When workers occupied

October 18, 2011

Today's Occupy movement stands in a long tradition of radical struggles in the U.S. that have used similar tactics. In particular, the U.S. labor movement owes some of its greatest victories to the determination of workers that "we shall not be moved."

In this excerpt from her book Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States, Sharon Smith tells the story of the legendary Flint sit-down strike against General Motors that began 75 years in December--and how labor's victory at GM unleashed a wave of sit-down strikes across the country.

BY 1936, working-class confidence was already surging, especially among workers in the tire and auto industries. An economic upturn that began in 1935 and lasted until the fall of 1937 boosted militancy still further. A wave of sit-down strikes spread through the center of rubber production, Akron, Ohio, beginning in early 1936.

As Jeremy Brecher, author of the labor history survey Strike! described:

A week seldom passed without one or more sit-downs....The Goodyear management, for instance, assigned two non-union inspectors to a department with instructions to disqualify tires produced by known union men.

After pelting them with milk bottles for a while, the men sat down and refused to work till the inspectors were removed. The company rushed in forty factory guards with clubs, but a 65-year-old union gum miner met the army at the entrance and told them to "beat it." They went--and the non-union inspectors were replaced.

Although the leadership of the United Rubber Workers (URW) did not approve of these strikes, the Akron sit-down successfully won most of the workers' immediate demands, though not URW recognition.

Flint sit-down strikers celebrate their victory inside one of the occupied plants
Flint sit-down strikers celebrate their victory inside one of the occupied plants

Most sit-downs were fought over wage and work issues, but Goodyear rubber workers also sat down for a full day in the fall of 1936 after company goons beat up a local union leader. The next night, the same group of workers sat down again--this time, to protest a KKK cross-burning in view of their Akron plant.

Neither top CIO officials nor Roosevelt's emissaries could dampen the Akron rubber workers' defiant mood. In late February 1936, Roosevelt sent his own mediator to convince Goodyear workers to end a two-week, company-wide sit-down. Four thousand workers assembled at a mass meeting responded to the mediator's suggestion that they return to work with the chant, "No, no, a thousand times no, I'd rather be dead than a scab!"

After a month on strike, the Goodyear workers went back to work with some gains, but no union contract. Rubber workers did not win union recognition from Firestone, Goodyear, Goodrich or U.S. Rubber until a year later--after the United Auto Workers' (UAW) victorious Flint sit-down strike.

IN NOVEMBER 1936, the sit-downs spread to the auto industry, reaching Detroit in late November, when 1,200 steelworkers occupied the Midland Steel auto-body plant, setting off an organizing frenzy. As socialist and author Bert Cochran describes:

After the Midland victory, Detroit went into a fever of union agitation and organization. Workers would repeatedly call up union offices demanding that an organizer be sent to their shop to sign them up, or take care of their grievance, or call a strike. Delegations would descend on union headquarters for union books and equipment. There were sit-downs at Gordon Baking, Alcoa, National Automotive Fibers, Bohn Aluminum and Kelsey Hayes.

The legendary Flint sit-down strike turned the tide more dramatically than any other 1930s strike. During the course of the Flint struggle, which began on December 28, 1936, and lasted until February 11, 1937, 140,000 General Motors autoworkers--out of the company's workforce of 150,000--either sat down or went out on strike.

But the strike's importance reached far beyond the auto industry. The attention of the entire nation was riveted on the Flint autoworkers as they took matters into their own hands--confronting the company and, at various points, the union leadership, the police, the company's hired thugs and even Roosevelt--and won.

By the time the Flint sit-down began, auto manufacturers had developed an elaborate apparatus to undermine unions. GM contracted with the Pinkerton Agency to develop an elaborate spy network against union organizers. "Those whom spies identified as unionists were often beaten up or had 'accidents' happen to them," according to historian Stephen Norwood. He explained:

Fiercely determined to prevent unionization, the auto manufacturers and their parts suppliers developed sophisticated and extensive espionage systems and assembled formidable arsenals of tear gas and firearms, which they shared with municipal police departments in the Detroit area and Flint, active agents in the anti-union campaign.

Management's commitment to use violence to derail the union effort, its ability to employ the police as an anti-union instrument, and GM's mobilization of vigilante armies in Flint and Anderson, Indiana, precipitated a seemingly endless series of physical confrontations with those attempting to organize the industry.

Flint was the center of the General Motors' manufacturing empire. GM employed roughly 47,000 Flint workers in 1936. UAW membership in Flint grew from 150 at the end of October to 4,500 by the end of December that year.

UAW leaders had hoped to delay the start of the GM strike until Michigan's New Deal Gov. Frank Murphy took office on January 1, 1937, but they were unable to hold back the workers. The sit-down started at the Fisher Body plant in Cleveland on December 27, spreading the next day to the Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants in Flint.

The targeting of these plants was strategic. They were key to production for roughly 75 percent of GM production nationally. Within a week, autoworkers were on strike in Anderson, Ind.; Norwood, Ohio; Janesville, Wis.; and Detroit.

GM management--while itself refusing to abide by the Wagner Act--responded by declaring the sit-down strikes illegal: "Such strikers are clearly trespassers and violators of the law of the land. We cannot have bona fide collective bargaining with sit-down strikers in illegal possession of the plants. Collective bargaining cannot be justified if one party, having seized the plant, holds a gun at the other party's head."

GM won a court injunction on January 2, 1937, restraining the strikers from remaining inside the plant and from picketing and confronting strikebreakers. But when the sheriff read the injunction aloud to the sit-down strikers, they laughed him "out of the plant." Judge Edward Black, who issued the injunction, as it turned out, owned $219,900 worth of GM stock.

Alfred P. Sloan, president of the automaker, informed strikers that GM would "not recognize any union as the sole bargaining agency for its workers, to the exclusion of all others."

ON JANUARY 11, management cut off all heat inside Flint's Fisher Body Plant No. 2, and company guards stopped all food from entering the plant. The strikers and their supporters confronted the guards at the plant gates--battling the police, who used clubs, tear gas and riot guns against them. The strikers replied with door hinges and fire hoses. Thousands of supporters streamed in to defend the strikers, who finally succeeded in defeating the police, in what unionists later called "The Battle of the Running Bulls."

But General Motors continued to refuse to negotiate with the UAW. John L. Lewis, leader of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union federation, issued this scathing rebuttal, using labor's electoral support as a direct challenge to Roosevelt:

For six months during the presidential campaign, the economic royalists, represented by General Motors and the DuPonts, contributed their money and used their energy to drive this administration from power. The administration asked labor to help repel this attack, and labor gave it. The same economic royalists now have their fangs in labor. The workers of this country expect the administration to help the strikers in every reasonable way.

Frances Perkins, Roosevelt's labor secretary, spoke defiantly: "There was a time when picketing was considered illegal. The legality of the sit-down strike has yet to be determined."

The UAW reacted to Sloan's refusal to negotiate by extending the sit-down strike to GM's motor assembly plant, Chevrolet No. 4, in Flint. Outsmarting police, the union pretended to target Chevrolet Plant No. 9--while quietly seizing No. 4.

When the company secured a second injunction against the strike in early February, the workers met and voted to hold the plants at all costs, even as Gov. Murphy threatened to call in troops to break the stalemate. The strikers from Fisher Body No. 1 responded to Murphy in writing:

We have decided to stay in the plant. We have no illusions about the sacrifices which this decision will entail. We fully expect that if a violent effort is made to oust us, many of us will be killed, and we take this means of making it known to our wives, to our children, to the people of the state of Michigan and the country that if this result follows from an attempt to eject us, you [Gov. Murphy] are the one who must be held responsible for our deaths.

By the next morning, wrote Art Preis, author of Labor's Giant Step, "all the roads into Flint were jammed with unionists from Detroit, Lansing, Pontiac and Toledo." The solidarity contingent, including more than a thousand veterans of the 1934 Toledo Auto-Lite strike, rubber workers from Akron and coal miners from Pittsburgh, formed a ring around Fisher Body No. 1--ready to do battle. The sheriff refused to enforce the injunction.

GM again turned off all the heat to try and freeze out the strikers. In response, the sit-downers opened all the plant windows to let in the frigid January air--fully aware that if the plant's firefighting equipment froze, GM's insurance contract would not cover any damage that ensued.

Flint city officials, meanwhile, began arming antiunion vigilantes. The chief of police stated, "Unless John L. Lewis wants a repetition of the Herrin, Ill., massacres, he had better call off his union men. The good citizens of Flint are getting pretty nearly out of hand. We are organizing fast and will have between 500 and 1,000 men ready for any emergency."

Lewis responded, "I do not doubt your ability to call out your soldiers and shoot the members of our union out of those plants, but let me say that when you issue that order, I shall leave this conference, and I shall enter one of those plants with my own people. And the militia will have the pleasure of shooting me out of the plants with them."

The police emergency order was pulled, and the governor abruptly changed his mind about sending in the National Guard.

GM MANAGEMENT, fearing for the safety of their plants and equipment, finally backed down, and on February 11, 1936, signed a six-month contract with the UAW.

The strikers' willingness to disobey the "law"--in defense of workers' legal right to organize--proved the key to success. Indeed, roughly half of all sit-down strikes in this period demanded basic union recognition, granted by the 1935 Wagner Act yet denied by their employers. As historian Walter Galenson commented,

The strikes were clearly illegal, and there was little disposition on the part of anyone to take an opposite point of view. Although they would be unthinkable today, they were tolerated in 1937, and even received substantial public support, mainly because large segments of American industry refused to accept collective bargaining. Trade unions were the underdogs, and they were widely represented as merely attempting to secure in practice the rights that Congress had bestowed upon them as a matter of law...

It is not at all unlikely that General Motors and other manufacturers could have resisted the UAW more successfully if the union had confined itself to more orthodox weapons."

The strikers' ingenious tactical maneuver, occupying Chevrolet Plant No. 4, had been critical to winning the strike. In addition, during the strike, the strikers organized a system of self-defense, food distribution, exercise and even entertainment, with all decisions made at daily mass meetings.

Strike leader and socialist Kermit Johnson described the immense satisfaction felt by the workers when, "herding the foremen out of the plant, we sent them on their way with the same advice that most of us had been given year after year during layoffs: 'We'll let you know when to come back!'"

Women also played a decisive role in the Flint sit-down strike. Some 350 strikers' wives came together to form the Flint Women's Emergency Brigade after taking part in the Battle of the Running Bulls.

Like the strike itself, the Emergency Brigade was organized along military lines, commanded by socialist and striker's wife, Genora Johnson, and staff captains overseeing individual squads. Far from a typical "women's auxiliary," the Brigade organized a women's speakers' bureau, day-care centers for women on picket duty and a line of defense, ready to battle the police at a moment's notice.

Their courage was every bit as great as the men's inside the plant. On January 20, Johnson instructed members, "We will form a line around the men, and if the police want to fire, then they'll just have to fire into us."

The Flint women's experience in the class struggle changed their lives forever, as this remark by one Brigade member shows clearly: "A new type of woman was born in the strike. Women who only yesterday were horrified at unionism, who felt inferior to the task of organizing, speaking, leading have, as if overnight, become the spearhead in the battle of unionism."

THE FLINT victory impacted the class struggle nationally, raising working-class confidence still higher. The New York Times reported, "By entirely stopping production of all General Motors cars in January and February and obtaining recognition in the first written and signed agreement on a national scale which that great citadel of the open shop had ever granted to a labor union, the CIO...opened the way for the remarkable upsurge in sentiment for union organization which is now going on in many sections of the country."

Labor historian Sidney Fine commented, "The GM strike, as a spectacular and successful example of the sit-down, greatly increased the popularity of the tactic." He added, "The sit-downs involved every conceivable type of worker--kitchen and laundry workers in the Israel-Zion Hospital in Brooklyn, pencil makers, janitors, dog catchers, newspaper pressmen, sailors, tobacco workers, Woolworth girls, rug weavers, hotel and restaurant employees, pie bakers, watchmakers, garbage collectors, Western Union messengers, opticians and lumbermen."

The sit-down tactic also gained popularity as a form of protest in other arenas of struggle. As historian Phillip Nicholson commented, "People sat down in protest at relief offices, in employment agencies, against police in eviction demonstrations. Prisoners adopted the tactic in jails in Joliet, Illinois, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Children did the same in movie theaters to protest program cuts."

By the end of 1937, nearly a half-million workers all over the United States had taken part in a sit-down strike. The number of all strikes more than doubled between 1936 and 1937, from 2,172 to 4,740, involving nearly 2 million workers overall.

In the auto industry, there were 170 sit-down strikes against General Motors alone between March and June 1937. As the New York Times observed, the sit-downs were due at least in part to "dissatisfaction on the part of the workers with the union itself," and the auto workers "are as willing in some cases to defy their own leaders as their bosses."

The Flint victory also helped the CIO organize other mass-production industries in its aftermath. On March 2, the giant United States Steel Corporation signed a CIO contract without a strike.

The sit-down strike wave earned massive sympathy in the population at large. A Fortune magazine poll in July 1937 showed only 20.1 percent of respondents thought sit-downs should be stopped if the price was bloodshed. Even among corporate executives, just 32.9 percent thought this was a price worth paying to stop the illegal sit-downs.

By September 1937, the CIO claimed a membership of 3.7 million. But the CIO's success also benefited the AFL, and both organizations grew significantly during the strike wave of the 1930s. The AFL garnered a million new members, bringing its total to 3.6 million. After its intransigence against industrial organizing that caused the CIO split, the AFL subsequently proved willing to organize unskilled workers into its ranks.

President Green reported to the AFL executive council in April 1937:

At the present time it is almost impossible for me here, working 24 hours a day, to meet the requests that come in for our organization. Many of these requests are coming from employers suggesting they are ready to bow to the decision of the Supreme Court on the Wagner Act, and they are ready to become organized.

We are going forward in a wonderful way organizing, and I know most of our National and International Unions are meeting with the same situation, particularly those having jurisdiction in manufacturing and industry."

Further Reading

From the archives