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Last Updated: May 31, 1986
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Class Struggle: America’s Union Heritage
1941: Victory at Ford’s (Jun 11, 1990)
The 1934 Minneapolis Strike (May 31, 1984)
The CIO: From Militant Struggles to Class Collaboration (Mar 31, 1981)
The Flint Sit Down:
The Strike Which Broke the Bosses’ Intransigence
May 31, 1986
Fifty years ago, at the end of 1936, the Flint sit-down strike began. It was the longest, and most fully organized, of the sit-down strikes then sweeping the industrial heartland of the United States. Flint was the culmination of a strike movement which had its roots in the first angry, but often defeated, strikes of 1933 and `34; it was the introduction to a strike movement of still greater amplitude, that of 1937 which was marked by victory after victory for the workers. Certainly, Flint was the turning point of the social movement of the 1930s: it was the strike which broke the determination of the biggest capitalists to resist unionization of the unskilled workers; it was the strike which disproved the contention of the AFL leadership that the unskilled workers, what some AFL leaders called “rubbish,” could not be organized.
The 1930s: A Determined Attack on the Working Class
The early years of the Great Depression were marked by enormous decreases in production, employment and workers’ income. From 1929 to 1932, the total physical output of goods dropped by almost 40 percent. By the low point in March 1933, the number of jobless had reached nearly 13 million, with another 13 million working part time. The total income paid out to industrial workers dropped over the same period from 15 billion dollars to 6 billion.
The situation in the auto industry was even more severe than in the rest of the country. Detroit had the worst relief crisis and the highest jobless rate of all major cities. The surrounding auto towns like Flint and Pontiac were in even worse shape. The number of auto workers employed dropped from 435,000 in 1928 to 244,000 in 1933. Average weekly pay went down during those same years, from $33 a week to $20. In addition, there was speed-up, a vicious drive for increased productivity which exhausted the production workers in the auto factories. According to Henry Kraus, editor of the Flint Auto Worker, the union newsletter during the organizing drive at Flint, the speed-up organized Flint.
In the face of a disastrous depression, the big capitalists were determined to preserve their profits. The largest capitalists were increasing their share of the market, in some cases even making record profits. GM is a case in point. Its earnings in the decade leading up to the Flint sit-down averaged 183 million dollars a year, a new record for any corporation. The rapid increase in its net worth, which reflected in part the failure of smaller capitalists, was paid for by the sacrifices extracted from its work force during those years.
The Intransigence of the Bourgeoisie
The bourgeoisie of this country had historically refused to accept any organization of the unskilled workers. The depression only strengthened its resolve not to yield on this question.
As the unskilled workers, long ignored by the AFL, began to push to set up their own unions, the bourgeoisie resorted to a range of counter-measures. The big corporations set up company unions, which in many cases, such as Flint, were compulsory. Workers were forced to pay dues out of their paychecks, money which went to support propaganda efforts, as well as a number of paternalistic social and sports programs designed to tie the workers to the company. The corporations were reinforced by the anti-union and anti-communist propaganda spread by newspapers, churches, and politicians.
But more important at least for a long period of time were all the repressive forces available to the corporations: company guards; labor spies; extreme right wing organizations like the Black Legion and the Ku Klux Klan, and demagogues like Father Coughlin; gangsters; and the organized violence from every level of the state apparatus.
The Ford Service Department, headed by Harry Bennett, employed hundreds of gangsters and street thugs, who were used to attack anyone involved in union activity. Bennett, himself, later acknowledged that the Ford Service Department paid one out of every ten workers in the plant to spy on the rest of the workers.
Other companies hired such services from companies like Pinkerton’s or Corporations Auxiliary. The Senate LaFollette Committee, which investigated the use of private police agencies in 1937, indicated that American industry was paying a minimum of 80 million dollars a year to such companies. The three largest of these private police agencies were estimated to be employing anywhere between 40,000 and 135,000 industrial spies. Those agents were used for many purposes: to infiltrate all union organizing committees, trying to create dissension and get names, reporting on all who came to meetings, so they could quickly be fired; to set up provocations in the face of the official police; to provide ammunition, military weapons, tear gas, etc. for company guards; to attack picket lines when strikes did break out, to physically attack, sometimes even to assassinate union militants, or to set them up for organizations like the Black Legion to assassinate. In the period from January 1934 to July 1936, GM, by its own admission, paid out $994,856 to such agencies. Chrysler admitted to paying out $210,651 from 1933 to 1935.
The LaFollette Committee also documented links between GM and the Black Legion, an anti-communist, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-black organization. Subsequently, both Henry Ford and Harry Bennett admitted to Ford’s use of this proto-fascist organization to exacerbate the racial and ethnic animosities in the working class. In 1935-36, GM put big numbers of Black Legionnaires into its plants in Flint, to sign up the white Protestant workers, many of whom had recently come from the South. Wyndham Mortimer, one of the main UAW organizers in Flint, estimated that when he got to Flint in the spring of 1936, 3,000 out of 8,000 workers in Fisher Body #1 belonged, at least loosely, to the Black Legion. The militants of the Black Legion were often used to attack union activists in the whole Detroit and outlying Southeastern Michigan area. The Black Legion was responsible for the deaths of perhaps several dozen unionists or Communists assassinated during this time period.
In Detroit, especially at Chrysler, with its large number of immigrant Catholic workers, Father Coughlin served the same purpose. This reactionary radio priest, who supported Hitler and Mussolini, played on racial and religious animosity. He also tried to reinforce the stature of the company unions.
Despite the importance of these private forces of repression, the state apparatus is what really buttressed the intransigence of the corporations.
Cities often passed ordinances which were designed to prevent all organizing efforts. In Flint, there were ordinances against distributing any leaflets or other literature and against using any sound equipment; in Henry Ford’s Dearborn, distribution of leaflets was forbidden in all congregated places, i.e. anywhere the workers might gather. Systematically, the courts granted injunctions against picketing when strikes erupted. One of the judges who ruled on GM petitions during the Flint strike awarded 15 million dollars to GM, to be paid by the union and any of its members who had money or property which could be attached. This was never enforced, not because of the mercy of the courts or politicians, but because the struggles of the workers forced GM to withdraw the suit. The armed forces of the state police, sheriffs, and National Guard all stood ready to enforce the court’s injunctions, to break strikes. Each time a picket line was thrown up, the pickets became the targets of violence and/or arrest. From the middle of 1933 to the end of 1936, when the Flint strike began, there were more than 100 strikers killed on the picket lines. The big majority of these were killed by local police or National Guards.
While the Congress, the President, and many of the state legislatures made a show of passing laws which supposedly assured to the workers their right to organize (the first one was passed in 1932 under Hoover), the real forces of the state apparatus, on every level, were expected to make sure that the workers could not organize, no matter what amount of coercion was required.
The Determination of the Working Class to Resist Despite Everything
Despite this array of forces, and despite the unfavorable economic situation, the working class began to gather its forces. In 1932, the Communist Party led a march of the unemployed from Detroit to the gates of Ford’s Rouge complex in Dearborn. The subsequent attack by the Ford Service Department and the Dearborn and Detroit police, which led to the deaths of 5 people and serious injuries to dozens more, prompted a funeral march of 50,000 workers and unemployed in the center of Detroit. While the workers’ anger and determination had not yet erupted into strikes, nonetheless, the plants were simmering.
By the end of 1933, they boiled over. There were almost 1700 strikes nationwide in 1933, most of them in the second half of the year; that was almost three times the number of strikes seen in all of 1932, and the biggest number since 1921. In auto alone, there were more than 100 strikes. Often the first strikes were practically spontaneous: a particular incident, a firing or an attempt to speed up a group of workers, an incident like so many others the workers had suffered in the last years, became the proverbial final straw, and the workers flooded out of the plants.
Most of these early strikes, even the most determined, like the 7-week strike at Briggs or the 6-week strike at Murray Body, both in Detroit in 1933, were defeated.
Nonetheless, despite the defeats, the strike movement continued to increase: in 1934, there were almost 1900 strikes nationwide; in 1935, over 2000; and in 1936, over 2200. If nothing else, the workers had come to understand that a fight was possible. They understood that a strike could be lost, but it was not necessary to sit back and accept everything; even a defeated strike could force the bosses to retreat afterwards.
The First Victories
Those places where the strike movement was broadest saw the first major victories of this period. In Toledo, the strike of the workers at Electric Auto Lite spread to two other auto parts producers, and to the unemployed and other workers who were mobilized to support the strikes. The violent intervention of the National Guard killed 2 strikers and wounded 200 more, and brought the city to the point of a general strike before the company capitulated. In San Francisco, the West Coast longshore strike was transformed into a complete general strike of 5 days throughout San Francisco and the Bay Area, until the National Guard attacked the strikers on the waterfront of San Francisco, killing 4 people and wounding hundreds more. Even when the workers were forced back, they were able to obtain a big share of their demands. In Minneapolis, a general strike of all truckers began to spread to other workers after gaining their support, as well the support of the farmers. There also, strikers were attacked. Two were killed and 55 others shot. But there also, this attack helped mobilize the other workers who came to defend the truckers.
All of these strikes took place in the spring and summer of 1934. Such victories may have helped convey the idea that not only was it possible to fight, but that it was also possible to win. Certainly, the success of these strikes emphasized the point that a generalized strike gave more chances to the workers to stand up to the bosses.
There were places, in auto and other industries, where workers consciously were trying to forge links with other workers. The strong union locals which came out of the movements of 1934 in Minneapolis and Toledo began to stand as opponents to the policies of the AFL bureaucracy. And the victories of both gave them the forces to reach out to other workers.
In Minneapolis, Teamsters Federal Local #574 became the organizer of a series of strikes extending as far beyond Minneapolis as Omaha and also beyond the trucking industry. In Toledo, the Auto Workers Federal Local #18384 moved to organize the workers at other Toledo plants. Within the next 6 months, strikes or the threats of strikes won union recognition of some sort in 19 plants in Toledo. The workers in these plants went into that same AFL federal local, despite AFL prohibitions of such an extension.
Within a year, Local #18384 had extended its forces into the Big Three, when the workers at Toledo Chevrolet, who had flooded into the local, organized a successful strike which gained the first de facto recognition of a union at any GM plant. Furthermore, the success of the 1935 Chevrolet strike relied on the efforts made by the workers of Toledo to pull out the workers at a number of other GM plants. They were successful at several, including the Detroit, Flint, Norwood, and Cleveland Fisher Body plants as well as the Norwood and Atlanta Chevrolet plants.
Communist and Socialist Leadership
Communist or socialist or even anarcho-syndicalist militants were at the head of most of the important strikes of this period, including the three generalized ones in 1934. In Toledo, it was militants of A.J. Muste’s American Workers’ Party; in San Francisco, it was Communist Party militants; and, in Minneapolis, it was militants of the Trotskyist Communist League, the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party. At that time period, the working class found in its own ranks such militants, people determined to fight for the working class to organize itself. Usually it was only a handful of such militants, sometimes only one in a factory. But in many cases, it was their very existence in the factories that made the difference in whether the workers found the way to mobilize their forces.
Often these militants did not try to contend with the old union bureaucracies over who would play the leading role in the workers’ new unions. In some cases, even, they presented these bureaucrats, especially John L. Lewis, as the proper leaders of the working class. As a result, they did not find the way to give a perspective to the workers which would have allowed the working class to realize all the possibilities that existed in the social upheaval of the 1930s.
Nonetheless, to the extent that they were the ones ready to grab whatever opportunities existed for workers to organize their forces, these militants played an essential role in the struggles.
A Few More Victories Open the Way to Flint
During 1935-6, there were a few other places where workers were able to gain some demands and to force the companies, at least de facto, to negotiate with them. Some of these victories were at the smaller auto companies: Nash in Racine, Wisconsin; Seaman Body in Milwaukee; White Motor in Cleveland; Hupp in Detroit.
But probably the most important victory which prepared the road to Flint came in Akron, where the workers sat down inside their factories. The first quick sit-down victory in January of 1936 led to a 6-week-long shutdown which forced the rubber companies to recognize the union. The next months saw the workers enforce their demands with a rapid-fire series of sit-downs, mostly spontaneous. There were over 180 recorded in a 10-month period in Akron’s tire plants.
The bosses screamed about the sanctity of private property; the media and the politicians denounced the sit-downs as a complete and total violation of the law of everything sacred in American society. Despite all this hullabaloo, the workers seemed to pay more attention to one salient point: those workers were winning.
The sit-down quickly spread from Akron to Detroit. In the months of November and December alone, Midland Steel, Gordon Baking, Alcoa Aluminum, National Automotive Fibers, Bohn Aluminum, and Kelsey Hayes were all occupied.
Nonetheless, despite all the mounting victories of 1936, Big Auto and the whole steel industry remained to be conquered. The question of whether or not the unskilled workers would gain their unions had to be settled there.
Flint in 1936: From Fear to Confidence
Seven months before the Flint sit-down, Wyndham Mortimer, a militant of the Communist Party, and a vice president of the newly formed UAW-CIO, came to Flint to initiate an organizing campaign which had the goal of forcing GM to accept the union. He had been active in earlier years at plants in Cleveland; he led early successful strikes which had brought the White Motor Company to accept the union.
Eventually, he was replaced in Flint by Bob Travis, also a militant of the CP, who had started in the Toledo Auto Lite struggle.
Flint, in 1936, was a company town. Eighty per cent of its population of 160,000 either worked for, or depended on someone who worked for, GM. All city officials were openly and unashamedly under the direct orders of GM. A worker fired at GM would not work again in Flint. Those who were laid off were forced to survive due to a company loan, a loan which hung over their heads when they went back to work. Given the seasonal nature of auto work, it was a system which kept the auto workers permanently indentured to GM.
If, as Kraus said, the speed-up finally organized Flint, it was fear which kept it from being organized for so long, fear of losing a job, fear of being jailed for non-payment on the loan, finally, fear of the company spies who were everywhere.
The first efforts by Mortimer, and then, after him Travis, to enlist workers in the newly chartered UAW-CIO required an enormous amount of time, with very few results. Mortimer, by his own account, showed a net membership increase of only 28 workers from June to October.
Nonetheless, the effect of Mortimer’s and Travis’s campaign could not be measured only in the statistics of dues-paying members. Those unionists who were inside gave evidence of their existence to the other workers by pasting union stickers to the bodies as they rolled down the line. The wife of a fired unionist distributed leaflets at the gates, chaining herself to the fence so she couldn’t be removed, continuing to pass out leaflets as the guards vainly tried to remove the chains. Everywhere the workers discussed among themselves what was happening. Meanwhile the speed-up and the arbitrary firing continued.
Spontaneous little job actions began to occur in different areas of different plants. In one week alone, at Fisher Body #1, there were seven brief work stoppages over speed-up.
Late in October, three workers who worked in the body-in-white department of Fisher #1 sat down because they were being forced to do the work of a fourth worker whose job had been cut. The news of their action spread through the plant. The other workers were elated.
But the next night, two of the three were fired when they reported to work and sent right back out of the plant. When this news spread, their whole department sat down. The more management tried to badger the workers, the more the workers refused. Their determination had reached the point that the bosses’ threats the same ones which would have been effective the day before no longer worked. The bosses agreed to bring back the two fired workers on Monday. The workers said they wanted them that night: they would not go back to work until everyone was brought back to work. So, on a Friday night, the company sent someone to their homes to bring the two fired workers back to work. One of them had gone out and couldn’t be found.
The workers continued to wait, off the line. The Flint police were enlisted to scour the town to find him. It was probably the first time in history that the Flint police had politely escorted a worker back into a plant to give him his job back. But of course, the fired worker insisted on taking his girlfriend home before he came back to work. And, of course, the workers were in no hurry to go back to work. They continued to wait for him. When the two finally came back into the plant, there was a small celebration, and the news spread rapidly. A small incident, certainly, like usual, but with an unusual outcome. GM no longer appeared so formidable.
Workers began to pour into the union office to sign up. It was the first time that anyone openly had dared to do so. Within a few days, the unionists felt strong enough to organize a public meeting at the union hall, where Mortimer spoke. It was filled to overflowing. Membership increased from 150 in October, to 1500 in November, and to 4500 in December.
GM management in the plants where the union militants were the strongest began, effectively, to recognize the union, in the sense that it bargained with the union committee and agreed to discuss the workers’ grievances with representatives the workers had chosen.
The job actions of the workers continued. And, for the first time, union members began openly to wear union buttons in the plants, without being fired.
GM Is Shut Down
This was the situation when the Flint sit-down began. For several weeks, the national leaders of the UAW had discussed the question of a strike at Flint. They decided that the best time would be after the first of the year, after the bonuses were paid and the holidays were over.
The plan, however, was rewritten. The Flint sit-down began not after the first of the year, but on the 26th of December, and not in Flint, but in Cleveland, Ohio. Workers in the Chevrolet plant in Cleveland sat down over the unilateral decision made by GM management to postpone a discussion from the morning to the afternoon. The workers whose grievance was being heard sat down in their department; other departments followed, and the whole plant was quickly occupied. When the news spread to Flint, the unionists decided that they couldn’t wait any longer. Atlanta and Kansas City had already been out for over a month. Several of the key plants at Flint were occupied almost immediately. Soon thereafter, GM management sent the rest of the Flint workers home, to try to prevent the movement from spreading.
Nonetheless, it did spread to the rest of GM outside of Flint. On the 31st of December, Guide Lamp in Anderson, Indiana, and the Norwood, Ohio Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants were occupied. On the 4th of January, Toledo Chevrolet joined the movement; on the 5th, Detroit Ternstedt and Janesville Fisher Body and Chevrolet; on the 8th, Detroit Cadillac; finally, on the 12th, Detroit Fleetwood and St. Louis. At this point, GM was forced to close most of its remaining plants, in some cases because of parts shortages, in others for fear that the movement would spread still further.
If this sit-down strike of GM has come to be known as the Flint sit-down, it’s because Flint was the center of GM’s empire. The longest sit-down 44 days and the toughest fights were engaged there. Nonetheless, it was effectively a strike which engaged workers throughout GM’s empire, and its outcome ultimately depended on that early extension of the strike. If the Flint workers carried the most important part of the fight, they did not fight alone.
The Workers Realize Their Own Strength and Force
Everything required to make that 44-day occupation possible depended on the workers’ own organization. The workers’ positions had to be defended. The workers themselves had to build up barricades, send around patrols inside the plants, secure those areas which would have provided easy access, and sometimes mobilize to battle against the cops. The most famous fight which has come to be known as the Battle of Bulls Run, occurred early in the strike, on the 7th of January, when the cops used tear gas and guns to drive the strikers out. The strikers responded by throwing the tear gas grenades back to the cops, by soaking them to the skin with water hoses from the plant’s fire protection system, and by pelting them with door handles and other heavier metal parts.
Before it was over, there would be a number of other skirmishes, each time provoked by an attempt of the police or National Guard either to directly attack, or to force the workers out by cutting off heat, electricity, or food.
Each time, the workers used both their control of the plant, as well as their supporters outside, to defend their positions. When the heat or electricity was cut off, the workers threatened to set bonfires. That was enough to have GM turn the power back on. When the food supplies were interrupted, the strikers who remained outside dealt with the National Guard either diverting them, so food could be brought in, or persuading them to let the food go through. Several times it was the working class women of Flint, organized in the Emergency Brigade, who stood up to the cops or National Guard, shaming them and making it more difficult for them to attack the workers inside the plant.
The necessities of daily life were organized: meals were prepared for those strikers both inside and outside the plants. The factories were cleaned up, living areas were constructed, safety was monitored, bedding was found, etc.
Penned up in the factory, the workers discovered among themselves the basis of a rich social life. Many of their memoirs speak fondly of the singing, the discussions, the debates, the plays, the games of chess or checkers or cards, the caricatures drawn by someone who never before realized he had a facility for such work; they also speak fondly of the work they each were responsible for, work which was carried out collectively.
The union headquarters became the center for those outside strikers, families, other workers who came to help. They too enjoyed the collective way their lives were lived during that period.
Those who remained outside carried the responsibility, among other things, for spreading the news about the strike, through distributing the strike newspaper, and also through door-to-door discussions in the working class neighborhoods, and for thus increasing the membership of the union.
The decisions about organizing the strike were taken on the spot, by the workers involved, in daily meetings both inside the plants and in the union headquarters near the plants. It was this, the fact that the workers had taken up habits of deciding things for themselves, and then acting upon them right away, which caused so many problems for the company when the strike was over. The workers who came through 44 days of self-organization were not ready to give back to the company the right to make arbitrary decisions, nor to order them around. And neither were they ready to wait for their grievances and complaints to be settled by someone else. It helps to explain why in the four months after the strike was settled, there were, according to GM’s own figures, 170 quickie sit-downs, organized by the workers on the spot in order to get immediate satisfaction of their demands. The sit-down had given them a sense of their own strength and force and thus had given them confidence in their own ability to handle their problems.
The Victory at Flint: A Victory of the Working Class
The way the victory was won at Flint demonstrated something that ordinarily the American workers have not perceived, that is, that the workers at Flint were part of a class, a class which has enormous power when it acts together.
That victory was not won only by the GM workers, nor even only by the workers of Flint, although their militant fight made it possible.
The determination of the Flint workers; their willingness to confront the police and National Guard, to choose their own means of fighting rather than the legally acceptable ones which always render the workers powerless; their willingness to step outside the framework of bourgeois legality when they took possession of GM’s property all this focussed attention on Flint. All this gave the Flint strike national importance, watched by workers all over the country.
Many of those workers watching Flint began to sit down in their own factories, encouraged by the example set in Flint. Others came to Flint to make sure the Flint workers did not have to face the power of the state apparatus alone. Before it was over, thousands of workers came to Flint from all over Ohio and Michigan and Indiana. At the end, when it seemed that the plants were about to be forcibly evacuated, many Detroit and Toledo plants were forced to shut down because so many workers had left in order to go up to Flint. On the days when the threat was the most serious, between fifteen and twenty thousand workers were massed outside the two plants which the National Guard stood ready to invade.
It was not Governor Frank Murphy’s liberal persuasion that kept him from sending the National Guard into the occupied factories of Flint to break the strike. It was the fact that the Flint strike had become a symbol for workers all over the country. That was what held the forces of repression in check.
Frank Murphy was simply another bourgeois politician like the rest. In 1919 and 1920, when he deemed it politic to do so, he championed the anti-Communist Palmer raids, even rushing to support Attorney General Palmer for President in 1920. If he took a different stance in 1937 when workers were occupying factories, when Communists were leading the struggle, it was because the attention of the whole working class was focussed on Flint, because there were tens of thousands of workers ready to fight to defend that strike.
The victory at Flint belonged to the whole working class, and the workers knew it. When the workers finally evacuated the Flint plants, having wrung from GM what GM said it would never give the recognition of the workers’ right to have their own organization inside GM’s factories almost the whole working class of Flint celebrated, alongside those workers from throughout the Middle West who had made the Flint sit-down their own.
And Still it is Necessary to Fight
The Flint sit-down had wrung from GM, and, beyond GM, from the most important section of the bourgeoisie, the recognition that workers everywhere would have their own unions.
That did not mean that the bosses just handed those unions over. It still required a massive strike wave to settle matters. Within 20 days of the original settlement at the 17 affected GM plants, 18 more GM plants were occupied. Nationwide, there were over 700 major sit-downs by the end of 1937. In February and March in Detroit alone, 100 factories, stores and offices were occupied by sit-downers for some period of time. The most important of these were at the Chrysler plants which were occupied for 17 days. There, also, it was necessary for the workers to call on the massive support of other workers to prove to the bosses that they intended to stay. When the Detroit cops started to evict other sit-downers, in the less important workplaces, as a preparation for the evacuation of the Chrysler plants, the auto workers of Detroit mobilized 250,000 workers in a demonstration in the center of downtown Detroit.
Nothing was handed to the workers. As late as 1941, it was necessary for the workers to fight the goon squads organized by Harry Bennett at Ford in order to crack Henry Ford’s resolve never to allow a union on his property. When, in April of 1941, Ford fired the representatives the workers had chosen for themselves, 85,000 workers began to stream out of Rouge. What started as a spontaneous walk-out by one department, on one shift, of one plant, soon turned into a strike which shut down the whole enormous complex. It was the first time since it was constructed in the early 1920s, that the Rouge had been shut down in such a total fashion. It took the shut down, as well as massive picket lines, plus a permanent blockade by cars surrounding the Rouge, and a demonstration of 60,000 workers in downtown Detroit to finally bring Ford to his knees.
It was the struggle of the workers which created the industrial unions. In fact, that’s what a union is: the workers, organizing and fighting. If it is to be an organization which defends the interests of the workers, and not a bureaucratic instrument to control the workers, a union can only be the organized strength and force of the workers. Industrial workers finally had their unions, despite all the opposition mustered by the bourgeoisie, because millions of workers organized and fought.
Of course that fight did not happen overnight. If there was a massive upsurge in union membership in 1937, that upsurge was prepared by all the fights made years before.
It’s true that many of the strikes leading up to Flint were defeats in the sense that the workers did not get what they wanted: the bosses’ agreement that they could have a union. Nonetheless, even many of those defeated strikes gave the workers a sense of their possibilities. Since some workers, in some places, fought, it meant that there were still workers determined to resist. Each new strike showed that there were workers unwilling to live as slaves, workers who preferred to fight, even if to lose, than not to fight at all. Each new strike reinforced this idea: it is possible to fight, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
There may not have been many victories during that period, but there were enough so that the workers began to understand that not only is it possible to fight but that it is also possible to win. Those victorious struggles of a few workers in 1934, `35, and `36 gave confidence to the whole working class: enough confidence so that the workers were able to undertake the kind of massive fight which opened the doors at Flint. And Flint gave enough confidence so that the struggle could spread outward from there.
Flint would not have been a triumph in February of 1937, and the victory would not have been secured in sit-down after sit-down, if it had not been that the workers had come to view themselves, at least for a while, as part of one single class, with one set of interests, with one fight to make.
Reprinted from Class Struggle #23