The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

The Chrysler Sit-down of 1937:
The Workers Organize

Apr 16, 2007

During the Depression of the 1930s, the American working class took great steps forward to unite its forces. In December 1936 the workers in Flint, Michigan sat down for 44 days against General Motors, occupying GM factories. They won against court injunctions and police attacks. The sit-down fever spread like wildfire. Workers sat down in manufacturing plants, in laundries, in 5 & 10s, in restaurants, hotels and throughout the auto industry.

Shortly after the Flint sit-down strike ended, the Chrysler workers in Detroit took over their factories. On March 8, 1937, some 60,000 workers stopped production in all six Chrysler plants – at Dodge Main, Jefferson, Plymouth, Dodge Truck, Kercheval and DeSoto.

Foremen and supervisors were thrown out. Company guards were replaced with union men. The entrances were blocked off and secured by the workers. From that point on, anyone entering or leaving these plants had to have a pass from the strike committees.

Inside each of these plants, the workers set up their own communities. The first thing the strikers did in each plant was to elect various committees. They had a publicity committee, which issued daily newsletters inside each plant, keeping workers informed on what was going on inside and outside of the plant. There was a security committee, which set up guard patrols and regulated the passes. The workers set up fire protection and maintenance teams. And they had a first aid clinic.

Each plant had an entertainment committee, which set up activities to pass the long hours. They took over the P.A. systems and provided music throughout the plant. There were ping-pong, card and checker tournaments. Bands were organized. Some plants even had boxing matches.

The educational committee of each plant ran daily classes for the workers. They studied such things as “The History of American Trade Unions” and “Trade Union Strategy and Tactics.” Libraries were set up in the plants for the use of all the strikers.

Workers in each factory took over the telephone switchboards. They set up a complete communication system in the plants and to the outside. This way the workers kept in touch with their families and friends.

At one point during the strike, Bell Telephone Company shut down the lines running to Dodge Main. Workers told Bell Telephone that if it didn’t hook the lines back up, all the telephone equipment would be ripped out and thrown out the window into the street. Bell restored service to the strikers.

The sit-downers took over all the company cooking and eating facilities of each factory – the workers’ cafeterias and the executive dining rooms. Wives of the strikers came into the factories and cooked the strikers’ meals.

The wives of the strikers organized the Women’s Auxiliary, which played an important role in the strike. Besides helping out inside the plants, the women were very active on the picket lines and in the demonstrations.

Strict order was kept both inside the plants and outside. Regulations were passed by the workers requiring utmost cleanliness and good behavior. All liquor was prohibited inside the plants and on the picket lines.

The sit-downers set up their own courts inside the plants. Sentences were passed, if needed, according to the offense. A worker who didn’t wash regularly to keep clean was sentenced to scrubbing the bathrooms. A drunken striker would get the maximum penalty of being ordered out of the plant.

The 17 days that the workers stayed in the plants on their sit-down strike gave them a collective life they would always remember.

What they did not do, however, was to elect a committee to decide on the strike itself, one they could control by replacing the representatives who went against their wishes. Instead, the chief steward councils became the main organizing body of the strike inside each plant. And there was no elected body that coordinated activities and made decisions affecting the whole strike. Later this was to play a role in ending the strike before the workers wanted to.

Chrysler and the Government React

Chrysler and the government did everything they could to defeat the workers. The courts issued injunctions ordering the workers out of the plants – they were violating the sacred rights of private property.

The Democratic governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy, tried to set up a committee made up of management, clergy, civic leaders and the unions. This committee was supposed to bring back “law and order” to Detroit, by which they meant an end to the sit-downs.

But the workers knew what they were fighting for. When they heard about the court injunctions, they responded immediately. Inside the plants, all management personnel – including the clerks and executives who had been allowed into the offices – were put out. All company mail was held by the strikers. The switch boards were secured and the guard patrols were stepped up.

On the outside, massive numbers of pickets assembled. Thousands of workers took over the streets around the plants. And when the hearings on the injunction were taking place, over 7,000 workers surrounded the court house with a picket line.

Auto workers’ leaders refused to participate in the “law and order” boards. They told Governor Murphy that the problem wasn’t law and order, but wages, working conditions and job security. And most union leaders refused to go along with it.

Finally, when the police were starting to move against the strikers, representatives of various unions throughout the area met and called a demonstration for downtown Detroit in support of the sit-downers. On March 23, close to 200,000 workers assembled in Cadillac Square (now called Kennedy Square.)

Workers were beginning to see how the Democratic Party had sided with the bosses. Many talked about the need to build a new party for the workers – a labor party.

Together the workers had stood up to the courts by refusing their injunctions. They had stood up to the police and the threatened use of force against the strikers. They discovered something about the power they had. And they learned a great deal about the Democratic Party’s “friends of labor” who stood on the side of the bosses.

The Results of the Strike

Chrysler shifted position – seemingly 180 degrees. It proposed negotiations and offered to recognize the UAW as representative of the workers. BUT, it wanted something in exchange – that the workers should leave the plants.

UAW leaders, whose aim was simply to get the union recognized, set out to empty the plants. In fact, even before that, they had convinced most workers to leave the plants under the pretext they couldn’t provide food. On March 24 they signed an agreement to fully evacuate the plants in exchange for nothing more than continued negotiations. One week later they signed a contract. The agreement recognized the UAW but didn’t agree to a single one of the workers’ original demands. And this agreement gave Chrysler a no-strike pledge.

To get the union recognized, UAW leaders had been willing to fight hard. When management was hard-nosed, they were ready to organize the workers and show some strength. They had done this in Flint and now in Detroit.

What they weren’t ready to do was to take the workers’ struggles as far as the workers were ready to go. In fact, they acted to block the workers from going that far at the point the companies offered recognition.

The workers had won a major victory. They showed the strength of what workers can do when they are united.

They may not have been able to stop the deal in 1937, but they didn’t stop fighting. All during World War II, there were hundreds of brief wild-cat strikes, enforcing respect for safety or getting rid of a rotten foreman. The gains made over the next three decades were made only because these workers were ready to strike and the auto companies knew it.

It’s only in the last few decades that we really see what the partnership between union and company means – the damage it has done to the workers’ interests.

But just like in the depths of the 1930s “Great Depression,” when the workers roused themselves and pushed to drive the bosses out of the factories they occupied, so today the workers can once again rouse themselves, driving the bosses out permanently.