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At First, These Images Look Like A Bunch Of Lazy Workers. But Then, You See They’re Actually Heroes.

There are some turning points in history where things just kinda ... happen, and the game is now changed. This is one of them.

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AFL Labor Mini Series

The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936


The UAW was formed in 1935, around the same time the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) was made into law. It was Washington’s way of getting some labor peace after decades of struggle that at times got violent.

The UAW had organized strikes in various small plants, but after the NLRA was enacted. the union made a conscious decision to go after a huge target — the biggest and most powerful, in fact. General Motors was the choice.

On the Job

The issues that affected auto workers, especially at the plant the UAW chose, were:

—Deadly working conditions. On-the-job injuries ended up with the workers cast aside like scrap metal with no compensation. There wasn't even a medical station in the plant. As one of the people who worked there said later, "There wasn’t a man coming out of that mill without having a couple fingers cut off."

—Frenetic assembly line speeds. Sometimes they were so fast that workers passed out. And nothing — not even a death or injury — would stop the lines.

—No vacation time, no overtime pay, no sick days, and no workers' compensation. And you could be fired for no reason at all, or laid off for months without pay because they were changing models.

—No breaks. In the summer of 1936, which had a heat wave of sorts, this was especially a problem; hundreds died on the line at various plants.

This strike was not about money. It was about humane treatment on the job and recognition of the union.

Target Locked: Fisher Body Plant #2

The union identified two targets: a plant in Flint, Michigan, that produced dies from which car parts were stamped, and a similar plant in Cleveland. If they could control the means of production, the rest would fall into place.

One of the biggest of GM's plants was the production complex in Flint. The town was pretty much owned by GM. In fact, when one of the organizers checked into his hotel room, a phone call came for him within minutes; the anonymous caller told him to get out of town or be carried out in a wooden box. The wheels were in motion for the UAW to strike the GM Fisher Body Plant #2 in Flint.

It Begins

Events changed that plan, or rather accelerated it, when two brothers were fired at the Cleveland Fisher Body plant, which happened to be the second UAW target, and the workers there spontaneously walked out in support. The UAW saw an opportunity and declared it wouldn’t settle things in Cleveland without getting a national contract covering all of GM’s plants.

Meanwhile, GM was planning to move machinery out of the Flint plant in anticipation of what was to come. The workers acted swiftly and decisively. In a historic move, on Dec. 30, 1936, the workers simply stopped working and sat down. So began the sit-down strikes that would define the UAW for generations to come. Up until that point, strikes were usually done outside facilities; this was a relatively new tactic, and it worked because it kept management and strikebreakers from entering the plant.


Government of the People, by the People

The workers even had their own system of governance, including a mayor, and departments such as Postal Service, Sanitation, Organized Recreation, and Information. This was highly organized.

As GM used every tactic it could to force the strikers out of the plant, including cutting electricity, heat, and food, support for the strikers grew in the community. Outside vendors provided food. A local restaurant even served up meals for all 2,000 strikers ... per day.

Quick, Send in the Cops. Don't Bother, They're Here...

As in many strikes at the time, GM arranged for the police to try to get them out of the plant. Strikers met them with firehoses and car parts, keeping the cops at bay for six hours. Even tear gas was used, and in response, the women’s auxiliary broke windows to let the gas out and fresh air in.

It got to a point where Washington was summoned to break the strike. Franklin D. Roosevelt refused, though his vice president, John Nance Garner, was in favor.

After pressuring local and district judges, GM received a court injunction against the strikers. The UAW ignored that and instead occupied another local plant to force GM’s hand.

As negotiations began between the UAW and GM, the Michigan National Guard was called in, but not to evict the strikers — it was called in to protect them from the police, the corporate strikebreakers, and the plant guards.


The strike lasted 44 days, and it showed that workers' power could be used to bring a giant to its knees. A contract was signed. The UAW’s reputation was sealed. In the next year, membership grew from 30,000 to 500,000.

Here's a recap of some of these events by the nephew of one of those who were there — Michael Moore. He captured it in the movie, "Capitalism: A Love Story."

And never mind the sad music in this clip — this was a victory for working people all over the world!

Photo: Jason DeCrow for United Nations Foundation

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