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
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.