The Cogs Fight the Machine: The Great GM Sit-down Strike
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 WinnerVirginia Versus the Martians, with her independent production company Johnny Hustle Ltd.
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
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)