Opinion: Remember the Battle of Running Bulls

Gary Jones

The sit-down strike wasn’t the first attempt at organization by the UAW, and wasn’t the first attempt in Flint, either. Previous strike attempts in 1930 and 1934 were broken by General Motors strongmen and the Flint police, but the passage of the 1935 Wagner Act made strikes legal, changing the game, and many factory workers had died in unsafe conditions that year, changing public opinion. 

Striking autoworkers sit on car seats inside a GM factory in Flint in 1937.  The 44-day strike, historians agree, would become the most important strike in American labor history.

After the men in Flint shut themselves into the factory on Dec. 30, 1936, the governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy, refused to intervene on behalf of General Motors. So General Motors cut off heat and electricity and prevented food from being delivered to those inside. 

On Jan. 11, 1937, there was a violent clash between workers, protesters, General Motors men and Flint police called the Battle of Running Bulls, which started when protesters, many of whom were women, opened a gate to bring food to the strikers. The police responded with tear gas and bullets, and 28 people were injured, some severely. After this clash, Murphy summoned the National Guard. There was a twist, however, in that Murphy ordered the National Guard simply to keep the peace, refusing to direct them to act with force against the workers.

Flint was a bastion of General Motors, with the Flint Journal entirely in the company’s pocket, running headlines every day about the “radicals” and the “mob” and the “chaos.” Police officers wanted to take the Reuther brothers out of town and beat them up, but couldn’t get the mayor to agree to the plan. General Motors attempted to use the legal system to thwart the strike, seeking injunctions to have the workers removed from the buildings.

Demonstrators gather outside of General Motors Plant #2 in Flint during a strike in the winter of 1937.

Genesee County Circuit Court Judge Edward S. Black granted the first injunction, which was overturned when it was found that he was likely partial to General Motors. He owned over $200,000 in General Motors stock, a tremendous figure in 1937. 

Judge Paul V. Gadola entered a court order forbidding picketing at the plant, levying a $15 million fine against the UAW. Murphy urged General Motors to negotiate as 4,000 National Guardsmen and over 1,000 protesters and police officers surrounded the building.   

Eventually, Murphy was forced to take a valid legal injunction to Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) President John Lewis, telling Lewis that the governor must uphold the law. Lewis asked him if he was asking the men to leave the plant, to give up all they had ever hoped to have. Lewis asked Murphy, “You say you are doing this in the name of law and order? 

"When your father was imprisoned for participating in the Irish rebellion, was that law and order? When your grandfather was hanged for being an Irish revolutionary, was that law and order? Tomorrow, I will enter Chevy 4 and bare my breast at the window. When you order your militiamen to fire, mine will be the first breast those bullets will strike. And as my body falls to the ground, listen to the voice of your grandfather as he whispers, ‘Frank, do you think this is the right thing to do?’” 

An unidentified sit-down striker reaches over a fence to receive food during the 43-day strike by autoworkers in Flint in February 1937.  Guarding the proceedings at Gate 4 of the Chevrolet plant are members of the National Guard.

Murphy left the meeting, shaken, and refused to send in soldiers to remove the men. He again urged General Motors to negotiate, but because the strikers refused to leave, General Motors refused to talk. They knew if they could get the workers out of the building, then they could replace them and not have to negotiate at all. But the tide was turning, public support for the strike was growing, and General Motors realized that their legal attempts to evict the workers were never going to come to fruition. 

Murphy served as the intermediary during the contract negotiations between CIO President Lewis and General Motors President Alfred Sloan. According to legend, the negotiations were completed and a deal was struck just after 1 a.m. on Feb. 11, 1937, but Murphy would not allow negotiations to close without a handshake. Neither Lewis nor Sloan would agree to shake hands, so Murphy made them sit together until they did, over an hour later, at 2:30 that morning. 

Gary Jones is president of United Auto Workers.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.