Flint sitdown strike: Class struggle and consciousness
Published May 25, 2007 5:34 PM
1937 FLINT SIT-DOWN LABOR HISTORY SERIES
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
1937 FLINT SIT-DOWN LABOR HISTORY SERIES
PARTS: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
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