All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two. If any man tells you he loves America, yet he hates labor, he is a liar. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.
- Abraham Lincoln
In June 1998, workers at two General Motors (GM) plants in Flint, Michigan were on strike. An elderly woman wearing a red beret joined the picketing strikers. That woman was Nellie Beeson Simons1 - she had been a member of the Emergency Women's Brigade, which was in large part responsible of the union victory in the Flint sit-down strike of 1936 - 37.
Assembly line workers in the automobile industry were paid on 'piece rate' in the 1930s. That is, they earned a certain amount of money for each muffler they attached to a car as it rolled past their workstation, or each seat cushion they installed, or each door they attached to the frame. Working at the fastest possible rate of speed was essential not only to getting a pay cheque big enough to support oneself, but to continued employment. When sales slowed or inventory increased for any reason, the slowest workers were the first released.
As workers pushed themselves harder and harder to increase their productivity and their pay cheques, the leaders of the auto industry reduced the pay per piece. In his book Union Guy, Clayton W Fountain remembers the conditions within the factories:
According to the theory of incentive pay, the harder and faster you worked, the more pay you received. The employer, however, reserved the right to change the rules. We would start out with a new rate, arbitrarily set by the company time-study man and work like hell for a couple of weeks, boosting our pay a little each day. Then the timekeeper would come along one morning and tell us that we had another new rate, a penny or two less than it had been the day before.
In 1935, the average auto worker took home about $900. According to the United States government, $1600 was the minimum income on which a family of four could live decently in that year. During the three to five month layoff between model years, families depended on loans from the employer, with the repayment of the loan plus interest cutting wages by ten per cent when work resumed.
One wife described her husband coming home from work each night 'so dog-tired he couldn't even walk upstairs to bed but crawled on his hands and knees'. In the month of July 1936, the combination of these conditions and a heat wave was responsible for hundreds of deaths in the auto plants of Michigan.
General Motors (GM) was determined that its workers would not unionize. Literally hundreds of management spies worked in the plants, looking for signs that any worker might be thinking about joining a union. In 1934 alone, GM spent $839,000 on 'detective work'. In addition, it is said that GM used the forces of a group called 'The Black Legion', which beat, tarred and feathered, and murdered active unionists.
When Wyndham Mortimer arrived in Flint to begin his work as an organiser for the United Auto Workers (UAW), in the summer of 1936, there were about 100 union members in the entire city. It has been estimated that more than half of those were company spies. There were tens of thousands of auto workers in the city. Mortimer saw that he couldn't work within the structure of the existing organisation or use traditional organising techniques. Instead of speaking in auditoriums or distributing leaflets, Mortimer went from door to door, signing up new members and sending the records to UAW national headquarters. In Flint, virtually every household had at least one member working in an auto plant. This method of organising allowed Mortimer to keep the membership lists out of the hands of the labour spies, who watched him every minute.
Internal union politics resulted in Mortimer being removed from his position in Flint, but not until he had arranged for a like-minded organiser, Robert Travis, to take his place.
Household by household, the union gained strength. They won seniority agreements at Chrysler Dodge. Union stickers began to appear on auto bodies and carry their message down the assembly line. In the second week of November, 1936, there were seven work stoppages at Fisher Body Plant Number One, each caused by a speed-up or a wage cut.
A Show of Strength
On 12 November, 1936, a foreman at Fisher Body Plant Number One eliminated one man from a three-man unit and told the other two to do the work by themselves. Those two men, who were not in the union, stopped working and were fired the next morning. Beginning with the incoming night shift, indignation and outrage spread throughout the plant... So did a plan: 'Nobody starts working'. The 7000 employee plant was at a standstill. When the foreman began marching the employee who had been removed from the three-man unit to the plant superintendent's office, a union member stepped forward and stopped him. The entire assembly line was watching. A committee was selected to meet with the superintendent on the spot. Nothing like this had ever happened at Fisher Body before.
The superintendent agreed to rehire the two workers who had been fired and agreed not to dock the employees for the time lost in the stoppage. That wasn't enough. The men demanded that the two employees who had been fired be brought back to the plant. They wanted to see action, not just hear words. The company finally broadcast over local and police radio to find the two men, one of whom was on a date with his girlfriend. Work didn't resume until he had driven her home, changed his clothes and taken his place on the assembly line.
After that, workers began signing up for union membership by the hundreds.
The Strike Begins
When the night shift reported to work at the Fisher Body Plant Number One on 30 December, 1936, they were greeted by the sight of a string of railway cars being loaded with the manufacturing equipment in the plant. It was obvious that GM was planning to move production to a less unionized area. Workers immediately notified the union, which had its headquarters directly across the street from the factory. Union organisers hung a 200 watt red lamp in the office window, that being the prearranged signal for an emergency lunch hour meeting. At the meeting, which was crowded, the workers decided that the equipment represented their jobs, and so had to stay where it was.
Henry Kraus, a UAW editor who was at the meeting, described what came next:
The men stood still facing the door. It was like trying to chain a natural force. They couldn't hold back and started crowding forward. Then suddenly, they broke through the door and made a race for the plant gates, running in every direction towards the quarter-mile-long buildings.
One group of workers ran to the railroad dock. They yelled the words 'Strike on!' to the train's engineer. The engineer just nodded, said 'okay', waved to the brakeman to stop the work and walked off.
Knowing that a strike would eventually come to the Flint auto plants, the union had made sure that the workers knew what to do.
Inside the plant, the workers moved unfinished Buick bodies in front of all the entrances, forming an impressive barricade. They welded a steel frame around every door. They placed metal sheets over every window, carving threaded holes into them so the nozzles of fire hoses could be screwed into them. They soaked some clothes to have available to cover their faces, if needed, in the event of tear gas being used to try to oust them. Metal parts were stockpiled for use as projectile weapons, if needed.
The workers in Fisher Number Two sat down within minutes of the takeover of Fisher Number One. The production of GM auto bodies came to a standstill. On 1 January, all Chevrolet and Buick assembly plants were closed.
In the Plant
The sit-down strike had not yet been made illegal, and was generally accepted as the best tactic available to labour, for a number of reasons. As long as the strikers were at their machines, they knew that they weren't being replaced with strikebreakers. It was harder to remove people from inside a barricaded building than it was to break through a picket line. Strikers were less likely to face violence because of the proximity of millions of dollars worth of company property, such as the manufacturing equipments and unfinished products. Strikers were less likely to be blamed for any violence that did happen, since they were just staying put inside the plant. Strikers were indoors, protected from the elements.
An anonymous sit-downer, writing in his strike diary, described his thoughts on the seizing of the Fisher Body Plant Number Two:
Men waving arms - they have fired some more union men. Stop the lines. Men shouting. Loud talking. The strike is on. Well here we are Mr Diary... This strike has been coming for years. Speed-up system, seniority, overbearing foremen. You can go just so far you know, even with working men. So let's you and I stick it out with the rest of the boys. We are right and when you're right you can't lose.
At Fisher Body Plant Number One, the workers held a meeting and elected a committee of stewards and a strike strategy committee of five to govern the strike. They then organised committees. There were committees for food, police, information, sanitation and health, safety, a 'kangaroo' court, entertainment, education and athletics. All of the committees were elected by the workers in the plant, and changes in their composition could be made at any of the twice daily meetings of the entire plant.
The strike committee posted rules on all of the bulletin boards. Smoking was allowed only in restricted areas. Liquor and gambling (for real money) were banned. The police committee guarded every plant entrance and posted the name and shift of every man on the bulletin boards. Within this 65-member committee, the most trusted workers were placed on the Special Patrol. Their job was to make a complete round of the plant every hour, 24 hours a day, throughout the entire strike. They would investigate all rumours and report violations of rules or discipline. Violators were tried by the 'court' and initially given minor punishments. After three convictions a striker was sent out.
Every worker in the plant had a specific duty for six hours a day. They were on duty for three hours, off for nine, on three, and off nine, in each 24-hour period. There was a general clean-up every day, during which all of the windows were opened wide and teams of workers moved through the plant, making sure that it was spotless. Every worker in the plant was required to take a shower every day.
A plant post office was established to handle all mail. Daily visits were arranged during which workers' children could be handed through a window while workers talked to their wives as they stood outside.
There were daily calisthenics. A 12-piece orchestra was organised from among the strikers and concerts were broadcast over the plant's loudspeaker system every evening. The striking workers played ping pong, checkers, chess and cards (using washers as 'money'). They knocked the bottoms out of two wastebaskets and set up a basketball court. They organised boxing and wrestling teams. Dramatic groups were invited into the plant, and Detroit's Contemporary Theatre put on plays. One local movie owner sent entertainers. Charlie Chaplin donated his then current movie, Modern Times, and film showings were held. A graduate student from the University of Michigan led a writing class, and workers tried their hands at writing plays.
Outside the Plant
Meanwhile, the union set up committees for food preparation, publicity, welfare and relief, pickets and defense and union growth. The responsibility of feeding several thousand workers both inside and outside the plants was enormous. Every day, the union provided the strikers with:
- 500 pounds of meat
- 100 pounds of potatoes
- 300 loaves of bread
- 100 pounds of coffee
- 200 pounds of sugar
- 30 gallons of milk
- Four cases of evaporated milk
Transportation of the food was provided by the city's bus drivers, who remembered that the auto workers had supported them during a recent strike of their own.
Several hundred workers loaned their cars to the union. Sound equipment, which was heavily guarded by union members, was used to talk to the sit-downers from outside the plant. The union set up a nursery to take care of the children while their mothers were working for the strike. The union picketed the plant around the clock.
Sit-down strikes swept the nation. Workers across the country checked their newspapers every day to see 'if the boys in Flint were still holding out'. A milk company took out an advertisement announcing:
We take great pleasure in announcing that we have signed a closed shop contract with the Milk Wagon Drivers Union, Local 584. Now our milk will be delivered by UNION DRIVERS!
General Motors obtained an injunction from Genesee County Judge Edward D Black, ordering the workers to vacate the plants within 24 hours. Union attorneys discovered and publicized the fact that Judge Black owned over $200,000 worth of GM stock. Michigan law stated that 'No judge of any court shall sit as such in any case or proceeding in which he is a party or, in which he is interested'. Judge Black denied that his stock ownership had influenced his decision to issue the injunction, but no action was taken to enforce it.
The Battle of Bulls Run
On 11 January, 1937, the women delivering the evening meal to the strikers occupying Fisher Body Plant Number Two found that the plant was surrounded by company guards, who were blocking the door normally used for this delivery. The women started passing food in through windows. The guards fired tear gas into the plant and into the group of women delivering the food. The women and the workers in the plant, suffering from the effects of the gas, continued the food delivery.
As news of this event spread, hundreds of workers raced to the scene. Some were union members from Buick and Chevrolet; some were bus drivers who had been helped by the auto workers during their recent strike; some were 'flying squads' of union members in town from Toledo and Norwood, Ohio, to help out. The outside picketers from Fisher Body Plant Number Two fought with the company guards, using homemade billy clubs. They succeeded in taking the guards' keys, regaining control of the plant perimeter.
Members of the Flint Police Department arrived to reinforce the company guards. Again, tear gas was fired into the plant and into the crowd of union sympathizers. Workers occupying the plant doused the tear gas canisters in buckets of water, which they had located near all of the windows for exactly that purpose. They retaliated with water from the high-pressure water hoses. In addition, they pelted the police with milk bottles, stones, lumps of coal and two-pound steel auto hinges, which they threw from the roof of the plant. Then the wind changed direction and the tear gas that had been fired into the crowd outside the plant blew back into the ranks of the police, who retreated.
After regrouping, the police returned in a second attempt to oust the workers holding the plant, again being met with a volley of hinges and milk bottles.
During the course of this battle, the union made use of their sound truck. From there, union organisers and members advised the men inside the plant were the next attack would be coming from, offered encouragement, and generally directed the battle.
The police finally drew their pistols and opened fire, shooting into the crowd of union supporters at almost point-blank range. At the same time, the battery in the union's sound truck began running low. Union organisers knew that they wouldn't be able to assist the workers inside the plant for much longer.
Genora Johnson, whose husband was inside the plant, took over the microphone in the sound truck:
Cowards! Cowards! Shooting unarmed and defenseless men! Women of Flint! This is your fight! Join the picket line and defend your jobs, your husband's job and your children's home.
Mary Heaton Vorse, whose husband was also in the plant, described what happened next:
Down the hill presently came a procession, preceded by an American flag. The women's bright red caps showed dramatically in the dark crowd. They were singing 'Hold the Fort'.
To all the crowd there was something moving about seeing the women return to the picket line after having been gassed in front of Plant Number Nine.
This group of about 400 women, wearing bright red berets and armed with homemade clubs, was the Emergency Women's Brigade, which had been conceived and organised by the striker's wives. They broke through the ranks of the police, who were reluctant to shoot women in the back as they made their way to the factory.
Now badly outnumbered and facing wives defending their husbands, husbands defending their wives, and an enemy fighting with newly increased morale and enthusiasm, the police again retreated, at some speed. They did not return. Casualties included 16 wounded strikers, mostly with bullet wounds, and 11 wounded police officers, who had been struck by thrown objects.
'Bull' was popular American slang for a police officer at that time. Because of the outcome, that effort to remove the sit-down strikers became known as 'The Battle of Bulls Run'.
The Taking of Chevy Plant Number Four
The stalemate continued. While Fisher Body Plants One and Two were out of commission and occupied by the union, some of the other General Motors plants were still running. Most notable among these was Chevy Plant Number Four, the largest single plant owned by General Motors, and the sole source of Chevrolet engines. The plant superintendent had armed guards patrolling the plant at all times and had a network of spies throughout the assembly lines. He was confident that his plant, which employed about 7000 workers, could not be taken by the union.
On Friday, 29 January, three men were fired from Plant Number Four for union activities. Union organisers called a mass meeting, which was attended by about 1500 people. Union representatives outlined the situation, described various assaults on union members by thugs hired to break the union, and got vocal approval to their declaration that 'something must be done'. The final speaker advised all those in attendance to simply, 'keep your eyes open... you'll know what to do'.
As the meeting was breaking up, 30 'trusted' union members were asked to stay. These 30 men were given instructions as to how the union would respond to the firings on the following day.
Those 30 men, among whom the union organisers knew there were some company spies, were told that at exactly 3.20 on Monday, 1 February, the union would take over Plant Nine, which had the strongest union presence and would be easiest for sit-down strikers to defend. Some of the union leaders from Plant Nine were then taken aside and told that they only had to hold the plant for 30 minutes. The taking of Plant Nine was to be a diversion, allowing the union to take the more important Plant Six. This group was also known to include some company spies.
A total of six genuinely trusted men knew that the real target was to be the heavily guarded Plant Four.
The union issued a call for a protest march on 1 February. Thousands of people showed up. The Emergency Women's Brigade was there in force. The union sound truck, surrounded by union guards, circled through the city, finally coming to rest outside of Plant Nine.
As the crowd was assembling for the planned protest march, a member of the Emergency Women's Brigade rushed up to one of the organisers and handed him a slip of paper. The organiser unfolded the paper and informed the crowd 'They're beating up our boys at Chevy Nine. I suggest we go right down there'. The slip of paper was, in fact, blank.
Since it was 'known' that the first action was to take place at Plant Nine, the entire force of company security personnel had been stationed nearby. When, at 3.20, workers marched into the plant yelling, 'Strike'! the massed guards and security personnel stormed in and began beating the workers. At 3.45, as the fighting at Plant Nine continued, the plant manager at Plant Four raced through the assembly lines, ordering all of the company men over to Plant Nine to reinforce the guards and security personnel.
Plant Four was now emptied of guards, security personnel and company spies.
At 4.10, union leaders inside Plant Nine acknowledged 'defeat' and had the workers leave the plant.
In Plant Four, union men stopped the conveyors. As foremen blustered and threatened to fire anyone who joined the strike, union men shouted encouragement to undecided workers to join them in occupying the plant. In the end, about half the workforce decided to stay and help the union. Most of those who chose not to stay declined to take any active part in helping the foremen get the plant running again; they simply went home. The foremen were soon evicted from the plant. A majority of the workers who chose not to actively participate in the takeover left their lunchboxes piled on top of each other inside the plant, providing the strikers with a supply of food that they knew would be needed later.
Plant guards returning from their 'victory' at Plant Nine tried to re-enter Plant Four, but were driven off by strikers armed with pistons, connecting rods, and rocker arms. The union sound truck pulled up in front of Plant Four. A member of the Emergency Women's Brigade took the microphone and told the workers that the women who had been involved in the battle at Chevy Nine 'have gone to the auxiliary hall to wipe their eyes clear of the tear gas and will soon be back. We don't want violence, but we are going to protect our husbands'.
Hundreds of women, all wearing bright red berets, came down a hill towards the plant. They assembled in front of the plant gates and locked their arms together. They would be the first casualties if there was any attempt to re-take the plant. The union had done the impossible and taken Chevy Plant Number Four.
John L Lewis and Frank Murphy
Michigan's Governor, Frank Murphy, had been under pressure from both sides throughout the strike. Industry leaders were demanding that he uphold the law and use the National Guard to evict the strikers. They were reminding him that his political career could be on the line if he failed to do so. John L Lewis, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), of which United Auto Workers was a member organisation, was reminding Murphy that he had been elected by the working people of the State, and that his political career could be on the line if he took action against the union.
Murphy was torn. He was a self-proclaimed Irish revolutionary whose sympathies were with the workers. On the other hand, he had taken an oath to uphold the law. His grandfather had been hanged for his revolutionary activities, and his father imprisoned. He was the symbol of authority in Michigan, where the union was now clearly challenging all duly constituted authority.
On the evening of 10 February, Murphy went to Lewis' hotel room and told Lewis that he, Murphy, would issue an order for the National Guard to clear the plants the next day. He said that, in his position as governor, he had to uphold the law.
Saul Alinsky, who interviewed John L Lewis at length to write a biography of the man, relates Lewis' next words, as Lewis described them to him:
When your father, Governor Murphy, was imprisoned by British authorities, you did not sing forth with hosannas and say 'The law cannot be wrong'. The law must be supported. It is right and just that my father be put into prison! Praised be the law.
When the British government took your grandfather, and hanged him by the neck until he was dead, you did not get down on your knees and burst forth in praise for the sanctity and the glory and the purity of the law, the law that must be upheld at all costs!
Tomorrow morning I shall personally enter General Motors Plant Chevrolet Number Four. I shall then walk 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 those bullets will strike!
And as my body falls from the window to the ground, you listen to the voice of your grandfather as he whispers in your ear, 'Frank, are you sure you are doing the right thing?'
In the end, Governor Murphy could not bring himself to order the National Guard to take action.
On 11 February, the 44th day of the sit-down, General Motors signed a contract with United Auto Workers. In this contract, General Motors recognized the union as sole bargaining agent in the struck plants (there were a total of 20 by that time), and for all of its members in other plants. Workers were permitted to wear union buttons inside the plant; previously, this had been cause for the immediate firing of a worker. Injunctions that the company had brought against the union were all dropped.
When the strikers began leaving Fisher Body Plant Number One, thousands of workers who had been waiting outside cheered. A parade of workers formed, marching the two miles to the other plants, where they were joined in celebration by the men who had been occupying them.
This was the first time in the history of the United States that any employer had granted exclusive bargaining rights to any union on a national basis.
Sit-down strikes soon started across the country. Within two weeks, 87 sit-down strikes had started in Detroit alone. Packard, Goodyear, and Goodrich announced immediate wage increases. Unions had just become more militant. In New England, 9000 shoe workers walked out of the factories where they worked. On 2 March, United States Steel, the largest steel company in the world, signed a contract with the CIO-sponsored union without a strike.
Within a year, membership in UAW grew from 30,000 to 500,000. Wages for autoworkers increased by as much as 300 per cent. UAW had written agreements with 4000 automobile and automobile parts companies.
There was a wave of pro-union sentiment. Waiters in fancy clubs sat in the chairs normally reserved for powerful patrons. Busboys, longshoremen, garment workers, and people in occupations that had never had any union activity organised.
The 44-day Flint, Michigan sit-down strike of 1936 - 37 marked the beginning of decade of intense union activity. It was, as the BBC later noted, 'The strike heard round the world'.
1 Nellie Beeson Simons died in a nursing home in Flint on 21 February, 1999.