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This Day in Resistance History: 75th Anniversary of the 1937 Flint Sit-down Strike

January 5, 2012

It was 75 years ago that the autoworkers in Flint Michigan engaged in a sit-down strike and factory occupation to win their demands. This action not only made the UAW a force to be reckoned with, it gave inspiration to other workers to engage in similar actions.

On December 30, 1936, workers at Fisher Body No. 1 in Flint discovered that the company was stockpiling dies (to outlast an expected strike) and occupied the plant. For several weeks, they governed themselves in their own committees that were a model of democracy unknown in the official union structure. When cops tried to stop supporters from bringing food into the plant, a fight of several hours resulted in the strikers chasing them off.

 

According to Labor historian Sharon Smith, “The first injunction against the strikers was issued on January 2 by Judge Edward Black. But that injunction was never enforced because strikers disclosed that Black owned $219,000 worth of GM shares.”

On January 11, 1937, the liberal New Deal Governor Murphy ordered the National Guard into Flint. Thousands of industrial unionists poured into Flint to protect the sit-downers by preventing the “friend of labor” politician from using the Guard.

The police attempted to enter the plant on January 11, 1937. The strikers inside the plant turned the fire hoses on the police while pelting them with car parts and other miscellany as members of the women’s auxiliary broke windows in the plant to give strikers some relief from the tear gas the police were using against them. The police made several charges, but withdrew after six hours.

The strike lasted 44 days and resulted in GM signing a contract with the workers. It was a tremendous victory, not only because workers won their demands, but it signaled to the rest of the country that workers had power by using the direct action tactic of the sit-down strike.

In Grand Rapids in 1937, there were two strikes that resulted in worker victories. The first strike lasted only four days at the Attwood Brass Works and in June of that year a 5-week strike brought the Royal Furniture Company to the bargaining table.

However, many of the larger unions and business unions were threatened by the tactic of the sit-down strike and began discouraging their union members for using such a tactic. Sit-down strikes give workers autonomy and builds workplace democracy, which too often business unions don’t want.

With growing concerns from business leaders over the power of striking workers, legislation was introduced and eventually passed in 1947, known as the Taft-Hartley Act. This legislation essentially made it illegal for workers to engage in a sit-down strike and took away their most powerful weapon.

In recent years there has been a resurgence of the use of sit-down strikes and factory occupations. Shortly after the economic crash in Argentina in 2001, thousands of workers began occupying factories and turning them into worker-run entities. These efforts are beautifully documented in the film The Take.

In December of 2008, workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago also occupied their workplace after Bank of America would not give the company any new loans and the company refused to give workers any severance pay. Those workers won back pay and inspired millions around the world.

Here is a video in 2 parts, which looks at the 1937 Flint strike with interviews of some who participated in that historic strike.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Y.B. Ordinary permalink
    January 5, 2012 9:46 pm

    Thanks for memorializing this day, Jeff. Whenever I urge people to activism, I mention what was accomplished in Flint in the cold winter of 1937.
    How ironic that NPR had a story on this very morning, saying how the very next item on the Michigan Republican Legislature’s agenda is turning Michigan into a Right To Work state. The quoted Republican operative called it “labor freedom”. Sounds as if he’s been talking with Frank Luntz.

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