers zeroed on him and August Spies as the two most dangerous men who were responsible for the “eight-hour madness.” The Chicago Daily Mail waxed editorially, “There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two skulking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons; the other is named Spies…. Mark them for today. Keep them in view. Hold them personally responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.”

Saturday, May 1, dawned upon a lovely day in Chicago. Although normally a day of work, factories and business had to shut down as their workers took the day off for the demonstration, lending to an eerie silence to the city. Workers, along with their wives and children, assembled for the march by the thousands up and down Michigan Avenue. But ominously also gathered along the route were armed police and special deputies. Pinkertons and militia’ armed with rifles, lined the rooftops. At the state armories, some 1,300 national guardsmen, in uniform and armed with Gatling guns, stood ready to move. All mobilized by the powerful economic and political rulers of the city, to save Chicago from the “communistic eight-hour day.”

Albert and Lucy Parsons and their two children were in the march along with August Spies, another prominent labor leader. Around the country, it was reported, some 340,000 were also parading and 190,000 were out on strike for the eight-hour day. The Chicago parade ended with the thousands, listening to speeches by Parsons, Spies, and other leaders in the Chicago labor movement. The rally ended without incident. Afterward,  the crowd dispersed. No revolution, no violence; just a peaceful demonstration of worker sentiment for a better life. The police, the Pinkertons, the militia, expecting a rioting mob, must have felt cheated at getting only peace.

But elsewhere in the city, things were heating up. The following Monday at the McCormick Harvester factory where workers were striking for the eight-hour day and a $5 daily wage, police, without warning, suddenly opened fire, killing four strikers and wounding many more. Indignation mounted rapidly at this barbarous act by a police force, already hated by workers for other brutal actions against labor. A protest rally was called for the next evening in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.

Chicago’s mayor, Carter H. Harrison, gave permission for the mass meeting and even attended it himself, standing  on the outskirts of then crowd. As he testified later, the meeting was completely orderly. Parsons, along with Lucy and their children were there. Parsons, Spies, and another leader, Samuel Fielden, addressed the crowd of about 3,000, condemning the police, warning against violence and urging solidarity with the workers to continue the strike for the eight-hour day. Towards ten o’clock a rainstorm threatened and the crowd began to disperse. Spies and Parsons had already left along with most of the crowd and Mayor Harrison. who stopped at the police station to report that the meeting had been peaceful and police who were covering it should be called back and returned to their normal duties.

Fielden was just finishing his speech when 180 policemen, with the mayor gone, came marching in, military style. The police chief ordered the remaining crowd to disperse. Fielding protested that this was a legal gathering and it was peaceful, when suddenly, as if on signal, someone threw a bomb. The explosion killed one policeman, seriously wounded five more who subsequently died, and injured dozens of people in the crowd. That was all the police needed. They opened fire on the gathering, killing several and wounding many more.

The next day, the reaction from the city’s economic establishment went into high gear. The anarchists, the communists the agitators, the foreigners for the eight-hour day were responsible. They were the cause and they must pay.

To this day, no one knows who threw the bomb. From the beginning, there was speculation that it was a police agent provocateur. Subsequent research strengthened this theory but no one knows for sure.

But it didn’t matter. The big money, the newspapers, the prosecutors all cried out for vengeance. Blood for blood. These eight-hour day radicals, anarchists must be punished. Around Chicago, people were stirred into a lynch spirit. And around the country, the reaction was wild. A reign of terror ensued as labor leaders in New York, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee were arrested and charged with conspiracy. In Chicago, hundreds were rounded up packing the jails. Leaders of the Chicago labor  movement were particular targets. It didn’t matter that Parsons, Spies, and the others were completely innocent of the deed. “Hang them first and ask questions afterward,” were the words frequently heard in conversations around the city.

Finally the decision was made to try eight of the leaders for murder even though seven of the eight were not even in Haymarket Square when the act took place and the eighth, Fielden, was on the speakers stand in full view and not near any possible bomb thrower.

The country’s press was in the vanguard of the charge, stoking the flames of hate. The Chicago Tribune fumed, “Public justice demands that the European assassins August Spies (who was born in Germany)… and Samuel Felden shall be held and hanged for murder…. Public justice demands that the assassin A.R. Parsons, who is a disgrace to this country by being born in it, shall be seized, tried and hanged for murder.” Not to be outdone, a columnist for the Spectator penned that even if the accused men were acquitted by a jury, they would still not be spared. They would be lynched and hanged by a mob. “A Vigilance Committee,” he wrote, “will take the law into their own hands, and restore social order, by suspending civilization for three days.”

The eight – Parsons, Spies, Felden, Michael Schwab, George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, and Oscar Neebe – were indicted and put on trial. The trial, which began on June 21, was a grim travesty from the beginning. The jury was stacked with 12 men hostile to labor unions, its leaders, and the defendants. The prejudice of the judge, Joseph E. Gary, was never hidden. He ruled that a relative of one of the people killed by the bomb, who confessed that he was deeply prejudiced  against the defendants, was competent to serve as a juror as were several who openly declared that the defendants were guilty before the trial had even started. Judge Gary later admitted that, “if I had a little strained the law…I was to be commended for so doing.”

The expected verdict came on August 20. Guilty as charged! And the sentence on October 9 followed. Seven were to be hanged “until they were dead.” The eighth, Neebe, was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Before sentencing, they were permitted to address the court. Their words rang out the truth of the cause they were serving and a beacon of the ongoing struggle of working people for a better life. Neebe spoke first:

“I saw that the bakers in this city were treated like dogs…. I helped organize them. That is a great crime. They are now working ten hours a day instead of fourteen and sixteen hours….That is another crime. And I committed a greater crime than that. I saw in the morning when I drove away with my team that the beer brewers of the city of Chicago went to work at four o’clock in the morning. They came home at seven or eight o’clock at night. They never saw their families or their children by daylight…. I went to work to organize them…. And your Honor, I committed another crime. I saw the grocery clerks and other clerks of this city worked until ten and eleven o’clock in the evening. I issued a call… and today they are only working until seven o’clock in the evening and no Sunday work. That is a great crime….”

He went on to show that force and violence had nearly always been used against workers, not by them. He detailed the crimes committed with impunity against workers, being shot down and beaten by police and hired thugs of employers for striking or protesting.  And he repeated the innocence of the defendants. “Had I chosen another path in life I might now be up on the avenue of the city of Chicago today, living in a beautiful home surrounded by my family with luxury and ease… But I chose the other road, and I stand here today upon the scaffold. That is my crime.”

Spies delivered the most prophetic note:

“If you think by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement… the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and miserly, expect salvation – if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here and there, behind you and in front of you and everywhere, flames be up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out….

“And if you think you can crush out these ideas that are gaining ground more and more every day. if you think you can crush them out by sending us to the gallows…. If you would once more have people suffer the penalty of death because they dared to tell the truth… then I will proudly and defiantly pay the costly price! Call your hangman!… Truth crucified in Socrates, in Christ, in Giordano Bruno, in Huss, in Galileo still lives- they and others whose number is legion have preceded us on this path. We are ready to follow!”

Lucy Parsons traveled around the country for a year speaking to some 300,000 people at demonstrations, desperately intent “on saving the lives of seven innocent men, one of whom I love dearer than life itself.” In Columbus, Ohio, she was arrested and thrown into jail, charged with… nothing.

One Chicago businessman summed up the issues at stake.  “No, I don’t consider these people to be guilty of any offence,” he confessed, “but they must be hanged….I do consider that the labor movement must be crushed. The Knights of Labor will never dare to create discontent again if these men are hanged.” At the same time, the protest movements, involving millions around the world, mounted. America’s leading man of letters, William Dean Howells, wrote, “I have never believed them guilty of murder or of anything but their opinions….This case constitutes the greatest wrong that ever threatened our fame as a nation.” Protest meetings took place in France, Spain, Holland and England. In England, the famed playwright George Bernard Shaw was a leading figure in the movement to save the lives of the men. The French Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution urging clemency.

But the Illinois Supreme Court and the United States Supreme Court denied to hear their appeals and the execution date was set for November 11. The day before it was to be carried out, Illinois Governor Oglesby commuted the death sentences of Schwab and Fielden to life imprisonment. The same day, Lingg committed suicide in his cell. The next day, Lucy Parsons and her two children frantically tried to gain admission to the jail to see their husband and father for the last time but they were held back by a cordon of police. When they insisted, Lucy and her children were locked together in a cell. On the gallows, Spies cried out, “There will come a time when our silene will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Parsons also tried to speak when the trap was sprung.

In 1893, in a footnote to the event, another Illinois governor, John Peter Altgeld, after intensively studying the trial record, incurred the wrath of the corporate barons by declaring that the Haymarket victims were completely innocent and legally lynched , “victims of packed juries and a biased judge.” He issued pardons for them. The three survivors in prison were freed; the five  who were no longer alive were posthumously  pardoned. The move cost Altgeld his political career when all the big money was mobilized against his re-election.

So ended he Haymarket affair. And for a time, the labor movement and the fight for an eight-hour day remained relatively dormant, punctuated here and there by labor actions like the big Pullman rail strike in 1894, which was broken by corporate sponsored violence and federal injunctions. But eventually, the sparks predicted by Spies did burst into flame. It erupted in the great organizing drives of the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, in the 1930s that saw one-third of American workers in unions that resulted in huge gains for them.

And it lives today, despite the desperate opposition of corporate interests, in the organizing drives of the Amazon workers, the Starbucks baristas, the Kroger grocery clerks, and the countless others fighting to organize unions and engaging in labor actions to improve their lives. It lives in the efforts of rank-and-file workers to revitalize the labor movement. It is a flame that cannot be extinguished.

Also see  Richard O. Boyer & Herbert M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story, UE Publications, 1972, pp.84-104. 113; Philip S. Foner,  History of the Labor Movement in the United States, New Century Publications, v.2 pp. 105-114.

The labor movement has a rich cultural history, much of which has been lost over the past 50  years. Part of that history was the “Wobblies,” the name given to the first attempt to organize a national union. Formally, it was called the International Workers of the World and it tried to organize all workers into “one big union.” The attempt failed as the growing strength of the great industrial monopolies suppressed the movement, very often through violence. IWW leaders were hounded and often killed. Many became legendary in the history of the labor movement.

Out of that experience came songs and stories that enriched American culture and helped spark future labor organizing. We reprint below two examples of these songs. The first one, Solidarity Forever, became an unofficial anthem of the labor rebirth in the1930’s. We thank Jay Schaffner for bringing the first stanza of the song to our attention.

The second one, The Ballad of Joe Hill, was inspired by its namesake, who was framed on a murder charge in Utah and executed by a firing squad after leading a strike of copper miners in the state. It was written by composer and balladeer Earl Robinson, also in the 1930’s at the height of the organization of the CIO and the meteoric growth of the labor movement during that decade.


( Written in 1915 by Ralph Chaplin. Sung to the tune of Battle Hymn of the


They divide us by our color
They divide us by our tongue
They divide us men and women
They divide us old and young.
But they’ll tremble at our voices
When they hear these verses sung
For the union makes us strong.
(Chorus) Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever, Solidarity Forever, for the union makes us strong.

When the union’s inspiration
Through the worker’s blood shall run
There can be no power greater
Anywhere beneath the sun.
But no force on earth is weaker
Than the feeble strength of one
For the union makes us strong.
(Chorus) Solidarity Forever…(etc.)

       Words and music by composer and  balladeer Earl Robinson)

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Said I but Joe you’re ten year’s dead.
I never died, said he.
I never died, said he.

The copper bosses killed you Joe
They shot you Joe, said I.
Takes more than guns to kill a man.
Said Joe, I didn’t die.
Said Joe, I didn’t die.

In Salt Lake City, Joe, said I
Him standing by my bed.
They framed you on a murder charge
Said Joe, but I ain’t dead.
Said Joe, but I ain’t dead.

And standing there beside my bed
And smiling with his eyes.
Said Joe what they can never kill
Went on to organize.
Went on to organize.

Joe Hill ain’t dead, he said to me
Joe Hill ain’t never died
Where working folks defend their rights
Joe Hill is at their side
Joe Hill is at their side

From San Diego up to Maine
In every mine and mill.
Where workers strike and organize
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.
It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me.
Said I,  but Joe You’re ten years dead
I never died, said he.
I never died, said he.

by Paul Becker

It was 1936, Around the country, large industries had grown, employing hundreds and sometimes thousands of workers in single factory sites. There was a huge need to organize workers in these plants into one union, regardless of the jobs workers performed. However, the AFL leadership, frozen in the past, stuck to its pattern of organizing by craft – electricians in one union, carpenters in another, plumbers in still another, and so-on. By that model, only skilled crafts were unionized.

Frustrated by their refusal to organize the great new industries, in 1935 several unions led by United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis, walked out of the AFL and formed a new federation, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, committed to organizing the unorganized industries – steel, auto, electrical, textile, etc. And one of the first of these industries to face the test was the great new automobile industry, where General Motors, a company formed by buyouts and mergers had emerged as a giant with mass production plants and subdivisions all across the country.

By the summer of 1936, workers in these mass industries were in an explosive mood. Speedups on the production lines were pushing workers to exhaustion. Wages were miserable. Strikes were spreading, often broken by court injunctions, jailing for strikers and nightstick beatings by police for workers on picket lines. The great corporate industries spared no expense in trying to break the strikes. Thugs and goons were hired to smash picket lines. In some instances, workers were shot down.

In response, workers in these giant factories were developing a new tactic – the sit-down strike. Instead of walking out onto a picket line they simply pulled the switches that shut off the machines, locked the factory doors and announced a strike that would end when the employer agreed to bargain with them. It had been tried before on a small scale without much success when, in Jan. 1936, workers at a rubber plant in Akron, Ohio, sat down at their machines and locked the doors of their Firestone Tire Co. rubber plant and told the company, in effect, negotiate a contract and the factory will be running again. This time it worked. Within three days, Firestone negotiated an agreement that cut down the speed-ups and increased the workers’ base pay rate. And around the country, workers were adopting the tactic as they joined the unions in the newly-formed CIO.

And thus, the stage was set for the biggest test of all. At GM plants around Michigan, the speed-ups had become intolerable. In July 1936, a severe heat wave had hit the area with temperatures rising to over 100 degrees in one straight week. But on the factory floors, the company was demanding faster and faster production. Workers, pushed to exhaustion, were often collapsing at their machines. Some died of heat exhaustion. Workers’ pay was tied to the amount of their output – in some plants it amounted to only about 20 cents-an-hour while the auto industry tycoons were drawing annual salaries of some $300,000 to $500,000 (in 1936 dollars, so you can figure out what that would be today.) And, even as they openly thumbed their noses at the newly-enacted Wagner Act which compelled them to bargain with unions freely chosen by workers and outlawed unfair labor practices, labor spies were employed at the plants to detect any organized dissatisfaction that could lead to strikes or labor actions.

All these actions of management kept fueling the rage of workers that was bound, sooner or later, to break out. General Motors by then had over a quarter-million workers, producing over two million cars in multiple facilities around the country with a capitalization of over a billion dollars (again in 1936 dollars). Its economic dominance also gave it overwhelming political clout; in effect, it virtually owned local town governments wherever it had plants – its elected officials, courts, police forces, and administrative agencies. Taking on this industrial behemoth had proven frustratingly impossible in the past and GM was confident it could weather any labor problems that arose.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Flint, Michigan, the flagship of its empire where its Chevrolets and Buicks were assembled. In several other towns, GM workers were staging short sit-downs when CIO President John L. Lewis called upon GM to negotiate an industry-wide contract with the recently-formed United Auto Workers. GM pointedly refused, saying that it was only willing to let workers, on an individual plant-by-plant basis, bring grievances to plant managers. GM, in no way, was going to agree to an industry-wide contract with UAW.

On Jan. 4, 1937, all the grievances of GM workers exploded and the stuff, as they say, hit the fan. Hundreds of workers at the body plant in Flint sat down and pulled the switches, bringing the banging of the machines to a halt. They were soon joined by other UAW members who came to Flint by car, bus, and whatever means they could find to join their union brothers at the plant. And the thousands of workers, sustained by their wives and families with daily supplies of food handed to them through the windows, announced that they would not relent until GM signed an industry-wide contract with UAW. They were buoyed by an administration in Washington that had pushed labor-friendly laws like the Wagner Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act and had named Frances Perkins, an advocate for labor, as Secretary of Labor. They sported buttons and signs with the words, “President Roosevelt wants you to join a union.”

For 44 days, the sit-downers held out, resisting the court injunctions, threats of police, and possible use of the National Guard to break them but they did not budge. They tore up the injunctions and did not budge. (One injunction had actually been issued by a judge who was a large shareholder in GM stock.) A Michigan congressman called for the workers to be shot down to open the plant. Women who brought food to their husbands inside were hit with tear gas. But they did not budge.

And for 42 days, pressure had been building on Michigan Governor Frank Murphy to call up the national guard to storm the building at whatever cost to workers’ lives. Murphy, a New-Dealer recently elected on a pro-labor platform, was torn between his pro-labor promises and the pressure on him to enforce the injunctions as an obligation of his office as governor. For 42 days, he resisted but the pressure was growing.

On the 40th day, the workers sent one of them out with a message to be sent as a telegram to the governor. It read:

      “Unarmed as we are, the introduction of militia, sheriffs or police with murderous weapons will mean a bloodbath of unarmed workers….The police of the City of Flint belong to General Motors. The sheriff of Genesee County belongs to General Motors. The judges of Genesee County belong to General Motors. It remains to be seen whether the Governor of the State also belongs to General Motors.

      “Governor, we have decided to stay in the plant…. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us many of us will be killed and we take this means of making it known to our wives, to our children, to the people of the State of Michigan and the country, that if this result follows from the attempt to eject us, you are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths!”

The pressure on Murphy to call out the militia was mounting. Newspapers, radio commentators, politicians, everyone in a position of influence except President Roosevelt and the New Dealers were demanding that he act. Desperate, he asked for a meeting with John L. Lewis.

The private meeting was described in an account Lewis subsequently gave in an interview with a labor biographer. According to Lewis, Murphy arrived with a statement that he had to uphold the law and enforce the injunctions. He was going to order the call-out of the National Guard to forcibly clear the plant the next morning. And Lewis, in a final effort, summoned all his famous powers of rhetoric to respond:

      “Governor, when you gave ardent support to the Irish movement against the British Empire you were not doing that because of your high regard for law and order. You did not say, ‘Uphold the law!’ When your father, Governor Murphy, was imprisoned by the British authorities for his activities as an Irish revolutionary, you did not sing forth with hosannas and say, ‘The law cannot be wrong. The law must be supported. It is right and just that my father be put in prison. Praised be the law!’

      “And when the British government took your grandfather as an Irish revolutionary and hanged him by the neck until he was dead, you did not get down on your knees and burst forth in praise for the sanctity and purity of the law, the law must be upheld at all costs!

      “But here, Governor Murphy, you do. You want my answer, sir? I give it to you. Tomorrow morning I shall personally enter the General Motors Plant Chevrolet Number 4. I shall order the men to disregard your order, to stand fast. I shall then walk 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 those bullets will strike! And as my body falls from the window to the ground, you listen to the voice of your grandfather as he whispers in your ear, ‘Frank, are you sure you are doing the right thing?’ “

Murphy left the meeting visibly moved. The next morning he announced that he was not going to call out the troops and he called upon GM to negotiate with the UAW. GM meanwhile was also under pressure. With its main plant closed for a month-and-a-half, it was losing millions. Ford and Chrysler were gaining advantage. And so, on the morning of the 44th day of the sit-down, GM surrendered.

The workers emerged from the plant with 44 day beards on their faces, many in disbelief. They had prevailed over the behemoth. David had slain Goliath. They emerged to the cheering crowds of Flint that surrounded them. They had won.

Shortly afterward, GM and UAW announced a contract. GM recognized the union as the bargaining agent at all of its plants. Within a year the workers had a contract that raised their pay from an average of 40 cents to a dollar an hour (in today’s dollars, that would amount to between $70,000 and $80,000 a year). The company agreed to end the speedup. And in the wake of  Flint, sit-downs spread to other plants. Union contracts were negotiated with Ford and Chrysler.

Within a year, the UAW grew from about 30,000 to several hundred thousand. And the sit-down tactic mushroomed. It provided the nationwide push for sit-downers that subsequently organized steelworkers, electrical workers, and workers at industries all over the country. By 1941, the union movement had grown from a handful of workers to he point where one in every three belonged to a union, the high point in union membership in the United States.

By their action, the workers at Flint Chevrolet and Buick had inspired a nation. With unions now strong, workers were able for several decades until the 1980’s, to emerge into a vibrant middle class, capable of affording to buy the goods they were producing and thereby building a strong economy. American workers owed a great debt to the workers in Flint. And so did the entire country.

For a full description of this event, see Richard O. Boyer & Herbert M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story, UE Publications, 1972, pp. 298-311.

A footnote: In 1940, three years after the Flint strike, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy was named to a seat on the US Supreme Court by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving as an Associate Justice until his death in 1949.