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The Sit-Down Strike of 1937
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)
Janesville Joins the Strike
−Janesville’s Fisher body plant manager(22)
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.
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.”28There 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.30GM 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
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.40The 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
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.
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.
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.”