Feb 6, 2017
On February 11, 1937, workers marched out of GM factories in Flint, victorious after 44 days occupying those plants. The Flint “Sit-down” was the turning point of the social movement of the 1930s, the workers’ self defense against the bosses’ Great Depression.
Following the stock market crash of 1929, the big capitalists were determined to preserve their profits. In auto, the bosses drove down the average weekly wage from $33 a week to $20. And they pushed a vicious speed-up, leading to continuous layoffs.
Three and a half years after the stock market crash, the working class began to gather its forces. There were almost 1700 strikes nationwide in 1933. That was almost three times the number of strikes seen in all of 1932.
Despite defeats, the strike movement increased: in 1934, there were almost 1900 strikes nationwide; in 1935, more than 2000; and in 1936, more than 2200. Workers had come to understand that a fight was not only necessary, but possible.
Communist or socialist militants were at the head of most of the important strikes of this period, including the four most significant mass strikes in 1934. In the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, militants of A.J. Muste’s American Workers’ Party led the way; in the San Francisco longshore and general strikes and in the Southern Textile Strikes it was Communist Party militants; and, in the resounding victory of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, militants of the Communist League, the Trotskyist forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, carried the torch.
The working class found in its own ranks such militants, people determined to see the working class organize itself, to mobilize all its possible forces. Usually only a handful of such militants were present, sometimes only one in a factory. But that small nucleus of militants made all the difference in the world.
The victory which led directly to Flint came in Akron, Ohio, 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 that forced Goodyear to recognize the union. The next months saw the workers enforce their demands with a rapid-fire series of sit-downs. There were more than 180 recorded in a 10-month period in Akron’s tire plants, including Firestone and U.S. Rubber, as well as Goodyear.
The sit-down wave 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.
Plant occupations were illegal, and were attacked by the capitalists with every means at their command. But workers everywhere saw something more important: those workers were winning.
In June 1936, Wyndham Mortimer, a militant of the Communist Party, active at White Motor Company in Cleveland, came to Flint. He met with communist and socialist militants already active in the plants.
Those courageous workers had been campaigning secretly. Risking discharge and vicious beatings if discovered, they pasted union stickers to car bodies rolling down the line. They quietly discussed with other workers. They discretely interfered with the push for more production. Small spontaneous job actions began. In one week, at Fisher Body #1, there were seven brief work stoppages against speed-up and firing of workers.
Mortimer, who was not employed by GM, could be more open. He set up a union office. Soon, the workers felt strong enough to organize a public meeting at the union hall, where Mortimer spoke. It was filled to overflowing. Membership grew from 150 in October to 1500 in November, and to 4500 in December.
For the first time, union members wore their union buttons openly in the plants, and GM didn’t dare fire them.
Workers in the Chevrolet plant in Cleveland sat down on December 28, when GM management postponed a grievance discussion. The aggrieved workers sat down in their department; other departments followed. The whole plant was quickly occupied.
When the news spread to Flint, the unionists decided that they couldn’t wait any longer. Several of the key plants at Flint were occupied two days later.
The strike spread to the rest of GM outside of Flint. Atlanta and Kansas City had already been on strike for over a month. On the 31st of December, Guide Lamp in Anderson, Indiana and Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants in Norwood, Ohio 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. GM was forced to close most of its remaining plants.
Flint was the center of GM’s empire. The longest sit-down, 44 days, and the toughest fights were engaged there. Still, the Flint workers did not fight alone. The strike extended throughout GM’s plants.
Everything required to make that 44-day occupation possible depended on the workers’ own organization. Workers built up barricades, organized patrols inside the plants, secured the entrances, and sometimes mobilized to battle cops. The most famous fight, known as the Battle of Bulls Run, occurred early in the strike. On the 7th of January, the cops attacked with tear gas and guns, attempting to drive the strikers out. The strikers responded, throwing the tear gas grenades back at the cops, soaking the cops to the skin with icy water from the plant’s fire protection hoses, and pelting them with two-pound door handles. The “bulls” were run off!
Before it was over, there would be a number of skirmishes, each time provoked by the police or National Guard. 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, workers threatened to set bonfires. That was enough to have GM turn the power back on. When 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.
It was often the working class women of Flint, organized in the Emergency Brigade, who stood up to the cops or National Guard, shaming them, making it difficult for them to attack the workers inside the plant.
The Flint strike gained national importance, watched by workers all over the country. Many came to Flint to make sure the Flint workers did not have to face the power of the state apparatus alone. On the days when the threat was the most serious, between fifteen and twenty thousand workers from all over a three-state area were massed outside the two plants which the National Guard stood ready to invade. The battle at Flint belonged to the whole working class.
Inside the occupied plants, the necessities of daily life had to be organized. Meals were prepared. The factories were cleaned up, living areas were constructed, safety was monitored, bedding was found, problems were solved. Work was carried out collectively and coordinated by the strike committees inside the plants.
Inside 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 his ability.
The union headquarters became the center for the strikers outside, for the families, for other workers who came to help.
They spread the news about the strike, distributing the strike newspaper, going door-to-door in working class neighborhoods, recruiting for the union. And they organized the defense of the strike.
Workers had daily meetings, both inside the plants and in the union headquarters near the plants. Workers were deciding things for themselves, and then acting upon decisions right away. When the strike was over, this habit of the workers caused many problems for GM. The workers who had come through 44 days of self-organization were not ready to let the company make arbitrary decisions, nor order them around as before.
Neither were they ready to wait for their grievances to be settled by someone else. 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 ground-breaking victory at Flint demonstrated something that, ordinarily, American workers have not perceived; that is, the workers at Flint were part of one class, a large class with immense power when it acts together. When the workers finally left the Flint plants after 44 days, their power had forced GM to recognize a union that GM had sworn never to recognize. Almost the whole working class of Flint celebrated, alongside all those workers from throughout the Middle West who had made the Flint sit-down their own.
Within 20 days of the original settlement at the 17 affected GM plants, 18 more GM plants were occupied. Chrysler plants were occupied for 17 days. Nationwide, beyond the auto industry, there were more than 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. Even salesclerks at the Detroit Woolworth lunch counter sat down!
Nothing was handed to those workers eighty years ago. As late as 1941, it was necessary for auto workers to shut down the massive Ford Rouge plant in order to crack Henry Ford’s resolve never to allow a union on his property.
The workers of 1937 effectively were acting as one single class, with one set of interests, with one fight to make. That was the essential key that gained the victory at Flint in February of 1937, and gained victories in the massive wave of sit-downs and union organizing that would follow.
But workers weren’t conscious of the fact that the only way to secure what they had done was to expand their fight to take on the whole capitalist class, to contest with that class for the power to run things. At least, there weren’t enough who were conscious of that necessity.
The capitalist class, through various intermediaries, carefully moved to divert the struggles into the safe terrain of delegates who would administer things for the workers. Those intermediaries are the same ones we still face today: Democratic Party politicians, as well as some Republicans; union officials who view their job as being a bridge between the bosses and the workers.
Of course, there were many problems to confront in that time period: the growth of fascism, the coming of World War II, the divisions inside the working class itself, the role played by Stalinism to divert the struggles once the unions were built.
But the biggest problem was the fact that the working class had stood poised at the doorway leading to revolution, a revolution in which workers could have used their collective power to organize a socialist society, run in the interests of every person. The working class came up to that door, but didn’t open it. Didn’t go through it. And so, ultimately the working class was pushed backwards from its victory, and continues to be pushed backwards today.
There will be new struggles. If the working class has militants within its ranks, conscious of the need to take these struggles all the way to their end, we can see the working class go from being a class oppressed into being a class able to build and direct a new collectively organized society.