January 3, 2013 at 1:00 am

Michigan History: The 1937 Flint sit-down strike and the right to fair pay

Last month the Michigan Legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Snyder signed, a right-to-work law, making Michigan the 24th state to ban closed union shops. Whatever impact this law has on state politics and workplace relations, it serves as a bookend to the victory of mass production unionism in the Flint sit-down strike 76 years ago.

At the time of the Flint sit-down, there were no right-to-work laws. They had not been necessary, because there were few unions and no dues to challenge. Employers then held all the cards necessary to defeat labor unions. And yet, in the midst of the Great Depression, unionism took hold, despite the power of employers to fire workers for union organizing.

In Michigan, it was the United Auto Workers who first breached the barriers to organizing workers in a mass production industry. On Dec. 30, 1936, thousands of workers sat down in General Motors plants in Flint. They held their ground for 44 days as management refused to bargain, local and state officials worked to end the strike, and police and national guardsmen tried to uproot the strikers. Despite these obstacles, the UAW signed a contract with GM and began the era of modern labor relations in the state.

Sit-down strikers, and the families who supported them, became a commonplace image in the tumultuous 1930s. After the Flint victory, workers in other cities and industries risked their jobs and went on strike. Some employers chose to sign union contracts. Others were forced to concede collective bargaining after bitter strikes. For the first time in American history, the labor movement took root in manufacturing and even in service jobs and government work. Waitresses, retail clerks and teachers joined assembly-line workers and truck drivers as union members.

The signing of the right-to-work law has diminished neither the memory of those victories nor the level of commitment to democratic unionism. The question is whether such commitment is sufficient. It is the voluntary surrender of one's individual right of contract for the power of collective bargaining that created the labor movement we know today. Requiring workers to pay dues for their fair share of bargaining services and union support has been a major reason why unions have been able to survive, even the deep cuts and retrenchments of declining union membership. The right-to-work law, which bans union membership as a condition of employment in union workplaces, seeks to diminish labor's power and its resources.

These facts are not lost on those who support right-to-work laws and those who view unions today as outdated organizations that intervene in the workplace and interfere in politics. In Flint in 1937, there were voices which uttered the same sentiments as contemporary supporters of right-to-work laws. General Motors, the largest manufacturing corporation of its time, saw the United Auto Workers as a threat to management, as thugs who sought to raid the company. They did not try to pass laws banning closed shops because they had other ways to stop unions.

The Flint sit-down strike challenged employers' power and the ideals of individualist capitalism. The union slogan, "an injury to one is an injury to all," was and is out of step with a market economy, where an injury to one might well be profit to another. So, too, were the actions of workers to occupy plants they did not own, with little regard for management. In the context of continuing high unemployment, autoworkers in Flint closed down Chevrolet assembly and Fischer body plants, kept out replacement workers and won their strike against a corporation with deep pockets. It is no wonder that General Motors saw the union as illegitimate or that it sought to break the strike. What's more difficult for us to understand how workers won their fight.

It is easy to grow nostalgic about what the UAW's Henry Kraus called "Heroes of the Unwritten Story." We live in a time when labor unions are attacked for political influence and when strikes are more often lost than won. In the 1930s, the Flint strike was part of the struggle to democratize the workplace and give voice to the needs and aspirations of working people.

This fight continues today. Democracy, whether in the workplace or at the ballot box, is an uneven and on-going struggle.

The right-to-work law that some view as a bookend to the Flint sit-down victory might be the touchstone of labor battles to come.

Elizabeth Faue teaches American history at Wayne State University.