The historic 1936-37 Flint auto plant strikes
The most important strike in American labor history, historians agree, began at the end of 1936. The feisty young United Auto Workers launched the first of a series of sit-down strikes against General Motors at Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint.
The feisty young United Auto Workers launched the first of a series of sit-down strikes against General Motors at Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint. The goals were to earn recognition for the UAW as the bargaining agent for GM workers, and to make the company stop shipping work to plants with nonunion workers. The strike lasted 44 days and became the first of many union victories.
The UAW was formed in 1935 by union activists dissatisfied that the auto union under the AFL had not been allowed to name its own leaders. Homer Martin was elected president, and Walter and Victor Reuther and George Addes were officers. The Reuther brothers, originally from Wheeling, W. Va., had come to Detroit in 1927 to find work in the auto industry and soon became active in the union movement.
On Nov. 18, 1936, the UAW struck a Fisher Body plant in Altanta. On Dec. 16, they hit two GM plants in Kansas City, and on Dec. 28, a Fisher stamping plant in Cleveland. Two days later they struck Fisher Body No. 1 in Flint. Within two weeks, approximately 135,000 men from plants in 35 cities in 14 states were striking General Motors.
As the nation was emerging from the Great Depression, the striking workers enjoyed the sympathy of most of the people, including Michigan governor Frank Murphy and popular New Deal President Franklin Delano Roosvelt. Roosevelt had promised in his inaugural speech to drive out the "economic royalists," a pointed reference to the General Motors officials.
Those against the upstart union included Al Sloan, the GM president, and his comrade, the opinionated Henry Ford, who felt more sympathy for his competitor than for workers. Ford, however, refused to shut down his plants in sympathy for GM. Of course, the stockholders sided with their profit maker. And one Gallup poll revealed that 53 percent of those polled sided with the company.
But GM vice-president William S. Knudsen, despite being on the management side, felt that collective bargaining's time had come.
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