Standing tall by sitting down: How upstart UAW won recognition at GM
Flint sit-down strike in 1936 began new era in worker-company relations
Production lines were running at speeds that exhausted the workers. Employees complained they weren't allowed bathroom breaks. If the line broke down temporarily, supervisors kept the workers around, often for hours — but they weren't paid for that time. Protests quickly brought threats of firing or other types of retaliation.
By Dec. 30 of that year, many of the workers had had enough. And activists for the fledgling UAW had their chance. As part of an orchestrated bid to unionize the world's largest automaker, about 50 workers at GM's Fisher Body No. 2 plant sat down on the job. A sit-down at the more significant Fisher Body No. 1 quickly followed, and production at the two plants came to a halt.
There would be no quick resolution. In the weeks to come, the sit-down strike spread to other GM plants and other cities. By eventually stretching to a key engine plant in Flint, the protesting workers crippled GM production at a time when demand for new models was strong.
GM capitulated and recognized the union on Feb. 11, 1937. It was a triumph for the UAW and a watershed event in the 20th century labor movement.
"By taking on GM and taking them on in the core city of Flint, it had this tremendous impact," said John Revitte, a Michigan State University professor of labor relations. "The UAW was now this serious significant union that could beat the big boys."
More sit-down strikes resulted in UAW recognition at Chrysler later that spring.
The Flint strikers were gleeful about wresting union recognition from GM.
"The mightiest industrial corporation in the world had been whipped to its knees," striker Larry Jones recalled in the BBC documentary, The Great Sit-down. "The workers had finally won. GM had knuckled under."
It was a stressful six weeks. Much of the time was uneventful, spent playing cards, some strikers said.
But the conflict had dangerous flares.
On Jan. 11, local police advanced, trying to evict strikers with tear gas and guns.
Strikers threw heavy metal hinges, tiles — even a fire extinguisher — from a plant roof in the violent confrontation. "Man, that street out there looked like a hailstorm of those doggone hinges," striker Roscoe Rich told the BBC.
Outside, UAW supporters joined the protest. Genora Johnson, wife of an activist worker, formed the Women's Auxiliary. Newspapers dramatized the women's participation, saying they fought with brooms, mops and rolling pins.
"We didn't actually carry mops and rolling pins and brooms," Johnson recalled in the BBC documentary. "But we did have to carry clubs — good-sized ones."
The women ultimately helped turn back police that night. Parties on both sides were injured, but nobody died. Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy sent in National Guard troops to keep the peace. He ultimately helped work out a settlement.
By the time the sit-down strike ended, it had idled 136,000 GM workers across the country. GM lost production of an estimated 280,000 cars valued at $175 million, according to Sit-down, a 1969 history by Sidney Fine.
Even after recognition, GM CEO Alfred Sloan never really accepted the UAW. The company long had fought union representation, spending about $1 million in the mid-1930s to spy on union supporters.
The legacy of the sit-down strike was an adversarial relationship that continued for decades. Sloan didn't meet with union leaders; he left that to other GM executives such as William S. Knudsen, said William Pelfrey in Billy, Alfred, and General Motors.
Although GM was the first of Detroit's Big 3 to recognize the UAW, the union's greatest wins eventually came in confrontations with its toughest target: Ford Motor Co. Ford fought off the UAW until 1941. But then Henry Ford signed the most progressive contract in early labor history.
"Whenever the union wanted just money, it would put the screws on General Motors," UAW leader Victor Reuther told Ford historian Robert Lacey in 1985. "But when it came to points of principle — the first guaranteed pension, supplemental unemployment benefits — it always went to Ford first."
That first GM contract was not far-reaching. Workers got a modest wage increase and a "skeleton" of a grievance procedure, MSU's Revitte said.
Life in the plants did improve. "The inhumane high (line) speed is no more," said a Fisher Body employee who had opposed the UAW, according to Fine's Sit-down.
But the strain lingered for decades, especially in Flint. Labor relations in that city were rawer and tougher, Revitte said, with GM and the UAW carrying out "this father-son, love-hate relationship."
As GM's and the UAW's power faltered during the past 30 years, some labor historians see the sit-down strike a little differently.
"For much of the last half of the 20th century, it was seen as the most significant event in labor history in America," Revitte said. "From this perspective of the early 21st century, it doesn't look the same."
The sit-down strike isn't any less consequential, he said. But the UAW has made steady concessions over the past three decades, culminating with approval of a two-tier wage structure in 2007. That would have been anathema to early union organizers in Flint.
But much of GM's Flint complex is now a ghost town. In the 1970s, GM employed 70,000 people in Flint's Genesee County alone, Revitte said. After GM completes its latest round of buyouts in 2008, it will have just 55,000 U.S. hourly workers.
You can reach Amy Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.