February 11 was the 86th anniversary of one of the most significant events in U.S. labor history: the victory of the Flint Sit-down Strike. On that day in 1937, after a 44-day occupation of key plants, General Motors did what it said it would never do: The company recognized the United Auto Workers. This victory spurred a massive strike wave, including over 500 sit-down occupations of plants, stores, hotels, restaurants and other workplaces.
Today Feb. 11 is celebrated as “White Shirt Day,” where autoworkers wear white to amplify the point that they are just as important as the “white shirts” — the bosses.
UAW activists and supporters marked the occasion with a webinar under the theme: “Learning from our Stolen History.” Participants watched the 1979 Oscar-nominated film “With Babies and Banners,” which rescued from obscurity the history of the Women’s Emergency Brigade. The Brigade was formed to defend the sit-downers inside the plants; on one occasion depicted in the film, the women used their clubs to smash the windows of a plant after Flint police fired tear gas inside.
Sean Crawford, a UAW Local 160 member, whose great-grandfather was vice-chair of the strike committee in one of the occupied plants and whose grandmother and great aunt were members of the Women’s Brigade, emceed the program. Film producer Lyn Goldfarb spoke about the film in a question-and-answer discussion with Workers Concept Theater Director Cheryl Buswell.
UAW retiree Jean Anderson spoke on the formation of the “Junior Women’s Emergency Brigade” in 1985, in which African American women played a key role. The second incarnation of the Brigade pushed for day-care centers at the plants. Anderson discussed the often overlooked role of Black workers in the 1937 strike, including Roscoe Van Zandt, who led the parade of workers exiting Chevrolet Plant Four after the victory. A short video depicting the younger Brigade preparing to march in the 1987 Flint Labor Day parade was also shown.
Vail Kohnert-Yount, recording secretary of the rank-and-file UAW reform caucus Unite All Workers for Democracy, and newly elected UAW Region 9A Director Brandon Mancilla, gave greetings. Additional speakers included Frank Hammer, former shop chair and president of UAW Local 909, who initiated the committee to organize the event, and this writer. Others spoke on behalf of autoworkers in Britain, Germany, Colombia, Mexico and Canada.
The webinar can be viewed at youtube.com/watch?v=HXITRaGdz9M
Martha Grevatt is a retired Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) worker and served on the executive board of UAW Local 869.