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Remembering the First Clash Between UAW and GM

Today’s strike at GM recalls the Flint sit-down strikes of 1936-7: a profit-hungry corporation, a fed-up workforce, and workers' willingness to take militant action to defend their rights.

Members of the nascent United Auto Workers Union (UAW) during a sit-down strike in the General Motors Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan. (Sheldon Dick / Getty Images)

The United Automobile Workers’ (UAW) strike against General Motors (GM) is in its third week. Jacobin and Labor Notes have been covering the strike: here Dianne Feeley gives a broad overview of the impetus for the strike, here Chris Brooks covers developments so far, here Jane Slaughter explains why some workers are prepared to vote no on a contract that doesn’t meet their demands, and here Slaughter and Brooks explain why it’s more complicated than one side (the union) versus the other (the company).

The UAW and GM have a long history of conflict, and on this occasion it’s worth reviewing the origins of that relationship. Though the circumstances differ in key respects, Labor Notes’ interviews with fed-up workers demonstrate that the original spirit of militancy among the rank-and-file remains to this day.

Back in 1936, workers at GM’s plants in Flint, Michigan had it rough. They were subject to constant speedups in production, taking a toll on their bodies and spirits. Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! contains the observations of a GM worker’s wife, who said of her husband, “You should see him come home at night, him and the rest of the men in the buses, so tired like they was dead.” Another said her husband, who was thirty, looked like he was fifty, so grueling was his job.

The average worker was taking home about $900, about half of what the the federal government determined was necessary to provide for a family of four that year. Rather than pay their workers adequate wages, GM spent money on detectives hired to spy on workers and root out union organizers. The company also conscripted the Black Legion — a right-wing vigilante group that had broken from the KKK and counted as its enemies Jews, Catholics, blacks, and labor unions — to intimidate troublemaking workers. (This wasn’t GM’s only tie to fascists: in 1935, it supplied the Third Reich with military vehicles.)

The newly minted UAW took note of the dissatisfaction in Flint, and seized the opportunity and began organizing workers into the union. After news spread of victorious strikes at rubber plants in Akron, Ohio, small work stoppages began to take place in the Flint plants. Workers took action at Fisher Plant No. 1 seven times in one week in late 1936, for example by leaving an hour early in protest. In November, management fired two brothers, the Perkins boys, and expected others to pick up the slack. It was like holding a match to a powder keg.

Word started to go around as the workers arrived for their shift, notes Brecher. “The Perkins boys were fired! Nobody starts working!” When the foreman blew the whistle and the machines began to whir, the workers stood still. Mayhem erupted on the shop floor as management scrambled to get workers to comply.

Eventually managers issued a call over the local radio requesting that the Perkins boys come back in. They were rehired. Bud Simons, a union leader in the plant, told the others, “Fellow, you’ve seen what you can get by sticking together.” The Flint membership of UAW grew tenfold in two weeks as a response to this victory, from 150 to 1,500.

The union, now on solid footing, requested a collective bargaining process with GM. But that would take a while. For their part, workers were tired of being pushed around and inspired by the prospect of winning real victories through strike action. In December, in Flint’s Fisher Plant No. 2, management ordered three workers to quit the union. Fifty workers stopped working in protest.

That same day, in Fisher Plant No. 1, workers discovered that materials were being loaded onto tracks to be shipped off to plants in other cities, depriving them of work and wages. Workers from both plants showed up at a union meeting that day at lunch. When an organizer asked them what they wanted to to next, they answered, “Shut her down!”

On both the shop-floor and union organizer level, class-conscious workers, many of whom were radicals, played a crucial role in transforming the Flint strike from a series of small protest actions into a coordinated and sustained strike. For example, note Barry Eidlin and Micah Uetricht in their article “U.S. Union Revitalization and the Missing ‘Militant Minority,’” “Communists first introduced the idea of a sit-down strike to workers on the shop floor in Flint.” The idea was simple: instead of refusing to come into work, refuse to leave (while, of course, declining to operate the machinery). Walter Linder describes what was so revolutionary about the sit-down tactic:

In a sit-down the workers’ morale is heightened. They are inside and therefore know for certain that scabs are not operating the machines; they are really protecting their jobs and this leads to a higher degree of solidarity and militancy. The men are protected from weather. They are never scattered, but are always on call at a moment’s notice in case of trouble. The basic democratic character of the sit-down is guaranteed by the fact that the workers on the line, rather than outside officials, determine its course.

Eidlin and Uetricht stress that “leftist shop floor-based militants were also central to the physical contest of the factory occupations, from fighting police in the streets to occupying key buildings at key moments to organizing strike support logistics.” Inside the plants, the strikers were highly organized. As Brecher writes:

Social groups of fifteen, usually men who worked together in the shop, set up house and lived together in their own corner of the plant. Each group had its own steward, and the stewards met together from time to time. The actual work of the strike was done by committees on food, recreation, information, education, postal services, sanitation, grievances, rumor control, coordination with the outside, and the like. Each worker served on at least one committee.

The workers worked hard during the strike — just not for GM.

They set up elaborate systems to make sure everyone was adequately fed and that the occupied plants were clean and comfortable. They played banjo and held meetings that opened and closed with renditions of the labor hymn “Solidarity Forever.” They ate food prepared by volunteers outside the plant (an effort that socialists played a large part in). They had rules, like showering daily and presenting credentials to move around the factories. Failure to follow the rules would land a striker in an ad-hoc “kangaroo court,” where he might be sentenced to scrubbing the bathroom floors or, for more serious infractions, expulsion from the plant. Their sophisticated organization allowed them to remain in place for as long as it took to win.

But the company wasn’t sitting idly by. GM appealed to the police, who responded with predictable force. They arrived at Fisher Plant No. 2 on January 11 with guns and tear gas. They hurled the tear gas into the barricaded plant, and fired bullets at every moving shape they laid eyes on.

But the occupying strikers were both militant and clever: they had covered the windows with metal sheets and punched holes in them, through which they poked the nozzles of fire hoses. They stood off against the police for six hours, and while fourteen strikers were injured, the police eventually withdrew.

During this standoff, a group of women came to assist the strikers. Three hundred-fifty women had formed the Women’s Emergency Brigade, which battled police and smashed windows to give the strikers relief from the tear gas in the plant. “We’ll form a line around the men, and if the police want to fire then they’ll just have to fire into us,” said one of the brigade’s founders, Genora Johnson Dollinger. Johnson Dollinger was just twenty-three years old, and had already been a member of the Socialist Party for seven years. (The party’s office was in the same rickety old building as the UAW office, and it held classes on labor history for workers all throughout the conflict.)

Another woman supporter quoted in Strike! recalls, “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.” In Paul Le Blanc’s A Short History of the Working Class, a brigade woman recalls that women who were involved in the strike “were changing day by day… standing a little taller and talking to the men a little more sure of themselves.”

The strikers themselves were transformed, too. Brecher notes that a psychologist who bore witness to the strike observed that the “atmosphere of cooperativeness” had created a “veritable revolution of personality.” In particular, the strikers used the plural “we” more often than “I,” the psychologist observed. Men who had wearily dragged themselves home each night were now lively, cheerful, and determined. They had purpose and felt bonded to each other, united in struggle.

The company obtained a second injunction in February, and sent yet more police to smoke out the strikers. Upon hearing of the injunction, the union decided not to retreat but to advance and take over yet another plant. To pull it off, they devised a plan: they put the word on the street that they would be occupying one plant, and an informant predictably alerted the police. When the police showed, they were shocked to find that the occupation was in fact happening at a separate facility, an ingenious bait and switch.

As the strike wore on, GM bled profits and eventually decided to reach an agreement with UAW. But it didn’t satisfy workers’ demands. When told the terms of the settlement, one strike leader responded, “That won’t do for the men to hear. That ain’t what we’re striking for.” Many workers refused to call off their strike actions. They had learned valuable skills and set up organizing infrastructure that could sustain further work stoppages — and once they understood the extent of their power, they had no intention of relinquishing it.

The Flint sit-down strikers made many demands in those months. Some were won, others lost. But their central demand was recognition of their union. On this, they triumphed.

In the story of the Flint sit-down strike we see the power of strikes. Because strikes hold profits hostage, and profits are what capitalists care about most, they are the most effective way for workers to win material concession from the bosses. But more than that, in the act of shutting down production, workers discover their latent power. They learn the truth of the lyric to of “Solidarity Forever”: “Without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.”

As labor journalist Mary Heaton Vorse observed about the strike wave of 1936-7, “Labor has shown in its struggles an inventiveness, intelligence, and power greater than anything before in its long history. Whole communities have been transformed.”

Since then, the nature of work and of the labor movement have both changed. But some things remain the same: the bosses are still blindly driven by profit, and workers still have plenty of fight left in them. We see that fighting spirit in the rank-and-file UAW members on strike against GM today. Whatever the outcome, a strike is a uniquely transformative experience — and the genie of class consciousness can’t be so easily coaxed back into the bottle.