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70 years after sit-downs

Revive the spirit of 1937!

Published Jun 8, 2007 10:26 PM

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

Final article in series on the Flint sit-down strike.

Those who fail to learn from history—or so goes the cliché—are doomed to repeat it. While the statement contains more than a grain of truth, it assumes that all of history is a series of bad things, and that all these bad things are the result of people not learning from past mistakes.

In fact, far from being all bad, the history of the working class is rich with examples of true class solidarity, examples that it would do well to repeat now—albeit with modifications.

This past February marked the 70th anniversary of the victorious 44-day Flint sit-down strike against General Motors.

Workers’ gains over the last 70 years are now under attack. Contracts between the Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers will expire in September. Health benefits, pensions, job security provisions and wage increases all face the axe. The issues are being defined as not whether to take concessions but how far they should go. Time and again autoworkers have agreed to concessions with a promise that their particular plant will be kept open, only to see their plant close anyway.

The crisis facing autoworkers calls for a new outlook, but one that revives the spirit and ideals of decades past.

The ideas advanced during the Flint strike might today seem ahead of their time. In fact, they were right in step with what was a turbulent and exciting decade.

Few workers today consciously think of their jobs as their personal property. Yet this idea was commonplace during the 1930s. Both union leaders and rank and file strikers voiced this demand during the Flint strike. A labor journalist of the time wrote that “All through the last half of 1937 I felt that the idea born of the sit-down, that the worker has a right to his job ... was one of the most significant additions to the makeup of the American mind ... I am fairly certain that it—with the thoughts and feelings it awakened—is destined to play a big role in the future of America.” (Louis Adamic, “My America”)

In 1984 Workers World Party’s late chairperson, Sam Marcy, revived this concept in his groundbreaking work “High Tech, Low Pay.”

“The right to a job is a property right,” Marcy asserted. “The right to seize and occupy the plants is an accompanying right.”

‘A Job Is a Right’

Three years later the Job Is a Right Campaign, which WWP helped to organize, raised the slogan during a massive wave of plant closings by GM.

While the grassroots movement did not stop the plants from closing, the central demand for a moratorium on plant shutdowns was incorporated into the UAW contracts with the Big Three.

The moratorium helped to slow down the restructuring. Every round of negotiations since 1987 has seen more plant closings, and the UAW’s ranks have dropped far below their peak membership in the 1960s and 1970s. Still, for an auto worker about to lose a job, even a three- or four-year guarantee of a livelihood means a lot.

If a job as a worker’s right had not been raised at the grassroots level by class-conscious activists, would it have been realized at the bargaining table, even in a limited way?

Now is the time to popularize the idea again. It is particularly timely, given the tendency by Ford, Chrysler and GM/Delphi to replace permanent UAW employees with “enhanced temporaries.” These workers should be made permanent, with their job property rights guaranteed. Job property rights should also be guaranteed for unorganized workers, who face dismissal by companies such as Wal-Mart for even uttering the word “union.”

Workers need to feel, as they felt in the 1930s, a sense of entitlement when it comes to their jobs. The notion that a job is some sort of gift or favor needs to be discarded.

The bosses will cry that plant closings are necessary, blaming “overcapacity.” Our answer could be to call for a shorter workweek. This was tremendously popular in the 1930s; during a 1937 Cadillac strike, a banner read: “6 hours work, 8 hours sleep, 10 hours play, union pay.” The six-hour day was the one demand of the sit-down that was never realized.

In fact, since the eight-hour day was enacted in 1938, the only legislative action to take place was a step backward, reclassifying whole groups of workers as salaried and therefore ineligible for overtime protection. U.S. workers lag far behind even their European counterparts when it comes to vacations and hours of work.

No progress without struggle

The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said that “Without struggle there is no progress.” In fact, without struggle there is not only no progress but there is usually regress.

Without struggle the working class, including the autoworkers, will continue to lose ground.

Things may get worse before they get better, but the uprising will come. Autoworkers may not be the first to rebel. They might be preceded by any number of bold actions—such as the “Great American Boycott,” a mass political strike of immigrant workers that revived May Day in the U.S. in 2006. The first workplace to be occupied might be a hospital, a non-union sweatshop or a field of strawberries. The workers who lead the charge might well be a majority African-American, or immigrants, or women.

The bosses will always resort to the age-old tactic of divide and conquer. Workers have to make sure it fails.

It won’t be the first time. In 1937 GM used red-baiting, anti-Semitism and racism to turn workers against unions. They failed. They used both the official state apparatus and extra-legal terror to scare the workers from joining unions. They failed.

They had a precise plan called the Mohawk Valley Formula for breaking strikes. It failed.

There are signs here and there—in Canada, Australia, Wales, Spain and probably elsewhere—that the sit-down tactic is being revived, and workers are getting results.

There is no Santa Claus and there are no shortcuts, but a bold fight around a bold program can revive the spirit of 1937 and stop the backwards-moving train in its tracks. Workers have—as Karl Marx said—a world to win.

Martha Grevatt has worked for 20 years at Chrysler’s Twinsburg, Ohio, stamping plant and serves on the executive board of her local union.

E-mail: mgrevatt@workers.org

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