Auto Assembly Lines of 1936 : Workers Made History by Sitting Down on Job
Assembly-line conditions begged for correction: filth, noise, prostrating heat, the dreaded speedup, all made more grim by a company attitude that one manager expressed this way: “We hire you from the head down.”
But in the auto-making plants of 50 years ago, management could virtually ignore the weak United Auto Workers, a fledgling union that claimed scarcely 5.4% of the workers.
All that changed, however, when 50 workers from a General Motors plant that made Chevrolet bodies sat down on the job Dec. 30, 1936.
Their strike, which spread from Flint to plants across the country, lasted 44 days. To end it, GM agreed to bargain exclusively with the UAW over wages and working conditions of 200,000 workers.
It was a pivotal event of the American labor movement, leading to union success in other U.S. industries. In time, unions won pensions, health insurance, paid vacations, grievance procedures and a host of other benefits now taken for granted.
But for Larry Jones, 76, the strike was simply a chance “to be treated like a human.”
“It’s almost inconceivable for someone who views the conditions now to imagine what they were like then,” said Jones, who went to work at GM’s Chevrolet engine plant in 1928 at age 18 and retired in 1971.
“Management was ruthless,” he said. “The Chevrolet plant manager said, ‘We hire you from the head down.’ ”
During a record-setting hot spell in the summer of 1936, when temperatures in the unventilated engine plant reached 115 degrees, many workers collapsed at their work stations, Jones said.
“The rest of us were told to step right over them and keep working. When supervisors got around to it, they would pull these people away from their work stations and revive them.”
The company did not install washing facilities at the plant until 1935, and even after that limited their use, Jones recalled.
“They had inspectors to make sure you didn’t wash above the wrist,” he said. The plant manager made rules like that “to show who was boss,” he added.
“Women, stuck in the lowest-paying jobs sewing or sorting parts, often were harassed,” according to “We Make Our Own History,” a UAW history published by the union in 1986. “It was not uncommon for bosses to demand sexual favors in return for the elusive promise of steady work or better treatment.
“And everywhere, as orders for more cars poured in, was the dreaded speedup. Unrelenting line speeds made workers so tired that one writer described the people of Flint, Michigan, in this way:
“ ‘Flint workers had a peculiar gray, jaundiced color which long rest after an exhausting day’s work did not erase. . . . One felt that one was in a city of tuberculars.’ ”
Caught by Surprise
UAW organizers had planned for months to strike GM’s plants in Flint, sometime in the new year after the inauguration of Gov.-elect Frank Murphy, a labor sympathizer. They were caught by surprise when the workers at the Fisher Body 2 plant, angered at the transfer of several union organizers, sat down before sunrise Dec. 30 and refused to work.
The planned target was to have been the larger Fisher Body 1 plant, where 7,300 workers turned out 1,400 Buick bodies a day. At Fisher 2, about 1,000 employees built 450 Chevrolet bodies daily.
Quickly switching gears, UAW organizer Bob Travis spread word at Fisher 1 that GM was moving key industrial dies out of the plant, a claim that was never substantiated but that successfully triggered a sit-down there too.
Within days, sit-downs and walkouts followed at GM plants in Toledo, Ohio; Janesville, Wis.; Detroit, and St. Louis.
Police Turned Back
The turning point came Jan. 11, when police tried to storm the Fisher 2 plant using tear gas, only to be turned back when strikers sprayed them with fire hoses and bombarded them with heavy steel door hinges.
Police responded with gunfire, wounding 16. The riot that followed prompted Murphy to mobilize the state National Guard.
Victor Reuther, brother of the UAW president-to-be, Walter F. Reuther, was at the controls of a union sound truck outside the Fisher 2 plant during the battle.
“When police began their brutal attack to evict them, these guys who were on the picket line overturned their own jalopies, the only thing of value they owned, to form a barricade,” he recalled. “I was overwhelmed.”
Union Seizes Plant
A second strategic victory came Feb. 1, when the union seized the vital Chevrolet Plant 4, where Jones and 4,000 others produced engines for 10 assembly plants around the country.
Strikes and related layoffs quickly spread, idling 100,000 GM workers nationwide. On Feb. 11, the auto maker agreed to recognize the UAW as sole bargaining agent for its assembly workers. Fifty years later, the union has 1 million members.
“The GM sit-down strike of 1936-37 was, all in all, the most significant American labor conflict in the 20th Century,” said Sidney Fine in “Sit-Down,” the definitive study of the strike, written in 1969.
Before the strike, only a few, mostly skilled workers, were represented by unions, belonging for the most part to the American Federation of Labor.
Other Industries Hit
The UAW success led to strikes in steel, rubber, farm equipment and other industries, called by affiliates of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations. The result was the unionization of a broad cross section of American workers.
When UAW leaders picked Flint to start their GM campaign drive, they knew they were “attacking the strongest point in the fortification,” according to Neil Leighton, director of the Labor History Project at the University of Michigan-Flint.
General Motors, founded in 1908 by William C. Durant, dominated Flint. The city grew from 38,550 people in 1910 to 156,492 in 1930 as GM built factory after factory to meet the booming demand for cars.
Police, business and religious leaders, school officials and the news media were uniformly hostile to the union, recalled Henry Kraus, 80, then a UAW organizer and editor of the union newspaper, “The United Automobile Worker.”
‘A Lot of Luck’
“We were well aware of how weak we were,” Kraus said. “We had to have a lot of luck.”
Beyond luck, UAW organizers had three important factors on their side:
- The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, passed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, recognizing employees’ right to bargain collectively.
- Murphy’s election as governor.
- The sit-down technique itself.
Until 1939, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the tactic illegal, sit-down strikes helped unions organize at hundreds of companies around the country.
By occupying a struck plant, a small number of union supporters could stop production while seeking to win over co-workers to their cause.
“The sit-down was marvelously effective as an organizing device,” Fine wrote in “Sit-Down.”
GM Vice President Alfred S. Warren Jr., director of labor relations, said the clash of 50 years ago was “a constant reminder of how far we’ve come.”
“As a result of the sit-down strike,” he said, “we put into place a methodology for solving problems as they arise.”