Flint sit-down strike

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Flint sit-down strike
Flint Sit-Down Strike window.jpg
Sit-down strikers guarding window entrance to Fisher body plant number three. Photo by Sheldon Dick, 1937.
DateDecember 30, 1936 - February 11, 1937
Resulted inRecognition of the UAW
Parties to the civil conflict

The 1936–1937 Flint sit-down strike against General Motors (also known as the General Motors sit-down strike, the great GM sit-down strike, and other variants) changed the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from a collection of isolated locals on the fringes of the industry into a major labor union and led to the unionization of the domestic United States automobile industry.

General Motors American automotive manufacturing company

General Motors Company, commonly referred to as General Motors (GM), is an American multinational corporation headquartered in Detroit that designs, manufactures, markets, and distributes vehicles and vehicle parts, and sells financial services, with global headquarters in Detroit's Renaissance Center. It was originally founded by William C. Durant on September 16, 1908 as a holding company. The company is the largest American automobile manufacturer, and one of the world's largest. As of 2018, General Motors is ranked #10 on the Fortune 500 rankings of the largest United States corporations by total revenue.

United Automobile Workers

The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, better known as the United Automobile Workers (UAW), is an American labor union that represents workers in the United States and Canada. It was founded as part of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s and grew rapidly from 1936 to the 1950s. The union played a major role in the liberal wing of the Democratic party under the leadership of Walter Reuther. It was known for gaining high wages and pensions for auto workers, but it was unable to unionize auto plants built by foreign-based car makers in the South after the 1970s, and it went into a steady decline in membership; reasons for this included increased automation, decreased use of labor, movements of manufacturing, and increased globalization.

A local union, in North America, or union branch, in the United Kingdom and other countries, is a local branch of a usually national trade union. The terms used for sub-branches of local unions vary from country to country and include "shop committee", "shop floor committee", "board of control", "chapel", and others.



The UAW had only been formed in 1935 and held its first convention in 1936. Shortly thereafter the union decided that it could not survive by piecemeal organizing campaigns at smaller plants, as it had in the past, but that it could organize the automobile industry only by going after its biggest and most powerful employer, General Motors Corporation, focusing on GM's production complex in Flint, Michigan.

Organising is the establishment of effective authority relationships among selected work, persons and work places in order for the group to work together efficiently.

Organizing in Flint was a difficult and dangerous plan. GM controlled city politics in Flint and kept a close eye on outsiders. As Wyndham Mortimer, the UAW officer put in charge of the organizing campaign in Flint, recalled, when he visited Flint in 1936 he received a telephone call within a few minutes of checking into his hotel from an anonymous caller telling him to get back where he came from if he didn't "want to be carried out in a wooden box".

Wyndham Mortimer American labor leader

Wyndham Mortimer was an American trade union organizer and functionary active in the United Auto Workers union (UAW). Mortimer is best remembered as a key union organizer in the 1937 Flint Sit-Down Strike. Mortimer was the First Vice President of the UAW from 1936 to 1939. A member of the Communist Party USA from about 1932, Mortimer was a critic of the efforts of the conservative American Federation of Labor to control the union and was a leader of a so-called "Unity Caucus" which led the UAW to join forces with the more aggressive Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

GM also maintained an extensive network of spies throughout its plants. Mortimer concluded after talking to Flint autoworkers that the existing locals, which had only 122 members out of 45,000 autoworkers in Flint, were riddled with spies. Accordingly, he decided that the only safe way to organize Flint was simply to bypass those locals. Mortimer, Eric Branoff, Roy Reuther, Henry Kraus, and Ralph Dale began meeting with Flint autoworkers in their homes, keeping the names of new members a closely guarded secret from others in Flint and at UAW headquarters.

Henry Kraus was a labor historian, and European art historian.

As the UAW studied its target, it discovered that GM had only two factories that produced the dies from which car body components were stamped: one in Flint that produced the parts for Buicks, Pontiacs, and Oldsmobiles, and another in Cleveland that produced Chevrolet parts. The union planned to strike these plants after the New Year, when Frank Murphy would become Governor of Michigan.

A die is a specialized tool used in manufacturing industries to cut or shape material mostly using a press. Like molds, dies are generally customized to the item they are used to create. Products made with dies range from simple paper clips to complex pieces used in advanced technology.

Buick is a division of the American automobile manufacturer General Motors (GM). It has the distinction of being among the first American marques of automobiles, and was the company that established General Motors in 1908. Before the establishment of General Motors, GM founder William C. Durant had served as Buick's general manager and major investor. Buick also has the distinction of being the first production automobile maker in the world to equip its cars with overhead valve engines, which it did in 1904.

Pontiac 1926-2010 automobile brand manufacturing subsidiary of General Motors

Pontiac was a car brand that was owned, made, and sold by General Motors. Introduced as a companion make for GM's more expensive line of Oakland automobiles, Pontiac overtook Oakland in popularity and supplanted its parent brand entirely by 1933.

The strike

Young striker off sentry duty sleeping on assembly line of auto seats Flint Sit-Down Strike sleeping.jpg
Young striker off sentry duty sleeping on assembly line of auto seats

Events forced the union to accelerate its plans, however, when the workers at Cleveland's Fisher Body plant went on strike on December 30, 1936, due to two brothers being fired from the assembly line. The UAW immediately announced that it would not settle the Cleveland strike until it reached a national agreement with GM covering all of its plants. At the same time the union made plans to shut down Fisher #1 in Flint. Genora Johnson Dollinger was one of the main organizers and protester for the flint sit-down. On December 30, at 8:00 AM, the union learned that GM was planning to move the dies out of Fisher #1. UAW lead organizer Bob Travis immediately called a lunchtime meeting at the union hall across the street from the plant, explained the situation, then sent the members across the street to occupy the plant. The Flint sit-down strike began. [1]

In a conventional strike, union members leave the plant and establish a picket line to discourage other employees from entering, thus preventing the employer from operating. In a sit-down strike, the workers physically occupy the plant, keeping management and others out. By remaining inside the factory rather than picketing outside of it, striking workers prevented owners from bringing strikebreakers to resume production.

The Flint sit-down strikers set up their own civil system within the strike. A mayor and other civic officials were elected by the workers to maintain order within the plant. Departments included Organized Recreation, Information, Postal Service, and Sanitation. All rules were enforced by what was called a "Kangaroo Court" by the workers. Any person who broke the rules was given a trial, and punishments ranged from washing dishes to expulsion from the plant (in the most extreme cases). It was important for the strikers to maintain order in the plant; if property damage occurred, the Governor would intervene with the National Guard. In addition to maintaining order, the civic government also insured a steady stream of supplies from friendly vendors outside the plant. Most of the meals for the approximately 2,000 workers occupying the plant were provided to the workers free of charge by a diner across the street. [2]


National Guardsmen with machine guns overlooking Chevrolet factories number nine and number four. Flint Sit-Down Strike National Guard.jpg
National Guardsmen with machine guns overlooking Chevrolet factories number nine and number four.

The police, armed with guns and tear gas, attempted to enter the Fisher Body 2 plant on January 11, 1937. The strikers inside the plant pelted them with hinges, bottles, and bolts, led by Bob Travis and Rob Reather. They were able to withstand several waves of attack, eventually ending the standoff. The strikers dubbed this "The Battle of Bulls Run", a mocking reference to the police ("bulls"). Fourteen strikers were injured by gunfire during the battle.

At the time, Vice President John Nance Garner supported federal intervention to break up the Flint Strike, but this idea was rejected by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president urged GM to distinguish a union so the plants could re-open.

GM obtained a second injunction against the strike on February 1, 1937. The union not only ignored the order, but spread the strike to Chevrolet Plant #4. To avoid tipping its hand, the union let it be known in the hours before the move that it intended to go after another plant in the complex, only changing directions at the last minute. GM, tipped off by an informant within the UAW, was ready and waiting for the union at the other plant and caught completely off guard at Plant #4. The strike ended after 44 days.

That development forced GM to bargain with the union. John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers and founder and leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations, spoke for the UAW in those negotiations; UAW President Homer Martin was sent on a speaking tour to keep him out of the way. GM's representatives refused to be in the same room as the UAW's, so Governor Frank Murphy acted as courier and intermediary between the two groups. Governor Murphy sent in the U.S. National Guard, not to evict the strikers, but rather to protect them from the police and corporate strike-breakers. The two parties finally reached agreement on February 11, 1937 on a one-page agreement that recognized the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for GM's employees who were members of the union for the next six months. [3]


Flint sit-down strike exhibit at the Sloan Museum Sloan Museum July 2018 21 (Flint sit-down strike exhibit).jpg
Flint sit-down strike exhibit at the Sloan Museum

As short as this agreement was, it gave the UAW instant legitimacy. [1] The workers there also got a 5% increase in pay and were allowed to talk during lunch. The UAW capitalized on that opportunity, signing up 100,000 GM employees and building the union's strength through grievance strikes at GM plants throughout the country. Several participants in the strike, including Charles I. Krause, went on to greater prominence within the union. Other notable participants in the sit-down strike were future D-Day hero and Greco-Roman wrestling champion Dean Rockwell, labor leader and future UAW president Walter Reuther, and the uncle of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, whose debut feature Roger & Me contains a clip from the strike.

In the next year, UAW membership grew from 30,000 to 500,000 members. Employees of other car manufacturers such as Ford joined up, as the entire industry rapidly unionized. As later noted by the BBC, "the strike was heard 'round the world". [4]

See also


  1. 1 2 Baulch, Vivian M.; Zacharias, Patricia (June 23, 1997). "Rearview Mirror: The historic 1936-37 Flint auto plant strikes". Detroit News . Detroit, Michigan. Retrieved June 11, 2011.
  2. Zinn. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
  3. Bak, Richard (September 2008). "(Frank) Murphy's Law". Hour Detroit. Retrieved June 9, 2012.
  4. BBC, "The 1936 - 37 Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike", Retrieved 6 February 2012.

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