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 ...

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