The General Motors body plant in Flint, Michigan was usually a thankless place, filled with loud sounds and the feverish, dangerous work of turning metal into auto bodies. But in January 1937, the sounds of whistling and conversation filled the air. Instead of toiling over dangerous machinery, workers gambled, wrestled and played ping-pong on the usually busy factory floor. “We made a ball out of it,” recalled Earl Hubbard, a GM worker, in an oral history.
The workers weren’t on vacation: They were on strike. Over 44 days in 1936 and 1937, members of the fledgling United Auto Workers union managed to bring an auto behemoth to its knees in a sit-down strike that became one of the most decisive victories in American labor history. Exhausted by the industry’s dangerous demands and sharpened by the Great Depression, over 100,000 auto workers changed labor history without picketing their plant. Instead of walking out, they simply sat down and refused to leave.
Historically, striking workers had risked their lives on the picket lines. Though unions often formed in response to dangerous working conditions, going on strike exposed workers to the danger of physical violence from hired thugs or police that served as companies’ strong-arms. Unions had long struggled to create unions across industries. Instead, craft unions that organized workers across specialties were the norm.
The automobile industry had long discouraged unions. Workers knew they could lose their jobs for trying to organize, and faced corporate spies who reported any pro-union activity back to management. According to historian Timothy P. Lynch, General Motors invested $1 million in surveillance between 1933 and 1936. For many auto workers, unions simply weren’t worth risking their jobs—pay was relatively good, and when workers were laid off they were often rehired at higher rates once a company’s profits rose.
But then the Great Depression hit in 1929. Car sales collapsed, and the industry’s production levels sagged. Automakers slashed jobs, axing thousands of employees with no regard for seniority. Those who did keep their jobs tolerated abysmal working conditions, afraid to speak up lest they be laid off, too. The story was the same across the entire economy, and stoked discontent among jobseekers and workers alike.