Sit-down strike in Flint, 1936



Conditions in Flint before the strike were very, very depressing for working people. We had a large influx of workers come into the city from the deep South. They came north to find jobs, because there was no work back home. They came with their furniture strapped on old jalopies and they’d move into the cheapest housing that they could find.

Usually these were just little one or two-room structures with no inside plumbing and no inside heating arrangements. They just had kerosene heaters to heat their wash water, their bath water, and their homes. You could smell kerosene all over their clothing. They were very poor.

Before the strike, the women didn’t have the opportunity to participate in any activities. The small neighborhood churches were the only places they had to go to. They knew some of their neighbors and they would go to some of these little churches, but that’s all. The men frequented the beer gardens and talked to other men about shop problems or whatever. They got to be shop buddies.

When you worked in the factory in those days, no one cared what your name was. You became “Whitey” if you happened to be blonde. Or you might be “Blacky” if you had black hair. They were wage slaves with a complete loss of identity and rights inside the plant.

Conditions were terrible inside the General Motors plants, which were notorious for their speed-up systems. They had men with stop watches timing the workers to see if they could squeeze one or two more operations in. That was the condition inside the plants. Combined with the bad conditions on the outside: poor living conditions, lack of proper food, lack of proper medical attention and everything else, the auto workers came to the conclusion that there was no way they could ever escape any of this injustice without joining a union.

Workers were receptive to the idea of a Union, but so much fear came along with it. When we started signing people up to be in the union, General Motors organized a huge rival organization called the Flint Alliance that cost nothing to join, but you signed a card so that they had a record of you. A great deal of anti-union propaganda was disseminated into the homes of workers through the Flint Alliance. The workers knew conditions were horrible, but they were in fear of losing their jobs if they refused to join the Alliance.

The first sit-down was on December 30 in the small Fisher Body Plant 2 over a particularly big grievance that had occurred. The workers were at the point where they had just had enough, and under a militant leadership, they sat down. When the UAW leaders in the big Fisher Body Plant 1 heard about the sit-down in Fisher 2, they sat down, also. That took real guts, and it took political leadership. The leaders of the political parties knew what they had to do because they’d studied labor history and the ruthlessness of the corporations.

Picket lines were established and also a big kitchen in the south end of Flint, across from the large Fisher 1 plant. Every day, gallons and gallons of food were prepared. The next day, they decided to organize the women. They thought that if women can be that effective in breaking a strike, they could be just as effective in helping to win it. So they  organized the Women’s Auxiliary and we laid out what we were going to do. Women couldn’t have  sitting down in the plants because the newspapers were antagonizing the wives at home by saying that women were sleeping over in the plant.

Some of the men were very opposed to having their wives at the union headquarters and a few of them never gave up their sexist attitudes. But most of the men encouraged their wives. They thought we were doing a wonderful job, making things better for them at home because their wives understood why their husbands had to be on the picket line all day long and do a lot of extra things for the union. They could talk and work together as companions. And the children were learning from their parents’ discussions about the strike.

Across the nation, fifteen plants of General Motors were on strike, but they were making no progress. General Motors and the union had begun negotiations a few days after the Battle of Bulls Run but General Motors was stalling and bargaining in bad faith. The company tried to start a back-to-work movement with their anti-union Flint Alliance, and they tried to use the courts to stop the picketing and evacuate the plants. This was the same strategy that they had used against the Toledo auto strike in 1934.

When Plant 9 started shutting off some of the machines, the police began to tear-gas and beat the men. The successful occupation of Plant 4, which joined the occupations at Fisher 1 and 2, broke the resistance of General Motors and negotiations began in Detroit.

However, General Motors had turned off the heat in Plant 4 and they had no cushions. Fisher Body plants have cushions and materials for seating and so they were much easier to hold. Not only that, the huge motorized picket lines at Fisher Body 1 meant we were strong enough so that the picketers and sit-downers could get out if they wanted to and go across to the union restaurant to contact people.

General Motors used all kinds of tactics to break that sit-down. They sent in notes that some members of the strikers’ families were very sick. One man was told his father was dying, and so he left. They had doctors come in saying that some little cough was very dangerous-a contagious disease. But, people mostly stayed together and this time it was General Motors that was stymied.

On February 11 they signed a peace agreement recognizing the UAW as representative for the auto workers. And on March 12 the first labor contract was signed.

source: Striking Flint