Municipal Government

December Labor History The Strike That Changed the Country

December 25, 2015
By Bill Hohlfeld

New York, NY – On December 30, 1936, at just about 8 PM, frustrated autoworkers occupied the General Motors Fisher Body Plant Number One in Flint, Michigan. They were striking to gain recognition of their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW),and insure that it would be their sole collective bargaining agent. They also were demanding that the company stop outsourcing work to non-union plants, establish a fair minimum wage scale, a grievance system, and safer working conditions. That was a tall order for its day, and so it comes as no surprise that their action lasted for 44 days.

Originally inspired by similar strikes taking place in Europe, such as the French general strike, the sit down had been in the works for months. It began at smaller plants and then grew. First came the strike at Fisher Body in Atlanta on November 16, then a month later at GM in Kansas City on December 16 and a Fisher stamping plant in Cleveland on December 28. But the Flint plant was crucial because it housed one of only two sets of body dies that GM used to stamp out its 1937 cars. When workers seized the Flint plant, they virtually shut down the company.

The effect of the sit down strategy was two fold. On a practical level it precluded the use of replacement workers. On a philosophical level, it sent a message that the workers at the Flint plant were at least co-owners of the means of production. It was this message that sent shock waves through the corporate board rooms of depression era America.

GM immediately got a court order demanding their evacuation. It went unheeded. GM then turned off the heat in the buildings. This too was ignored. By January 11, the police had been ordered to cut off the strikers’ food supply. This maneuver resulted in rioting, during which 16 workers and 11 policemen were injured. The skirmish came to be known as the “Battle of the Running Bulls,” and by the time it ended, the UAW had taken over the adjacent Fisher Two plant. The strike continued to spread, and on February 1, the UAW took control of the Chevrolet No. 4 engine factory. GM’s output was plummeting. A mere 125 cars would roll off the assembly line in February, as opposed to the 50,000 which had been produced in December. GM was beginning to feel the economic pinch nearly as smartly as the strikers.

Uncharacteristically for its time, Frank Murphy, the governor of Michigan refused to authorize the National Guard to break the strike.  Much to GM’s dismay he commented: “If I send those soldiers right in on the men, there’d be no telling how many would be killed… the state authorities will not take sides. They are here only to protect the public peace.”

With President Roosevelt standing squarely and publicly on the side of labor, it would put to the test the National Labor Relations Act, which he had signed into law barely a year earlier. The act states:  “Experience has proved that protection by law of the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively safeguards commerce from injury, impairment, or interruption, and promotes the flow of commerce by removing certain recognized sources of industrial strife and unrest, by encouraging practices fundamental to the friendly adjustment of industrial disputes arising out of differences as to wages, hours, or other working conditions, and by restoring equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.”

GM capitulated and agreed to recognize the union, and signed an agreement with the UAW. Workers received a 5 percent raise, but more importantly, they had, as a condition of their

December 25, 2015

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