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Flint sitdown strike: Class struggle and consciousness

Published May 25, 2007 5:34 PM

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

In 1937 there were one million autoworkers in the U.S., yet membership in the United Automobile Workers of America stood at a mere 25,000. The UAW, which had grown in the early half of the decade, had lost most of its membership because the American Federation refused to organize the unskilled sector of the labor movement.

Flint, the center of GM’s corporate empire, was essential to reorganizing the auto industry and advancing industrial unionism. Yet it seemed impossible under GM’s absolute dictatorship.

Even handbill distribution was illegal. State courts had ruled that picketing was illegal, countering First Amendment arguments with the opinion that there was no such thing as “peaceful picketing.” Out of 45,000 GM employees only 122 were UAW members. Half of them were out-and-out company spies or members of the notorious Black Legion (a Ford-and GM-financed Ku Klux Klan offshoot).

What would it take? It would take fearless, dedicated and class conscious leadership. In June 1936 a determined radical rented a cheap room at Flint’s Dresden Hotel. No sooner had UAW Vice President Wyndham Mortimer hung up his coat than his room phone rang. “You had better get the hell back where you came from if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box!” said the caller, who then hung up. (Wyndham Mortimer, “Organize!”)

Undaunted, Mortimer set upon the task of locating and contacting potential union members. After generating a list of names and addresses, he began writing a series of letters. The typewritten copies were mimeographed and mailed to Mortimer’s list, thus circumventing the ban on leafleting.

Elevating Marxism & anti-racism

These weekly appeals, which made their way into the plants, gave a clear orientation to workers. Autoworkers, without realizing it, got a basic Marxist education, as shown in these excerpts: “It is well to understand what we mean by the word ‘Profit.’ It is that part of the corporation’s income that is left over after all charges such as wages, salaries, depreciation, overhead, etc., are paid. In other words it is the loot, or swag, that is split between the Executives and salaries in addition to the enormous salaries and bonuses they receive. ... This loot will amount to a sum equal to all the wages paid [in the first six months of 1936] to the 200,000 employees of the General Motors Corporation. ...

“Under our present economic system, we as workers can only improve our condition by improving the condition of the entire working class. ... I stress the class nature of the struggle, knowing that I will be accused of raising class against class, but as long as one class lives by robbery, is it a crime to call to the attention of the victim just who the burglar is, and how we may stop his depredations?” (Henry Kraus Collections, Box 8, Folder 40, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University)

At the bottom of his appeals, Mortimer left the address where he could be found at the Dresden. He phoned and made home visits to former union members. He set up house meetings.

Despite their relatively small number inside the plants, Mortimer considered it critical to bring Black workers into the organizing drive. He was shocked when one of the remaining union activists, Ed Geiger, uttered an epithet and said he wanted nothing to do with Black people. Undaunted, he pressed Geiger for names and got in touch with an influential man known as Old Jim. Jim sent Mortimer to his son-in-law, Buick foundry worker Henry Clark.

After receiving a note under his door signed “Henry,” the union leader followed its instructions: he arrived at midnight at an address that turned out to be an African-American church. In the wee hours of the morning Mortimer signed up 18 union members, but only after promising that they would not be joining a “Jim Crow union” like the AFL. Shouldering many responsibilities, Henry Clark would later stand out as a leader on the picket lines.

UAW President Homer Martin, a redbaiter backed by the AFL, maneuvered to have Mortimer reassigned away from Flint. In his place Martin sent Bob Travis, who had distinguished himself as an organizer in Toledo. The Communist Travis is widely regarded by labor historians as one of the most brilliant strike strategists of the turbulent 1930s.

Travis, in regular communication with Mortimer, continued the painstaking work of meeting with workers—who were still afraid to come by the union hall. Both men were determined to build a union that included not only white workers but also Black workers and immigrants. “Be sure and go to that Polish meeting this Sunday,” Mortimer instructed Travis in a November 1936 letter. (Henry Kraus Collection, Box 9, Folder 3, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs)

Workers prepare for the GM occupation

Other Communists inside the main plant helped demonstrate the effectiveness of the sit-down tactic. A brief work stoppage won two fired workers their jobs back and served as a stimulant for the 44-day occupation, which these same radical workers helped start.

Victor and Roy Reuther, at the time still Socialists, had the critical task of commandeering the sound car. From the loudspeaker the brothers gave voice to the workers’ aspirations, boosting morale inside and outside the plant.

Another indispensable leader, Genora Johnson was part of the Socialist Party and later the Socialist Workers Party. She organized the Women’s Emergency Brigade, which proved invaluable in maintaining the outside pickets and fighting the cops. Her immortal words in the heat of battle gave strength to the weary strikers: “Cowards! Cowards!” Johnson shouted at the police, “shooting unarmed and defenseless men!” She then called on the women to “break through those police lines and come down here and stand beside your husbands and your brothers and your uncles and your sweethearts.” (Sol Dollinger and Genora Johnson Dollinger, Not Automatic)

Seventy years later historians still differ on the relative strength and contribution of the various left parties. Perhaps now it is not as necessary to “set the record straight” as to recognize the value of a leadership that opposed capitalist ownership of the means of production.

Despite deep political differences, Socialists and Communists fought together to bring the heroic strike to its victorious conclusion. Unfortunately, Mortimer, Travis and other skilled organizers were later removed from leadership during periods of factionalism and red-baiting. Now today’s UAW leadership has grown so conciliatory to management that the heroes of Flint would scarcely recognize their once-militant union.

Nevertheless, a new breed of dedicated and class-conscious union leaders will emerge to resist the relentless attacks bearing down on the entire labor movement, particularly the auto workers.

E-mail: mgrevatt@workers.org

PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10