On this day in 1936, the Flint sit-down strike against General Motors commences at Fisher Body Plant No. 1. When the strike finally ended 44 days later, it had 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 eventual, full unionization of the domestic United States automobile industry.
The UAW had only been formed in 1935 and held its first convention the following year. Shortly thereafter the union decided that it could not survive by piecemeal organizing at smaller plants, and 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. The target was chosen for maximum effect, as one of two body dies used in every GM vehicle came from the plant. So, on the evening of December 30, the Flint plant’s night shift simply stopped working. They locked themselves in and sat down; “She’s ours!” one worker shouted.
GM argued that the strikers were trespassing and sought a court order demanding their evacuation; still, the union men stayed put. GM turned off the heat in the buildings, but the strikers wrapped themselves in coats and blankets and hunkered down. On January 11, police tried to cut off the strikers’ food supply; in the resulting riot, known as the “Battle of the Running Bulls,” 16 workers and 11 policemen were injured and the UAW took over the adjacent Fisher Two plant. On February 1, the UAW won control of the enormous Chevrolet No. 4 engine factory. GM’s output went from a robust 50,000 cars in December to just 125 in February.
Newly-minted Michigan Governor Frank Murphy refused to turn the National Guard on the strikers for risk of significant bloodshed, and instead became a mediator between the warring factions.The Guard was in fact deployed to protect the strikers from over-zealous police and strike-breakers, and President Roosevelt urged GM to recognize the UAW.
The two parties finally reached agreement February 11, 1937 on a one-page document that recognized the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for GM’s employees who were members of the union for the next six months. As short as this agreement was, it gave the UAW instant legitimacy, and workers there also received a 5% increase in pay and were allowed to talk during lunch. In the next year, UAW membership grew from 30,000 to 500,000 members, and 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.”
And here, our lesson of solidarity endeth.