General Motors Recognizes United Auto Workers
General Motors Recognizes United Auto Workers
United States 1937
The sit-down strike came to prominence in America in 1937, and no industry was affected by this ingenious new tactic as much as the automobile industry. The Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike, which lasted from 30 December 1936 to 11 February 1937, was the most important strike of the year. Aimed at the heart of General Motors, the largest industrial corporation in the world, the strike set the company on the path to recognizing a single industrial union as the representative for all its hourly line workers.
The 44-day strike in Flint followed on the heels of a few smaller sit-down strikes, such as the one that occurred in the middle of December at the Kelsey-Hayes wheel-producing plant on the west side of Detroit. But the Flint strike galvanized the country and the world because of its boldness, its potential for violence, and the dramatic intercession of Michigan's governor Frank Murphy and the president of the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO), John L. Lewis, in the settlement talks. After Flint, the relationship between management and labor in modern American industry would never be the same.
- 1922: Published this year James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land will transform literature and inaugurate the era of modernism.
- 1927: American inventor Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrates a working model of the television, and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proposes the Big Bang Theory.
- 1932: In German elections, Nazis gain a 37 percent plurality of Reichstag seats, raising tensions between the far right and the far left. On a "bloody Sunday" in July, communists in Hamburg attack Nazis with guns, and a fierce battle ensues.
- 1937: Italy signs the Anti-Comintern Pact, signed by Germany and Japan the preceding year. Like the two others before it, Italy now withdraws from the League of Nations.
- 1937: Japan attacks China and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.
- 1937: Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
- 1937: In the middle of an around-the-world flight, Amelia Ear hart and her plane disappear somewhere in the Pacific.
- 1937: Crash of the Hindenburg in Lakehurst, New Jersey, kills 36 and ends the brief era when rigid airships promised to be the ocean liners of the skies.
- 1937: Pablo Picasso paints his famous Guernica mural dramatizing the Nationalist bombing of a town in Spain. Thanks to artists and intellectuals such as Picasso and Ernest Hemingway, the Loyalists are winning the battle of hearts and minds, even if they are weaker militarily, and idealistic young men flock from America to join the "Abraham Lincoln Brigade." Yet as George Orwell later reveals in Homage to Catalonia, the lines between good and evil are not clear: with its Soviet backing, the Loyalist cause serves as proxy for a totalitarianism every bit as frightening as that of the Nationalists and their German and Italian supporters.
- 1942: Axis conquests reach their height in the middle of this year. The Nazis control a vast region from Normandy to the suburbs of Stalingrad, and from the Arctic Circleto the edges of the Sahara. To the east, the Japanese "Co-Prosperity Sphere" encompasses territories from China to Burma to the East Indies, stretching deep into the western Pacific.
- 1947: Marshall Plan is established to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
- 1952: Among the cultural landmarks of the year are the film High Noon and the book The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
Event and Its Context
Every American industry was hit hard during the Great Depression, including the profitable automobile industry. For General Motors, the largest and richest industrial corporation in the world, the depression did not threaten its existence, but it did prompt belt-tightening measures, including seasonal layoffs and greater efficiency goals during production cycles. This meant that the already insecure labor force was subjected to working conditions that pushed them to the limits of their endurance and caused them to entertain radical notions about how they might improve their lot. Many workers were forced to borrow from the company during layoff periods and pay back their debt later on wages that averaged around 70 cents an hour. All workers were susceptible to threats of being fired on the spot for any reason, and the turnover rate in the mid-1930s was entirely unacceptable by modern standards.
In late 1935 the Committee for Industrial Organization (later the Congress of Industrial Organizations) was formed under the leadership of United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis to provide more effective representation for beleaguered industrial workers. The older American Federation of Labor (AFL) was showing itself unsuited to the challenges of a new industrial America on account of its historic orientation toward skilled workers and tradesmen and because of a leadership that had become conservative over the years. Nevertheless, the nascent United Auto Workers (UAW) remained a member of the AFL throughout the early 1930s because the AFL was the only legitimate and powerful parent organization with which the UAW could affiliate.
With the passage of the National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act in 1935, however, the rights of labor were expanded to such a degree that the more radical and progressive elements within the American labor movement were encouraged. Going well beyond the mere right to bargain collectively that had been stipulated in Section 7(a) of the 1930 National Industrial Recovery Act, the Wagner Act banned all company interference with workers' rights to organize. It also forbade any attempt by a company to control a labor organization, to discriminate against workers because of their union activities, and to refuse to bargain with employee representatives. To protect against potential chaos and labor anarchy, though, the act also endorsed the principle of majority rule.
Most large companies believed that the U.S. Supreme Court would eventually strike down the Wagner Act as unconstitutional, and General Motors was no exception. Nevertheless, the Wagner Act and the elections of 1936 (which provided a mandate for Roosevelt's New Deal programs and made Democrat Frank Murphy governor of Michigan) provided a new impetus to labor organizers who wanted to go after the larger industries. Key people within the UAW, like Homer Martin, began to harshly criticize AFL leadership in 1935 for their failure to support large-scale organization in the auto industry. They pointed to the successes in the Cleveland Fisher Body strike of 1934 and in the Toledo Chevrolet strike of 1935 as evidence that General Motors was vulnerable when key plants were shut down. They also began to talk to leaders in the CIO about the possibility of switching allegiances.
Things moved quickly on this front. At the August 1935 AFL convention in Detroit, UAW progressives tried to take over the proceedings with their roster of complaints, but the old guard maintained its control. Over the next six months, UAW membership plummeted and the power of the progressives and radicals grew. At the 27 April 1936 convention, progressives were able to take over the key leadership positions; Homer Martin was elected the first president of the now independent UAW. On 2 July the transition was complete when Martin aligned the UAW with the CIO and broke all AFL ties. The CIO, in turn, promised its full support in the effort to organize autoworkers.
Soon thereafter, the reenergized UAW sent Wyndham Mortimer to Flint to try to gain a toehold in the heart of General Motors territory. Finding fewer than 100 union members among a workforce of 40,000 and an extensive network of company spies making sure that that number didn't rise, Mortimer resorted to holding secret meetings in random places. Slowly, the union grew. In October a young and persuasive organizer from Toledo named Bob Travis replaced Mortimer, and the pace of organization accelerated.
Throughout November and December, short and lightly publicized sit-downs occurred at several GM plants, such as Bendix Products and Kelsey-Hayes, setting the stage for the larger strike to come—while at Flint, the workers became more and more anxious. Travis, though, wanted to delay the strike until the beginning of the New Year so the men would get their Christmas bonuses. The union would also have the advantage then of Frank Murphy occupying the governor's chair. Moreover, Travis wanted to make sure the union was strong enough to pull off a different kind of strike than most of the men were familiar with—namely, a sit-down strike. For such a radical action to succeed, every precaution had to be taken.
The sit-down method of striking was a European innovation in the early part of the twentieth century, but by the 1930s radicals and labor leaders in America had become knowledgeable about its potential for stalling the engines of industry. It was more effective than the usual method of picketing outside the factory because it prevented scabs from carrying out production. The use of scabs had always given the company an edge in negotiations. The technique of the sit-down strike is for the workers inside the plant to barricade all entrances and make sure the line is shut down along its entire length. When accused of violating the property rights of the company, proponents of the sit-down tactic answered that the employees were merely protecting the means of their own livelihood—and, by extension, their own material possessions. The U.S. Supreme Court denied the validity of this argument in 1941, but by then the tactic was no longer necessary. Most of American heavy industry had been unionized.
Although Travis wanted to wait until the new year to pull the strike, the company forced his hand. On the afternoon of 30 December 1936, two trucks pulled up to the docks of the Fisher 1 plant to take away the huge dies used there to cast car bodies. When Travis heard this, he ordered the plant shut down immediately, and the trucks were sent away empty. If they had been able to transfer the dies to another plant, the importance of any strike at Fisher 1 would have been dramatically decreased. The Fisher 2 plant shut down at the same time to avoid further company shenanigans, and the strike was on.
When the men in Fisher 1 and Fisher 2 barricaded themselves in the plants on the evening of 30 December, the company initially was stymied. It made a few feeble attempts to force the men out by turning off the heat in the plants, but these were unsuccessful due to the company's worries about the damage burst water pipes might do. Then, on 2 January, Judge Edward D. Black granted GM an injunction against the strike, and Sheriff Wolcott, the city's chief law enforcement officer, delivered it to the men at Fisher 1. This injunction was quickly invalidated, however, when UAW attorneys discovered that Black held over $200,000 in General Motors stock.
In the first days of the new year, townspeople in Flint who opposed the strike began to make plans for vigilante action, and city leaders mobilized the police force for an invasion of the plants. Meanwhile, the strikers inside the plants prepared themselves for the inevitable. Leaders assigned them to a variety of committees and platoons—including surveillance, cleanup, exercise, and defense—with each man pulling a six-hour shift every day. Discipline was the primary concern of the leaders, for they knew their stay was unlikely to be peaceful.
The attack came on 11 January in what was later referred to as the "Battle of Bulls Run." Squadrons of Flint police wearing riot gear and carrying tear gas guns advanced on the smaller Fisher 2 plant in the center of town as darkness fell, only to be turned back by a barrage of high-powered water hoses and one-pound door hinges. Additionally, a strong wind blew the tear gas back in the attackers' faces. Only when the battle was lost did the police resort to real bullets and cause the only serious injuries of the night; 14 strike supporters were injured.
On 12 January, Governor Frank Murphy came to Flint to try to calm the situation. He called in the National Guard, not to evict the strikers but to protect them from the city authorities, and he ordered both sides to the bargaining table. A few days later, Murphy thought he had a settlement, but everything was scuttled when the union discovered that GM officials were negotiating at the same time with a large vigilante group calling itself the Flint Alliance.
Throughout the rest of January, an uneasy truce prevailed in Flint. GM president Alfred Sloan refused to negotiate further, claiming the UAW had no rights under the law because they had not enrolled a majority of GM employees in the union, as the Wagner Act required. He also persisted in claiming that the strike should be settled on a plant-by-plant instead of companywide basis. The union, for its part, insisted on the latter, while also hardening its position on exclusive bargaining rights. It claimed the company had illegally hindered its organizational efforts and that the sit-down was the workers' only alternative. By the beginning of February, Flint was a powder keg.
The union made the first move to break the stalemate. In a bold and ingenious stroke, it took over the huge Chevrolet 4 plant on 1 February by employing a diversionary tactic that threw the company off balance. A false plan for taking over the smaller Chevrolet 9 plant was leaked to company spies; company forces were subsequently massed at Chevrolet 9 while a relatively small group of men shut down the larger plant. Because Chevrolet 4 supplied the engines for every Chevrolet car in the country, the union had, in effect, paralyzed a significant portion of the mighty General Motors. The union was crucially assisted in the takeover by the Women's Emergency Brigade, a small group of militant women, led by 23-year-old Genora Johnson, who placed themselves between the plant and the police at Chevrolet 9.
On the same day, 1 February, a second injunction was granted against the strike, which placed Murphy in an awkward position. He had a legal duty to carry out the injunction, by force if necessary, and yet his greatest desire was to bring the conflict to a peaceful end. In an atmosphere of mass demonstrations by strike supporters and constant threats of vigilante action by strike opponents, he decided to ignore the injunction for the time being. In desperation, he called on President Franklin D. Roosevelt to order GM to the bargaining table, which Roosevelt did. The company, now weakened further by sympathy strikes in Detroit, Cleveland, Kansas City, and Wisconsin, agreed to talk. Roosevelt also asked Lewis to enter the talks at this point to represent the UAW. After a week of tense and sometimes emotional bargaining, Murphy and Lewis were able to bring the two sides to an agreement on 11 February. Not a single life was lost in the 44 days of the strike.
The contract General Motors signed gave the UAW sole bargaining rights in 17 of its struck plants for six months. The company also agreed to rehire all workers who had been fired for union activities and to begin negotiations on wages and working conditions. During the six-month period, the UAW was easily able to sign up a majority of GM workers, which fulfilled the requirement of the Wagner Act for majority rule. As a result, the UAW was established as the sole representative for all.
Almost immediately, sit-down strikes spread to Chrysler and Dodge in Detroit and to other industries and smaller businesses across the country. In all, 1937 saw over 150 sit-down strikes nationwide. More than 130,000 workers took part; more than 100 of these strikes occurred in the Detroit area alone. Ford was the last of the Big Three auto makers to resist the UAW, finally agreeing on the eve of World War II to a union shop agreement. There was an air of inevitability about this, however, as the wide-scale transformation of modern American industry, begun at Flint four years earlier, had proceeded unabated.
In retrospect, it is possible to see 1937 as the most crucial year in the history of organized industrial labor in the United States. The transformation that occurred during that year was helped along by Roosevelt's New Deal policies, by the passage of the Wagner Act, and by the actions of a few conscientious leaders like Frank Murphy. But the workers themselves deserve the most credit, as they put their livelihoods on the line in order to gain their objectives.
Johnson, Genora (1913-1995): Founder and leader of both the Women's Auxiliary and the Women's Emergency Brigade, Johnson was in the forefront of those women's groups that supported the efforts of the sit-down strikers through activities, both tedious and dangerous. Her radical efforts were supported by her devotion to the Socialist Party, which she joined at the age of 16.
Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): President of the United Mine Workers from 1920 to 1960, Lewis broke his union away from the American Federation of Labor in 1935 and formed the Committee of Industrial Organization (CIO). An aggressive, dramatic, and frequently cantankerous personality, Lewis antagonized some of the most powerful individuals in American politics and labor over the course of his long career, yet his contributions to the fierce and radical nature of American labor during the middle of the twentieth century brought about positive changes in the lives of thousands of laborers.
Murphy, Frank (1890-1949): Murphy was elected governor of Michigan in 1936 on the coattails of Franklin Roosevelt's overwhelming reelection to the U.S. presidency. A lifelong supporter of the rights of labor, Murphy served as mayor of Detroit from 1930 to 1933. When his reelection campaign for governor failed (largely due to his actions during the Flint sit-down strike), he was appointed attorney general of the United States and then a member of the U.S. Supreme Court by President Roosevelt.
Travis, Robert (1906-1979): Travis was a key player in the1935 Toledo Chevrolet strike and rose rapidly as an organizer after that. He was sent to Flint in the late fall of 1937 to take over leadership of organizational activities from Wyndham Mortimer. It was well known among UAW leaders that Travis's political sympathies were with the Socialist Party, yet he was more of a grassroots organizer than a politico, and his greatest gift was an ability to gain the trust of working men and women.
Kraus, Henry. The Many and the Few: A Chronicle of the Dynamic Auto Workers. Los Angeles: Plantin Press, 1947.
Mortimer, Wyndham. Organize! My Life as a Union Man. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.
Reuther, Victor. The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW: A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Dollinger, Sol, and Genora Johnson. Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers Union. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.
"Remembering the Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1936-1937." [cited6 November 2002]. <www.historicalvoices.org/flint>
—Michael Van Dyke