Lessons for Wisconsin From the Flint Sit-Down Strikes of 1936-37

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Mark Naison is a Professor of African-American Studies and History at Fordham University and Director of Fordham's Urban Studies Program. He is the author of three books and over 100 articles on African-American History, urban history, and the history of sports. His most recent book, White Boy: A Memoir, was published in the spring of 2002

With the state legislature in Wisconsin occupied and surrounded by thousands of state workers and their supporters, and with schools closed throughout the state because of teachers calling in sick, I cannot help but think of the greatest strike and building occupation in the history of the American labor movement—the Flint Sit-Down Strikes of 1936-37.  Though the Wisconsin struggle is being led by government workers, and the Flint strikes involved workers involved in automobile production, both movements took place during the worst economic crisis of their era and were fighting for the same goal— collective bargaining rights for working people through a union of their own choosing—and were much more about dignity and respect than about income.  

The Flint Strike, which involved the occupation of nine General Motors automobile plants over a six-week period, transformed the history of the industrial labor movement.  During December of 1936, when the first GM plant was seized and occupied, the entire automobile and steel industries in the United States were union free.  When the strike was finally settled, both General Motors and United States Steel agreed to bargain collectively with the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) unions seeking to organize their industries.

The Flint strike , though it was precipitated by local conditions—a fierce unrelenting speed up on the GM assembly line , the involvement of a Ku Klux Klan-like organization called the Black Legion in suppressing labor unrest in GM plants—was part of a national movement to win bargaining rights for industrial workers.  As a result, the Flint workers were supported by the national leadership of the CIO—led by the formidable John L Lewis—as well as their own national union, and numerous left-wing organizations including the Communist Party.  Though only GM workers actually occupied the factories, at key points in the strike, thousands of union workers were mobilized to come down from other cities to make sure that right-wing Citizens Committees were unable to storm the plants, and that food and medical supplies were delivered to the striking workers.  There were also doctors, nurses, lawyers, and journalists who came from all over the country to help the strikers.  By the second week of the sit-down strikes, it was clear to everyone involved that this had become a truly national movement.

The same dynamic must operate if the Wisconsin movement is to achieve its main goal—removal from the governor’s legislative program of any effort to weaken the bargaining rights of public workers in the state.  Unions around the nation who face similar initiatives (in Ohio, Tennessee and New Jersey) must send delegations to join the occupation and the protests and give whatever financial and legal support is necessary to teachers who are keeping the local schools closed.  National union leaders who have a high public profile, people like Richard Trumka and Randy Weingarten, must not only come to Madison to offer their support of the movement, they must head straight to the White House to demand that President Obama and Democratic congressional leaders come out aggressively in support of the Madison movement.  Student social justice organizations must send delegations to Madison to join the thousands of students at the state’s public universities who have been a central part of this movement from the beginning.

This movement has to be approached as the single most important labor struggle in the United States in the twenty-first century.  If the governor destroys collective bargaining for public workers in Wisconsin, you can be sure that similar initiatives will succeed in other states. If he is forced to take attacks on collective bargaining off the table by the strength of the protest, it will reinvigorate not only the entire labor movement in the United States, but the movement to prevent Congress and state legislatures from destroying what little of a safety net we have in the United States of America.

 The stakes could not be higher.  So if you are in a union or part of a progressive organization, press your leadership to send people to Wisconsin.  Insist your elected representatives pass resolutions in support of the Wisconsin movement.  And get ready to fight the same battle in your own state when the time comes.

Solidarity forever!

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John M Shaw - 2/24/2011

A friend emailed me and asked if U.S. history textbooks and curriculum had been "scrubbed clean" of labor union history. He was reacting to the well-funded and unrelenting right-wing conservative corporate Republican propaganda campaign that characterizes unions as un-American and the cause of all our economic and educational woes.

I replied that as a college U.S. history instructor, none of the good survey textbooks had been, "scrubbed," and most of us covered the landmark struggles of the Great Railway, Pullman and Homestead strikes/lockouts as well as the farmers/Populist movement and the urban Triangle Shirtwaist fire & Flint sitdown strike, etc, etc.

But my friend had a point, and I have a question: how can history teachers counteract anti-union propaganda? After all, the U.S. had the most violent labor history in the world. Many right-wingers extol the sacrifices made by American servicemen/women as the source of the "freedoms" we enjoy today. But, they overlook and never acknowledge the lives lost and sacrifices made by labor union members & families and how their efforts gave us the weekend, paid vacations & holidays, pensions, health & safety standards, and a decent "blue-collar" middle class standard of living (up until recently).

What should HNN be doing to correct this misperception, beyond playing our Matewan VHS/DVD?

Grant W Jones - 2/21/2011

"If the governor destroys collective bargaining for public workers in Wisconsin..."

If the taxpayers of Wisconsin are able to destroy the number one cause of state bankruptcy, then the Democrats will have lost an important power base. It's all about collecting "dues" from government employees to fund political payoffs.

Funny how government bureaucrats are "workers," but taxpayers are the hated rich. Newsflash Progressives, there's a depression and your Messiah has declared that all should sacrifice - except for key Democratic constituencies.

Good analogy about Flint. FDR's policies - including his union policies - were paid for by millions of unemployed. But even FDR was opposed to government "workers" being allowed to unionize.