How sit-in strikes built the unions in USA

Submitted by martin on 7 April, 2009 - 11:20 Author: Walter Linder

Throughout the twentieth century there were periods of class struggle that saw workers occupy factories and workplaces: in the 1920s in Italy; in the 1930s in France, the USA and elsewhere; in France in May 1968. And in Britain in 1973-75 there were over 100 occupations over job cuts.

The following account by Walter Linder tells the story of how the tactic — called a “sit-down strike” in the US — was used at General Motors car plants at Flint, Michigan, in 1936-37.

This 44 day strike was the key struggle which shaped the mass trade union movement in the USA. The Congress of Industrial Organisation (CIO) was set up on the back of a fight to organise the unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the mass production industries of the USA during the Depression of the 1930s; the CIO’s organising strategy (though it was not always very militant) was to set up “industrial unions”, unions which organised all workers in particular industries instead of being narrowly confined to workers with particular skills.

This account of the Flint sit-down strike shows exactly how powerful the “occupation” tactic can be; it needs to be remembered, discussed and modified to fit the circumstances of today.


Walter Linder was a member of Progressive Labor Party in the USA, a Maoist organisation. Despite the author’s politics this article is a very good factual account. It is substantially abridged here (taking out a lot of the commentary about the Communist Party who were involved in the strike) and the full article can be found at http://www.plp.org/pamphlets/flintstrike.html.

Another account, by a Trotskyist, Genora Johnson, can be found online here.

The tactic of seizing possession of, and holding, great plants was not entirely unknown to the workers of the United States, but nothing like its mushrooming during the struggles of the mid-Thirties had ever been seen before.

In the sit-down strike the workers found a weapon with which they could conquer the powerful resistance to unionisation they met in the drive to organise rubber, auto, steel, electrical and other basic industries. One by one giant manufacturing corporations like General Motors, United States Steel, General Electric and Goodyear were compelled to recognise and deal with the union. In some cases the resistance of the giants collapsed at scarcely more than the threat of a sit-down because they had seen its power.

Industrial unionism was born in the sit-down strikes… and was the impetus to bring more than five millions into the emerging Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO).

early sit-down strikes

One of the first sit-down strikes in the US occurred in 1906 at General Electric’s Schenectady, New York plant. And in 1910, women garment workers in New York sat down in shop to prevent their bosses from farming-out work to contractors not on strike. But the 1936 Akron (Ohio) rubber workers’ sit-down strike was an example that spread to other basic industries in the US.

US workers found the sit-down to have many advantages over the traditional forms of strike. It is harder for the company to oust men from inside a plant than break through an encircling picket line. Bosses are more reluctant to resort to strike-breaking violence, because it directly endangers millions of dollars of company property, vast assembly lines and unfinished products.

The use of machine guns, tear gas and gangsters is much less effective. [GM used the Black Legion, a terror group financed by major stockholders Du Pont; it tarred and feathered and murdered active unionists].

It is harder to label strikers aggressors while they are inside.

In a sit-down the workers’ morale is heightened. They are inside and therefore know that scabs are not operating the machines; they are really protecting their jobs and this leads to a higher degree of solidarity and militancy.

The workers are never scattered, but are always on call at a moment’s notice in case of trouble.

The basic democratic character of the sit-down is guaranteed by the fact that the workers on the line, rather than outside officials, determine its course.

Defence against labour spies is perfected because a sit-down can be started by one or two rank-and-file leaders over an issue that affects the entire plant [GM spent $839,000 on detective work in 1934 alone].

gm: the background

GM ran Flint like a feudal barony. 80% of the town’s population of 150,000 were directly dependent on GM for livelihood, 20% indirectly. 45,000 men and women toiled in the GM Flint plants. All city officials — the mayor, city manager, police chief and the judges — were GM stockholders or officials or both. The only local newspaper, The Flint Journal, was 100% GM, all the time.

Total domination of the workers and the community in which they lived was part of the system by which GM was able to net an average annual profit of $173 millions from 1927 to 1937 during the depths of the Great Depression.

GM in 1936, employing 55% of all US auto workers in 69 plants, was bigger than Ford and Chrysler combined. 350 of its officers and directors were paid ten million dollars in salaries that year.

The condition of the auto workers was in stark contrast to that of their bosses. In 1935, a year in which the government declared $1600 as the minimum income on which a family of four could live decently, the average auto worker took home $900.

A foreman could fire at will. Layoffs between the old and new model year lasted from three to five months, without unemployment insurance.

But it was the speed up that made life intolerable. One witness reported: “The men worked like fiends, their jaws set and eyes on fire. Nothing in the world exists for them except the line chassis bearing down on them relentlessly. They come along on a conveyor and as each passes, the worker has to finish his particular job before the next one bears down on him. The line moves fast and the chassis are close together.”

Young workers, unused to the unbearable pace, couldn’t eat until they threw up their previous meals when they got home.

growth of the uaw

Prior to 1930 there had been little organising in the auto industry. However, in 1933, the Trade Union Unity League, a left-led organising group, created the Auto Workers’ Union along industrial lines (organising all the workers in the industry). It conducted strikes which eventually involved tens of thousands and which were met with ferocious brutality. The TUUL-type militancy earned the hatred of the corporations and also of the staid, sell-out business unionism of the American Federation of Labour [which opposed industrial unionism].

In June 1936 Wyndham Mortimer — a member of the Communist Party — was selected by the UAW to be its organiser in the heart of GM territory. When he arrived in the city there were barely 100 union members, and the majority of them company spies. All the others, 20,000 of them, had quit in response to the sell-out policies of the AFL leadership.

Mortimer organised a completely independent group, visiting workers from door to door, signing them up. He published a newsletter which went out to 7,000 workers each week. He also organised a secret union group in one department at GM’s Fisher Body plant.

The union gained strength. Seven stoppages, provoked by speed-up and wage cuts, occurred at Fisher Body No. 1 in November 1936. On 12 November a sit-down strike began in the same factory over the sacking of two men who refused to do the extra work.

The story of the workers’ success spread through Flint like wildfire. Workers began signing up to the union by the hundreds.

The Fisher Body plants (nos. 1 and 2) were where chassis were made, without which there could be no automobile. It was at the heart of the GM empire.

On 17 December the union requested national collective bargaining to GM. Management said it would bargain only on a plant-to-plant basis. A national strike began when Fisher Body in Cleveland came out on 28 December.

On 30 December when Flint workers at Fisher Body No. 1 found GM was attempting to move production away from the plant, a sit-down strike was called for. Henry Kraus, a UAW editor described the scene: “The men stood still facing the door. It was like trying to chain a natural force… Suddenly they broke through the door and made a race for the plan gates, running in every direction towards the quarter-mile long buildings.”

The workers inside immediately began to secure the plant against any attack. They moved scores of unfinished Buick bodies in front of all entrances to form a gigantic barricade. With acetylene torches they welded a steel frame around every door. Paint guns for spraying would-be invaders were located throughout the plant.

With a simultaneous sit-down in the smaller Fisher No. 2 GM body production ground to a halt. The press and the company raved and ranted about a “Soviet-style tyranny” being imposed on the country.

internal organisation

Once inside the workers set about organising one of the most effective strike apparatuses ever seen in the United States. At a mass meeting they elected a committee of stewards and a strike strategy committee of five to govern the strike. Other committee were organised: food, police, information, sanitation and health… Two meetings of the entire plant (of 1200) were held daily.

The strike committee posted rules on all bulletin boards: smoking only in restricted areas, liquor and gambling banned, information to the outside given only through the regular committee and no phone calls by individuals.

The police committee was responsible for guarding every entrance to the plant. Within this committee of 65 the most trusted workers constituted the Special Patrol. They would check out all rumours and report any violations of rules for discipline. No one could enter for leave the plan unless checked out by the “reception committee”. Such care was necessary since the company was always attempting to spread rumours of scandals inside.

Every worker inside was on duty for three hours, off for nine, on three and off nine in each 24 hour period. Every day at 3pm there was a general clean up.

They strikers divided themselves into social groups of 15, setting up “house” in some cosy corner and living family-style for the “duration”.

Daily visits were arranged whereby workers’ children could be handed through a window while workers talked to their wives as they stood outside.

The monotony and boredom was probably the most difficult problem to overcome. Calisthenics were organised daily. A 12 piece orchestra was organised from among the strikers and concerts were broadcast every evening. The strikers took to writing poems and songs, the best of which were published in the union paper.

Labor classes were held daily in the history of the labour movement. Charlie Chaplin donated his movie Modern Times and film showings were held.

The Women’s auxiliary — which was to play a key role in the strike — organised dancing, representing all national groups, in front of the plant.

The organisation outside the plant was no less efficient and vital to the existence of the workers inside. Union headquarters at Pengelly Hall was the hub. A nursery was set up to take care of the children while their mothers were working for the strike.

Committees were established for food preparation, publicity, welfare and relief, pickets and defence and union growth. Two hundred people, mostly women, prepared the food. A “chisling” committee was set up to collect food and supplies. Two-thirds of what was needed was obtained in this fashion, the committee going house to house and to small shopkeepers.

Picketing took place around the clock in front of the plant.

Support poured in from all over the country. Despite the attempt of the national AFL to sabotage the strike, its city central bodies in Flint, Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis backed the sit-downers with all sorts of aid.

As production decreased daily, GM turned to their courts for an injunction with which to oust the strikers. Although there was little law relevant to the strike tactic GM got its injunction. As a nervous sheriff stood on a table in the Fisher No.1 cafeteria reading the writ, workers laughed and kidded him and broke out into “Solidarity Forever” when he had finished. The workers refused to budge.

One of the union attorney then dug up information that proved to be a bombshell: the judge who granted the injunction owned 3,665 shares of GM stocks, worth $219,000 dollars — a clear conflict of interest. GM was forced to forget the injunction.

There appeared on the scene an organisation called the Flint Alliance, claiming to be “loyal” GM workers who had been laid off in other plants because of the Fisher Body strike and who were demanding an end to “minority rule”. In reality the Alliance was set up both as a strike-breaking group and to mobilise vigilante action against the sit-downers. It was composed principally of GM supervisors, of which there were hundreds, and businessmen.

Despite harassment, those workers who were not on strike and not in the union let it be known, by their presence at demonstrations and picket lines, that their sympathies were with the sit-downers.

the battle of bulls run

On the afternoon of 11 January 1937, as workers were handing food in through the main gate of Fisher Body No. 2, company guards suddenly appeared and overpowered them, closing the gate of the smaller plant. The company then turned off the heat.

Word was sent to union HQ and hundreds of workers raced to the scene and rushed the guards. The guards phoned the police and rushed to the “ladies’ room” claiming they were kidnapped. The whole scene was a prearranged provocation.

The cops arrived in tens minutes, loaded with revolvers, gas guns, grenades and supplies of tear and nauseating gas. They blockaded the streets, removed parked cars and then attacked the pickets now guarding the plant. Women pickets raced to the plant.

Inside the plant the sit-downers dragged fire hoses to the windows and began directing streams of water at the advancing cops. The cops retreated.

The cops regrouped and made a second rush but were met with a volley of bottles, hinges and lumps of coal.

Then the cops opened fire. Fourteen were wounded, one, a leader of the bus drivers’ union critically. But the cops retreated up a hill.

As the cops stayed on top of the hill, men and women began to organise an all-night vigil. The Governor arrived in Flint and said he was holding the National Guard “in readiness”. But GM’s strategy — to get martial law declared, to starve out the workers and eventually evict them — had failed.

The next day 8,000 workers from nearly by cities and towns rallied in front of Fisher No. 2 to celebrate victory. Fisher No. 1 shored up its defences against the mobilisation of 1500 National Guardsmen, e.g. the huge crane whistle was set to blow at the first sign of attack.

1200 “John Doe” warrants were made out to be served on the strikers, charging them with “criminal syndicalism, felonious assault, riot, destruction of property and kidnapping”.

One of the results of the victory of Bull Runs was the new importance it gave to women in the strike. A Women’s Emergency Brigade was organised: composed of volunteers, organised on semi-military lines, these were women who could be rounded up for any emergency on a moment’s notice.

double cross and counter-attack

On 13 January Governor Frank Murphy called both sides into conference and two days later GM agreed to a truce. National bargaining with the UAW was to begin on the 18th on all issues. The sit-downers would evacuate the struck plants but the plants would remain closed.

But just before the workers were due to march out as a body the UAW found out that GM intended to negotiate with the Flint Alliance. The sit-downers decided to stay and GM walked out of negotiations.

GM then began an all-out drive to break the strike.

Vigilantes smashed UAW headquarters at Anderson, Indiana and ran the union organisers out of town. Five pickets were clubbed by cops on the line in front of the Cadillac plant in Detroit. The state legislature sponsored a bill to outlaw sit-down strikes…

Across Chevrolet Avenue from Fisher Body No 2 stood nine Chevrolet factories. Half of the 14,000 total worked in one factory — Chevy 4 — the motor assembly plant. It was the largest single unit of the GM empire.

Inside the plant the superintendant had armed guards patrolling day and night. The union was growing but activists were being fired.

The union called a Chevrolet members meeting on Sunday 31 January and 1500 responded. The union was to demand its sacked members were rehired. Then a sit-down strike was carefully organised among the most trusted union members — very few men knew that No. 4 plant was the actual target for the strike. The union’s organiser Bob Travis had passed onto to the company through its stool pigeons that No. 9 plant was the target.

On February 1 there was a mass meeting at the union hall. The workers were called to move to Chevy Nine to defend workers being beaten up. Meanwhile the entire armed force from the whole Chevrolet division had been stationed next to No. 9. At 3:20 the night shift marched in yelling “strike” and the guards closed the doors and rushed in. One woman reported:

“They were fighting inside and outside the plant. We had to break the windows… to get air to the boys who were being gassed inside.”

meanwhile No. 4 was virtually devoid of any pro-company force. The conveyors in No. 4 were switched off one by one. Soon the strikers at No. 4 were hundreds strong. “Everywhere at key conveyors, squads of union men were stationed. Others were set to guard gates and mount lookout. The company men fled.”

About two thousand workers remained in the plant and an equal number went off.

The women came down the hill, hundreds strong in bright red caps, singing “Hold the Fort for we are coming…” They spread out in front of the plant gates, amid cheers from the men inside and the watching crowd, and locked arms. If any cops or troops were to attempt to break into the plant, it was plain they would first have to go over these women’s bodies.

Joe Sayen, one of the union men addressed the crowd outside the factory:

“We want the whole world to understand what we are fighting for. We are fighting for freedom and life and liberty. This is our one great opportunity. What if we should be defeated? What if we should be killed? We have only one life. That’s all we can lose and we might as well die like heroes than like slaves.”

The troops then took possession of all streets and approaches, isolating both the Chevy plant and Fisher Body No. 2 across the street. Virtual martial law was declared. Guards with fixed bayonets surrounded No. 4. Eight machine guns and 37 mm howitzers were mounted on the hill overlooking both plants. The National Guard was upped to 2,300 and finally to 4,000. But the strikers remained firm.

With hundreds of millions of dollars worth of machinery at stake, on 4 February GM agreed to resume negotiations while the workers stayed in the plants.

By 8 February there existed an armed force of 4,000 National Guardsmen, 1,000 deputized vigilantes, the Flint cops and the Flint. Alliance, all “ready to move.”

The workers prepared to defend themselves. In Fisher Body No 1 a majority of the strikers signed up in a “fight-to-the-death committee”. Their plan was to battle any attacker on a floor-to-floor basis, right up to the roof.

Outside, the preparations were no less militant. Locals from around Michigan sent delegations to Flint to take part in the defence.

The women’s organisation, supplemented by women from around Michigan, decided to demonstrate in Flint on 9 February. The women marched to Fisher No. 1, merging with the thousands already there and encircled the entire length and breadth of the plant, six abreast.

victory

Tens of thousands of workers in Flint were surrounding the plants and refusing to surrender. The heat and light at Chevy 4 were turned off. Nearly 5,000 sit-downers were prepared to “fight to the death”. On 11 February, the 44th day of the sit-down, General Motors gave up.

It signed a contract with the UAW, recognising the union as sole bargaining agent in the 20 struck plants, and for all its members in the other plants, and agreed not to deal with any other group for at least six months. All union members were to be rehired and would suffer no discrimination because of union activity.

After a long discussion the deal was accepted.

As the workers came out at Chevrolet No. 4, wives and children rushed to husbands and fathers who had not been seen for ten fear-filled days. Strong, heavily-bearded men were unashamed of tears. Then someone began to sing “Solidarity”:

“Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! Solidarity forever! For the union makes us strong!”

The victory sparked a wave of strikes and sit-downs across the country. In Detroit alone, in the next two weeks 87 sit-downs were begun. Four days after the workers had marched out of GM’s plants UAW membership reached 200,000. Another 100,000 were signed up in the next few months.

Briggs and Murray, two body manufacturers, gave wage hikes on the 15th; a second Briggs plant in Flint won time and one-half for overtime and a wage increase after a 7-hour sit-down on the 17th; 3,000 women in various factories sat down in Detroit on the 18th; 2,000 more joined them the next day. By the 22nd there were 75,000 auto workers in the UAW in Detroit alone, and $75 million had been added to auto workers’ wages in that model year. On the 23rd ten strikes were won in a single day and Chrysler offered increases in all departments, while agreeing to negotiate a contract with the UAW for its 75,000 workers.

On the 24th, less than two weeks after the Flint sit-down had ended, United Press estimated that a minimum of 30,000 workers were sitting in across the country. Seventeen strikes were in progress in Detroit and 9,000 New England shoe workers had just walked out. The next day 14 new sit-downs began in Detroit.

On 2 March, United States Steel — the largest steel company in the world and the other giant bastion of the open shop alongside GM — signed a contract with the CIO’s Steel Workers Organizing Committee — without a strike! After long and bloody battles dating back to the 19th century, a union had come to steel.

By 3 March, 47 sit-down strikes had been won in Detroit, and young women working in Woolworth’s had smuggled cots into the stores to attempt to bring down that million-dollar corporation.

The Flint strike was an attack on one of the important sectors of Wall Street, a point well understood by many of its leaders. Mortimer had told the Fisher Body workers:

“This thing is deeper than most people realise. Behind GM is the Steel Institute. Behind the Steel Institute are the DuPonts. It is a fight between the American working class and the tap root of American capitalism.”

And behind GM was also the fascist Liberty League and Black Legion, spawned by some of the biggest corporate interests in the country. The auto monopoly represented a financial power that was interlocked with finance capital throughout the world. In organising GM, the auto workers were breaking through the enemy line at one of its strongest points, which is why the repercussions spread throughout the country.

rank and file

Almost by definition it is in the nature of a sit-down that the rank and file must run it. It cannot succeed otherwise. Solidarity and unity are the cornerstones of its success.

Through such participation of the mass, many things became possible: demonstrations; mass picketing barring entry and discouraging attack through active defence; 24-hour picket lines; agitation through bulletins, newspapers, sound trucks, and mass singing of labour songs to bolster morale; a democratically-run strike committee with direct and large rank-and-file representation and therefore control; relief committees; free food supply, etc.

It was this mass participation that enabled the workers to “take possession” of the plants and gain backing from the working-class population of a company town. This helped provide the strong outside support necessary to guarantee the existence of the sit-downers inside. Many times it was the overwhelming, all-pervasive character of the mass in motion that was largely responsible for the tremendous rapid growth of the union. Workers seeing the power of the organized group found it irresistible, especially as it accumulated victories over a heretofore-unbeatable enemy.

So predominant was this rank-and-file character that it moved in advance of the CIO leaders: “It is probably true that if… the CIO had been entirely free to pick (its) own time and place, the struggle in automobiles would have come somewhat later, might even have been postponed until after a victory had been won in steel or in rubber or in coal. The auto workers’ strike was primarily a rank and file movement.”

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