Latest Solidarity Issue

Remembering iconic Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937

By Lorene Parshall, Staff Writer
Gaylord (Mich.) Herald Times

(Used with permission of the Gaylord Herald Times)


GAYLORD, Mich. — This year marks the 75th anniversary of the signing of the United Auto Workers (UAW) contract. The contract was the result of the 1936-1937 Flint Sit-Down Strike where workers took possession of auto plants, starting with the Fisher Body Plant No. 1, and refused to leave.

Historians have credited the strike with changing conditions and wages for working people across the nation. The British Broadcasting Corporation declared it “the strike that was heard round the world” and sent journalists to document it.

The UAW Retirees Council in Gaylord is celebrating the anniversary by holding a joint public event with the Otsego County Library at 3 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11. The event will include the showing of a documentary “Yesterday’s Witness” and refreshments.

Earl Henry is the chairman of the UAW Retirees Council in Gaylord, representing five counties and 4,000 retirees and associates. Henry’s wife’s uncle was a “sit-downer,” as the strikers who remained in the plants were called. His wife’s father was one of the support strikers who left the plants to deliver supplies to the sit-downers and help care for their families.

“The conditions for workers were terrible before the strike,” Henry said. “There were no safety requirements, no medical help on-site. Lots of workers lost fingers and hands and some were killed. There was no compensation for the injuries or for the family if they got killed. Workers would fall and break a leg and sometimes the bosses would set them aside and make them wait before they loaded them up to get help.”

According to “Witness and Warriors,” a book about the strike that the UAW is donating to the library, temperatures ran more than 100 degrees for a week during one July. The bosses at a number of plants refused to slow down or stop the production line. Hundreds of workers died in four days.

“Production could never slow down,” Henry said. “You were allowed a half hour for lunch, if they let you take it. There were no breaks in an eight- or 10-hour day and half a day on Saturday. If you wanted to get a drink of water or go to the bathroom, there were no relief people to cover for you. A lot of the workers would soil or wet themselves.”

The workers suffered from unfair piecework pay, layoffs and arbitrary firing, according to Henry. The worst was the ceaseless pressure to speed up the production line that left the workers exhausted and ill.

“There was no overtime pay, sick pay, vacation pay or workman’s comp,” he said. “If machines broke down the workers sat for hours without pay until it was fixed. The plants would close for two or three months every year to change models and workers would be laid off. There was no unemployment or any other type of benefits.”

According to “Yesterday’s Witness,” General Motors (GM) controlled city politics in those days. It used radio and newspaper articles to label the strikers as communists and used Pinkerton agents, company thugs and city police to break the strike. As the strike spread to the Fisher Body Plant No. 2, police used tear gas, buckshot and rifles, wounding a number of unarmed workers.

At one point, the authorities locked the strikers into Fisher Plant No. 2 and cut off the electricity, heat and food delivery.

“First they tried getting a state court injunction ordering the strikers to leave the plants,” Henry said. “It turned out the judge owned $200,000 in GM stock, so he was disqualified. GM asked the governor (Frank Murphy) to send the National Guard to break up the strike. The governor was a fair, decent man so he told them to not cut off the heat and electricity and food, and he sent the guard in to protect the strikers.

GM also asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to send federal troops to break up the strike. The president refused. After 44 days of the strike, GM finally agreed to sit down and negotiate with the UAW.

Henry is proud of the accomplishments of the UAW and the sit-down strikers, but he has a message for today’s middle and working class.

“If people don’t wake up when they go to the polls to vote, everything we’ve fought for over the last 75 years could be lost,” he said.

Anyone interested in viewing more photos or reading numerous newspaper and historical accounts of the strike may visit the Wayne State University historical archives at www.reuther.wayne.edu.

Comments from Flint Sit-Down Strikers and their families

The local United Auto Workers Retiree Council is putting on an event with the Otsego County Library honoring the 1936-1937 Flint Sit-Down Strike.

It is being coordinated by adult services librarian Jackie Skinner, whose grandfather was one of the strikers.

“My grandfather would say that before the strike, if you complained about anything, you’d get fired,” Skinner said.

Sandra Turnbull, a clerk at the library, had a great-grandfather who was involved in the strike.

“He said they really needed a union,” Turnbull recalled. “They couldn’t take breaks for the bathroom, but if they let you, the boss would come in with you to make sure you really did it.”

The UAW has donated a book entitled “Witnesses and Warriors” to the library. It provides a short history of the Flint Sit-Down Strikes and testimony from the strikers and their family members about conditions before strike. Below are brief excerpts of some of their comments.

  •  “My father would come home from work … sit down on the front porch and fall asleep … my mother would take his shoes and socks off and his feet would be bloody.”
  • “Every once in a while you’d hear somebody scream where they was pouring steel … people would get burned … there was nobody to take care of it.”
  • “If you tell ‘em you were sick, they’d say die and prove it.”
  • “There wasn’t a man coming out of that mill without having a couple fingers cut off … no guards or nothing on those saws.”
  • “They just threatened you right and left ... if you didn’t bring in potatoes and eggs for the foreman (like some of the farmers did) … you just wouldn’t work.”
  • “The boss could tell you to come out and paint his barn on Saturday ... if you didn’t do it you lost your job.”
  • “Somebody would work really hard and the guy (boss) had a nephew needed a job ... you were out and the nephew was in.”
  • “It was all women in the sewing room ... we had blisters on our hands when we first started ... you had to stand up all the time you was sewing.”
  • “At the Fisher Body (Plant) it was all piecework ... if you made your money one year, they’d cut you the next ... you just couldn’t keep up.
  • "They called us communists ... I didn’t know anybody who was a communist ... we were just fighting for our rights.”
  • “Actually we didn’t strike for money ... we struck for humane treatment and recognition of the union.”

 

 

 

 

<p>Children carry picket signs in support of the strikers on Women's Day during the Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1937. (Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)</p>

Children carry picket signs in support of the strikers on Women's Day during the Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1937. (Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)