Monday, December 31, 2007

Flint Sit Down Strike, Part II

The importance of the new governor, Frank Murphy, would become evident when GM chose to change tactics. Murphy, the former mayor of Detroit, took office on January 1, 1937. Because the situation in Flint remained peaceful, Murphy resisted pleas from Flint officials (particularly the mayor and police chief) and GM officials to mobilize the Michigan National Guard to remove the strikers from the plant. The situation remained peaceful for nearly two weeks--GM allowed the union to supply the strikers with hot food, the building remained heated, and the company security force made no move to attempt to interfere with the strike. The situation was relaxed enough that a number of strikers inside began to slip away to visit their families and sleep in their own beds, rather than on the car seats that served that purpose inside the factory.

This situation changed dramatically on January 11, 1937. Plant security turned off the heat, and prevented the delivery of a hot meal. By early afternoon, the Flint police force had massed in front of Fisher Body plant #3 (which supplied bodies for the Chevrolet factory across Chevrolet Avenue). The police began firing tear gas into the factory in preparation for their entry.

At this point, the Women's Auxilary Brigade (WEB) sprang into action. The WEB had provided support for the strike since the beginning, cooking meals and staffing a first-aid station; the group had also been enthusiastic picketers.
When the police began their attack, the women used the wooden handles of the picket signs to break the ground-floor windows of the factory to ventilate the building--which also allowed the men to throw the gas cannisters back out of the building. With the assistance of a fortuitous change in wind direction, the use of freezing water from the fire hoses and the prodigious use of door hinges from the roof of the factory, the Flint police withdrew from the "Battle of the Running Bulls" after a six-hour battle.

This changed the dynamic of the strike. Word of the battle was quickly relayed to Gov. Murphy, who was driven to Flint witha state police escort.

To be continued

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Flint Sit-Down Strike

Today is the 71st anniversary of the Flint Sit-Down Strike, begun December 30, 1936. This strike flung open the door that had first been cracked by workers at the Chevrolet Transmission Plant in Toledo, Ohio in 1935. Although AFL Local Union 18385 was successful in gaining recognition and a contract with General Motors, during the Thanksgiving vacation GM moved half of the machinery in the factory to another location, costing many new union members their jobs.

It became obvious to workers outside of Flint and Detroit that without a strong union presence in those two locations, their attempts to form a viable union would have little effect. During much of 1936, Wyndham Mortimer of Cleveland (another early UAW stronghold), Roy Reuther, and a variety of volunteers began quietly organizing workers in GM's hometown of Flint, Michigan. After a falling out with newly-elected UAW president Homer Martin, Mortimer was replaced by UAW Local 14 (former LU 18385, now a part of the Committee of Industrial Organizations) Robert Travis, who continued the organizing plan. A sit down strike by the UAW local in Cleveland propelled events in Flint along more quickly than planned; after GM employees were paid a Christmas bonus, Travis, with a small trusted coterie of workers employed at the huge Fisher Body No. 1 plant on S. Saginaw Street, planned to close down and occupy the factory.

On December 30, Kermit Johnson, after receiving the secret signal, made his way to the power switch that controlled the assembly line, threw it, and shut off power to the line. Silence briefly reigned on the shop floor, which was quickly overtaken by whooping and yelling as workers realized that they had seized control of the shop floor. Foremen were quickly overpowered and "escorted" from the premises. After briefly barricading office workers, the union allowed them to leave, as were workers who did not want to actively participate in the strike. Women employed in the plant were made to leave, even if they wanted to remain, in order to squelch any rumors of licentious behavior on the part of workers. Strike captains the remaining workers to squads and set up patrols, stockpiled door hinges to use as weapons, and readying fire hoses in case the factory was invaded by plant security and/or Flint police.

GM officials decided to initially downplay the situation; while refusing to negotiate with the union while the Fisher plant was occupied, the company did not attempt to invade the plant, either. Workers then settled in for a quiet New Year's Eve--and the inauguration of a new governor.

To be continued ...

Friday, December 21, 2007

More Solstice Stuff

Since I like to pretend to be a historian, let's look at the history of Christmas, to compliment yesterday's post. One of the treasured traditions of early Christmas celebrations was wassailing, when the peasants came to the lords' houses to seranade them, and then were "invited" in to partake of the lord's wine cellar (and usually whatever the lord had laying around the castle, as well). In return, the peasants were obsequious for most of the rest of the year. This kind of disorder was distasteful for our Puritan forefathers, but since they didn't control the political structure until establishing the "Citty on the Hill" in "New England", there was little they could do about it. Among the early laws drawn up in Plymouth, however, was the outlawing of public celebrations of Christmas (a law that remained on the books in Massachusetts until late in the 19th century). This new abscence of observation eventually won converts in England, as well, which provides a part of the backstory for Dicken's A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge threatens to make Bob Cratchit work for part of Christmas day.

I couldn't find a good video of wassailing (maybe I could wait until someone posts on office party? ...mmm), so this video will have to suffice, since it has "Here We Come a Wassailing" with footage of Stonehedge.

Now it is time, however, to recall what Christmas is really all about--"an official Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and 'this thing' which tells time"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Battle for Christmas

Since Winter Solstice is just around the corner, we should probably turn our attention to the holiday that usurped this grand celebration of the return of the sun, Christmas. Churches are now distributing signs for parishioners to put in their yards, urging their neighbors to "Keep Christ in CHRISTmas." This is certainly a noble sentiment; and indeed it would a better world if everyone kept the teachings of Jesus in mind year-round, as the clergy like to remind their audiences this time of year, as well. But I argue that is perhaps it is just as important to remember that there is only a 1 in 365 chance (or 366, if Jesus were born in a leap year) that December 25 really is his birthday.
Maybe that would assist in the effort to keep Jesus in our hearts all year long. In the meantime, let's just enjoy this little ditty from folkie Pat Godwin: