UAW Beat Odds and Won in Flint Sit-Down Strike


John J. Dunphy

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2003 issue of American Writer, the magazine of the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981.


The deck was stacked against UAW organizers in Flint, Michigan during the 1930s. General Motors conspired to give its workers a raw deal. A U.S. Senate committee investigating industry’s attempt to prevent American labor from organizing and bargaining collectively found that GM had spent nearly $1 million during 1934–1935 (about $13 in today’s dollars) to create a system of wiretappers, infiltrators and finks. The automaker giant hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency, that era’s most notorious strike-breakers, to keep its plants union-free.

GM though that its spy network and deep pockets could defeat any UAW organizing drive in Flint. It couldn’t have been more wrong.

The bosses had overlooked two factors. Walter Reuther, the young president of UAW Local 174, and his brothers, Roy and Victor, led the organizing drive. The bosses’ second mistake was underestimating the courage and determination of GM workers in Flint. These men and women had resolved that nothing would stop them from belonging to the union, even if they had to take over the plants. And that’s precisely what they did.

On December 29, 1936, workers at Flint’s Fisher Body Plant №2 halted production and sat where they performed their jobs to protest the firing by GM of five union representatives who demanded collective bargaining. On the night of December 30, workers at Fisher Body Plant №1 saw dies being loaded on freight cars for shipment. They knew the relocation of these dies meant that GM would set up production in a region where unions were weak. Realizing their jobs were at stake, these night-shift workers voted unanimously to sit down as well. The Flint Sit-Down Strike was on!

The workers wanted a grievance procedure, minimum wage scale and shorter work week. But their foremost demand was that GM recognize the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for GM workers. GM hired a public relations expert who promoted a “back-to-work” movement. The Flint Alliance, an anti-union group that enjoyed the support of the city manager and police officials, denounced the UAW as a front for communists.

The Reuthers fought back. Using a public-address system, Roy appealed to non-striking Chevrolet workers as they changed shifts and denounced the Flint Alliance. He also called for a march on the city jail to demand release of two UAW organizers. Police then moved in and used tear gas to disperse the crowd.

Walter Reuther made certain that UAW activists within the Flint plants kept strikers well-organized and disciplined. Men and women slept on car cushions in separate quarters. Daily inspections ensured that cleanliness was maintained in all sections of the plant. Merlin Bishop, the UAW’s first national education director, taught classes to the strikers on subjects such as labor history and public speaking. The strikers also passed the time singing labor songs such as one that included these lyrics:

When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs.

Sit down! Sit down!

When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk.

Sit Down! Sit down!

On January 11, 1937, GM shut off the heat at Fisher Plant №2, and the Flint police refused to allow the UAW to take any more food to the strikers. Union supporters stormed the plant’s gates and got food through, but the police returned with reinforcements. They fired tear gas and buckshot through the plant’s windows.

Victor Reuther and the other UAW leaders encouraged the embattled strikers and their supporters outside the plant to fight back. Plant workers stationed on the roof created catapults by stretching inner tubes between iron pipes and pelted police with car hinges and other metal items. Union supporters outside the plant and cops engaged in hand-to-hand combat. Strikers turned a powerful fire hose on their adversaries. Blasts of cold water in a Michigan winter persuaded the police to flee the scene with such swiftness that the victorious unionists named the conflict “Battle of the Running Bulls.”

Michigan Governor Frank Murphy decreed that no further efforts should be made to deny food to the strikers. He also sent the National Guard to Flint. GM still wouldn’t recognize the union. The UAW devised a plan for strikers to take control of Chevrolet Plant №4 by creating a diversion. The union leaked word to company spies that Chevrolet Plant №9 would be the next target. GM responded by mobilizing its army of company guards and Pinkertons near that plant. Upon cue, some Chevrolet 9 workers yelled “Sit down!” and the GM forces charged, firing tear gas into the facility.

While Chevrolet 9 workers fought the company goons, Walter Reuther and other UAW activists overpowered the guards at Chevrolet 4. They took control of the building and barricaded the gates. When word reached the unionists outside Chevrolet 9 that Chevrolet 4 had been taken, they moved to that building to take up picket duty. The UAW Women’s Emergency Brigade locked arms to prevent the police and company goons from entering Chevrolet 4.

Governor Murphy ordered the National Guard to surround Chevrolet 4 and threatened to have the building stormed. The strikers sent Murphy a telegram stating that they would remain in Chevrolet 4 even in the face of such an attack.

Realizing that the men and women of the UAW would never back down, GM decided to settle. On February 11, 1937, the company signed an agreement recognizing the UAW as the sole collective bargaining agent. The workers also won a raise. The company’s stacked deck had been reshuffled. Thanks to the Reuthers’ leadership and the rank and file’s militancy, the newly-unionized workers in Flint now held the winning hand.

John J. Dunphy is the author of Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois, Lewis and Clark’s Illinois Volunteers and From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois. His latest book, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, will be published this winter by McFarland.