Opinion: Ongoing worker strike an echo from the 1930s

Gary Jones

Some interesting things happened in the mid-1930s regarding union activity, especially where Michigan union workers were concerned.

Sure, the Wagner Act had just been passed, making strikes legal. Of course, men were angry that the take home pay for auto workers was less than half what the government said was sufficient for a family of four.

The UAW strike has cost automotive suppliers, trucking companies and other GM affiliates hundreds of thousands in lost revenue as plants, trucks and employees sit idle. Above, a striking plant worker blocks the passage of a truck outside the GM assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky, Monday.

Yes, General Motors spent $839,000 in 1934 just on detective work to attempt to break the union. (That would be over $16 million in 2019 dollars.)  Absolutely, workers were angry that they were not allowed to talk with each other over lunch breaks or leave the line to use the bathroom or take a sick day. 

But mostly, what happened is a lot of men died.

In July of 1936, a massive heat wave hit the Midwest. In the plants in Michigan, dozens of workers died from heat that stayed above 100 degrees for over a week. Workers were not allowed to stay home and were not provided any heat relief in the factories, and they died because of it. It was the last straw.

After the line was stopped that December, and the doors were shut, officially beginning the Sit Down Strike, the workers moved to organize inside the plant.

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.

Strike leaders Bob Travis and Roy Reuther established committees for everything from cleaning and exercise to entertainment and defense. Elections were held for positions ranging from security supervisor to mayor, in order to maintain order and protect the property of the company.

Safety officials held mock drills. Schedules were worked out for mail delivery and food distribution. Elections were held when decisions had to be made.

When General Motors shut off coal delivery, a vote was taken to burn bales of burlap, which was extraordinarily expensive. When General Motors heard of the vote, they brought in a carload of coal.

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

In mid-January, General Motors again shut off the heat, and their goons, together with the police, smashed the ladders that the striking workers were using to receive mail and food deliveries. This started what was known as the Battle of Running Bulls (or Bull’s Run) where the elected security teams manned all the windows to grab the tear gas containers the police threw inside and toss them back out. The striking workers sent Gov. Frank Murphy a telegram: “We will be pulled out dead before we walk out on our own.”  

In February, the striking workers let it “leak” to General Motors that they would be taking Chevy #9 plant next. The company spies quickly reported the leak, and all General Motors and police resources were diverted to Chevy #9.

Workers came en masse from Detroit to picket at Chevy #9 to help distract the company men; those strikers and picketers were beaten bloody while the remaining workers ran down to Chevy #4 and shut down the line. The Women’s Brigade was there, and used their bodies to fend off a police attempt to crash the gates before the workers were secured inside.

They sang songs, like this one, an untitled strike tune by Walter Frost:  

We all know they are fighters

There isn’t any doubt

The thugs and scabs of GMC

Can never scare us out.

The cops would like to drive us out

But we will not back down

We’re going to stick together ‘til

We organize this town.

The takeover of Chevy #4 was the last straw for General Motors — negotiations began the next day.

As it was in 1936, it is still in 2019: solidarity forever, for the union makes us strong.

Gary Jones is the 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.