Labor’s Giant Step: The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936–1937
A presentation for the 2017 Socialism Conference
Between the Old World and a New One
This presentation is about a major struggle where a small but well organized radical Left was able to draw millions of workers languishing in the despairing depths of the Great Depression into the militant labor movement that arose with the creation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
More specifically, this presentation is about a strike, the Flint sit down strike of 1936 and 1937, that helped kick off the CIO’s rapid growth and influence in the Labor movement while capturing the imagination of the American public. The CIO’s organizing drive gave workers immense power at the point of production while developing in the American working class a greater sense of itself. This radically transformed the relations between the rich and working class in American society.
The presentation will focus on the historical moment that is now nearly a century old. But it’s a moment that cuts in between an uncertain world deep into an economic depression and social misery on one side and an era of greater economic stability and social power for the majority of people on the other.
Anyone who does a serious historical study of this strike and the historical context will draw out some invaluable lessons that can teach young socialist militants in the labor movement today about the importance of strategy, the importance of a class conscious political leadership and the importance of militant action that, when led by a well organized rank and file, is capable of bringing down even the most powerful corporations in the world.
I want to jump into a moment of time between the old and the new to illustrate how this dynamic context, a moment when the working class was still early on in its process of becoming an organized and powerful social force. This moment is 5 weeks into the sit down strike in Flint.
It was February 8th, 1937 and in the room stood John L. Lewis, long time leader of the United Mine Workers and former Vice President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Across from him was Michigan Governor Frank Murphy. Newly elected as Governor of Michigan, Murphy had painted himself in his gubernatorial campaign as a “New Dealer”, supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his promise of a New Deal for Americans.
Only a couple of days before Murphy had taken office, hundreds of auto workers had gone on strike in various centers of the automobile industry with hundreds of them seizing two plants in Flint. This strike made it very difficult for Murphy now caught between General Motors (GM) and some of the most militant auto workers in the country.
The sit down had already gone on for weeks with the number of striking auto workers spreading to more and more plants of GM’s vast complex of factories across different parts of the US. As Arthur Preis states in his book — Labor’s Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO —
“within three weeks [of the first sit down actions] 15 other GM units were closed by strikes, including the Fleetwood and Cadillac plants in Detroit and plants in Janesville, Wisconsin; Norwood, Ohio; Atlanta; St.Louis; Kansas City and Toledo….By the end of the strike, 140,000 of 150,000 of GM’s production workers either sat down or ‘hit the bricks’, as traditional picketing in a strike was described”.
But the strategic capture of two crucial plants by the UAW in Flint brought economic paralysis for GM. For this reason, the Flint sit down strikers faced the greatest and most decisive battles over control of the plants and hope for a victorious outcome for auto workers’ on strike.
At this point, GM had cut the heat to the plants in Flint hoping that the cold February weather would break the sit downers morale — the auto workers were nevertheless determined to stay.
So determined the autoworkers were to win this strike that they had sent Gov. Murphy a telegram stating that they would be pulled out of the plants dead before they walked out on their own volition. They underscored their point by placing responsibility for any bloodshed squarely on Murphy’s shoulders.
As they have in the past, corporations like GM counted on politicians, as well as the courts, to break strikes and if they could, break the unions leading them. Murphy was under intense pressure to end the strike. His plan was to call in John L. Lewis for a meeting. Lewis was then leader of the Committee for Industrial Organizations, which the United Auto Workers union belonged to. Murphy would demand that Lewis “do something”. Lewis replied
“I did not ask these men to sit-down. I did not ask General Motors to turn off the heat. I did not have any part in either the sit-down strike or the attempt to freeze the men. Let General Motors talk to them.”
Lewis was telling the truth. Despite being the leader of the fledgling CIO, Lewis, like his AFL counterparts, held conservative and cautious views about how to organize mass production workers. Though Lewis had begun to disagree with the conservative AFL leadership, this towering figure in the Labor movement didn’t stray too far. As Roger Keeran states in his book — The Communist Party and the Auto Worker’s Union —
“throughout the 20’s, the UMW president had been as cautious and conventional as any of his stalwart colleagues on the AFL Executive Council. Even more than some, Lewis had railed against the “Communist menace,” and his organization had barred from membership any persons belonging to the Communist Party.”
To the AFL, anybody who urged workers to use the strike weapon, anybody who advocated industrial unions that represented all workers in an industry, anybody who advocated for rank and file control over the unions, was typically charged with the label of “communism”.
Up to this point GM had reluctantly began negotiations but they did so in bad faith. For both sides of the negotiations, it was getting them nowhere.
The following day, Gov. Murphy had ordered the nearly four thousand National Guards he had mobilized to Flint to shut down the highways to prevent the auto-workers from calling in reinforcements from neighboring towns. Again Murphy demanded that Lewis betray the strikers and order them out of the Plants. This time he showed Lewis an order he had signed that gave the National Guard permission to evict the strikers by force. Lewis’s response is worth quoting in full.
He told Murphy
“tomorrow morning, I shall personally enter General Motors plant Chevrolet №4. I shall order the men to disregard your order, to stand fast. I shall then walk up 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 that those bullets will strike.”
I can’t recall ever in my lifetime hearing a union official proclaim so unabashedly, to a Democrat Governor nonetheless, their support for striking workers, going so far as to be willing to die for their struggle. It is a testament to the Flint auto workers, their strategy and political leadership in this strike, that was capable of turning the old order on its head.
The Making of the CIO and the UAW
But let’s go back in time and provide the context of this political period and the changes in the US economy that made it possible for workers to usher about this major upheaval in American class relations.
The period between 1920’s and the 30’s was a period of incredible industrialization with the preceding 10 years witnessing mass migrations from the rural parts of the US to its towns and cities. The migrations were triggered by the industrialization of agriculture and the prospect of work in the towns, where factories were built. As Labor historian, Irving Bernstein notes in his book - The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker: 1920–1933 -
“during the ten years from 1920 to 1929, according to the US Department of Agriculture, 19.4 million people made the trek; in every year except 1920 and 1921 over 2 million left the land…Not only did these displaced husbandmen go to town; they appear to have gone to the big towns. Communities with over 100,000 people grew by 32.4 percent.”
The rural economy was in the midst of depression as agricultural prices collapsed in 1921 while urban prosperity rose. Almost any wage job in the towns was an increase in income for these migrant families. The collapse in agricultural prices and wages was the result of mechanization on the farms as the internal combustion engine dramatically changed economic relations in the American countryside.
Bernstein illustrates this in a startling statistic of this rapid mechanization -
“between 1920 and 1930, the number of trucks on farms rose from 139,000 to 900,000 and tractors from 246,000 to 920,000.”
The large towns and their factories welcomed the large influx of unskilled and semiskilled workers. Worth noting is also the mass migration of rural Black farmers as nearly 1.2 million migrated North between 1915 and 1928.
As mentioned, rapid mechanization expanded industry tremendously. The advances of technology, the curtailment of immigration and increased output of manufacturing industries, railroads and mining brought about what many at the time called the “Machine Age”.
These changes in industry and productivity brought with them major changes in social relations as well. The number of women employed rose by 28.9% between 1920 and 1930, child labor dropped as a result of the influx of adult laborers and mechanization (also because of the political pressure of reformers and compulsory education laws that passed in many parts of the country).
School attendance rose — the total increase at all levels of education exceeded 6 million between 1919 and 1928. The mass migrations of Black farming families towards towns also created the conditions for integration on a scale that had not been seen before.
On the other hand, aside from the changes in the nature of labor, most industrial workers saw little to no upwards mobility and even less so for workers who belonged to minority groups like the Irish, Italians, Jews, Mexicans and Black workers. Industry, as much as it welcomed this influx of workers, wouldn’t accept them all. High unemployment was a major marker of social life in the United States during the 1920’s. The jobless rate varied from 10–13% from 1924 to 1929
These rapid economic and social changes left most of the labor movement incapable of being able to cope with its goals of organizing workers. It also left the employer class in an advantageous position as they played organized labor against the unorganized, skilled workers against the mass of unskilled workers, the employed against the army of unemployed and desperate, the long standing working class against the working class new to all of these social dynamics and of course used race and ethnicity to divide and conquer even further.
As a result, poverty was widespread among the majority of working class families. The increase in productivity and output of major manufacturers gave capitalists immense economic and social power over American society.
At the beginning of the 1920’s, employers were already a couple of years into a major offensive against organized labor and the working class as a whole. This offensive was called the “American Plan” and it’s mission was an assault on “closed shops” that is, unionized workplaces where employers had to hire union labor and recognize all the workers as part of the union. The American Plan promoted the “open shop” where union membership was not mandatory, and they did so in the language of “Americanism” because of the nationalist residue employed by the state in the post World War 1 period.
I’ll quote Gus W. Dyer, ideologue of the National Association of Manufacturers, to demonstrate this thinking by the capitalists at the time:
“You can hardly conceive of a more un-American, a more anti-American institution than the closed shop. It is really very remarkable that it is allowed to exist….under the American flag.”
John Edgerton, president of NAM proclaimed in 1923
“I can’t conceive of any principle that is more purely American, that comes nearer representing the very essence of all those traditions and institutions that are dearest to us than the open shop principle”.
As Bernstein states — “Old Glory had been draped over the gun barrel.” Employers used the language of democracy and freedom in insidious ways. They framed it this way to suggest that unions compelled all workers into a single contract which following their logic was infringing on individual worker’s right to organize their own contract and by suggesting that a free market meant greater democracy.
They don’t mention that their version of democracy was the democracy of the employers and the free market — they didn’t care about the rights of workers. The Right to Work laws that have swept across states like Michigan, Missouri and Wisconsin in recent years pivots on these same principles.
Indeed, it was during this period where the main techniques used against the Labor movement were developed. Some of these techniques were the blacklist of trade unionists and agitators, the yellow dog contract that contractually barred workers from joining unions or participating in union drives under threat of termination.
Alongside this was the incredibly widespread practice of industrial espionage — that is, the use of informants, provocateurs and private detectives to sabotage any efforts by organized labor and rank and file workers to advance the labor movement. This last aspect was so generalized across all industry that a leading AFL official at the time “estimated that there were 200,000 spies at work in 1928”.
One could find pages of private detective agencies listed in major cities in telephone books. They were handsomely paid by employers. The annual income of three of these agencies based in Chicago was estimated at $65 million dollars throughout the 20’s.
Employers at the time commonly used force to break up unionizing efforts. They did this through the build up of munitions meant to break strikes through violent force. In anticipation of a strike, employers would amass an incredible arsenal. Tear and sickening gas, guns and ammunition and even machine guns would be stockpiled and eventually used against striking workers.
Employers could also count on the state and its courts. While efforts to pass labor reform were continuously struck down by the Supreme Court, employers often relied on injunctions against striking workers that crippled their organizations financially and gave a green light to employers to use force and the aforementioned arsenal to violently break up strikes, jail strike leaders and intimidate workers into submission and defeat.
Facing such an array of forces against workers, organized labor throughout this period was largely on the defensive against the employer offensive. However, organized labor’s policies, as evident in the AFL, and its political short sightedness paralyzed the labor movement from being able to overcome this onslaught.
It’s membership was concentrated in just a few industries, namely construction, coal, railroads, printing, clothing, street railways, water transportation and music. Unions were almost nowhere to be found in the manufacturing sector of American Industry. While the political climate at the time made it incredibly difficult for unionism to take hold among workers, the AFL’s policies didn’t help win over many adherents to organized labor.
At the time the AFL privileged craft unionism and its membership reflected a largely older, white, skilled workforce that didn’t attract the great swaths of new immigrant and black laborers making their way into industries.
Craft unionism, which benefitted skilled workers, was quickly becoming obsolete in the face of mass mechanization. The AFL had been built along the lines of craft unionism. By the 1920’s, a number of craft union internationals dominated the AFL’s leadership.
The AFL’s leadership strove to maintain what it had with its craft unions and tried to control the pool of skilled laborers through exclusion and its unwillingness to organize the mass of unskilled laborers in the new manufacturing industries. This meant the de facto exclusion of immigrants and black laborers.
This is aside from the fact that the AFL’s leadership had come to accept the tenets of capitalism and sought to appeal to employers for collaboration rather than organize militant union drives. Let me illustrate the political backwardness of organized labor through the politics of the AFL’s president, Samuel Gompers. Gompers had
“little stomach for social legislation, laws fixing minimum wages and maximum hours…[he] was against state-sponsored unemployment and health insurance and was unenthusiastic about old age pensions.”
Gompers was a nationalist and enthusiastically supported immigration restrictions — especially against Chinese laborers. Gompers stood against socialists and was one of the loudest and earliest detractors of the USSR and the Russian Revolution. Gompers saw the AFL as the most important force against Communism and biggest defenders of American democracy.
Red baiting against socialists, communists and radicals was a common tool against efforts to push the AFL into militant action. Communists were completely barred from certain unions and industrial unionism was constantly attacked or dismissed by the AFL leadership.
As a result, the labor movement suffered. From it’s peak of 5 million in 1920, union membership would decline over the following decade. By 1923 union membership dropped to 3.6 million and stayed roughly at that number for the rest of the decade. By 1930, union membership constituted just 10.2% of the more than 30 million non-agricultural workers marking a nearly 20% decline from 1920.
The onset of the Great Depression in late 1929 only magnified the social misery of the American working class and further weakened its labor movement. Inherent to the cycle of economic crises that capitalism creates, the massive expansion of industry and productivity led to the overproduction of goods and a market oversaturated with commodities that couldn’t be sold at a profit.
This led to the worst economic and social crises America has ever seen. At the time, Republican President Herbert Hoover downplayed the crises and largely stuck to the non-interventionist philosophy of the party which looked down on using the state to prop up the economy. But the effect of the crises on working people can’t be overstated.
Preis describes the misery imposed on the American working class when he writes
“unemployment rose continuously to its peak in March of 1933 with estimates of the jobless ranging from 13.3 million to almost 18 million…An estimated 1.5 million were homeless, including thousands of women and young girls, [who] wandered the roads of the country.”
To weather the economic crises and to maintain their profits, corporations passed the depression onto the workers. Wave after wave of wage cuts hit workers. Preis notes that “by 1931 total wages and salaries were halved [compared] to 1925”.
While the Communist Party (CP) immediately began to organize the unemployed, the AFL did nothing. William Green by had taken over the AFL presidency after Gompers’s death. A few months after the stock market crash that heralded in the Great Depression, Green attended a conference of employers called together by President Hoover.
At the conference, Green as a representative of the AFL proposed a no-strike pledge as long as corporations agreed to not cut wages — an agreement was made but when June and July of 1930 rolled around, 60 corporations instituted wage cuts. The AFL however, did nothing, absolutely nothing. As a result, the AFL hemorrhaged 7,000 workers per week in 1931. By 1933 the AFL’s membership stood at a new low of 2.1 million workers.
The period of the Great Depression displayed to many the failures of capitalism. The proliferation of shanty towns, the waves of roving migrants seeking work, the long bread lines, the army of unemployed and the weak response by the ruling class in providing relief opened a widening chasm between the rhetoric of the mainstream and the lived experience of working people. The use of harsh police repression and the mobilization of the National Guard against those who clamored for relief and those who advocated alternative solutions embittered millions more.
The cold and brutal response by the state and its politicians to the desperation of working people created a fertile ground for the appeal of radical alternatives. This was a time of competing radical ideologies, of working class revolution abroad, mass communist parties and fascist reactionary governments. Which way the world would go seemed uncertain to millions of people.
This urge for something new, something other than the status quo, is what delivered Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the presidency in 1933. FDR had campaigned on a “New Deal” but he never really defined what he meant by that on the campaign trail.
While liberals retrospectively point to FDR’s benevolence for working people and the institution of labor and social welfare reforms, the reality is that this wasn’t what he had promised — he was vague and indeed, at the start of his term in 1933, FDR called together the heads of industry to write industrial codes, in an effort to restart industrial growth and profitability — labor had no seat at this table.
It was this atmosphere that opened workers to the idea of organized militant action but the obstacles of incredible employer hostility, a political establishment that prioritized industry and a timid and conservative labor movement loomed large in the eyes of many workers. Many times workers clamored for union representation, signed union cards and later ripped them up when the AFL did little to support them in their union drives and defeated strikes.
The possibility for a breakthrough for workers and the labor movement would fall to the experience, strategic vision, and resources of radical trade unionists that belonged to the communist, socialist, and syndicalist movements.
They played a major role, though they represented a small minority of the workers, in the militant strikes of 1934s where workers waged a practical civil war against their employers in the Minneapolis Teamster strikes, which was led by Trotskyists of the Communist League of America. The Auto-lite strike in Toledo by auto workers and the San Francisco General Strike, initiated by dock workers, had similar dynamics and occurred in the same year as the Teamster’s strike.
The AFL’s dramatic loss of union membership and these 1934 strikes paved the way for a shifting of opinions among some of the AFL’s leaders — away from narrow craft unionism, towards industrial unionism and organizing drives in mass production industries. This dynamic is what led the to the formation of the Committee of Industrial Organizations within the AFL.
John L. Lewis led the charge within the AFL for a turn towards industrial unionism. He among a few others in the AFL leadership saw the willingness of American workers to organize themselves into unions. The sharp rise of manufacturing industries, however, demanded a strategic turn towards industrial unionism which was something most of the AFL leadership continued to dismiss.
For a time, the CIO, as its initial namesake implied, was a committee within the AFL and it wasn’t until the CIO was expelled from the AFL in 1938 that it changed its name from Committee of Industrial Organizations to Congress of Industrial Organizations.
The Committee of Industrial Organization’s initial tasks was to organize the Steel industry but auto workers since 1933 were waging brave battles against the powerful auto industry’s employers with the help of radical Left wing unionists.
The conditions and de-humanizing treatment that the auto workers dealt with set the ground for Left wing unionists to move thousands of workers into strikes and struggles not only against the scabs the auto industry bussed in, but also against their private goons and hired guns. In the Auto-lite struggle in Toledo, the auto workers met against the guns and tear gas of the mobilized National Guard with bottles, rocks and guerilla tactics.
Following these victories, auto workers demanded the creation of an auto worker’s international union within the AFL. AFL president William Green delayed giving in to their demands because auto workers demanded an international union organized on industrial lines but seeing the growing influence of radicals within the auto workers, he eventually called together a number of conventions where the United Auto Workers (UAW) was established.
Though the AFL leadership did their best to marginalize the influence of the radicals, particularly the CP, the AFL’s longtime neglect of the auto workers and their recent victories meant that their auto worker locals had been forged in the heat of intense struggles where the majority of the rank and file participated, strategized and fought for their victories. These auto worker locals were some of the most democratic and steeled unionists in the country.
The AFL’s efforts to stifle the democratic process in forming an international, electing their leadership and marginalizing the rank and file leadership, who were often time members of radical left wing parties, put the auto workers at odds with the AFL leadership from the very outset.
By 1935, the auto workers had their international union and were largely in control of it. The UAW’s leadership reflected the long fought struggles by radicals Left wing unionists within the auto worker’s strikes. Wyndham Mortimer, president of the White Motor local and long suspected member of the CP had been nominated as president but turned it down. The position instead went to Homer Martin who had broken with the AFL leadership’s stooges and was now collaborating with the radicals. Mortimer was instead elected to second Vice president and George Addes, another CP member was elected to third Vice President.
The radicals had also captured the eleven member Executive Committee of the UAW with 5 of them representing committed Left wingers and 3 more who leaned left. Having made such strides, the UAW set its sights on organizing GM, the largest and most powerful of the automobile corporations. Mortimer was tasked with organizing GM’s workers and eventually passed it on to Robert Travis — former strike leader of the Toledo Auto-Lite strike and another member of the CP.
Though the radical Left wing unionists represented but a small fraction of the auto workers within the UAW, with many of them keeping their political affiliations secret from their co-workers, they had set into motion, after years of painstaking work at various auto plants, a strategy that based itself on the need for militant strikes and aggressive organizing drives.
Likewise, the UAW represented a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of auto workers in dozens of plants across the country, but the union leadership’s experience and their small but important victories gave them the confidence to generalize these strategies in their efforts to organize the GM auto workers into a union.
Unlike organized labor’s reliance on a linear strategy of cautious and slow organizing work, the leadership of the UAW figured that if they could organize auto workers at GM, they could set a precedent across the entire auto industry and beyond.
The Militant Minority and Great Sit-Down Strike
The conditions for a strike were ripe at GM. Like most auto workers, workers in GM had endured monstrously inhumane conditions at the workplace. Workers faced a dictatorial regime inside the plants if and when they were chosen by foremen to work in the plant.
Those who hadn’t made the cut sat on the front lawns of GM plants hoping that a foreman would come out and give them a chance to work. The foremen took all their dignity away — workers were given nicknames by the foremen, they sat by the workers with stop watches in their hands timing every move on the assembly line.
Foremen alone had the power to grant workers a chance to use the restrooms and because of the intimidation and power they had over them, workers developed many health problems from just holding it in. Those who disagreed or deviated from what the foremen said were fired immediately with no recourse or chance to appeal which meant a foremen could fire you for anything.
As Genora Dollinger, then married to auto worker Kermit Johnson, another important figure in the sit down strike explained in the book “Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers’ Union” — this dynamic meant that workers were not only expected to abide by every word, it also meant that foremen expected workers “to bring them turkeys on Thanksgiving, gifts for Christmas and repair their motor cars and even paint their houses”.
Women workers faced even greater humiliation. Only employed in the A.C. Sparkplug division of GM, where they were paid 12 and a half cents an hour, “a Senate investigating committee found that in one department of A.C. alone, the [young women] had all been forced to go to the county hospital and be treated for venereal disease [that was] traced [back] to one foreman.”
The speed up at GM, like at other plants in the auto industry, was always one of the major issues. It left workers with swollen hands, unable to hold forks at dinner and exhausted from non-stop work. Most of these workers would collapse as soon as they got home or would drink their troubles and tensions away at the local bars.
GM not only ran their lives in the plant, Flint was practically a company town where the political leadership was subservient to GM. GM ran local politics and civil life. Local newspapers spoke glowingly of GM and often times ran slogans like “don’t bite the hand that feeds”.
For the UAW organizers, open organizing of auto workers was a dead end as GM was spending nearly a million dollars on industrial espionage to root out any trade unionists or Left wing radicals. As the initial organizing efforts picked up, GM went as far as hiring and stationing lip readers to monitor the discussions of auto workers on the assembly line.
This meant that the UAW had to operate their organizing drive clandestinely. And so they did, building up their numbers over most of 1936. UAW organizers relied largely on the work that had been established over years by the CP and the Socialist Party (SP).
While the SP played an important role in helping build up this fight back, the role of the CP cannot be understated. In its ranks, the CP had gathered together some of the most experienced radicals and best trade unionists who had gained their experience over decades of radical organizing in labor struggles.
It also had the support of thousands of people who had been inspired by the first working class revolution in Russia in 1917. Because of this the CP faced incredible obstacles themselves as the ruling class did all it could to discredit and denounce the CP.
Nonetheless, the CP had set its sights on organizing the autoworkers and since 1926 had grown a number of cells in various auto plants, published dozens of shop papers and cultivated a layer of leading and experienced auto workers.
After spending most of 1936 in signing up a few hundred Flint autoworkers, the UAW felt they had enough to kick off the strike. The tactic they choose was the sit down which could be done with a small fraction of workers. They figured that if they initiated the strike, thousands of workers would recognize the importance of this fight for them and would join it.
Waiting for January of 1937, when Labor friendly and fellow New Dealer, Frank Murphy would begin his term as Governor of Michigan, the UAW did what it could to stop spontaneous strikes from breaking out at GM plants. However, a sit down strike in Cleveland in late December of 1936 and the transfer of union workers out of the Flint Fisher Body Plant no.1 set the whole thing into motion.
Auto workers from Fisher Body Plant №1 began their sit down on December 29th at 7am. By 8pm of the same day, auto workers in Fisher body plant №2 planted their butts inside the plant and refused to move. To secure the plants, they blocked the entrances and guarded them 24/7. The strike was on.
A broad strike committee was formed in the seized plants. They met daily to discuss problems, decisions and to boost morale. While an executive committee was formed to carry out the day to day tasks, the democratic decision making power rested in the strikers as a whole.
As Keeran notes
“all of the strikers participated on committees that handled food, information, safety, postal services, education, entertainment, sanitation and athletics. A special patrol of 65 trusted workers in Fisher Body Plant №1 policed the plant, and a kangaroo court meted out punishments such as assigning extra clean up duty to those failed to observe sanitation rules.”
The kangaroo courts were mainly tongue in cheek as reporter Edward Levinson Levinson wrote that there was
“more substantial and original humor in a single session of the Fisher strikers’ kangaroo courts than in a season of Broadway musical comedies.”
This strategy flowed from the CP’s conviction that success in a strike pivoted on the idea of involving as much of the rank and file in carrying out the strike — as William Z. Foster, one of the CP’s leading Labor strategists said
“The broad strike committee gives the workers the realization that the strike is really their affair. It awakens in them an intelligent discipline and not merely a blind obedience to orders; it raises their morale, avoids the usual mass passivity and brings about the maximum mass activity. Above all, it provides the means for the strikers to contribute their intelligence to the shaping of strike policy.”
It is worth noting that number of workers inside the plants remained small compared to the thousands of auto workers who were employed in these massive plants. As Nelson Lichtenstein wrote in his book — The Most Dangerous Man In Detroit: Walter Reuther And The Fate Of American Labor
“the burden of conducting the actual struggle with GM rested upon a relatively narrow base: a few hundred sit-downers in each plant, an energetic group of ideological radicals who ran the day-to-day affairs of the strike, and a few older unionists of national reputation posted to Flint during all or part of the conflict.”
When the strike began, GM’s operations slowed down and eventually GM shut down most of the other plants as they hoped for an end to the strike — they would eventually employ the courts, the plant and city police and helped form a “back-to-work” movement called the Flint Alliance to counter the UAW’s strike and public relations operations.
Outside the plant, the CP and CP women in particular, played a major role in forming a massive strike kitchen that cooked for hundreds of the striking workers sitting in and those picketing outside. The organized delivery runs to the workers in the plants.
CP women Dorothy Kraus and Margaret Anderson formed the Women’s Auxiliary which established a speaker’s bureau, publicity committee, nursery and first aid station. Genora Dollinger, refusing to take on the expected gender role of cooking in the strike kitchen, organized the Children’s brigade that garnered national attention as children of strikers held picket signs that said “My daddy strikes for little tykes” and marched on the picket lines.
As noted, GM wasn’t going to stand by. Their first attempt to secure an injunction backfired as it was exposed that the judge who granted it, Judge Black, had hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in GM stock. When this failed, GM resorted to police action. As GM’s police made their plans, 200 UAW delegates convened in Flint, formed a board of strategy headed by Kermit Johnson, a member of the SP, and called for a formal corporation-wide strike.
On January 12th, GM and the police moved on the offensive. GM had shut down the heat to Fisher Body Plant №2 and the Flint Police smashed the ladders that the strikers were using to receive food deliveries and visitors. When picketers took the bold action of rushing the entrance to the plant, pushing aside the police, a street brawl began between the two sides.
Half of Flint’s police force descended on the strikers and picketers with clubs, tear gas, rifles, buckshot and firebombs. The workers in the plant responded with metal hinges, nuts, and bolts found in the plant while blasting frigid water from the roof onto the police. The picketers overturned three police cars and the sheriff’s car to create a barricade.
For hours the workers and picketers fought the police as hundreds of Flint town folk watched from behind the police lines. Victor Reuther used the speakerphones mounted on a UAW car to provide tactical guidance to the workers in their battle but as night approached, the battle seemed to have no end in sight.
An appeal by Genora Dollinger to the Flint town folks however, inspired them to join and hundred of them marched into the middle of the battle. The police retreated ending what has gone down in labor history as the “Battle of the Running Bulls” — “bulls” being a derogatory term for police at the time.
Out of this battle was born the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Organized by SP member Genora Dollinger, the Women’s Emergency Brigade (WEB) was a combat group made of women meant to protect the strike no matter what. They wore red berets and red armbands with the logo “EB” on it. They wielded clubs, hard-milled soap bars in socks, blackjacks and were willing to fight and put their lives on the line to defend the strike no matter what.
Though the victory at the Battle of the Running Bulls gave the workers a boost of confidence, it wasn’t enough to last the weeks within the plants as negotiations between the UAW and GM remained deadlocked.
Earlier on a truce had been reached between the two sides where GM would recognize the UAW as long as they gave up the plants but when the Left Wing radicals realized that GM was going to include the employer driven Flint Alliance in the negotiations, they relayed the message to the rest of the auto workers and they voted to call off the truce. Since then there had virtual stalemate between the two sides with demoralization setting in among workers.
The strike leaders knew that something needed to be done to break the stalmate knowing that GM could wait them out. With a growing sentiment that the UAW had exhausted their best tactic already there was a sense that the UAW had no other way to go on the offensive. GM had telegrammed auto workers in all their other unoccupied plants to report to back to work while depending on politicians to pressure the UAW and CIO leaders to end the occupation.
But some of the Left wing Radicals, specifically Kermit Johnson, a member of the SP’s Left wing had been hatching a plan that seemed to much of the union leadership as an extremely risky action that could backfire with devastating effects on the strike.
Johnson proposed the taking of Chevrolet Plant №4 where GM made all the engines for every Chevrolet automobile in the states and abroad. Seizing this plant would mean a complete stop of production for GM. Of course GM knew this and had stationed far too many plant police and anti-union thugs there for the workers to take it under normal conditions. The UAW also had a weak presence there.
For this reason Walter Reuther, a leader of the UAW and another member of the SP, was against the plan and his reputation among the strike leaders was large enough to kill the plan from moving forward. But Johnson, including his wife, Genora, didn’t give up on the plan. Genora wrote to the SP’s leadership about Kermit’s plan. They in turn sent Frank Trager, the SP’s labor secretary, to a large gathering organized by the SP in Flint. There, Trager threw his support behind the plan. SP members and other auto workers seeing no other alternative to a losing strike voted overwhelmingly for the plan overriding Walter Reuther’s concerns.
The strike leaders developed the plan to purposefully mislead most of the workers in believing that they would be seizing Plant №9. This was done to throw off GM’s informants in the strike into telling GM to concentrate their police forces at Plant №9 in expectation for a planned seizure.
When the plan was put into motion, auto workers, picketers and the Women’s Emergency Brigade fought it out with scores of police who beat down the auto workers in the plants and pointed revolvers at picketers outside the plant. GM’s forces were called in from the rest of the Plant complex to smash the seizure which left the rest of the plants vulnerable for a take over.
This was exactly what the strike leaders wanted. Kermit Johnson, along with a small band of a couple hundred auto workers, through force and intimidation pushed out Plant supervisors at Chevrolet Plant no. 4. The plan wasa success.
The taking of Plant №4 was another major boost for the strike and a terrible blow against GM. From here on, GM could only hope to smash the strike through violent and murderous repression only if Gov. Murphy backed it with the mobilization of the National Guard. But the successful seizure of Plant №4 emboldened the striking auto workers to fight until the death if necessary. In the face of such determination, Gov. Murphy balked and refused to mobilize the National Guard out of fear of political suicide.
GM was on its own and resorted back to turning off the heat to the seized plants while ready to use the city manager’s zeal to mobilize the Flint police, the plant police and the Flint alliance into a deadly and bloody battle to remove the auto workers.
When the striking auto workers opened the huge windows to the plants, freezing the fire fighting equipment which would have breached GM’s insurance contracts for the plant machinery, suggesting that a bloody struggle would drive the auto workers to destroy the expensive plant machinery, GM backed down.
Days later, GM gave in to the UAW’s single demand, that GM recognize the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for the entirety of GM’s workforce across the country. The UAW and the auto workers had brought the largest and one of the most powerful corporations to their knees. They had won the nearly seven week strike.
The American Working Class at the Table of Power
This incredible struggle and victory had gripped the imagination of Americans and a major sit down wave exploded across the country. The GM settlement was the making of the CIO as John L. Lewis said after the victory that the “CIO faced a united financial front — the GM settlement broke it”.
The UAW grew tremendously as Keeran points out
“with or without communists, sit downs, conventional strikes, and strike threats soon produced UAW contracts with Chrysler, Hudson, Packard, Studebaker, Briggs, Murray Body, Motor Products, Timken Detroit Axle, L.A. Young Spring and Wire, Bohn Aluminum, and most other major auto firms except for Ford. UAW membership jumped from 88,000 in February to 400,000 in October.”
The Sit Down Fever, as the New York Times called it in those days like a deadly and contagious virus spread across the body of the American working class. A wave of organization spread like a huge arc from New England on through New York, Pennsylvania and the midwest. In 1937 some 477 sit downs went down affecting 400,000 workers. It scared U.S. Steel President to settle with the CIO before a strike occurred establishing the CIO as a major trade union in the mass production industries beyond the auto industry.
In Detroit alone from mid-February onward Lichtenstein wrote that
“more than thirty five thousand workers joined the sit in movement. They occupied every Chrysler Corporation plant in the region, including the giant Dodge Main complex…at least 25 auto parts plants were closed by sit-ins. Workers occupied four downtown hotels, along with a dozen industrial laundries, three department stores, and scores of restaurants, shoe stores, and clothing outlets. Five trucking and garage companies, nine lumberyards, ten meatpacking plants, and all the city’s major cigar plants were shut by sit ins. When police evicted female strikers from a cigar company and few shoe stores along lower Woodward Avenue, the UAW called out working class Detroit for a gigantic demonstration”…though authorities refused to permit any demonstration…the UAW, joined by the Wayne County AFL, mobilized a half day general strike that brought almost every factory, streetcar, and downtown enterprise to a halt.”
The major role of Left Wing radicals in the Flint sit down strike led the Detroit Superintendent of the Police to believe that communists were active in “practically all of them”.
The rapid spread of the sit down strike wave felt like a veritable crusade, like a real mass movement for American workers tired of the uncertainty of those times. For the radical Left, the leadership in these victories gave them legitimacy in the eyes of working people. Communist membership among auto workers alone jumped from 630 in 1935 to 1,100 in 1939.
The CIO helped create the militant labor movement which would go back and forth between militant action and submission to mainstream politicians in the Democratic Party from the late 1930’s to 1955 when the CIO merged with the AFL becoming the organization we know now as the AFL-CIO.
Between the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which began the purges of official Communists and other trade union radicals and CIO’s merger with the AFL, the militant minority that had been cultivated over generations within American unions was destroyed.
The CP had overseen the bureaucratization of many of the rank and file led unions which eroded their support in the rank and file and made it harder for them to fight the purges. When the CIO officially got behind the purges, threatening to disaffiliate locals with radical leaderships, this marked the moment in labor when the engagement between the working class and its radical political history was severed.
Since then the Labor movement has been led by conservative union leaderships who have continued to go down the path of business unionism where strikes are seen as extreme alternatives to union and management collaboration.
This approach has come at the expense of the living standard and on the job rights for the rank and file. The labor movement now finds itself in a similar position that the labor movement did prior to 1934 where union membership rates hover between 7% in the private sector and 11% in the public sector. This can be demoralizing but I believe it is important to remember the words of Lichtenstein:
“History sometimes turns on a narrow pivot. The deep structures of economic power and social consciousness usually constrain the opportunities and shape the choices men and women have to make. But there are also times when circumstances conspire to greatly diminish our usual sense of social inertia and institutional stasis, when tradition’s chains begin to crack and old fears diminish, thereby making the world once again seem plastic and open, not just to an ambitious few of will and vision but to a multitude of ordinary people who burst forward onto the stage of history.”
The making of the CIO pivoted on a moment in history when working people lived under the heels of what seemed like an omnipotent capitalist social power and its successes were only possible by bold strategies and militant organizing drives that were put into motion by a militant minority whose experience and will had been developed by radical left wing formations like the Communist and Socialist Parties, by Trotskyists and militant unionists who helped merge their ideas with the working masses’ willingness for dignity and a better life.
Although the historical parallels are limited, if we remember these lessons, if the revived socialist movement begun in 2017 is able to apply them systematically, we may see the labor movement begin to take giant steps towards that new world again. The one we’re so often told by the ruling elites isn’t possible.
- Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States
- Babies and Banners: The Story of the Women’s Emergency Brigade
- The Great Sit-Down
- The Forgotten Militants
- Genora (Johnson) Dollinger Remembers the 1936–37 General Motors Sit-Down Strike
Timeline of the Flint Sit-Down Strike
President of the American Federation of Labor, William Green, calls for a convention of Autoworkers to form an International Auto-workers union.
Homer Martin elected president of United Automobile Workers. George Addes (CP) elected Secretary-Treasurer, Walter Reuther (SP) and Wyndham Mortimer (CP) elected to the Board
UAW ends affiliation with the AFL and joins the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO). Mortimer is tasked with organizing General Motors (GM) and he chooses Robert Travis (CP), who was on the strike committee of the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, to head the campaign.
July — December 1936
Spontaneous sit downs and actions break out across GM’s plant operations. UAW clandestinely organizes workers in the plants to join the union because of GM’s nearly one million dollar spying and union sabotage operation.
7,000 workers in Cleveland Fisher Body, organized by Mortimer, go on strike “until a national GM contract was signed with the UAW”. More than a thousand strikers occupy the plant.
7 am — The sit-down strike begins in the Fisher Body plant 2 over GM’s decision to transfer union supporters from the plant.
8 pm — Sit-down strikes spreads to Chevrolet Fisher Body 1.
“Within three weeks 15 other GM units were closed by strikes, including the Fleetwood and Cadillac plants in Detroit and plants in Jamesville, Wisconsin; Norwood, Ohio; Atlanta; St.Louis; Kansas City and Toledo….By the end of the strike, 140,000 of 150,000 of GM’s production workers either sat down or ‘hit the bricks’, as traditional picketing in a strike was described” — Art Preis in Labor’s Giant Step
The Communist Party organizes a strike kitchen to feed the workers and picketers. Genora Johnson (SP) organizes Children’s Brigade after refusing to be forced into gendered roles in the strike kitchen.
In an attempt to undercut GM’s slanderous efforts to demoralize the sit-down strikers by telling the wives of workers that the men were passing the time with burlesque women in the plants, Genora Johnson organizes the Women’s Auxiliary to help reach out to worker’s wives and women workers in the strike. They elect their own leaders and organize a child-care center at Union headquarters, first-aid station and public speaking and labor history classes for the members of the Women’s Auxiliary. The Women’s Auxiliary is a 1,000 women strong.
GM seeks injunctions from the courts. Genesee County Circuit Judge Black grants an injunction to vacate the plants and to desist from picketing GM. The workers laugh off the injunction and refuse to follow its orders — the sit in and pickets continue without interruption.
Injunction by Judge Black overturned when it’s found out that Judge Black has over $219,000 invested in 3,365 GM stocks.
200 UAW delegates convene in Flint, form a board of strategy headed by Kermit Johnson (SP) and call for a formal corporation-wide strike.
UAW presents GM with a set of several demands — union recognition and a signed contract by GM, abolition of piecework, 30 hour work week and six hour days, minimum pay rates, reinstatement of discharged unionists, a seniority system, sole collective bargaining rights for the UAW, and union participation in regulating the pace of the belt lines.
The Flint Alliance, a “voluntary movement of employees who wish to return to their work and are against the strike” and the “back-to-work” movement is formed and headed by George E. Boyson, ex-Mayor and former Buick paymaster. The Flint Alliance is not limited to GM workers.
GM shuts off the heat in Fisher Body Plant 2. Flint police announce they would not allow any more food deliveries to the workers in the plants. They block off the entrance to the plant and knock down a ladder that was being used to deliver the food to the sitting workers. The workers and picketers storm the entrance to deliver food.
9pm — Half of Flint’s police force descend on the strikers and picketers with clubs, tear gas, rifles, buckshot and firebombs. The workers in the plant respond with metal hinges, nuts, and bolts found in the plant while blasting water from the roof onto the police. The picketers overturn three police cars and a sheriff’s car to create a barricade.
Midnight — Genora Johnson appeals to the thousands of spectators watching the fight to defend the picketers and strike from the Police. Hundreds march into the middle of the fray effectively ending the fight. The police retreat giving the name of this fight “the Battle of the Running Bulls”. Twenty four strikers had been injured with 14 suffering from gunshot wounds.
New Dealer Gov. Frank Murphy mobilizes 1,500 National Guardsmen to “stop the violence” between the strikers and GM. By the end of the strike 4,000 National Guardsmen had been mobilized to Flint.
Gov. Murphy invites UAW president and GM rep, Knudsen, to his office for a meeting where a Murphy announces that a truce has been struck. The sitting strikers would leave the plant over the weekend with the promise that GM would sit down to negotiate on Monday. Some workers in Detroit march out with banners and a brass band.
UAW learns that GM messaged Boysen of the Flint Alliance, inviting them to discuss terms, along with the UAW. UAW calls off the truce and workers who were in the process of leaving the plants rush back in retaking them. Negotiations stall as a the struggle enters into a stalemate. Morale begins to decline as workers and strike leaders struggle to find a way out of the stalemate. Kermit Johnson proposes to the Socialist Party a risky plan to take Chevrolet Plant 4. Chevrolet Plant 4 made the engines for all Chevrolet automobiles in the states and for export. Walter Reuther argues against the plan because of the weakness of union support in Plant 4 and the large forces of plant police around Plant 4. Genora Johnson secretly appeals to Norman Thomas, then a major figure in the Socialist Party, he sends her appeal to Frank Trager, the SP’s Labor Secretary.
The Women’s Emergency Brigade (WEB) is organized by Genora Johnson as a combat group meant to protect the strike no matter what. They wear red berets and red armbands with the logo “EB” on it. They wield clubs, hard-milled soap bars and socks, and blackjacks. GM would subsequently pressure Genora to disband the WEB by offering her a high paying job and then by cutting medical care she was receiving for active TB when she refused GM’s offers.
CIO leader John L. Lewis holds a press conference where at one point, he throws a shot at the Roosevelt administration for assistance in settling the strike. Roosevelt makes offhand comments that don’t commit his administration to taking any sides.
Trager travels to Flint to attend a meeting organized by the Socialist Party. Many strikers and unionists are in attendance. Trager gives his support for Kermit’s plan to take Chevrolet Plant 4 and Walter Reuther loses the fight against the plan. The plan is adopted with Roy Reuther and Kermit Johnson assigned to carry the plan into the strike committee to be approved and developed there.
The Flint Alliance holds a large “Back-to-Work” rally at I.A.M Auditorium.
Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins, throws her weight behind GM when she tells the press that she had proposed to Alfred Sloan, owner of GM, that the strikers were to quit the plants “as an expression by the union of good faith in General Motors” before negotiations would begin. In the meantime, GM seeks a new injunction that would compel Gov. Murphy to use the National Guardsmen to evict the striking workers.
A “secret” meeting of some of the striking workers was organized to lay out Kermit’s plan. But the plan that was laid out to workers in this meeting were about seizing Plant 9, not Plant 4, with the expectation that a few suspected informants would give the false information to GM.
Anticipating a new injunction, the strike committee organizes a false occupation attempt at Plant 9. The WEB, picketers and workers attempt to seize Plant 9 during the afternoon shift change. The Plant 9 workers sit in but are accosted by the plant police in the plant. Outside, the Police had drawn their revolvers on the union men threatening them to leave or be shot. The WEB realizing that tear gas was being used against the workers inside Plant 9 begin to smash the windows with their clubs to let the tear gas escape the Plant. The workers inside the plant were badly beaten by the police and had to be carried out to ambulance trucks. GM had stopped the seizure.
When the struggle broke out at Plant 9, some of the workers in Plant 4 marched over to support the workers in their struggle at Plant 9. Kermit Johnson stayed back expecting three hundred men from Plant 6 to arrive and assist in taking Plant 4. When only 20 men showed up, they marched back to Plant 6 and brought with them hundreds of determined workers to take Plant 4. The lieutenants of the WEB, including Genora Johnson, walked over to Plant 4 and linked arms to block an entrance to the Plant when they saw police moving towards an entrance.
GM secures another injunction from Judge Paul Gadola enforcing an eviction of the Plants with the deadline set for February 3rd. The penalty was a $15 million fine for unlawful occupation of GM’s private property. Strikers called meetings and voted to hold the Plants at all costs. The workers at Fisher Plant 1 wired Governor Murphy: “Unarmed as we are, the introduction of militia, sheriffs, or police with murderous weapons will mean a bloodbath of unarmed workers…We have decided to stay in the plant. We have no illusions about the sacrifices which this decision will entail. 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 an attempt to eject us, you [Gov. Murphy], are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths”.
Seeking help to fight the national guard, the police and GM Goons, Robert Travis, union strike leader, calls on organized labor from Michigan and Ohio. Supporters from Detroit, Toledo, Pontiac and Lansing rally to Flint and help form a massive picket line around the Fisher Body Plant 1 on South Saginaw. “The mile long picket line, six abreast, surrounded the huge plant. Thousands of Flint spectators watched the union pickets, who were armed with clubs, hammers, steel bars, and other weapons.” The Women’s Auxiliary of Flint, which stood at 1,000 women, along with the 400 of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, were augmented by Women’s Auxiliaries and Emergency brigades from other cities. They were armed with clubs.
The National Guard had barred people from approaching Fisher Plant №2 and Chevrolet Plant 4 with machine guns and 37-millimeter howitzers.
GM, seeing that Gov. Murphy was unwilling to order the National Guard to evict the strikers, tries to freeze the workers out of the Plants. “The Strikers opened all the windows and threatened to freeze the fire fighting equipment in the plants, thus causing a violation of GM’s fire insurance contracts and leaving its property unprotected by insurance. GM demands Murphy do something, Murphy in turn yells at John L. Lewis to end the strike. He refuses.
Gov. Murphy threatens to call on the National Guard on the strike in a last ditch effort to frighten the workers into ending their strike. Murphy closes the roads into Flint with the help of the National Guard. Lewis and the strikers refuse to budge. GM is out of moves.
GM, fearful that any attempt to end the strike by forceful eviction of determined workers would lead to massive damage to their factory, caves to the union’s single demand: recognition of UAW as the sole bargaining representative for all the auto workers on strike across GM’s plants. The sit-down strikers are victorious.