Jan 23, 2012
Seventy-five years ago, on December 26, 1936, the Flint sit-down strike began. It was the longest, and most extensive, of the sit-down strikes then sweeping the industrial heartland of the United States. Flint was the turning point of the social movement of the 1930s, the workers’ self-defense against the bosses’ Great Depression.
After the stock market crash of 1929, the following years saw enormous cuts in production, employment and workers’ income.
The bosses drove down the average weekly pay in auto from $33 a week to $20. In addition, there was speed-up, a vicious drive for increased productivity. In the face of a disastrous depression, the big capitalists were determined to preserve their profits.
Three years after the stock market crash, the working class began to gather its forces. 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.
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. If nothing else, the 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 three most significant mass strikes in 1934. In the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, they were militants of A.J. Muste’s American Workers’ Party; in the San Francisco longshore and general strikes, they were Communist Party militants; and, in the resounding victory of the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, they were militants of the Communist League, the Trotskyist forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party.
At that crucial time, 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 in many cases, they were the necessary difference.
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 Goodyear 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 more than 180 recorded in a 10-month period in Akron’s tire plants. Firestone and U.S. Rubber fell in line behind Goodyear.
Of course the 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.
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.
In June 1936, Wyndham Mortimer, a vice president of the newly formed UAW-CIO, and a militant of the Communist Party, came to Flint to initiate an organizing campaign. Mortimer had been active for years in plants in Cleveland; he had led job actions and strikes forcing the White Motor Company to accept the union.
The first courageous workers to sign up with Mortimer campaigned secretly. Risking discharge if discovered, they pasted union stickers to car bodies rolling down the line. Everywhere the workers discussed among themselves what was happening, as the speed-up and the arbitrary firing continued.
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. GM no longer appeared all-powerful.
Workers began to pour into the union office to sign up. 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.
The national leaders of the UAW planned for a decisive strike after the first of the year. But workers’ action pulled things ahead. Workers in the Chevrolet plant in Cleveland sat down on December 26, 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 almost immediately.
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. At this point, 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. But the strike extended throughout GM’s empire. If the Flint workers carried the most important part of the fight, still, they did not fight alone.
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 to drive the strikers out. The strikers responded by throwing the tear gas grenades back to the cops, by soaking the cops to the skin with icy water from the plant’s fire protection hoses, and by pelting them with two-pound door handles “just right for throwing” and other heavier metal parts.
Before it was over, there would be a number of skirmishes, each time provoked by the police or National Guard either directly attacking, or trying 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 Flint strike gained national importance, watched by workers all over the country. And many of those workers watching Flint began to sit down in their own factories. Others 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, and the workers knew it.
Inside the occupied plants, the necessities of daily life had to be organized. Meals were prepared for strikers both inside and outside the plants. The factories were cleaned up, living areas were constructed, safety was monitored, bedding was found, problems were solved.
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 his ability. They also speak fondly of the work they each were responsible for, work which was carried out collectively and coordinated by the strike committees inside the plants.
The union headquarters became the center for the strikers outside, for the families, for 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, recruiting for the union.
The decisions about organizing the strike were taken on the spot, by the workers involved. They had daily meetings, both inside the plants, and in the union headquarters near the plants. Later on, it was this 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 let the company make arbitrary decisions, nor order them around.
And neither were they ready to wait a long time for their grievances and complaints 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 sit-down had given them a sense of their own strength, and confidence in their own ability to handle their problems.
The ground-breaking victory at Flint demonstrated something that, ordinarily, American workers have not perceived; that is, the workers at Flint were part of a 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. 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! Chrysler plants were occupied for 17 days.
Nothing was handed to the workers. 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 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. Their consciousness of that fact was the essential key that secured the victory at Flint in February of 1937, and secured the victories in the massive wave of sit-downs and union organizing that would follow.
Today, the bosses are rolling back every advance won since 1937. They are succeeding because such class consciousness in the working class is but a dim memory. But as the capitalists use today’s economic crisis to press harder and harder on workers, it means that workers somewhere, sometime, will feel no choice but to fight in the old ways. Through their fighting experiences they will regain the necessary consciousness to turn the bosses’ plans upside down, once again.
But this time, it is necessary not only to upend the bosses’ plans, but the bosses themselves. The power the workers have when mobilized like this gives them the means not only to take over a big company, but to take over society and run it in the interests of the population.