Opinion: Stories from the Flint sit-down strike

Gary Jones
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.

While it was only men who sat down inside the General Motors factories in Flint for the sit-down strike, women provided invaluable services outside.

Within two days of the strike’s beginning, the Women’s Auxiliary was formed. When the guards wouldn’t allow mail through, the Auxiliary would cook whole chickens and bring them down to the factory for delivery, stuffed full of messages. They started a speaker’s bureau, publicity committee, first aid station. They built a strike kitchen which was immediately staffed 24 hours a day by volunteers. 

The Auxiliary members made house calls and gave medical care to families of striking workers. They began public speaking classes and labor history classes. They walked the line every single day, in the snow and the wind and the blinding cold. One woman walked every day in tennis shoes wrapped in burlap, with no gloves. Since many of the couples had children, the Auxiliary started a volunteer nursery. A children’s picket line was started, with the children in the nursery making signs with donated boards and paints.

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

One of the founding members of the Women’s Auxiliary was Delia Parish. She was a spitfire — the police and guards would regularly try to stop her from making deliveries to the workers. “Governor Murphy said food can go in,” she would announce. “And so I’m taking it.” She would walk a gauntlet of police and guards, pulling a wagon full of coffee, vegetable soup, milk and bread. 

Parish also helped put furniture back into houses when the families were evicted, often calling “emergency response teams” of all women with small children to fill the houses when the sheriff’s deputies showed up to put belongings to the curb. “That’s not my baby” she would say, “but you go ahead and put that baby and that high chair out in the snow if you care to. I can’t stop you, can I?” 

When the protesters met with violence from the police and guards, Genora Johnson, another Women’s Auxiliary founding member, started the Women’s Emergency Brigade: “To protect our husbands and sons from violence.” They wore red berets and carried bars of soap in socks.  A woman in her late 70s came to volunteer for the Emergency Brigade, only to be told it would be too difficult for her.  “You can’t keep me out”, she replied, “my sons work in that factory.” She was given a red beret. 

At the Battle of Bulls Run, the Women’s Emergency Brigade was there in full force, led by a fierce Genora Johnson. Parish remarked that there was a fog of tear gas in the air that never seemed to dissipate. Her response? “I’ve smelled it before. I’m not afraid.”

Toward the end of the battle, the striker’s resistance was waning, and the protesters outside were broken into groups and rapidly tiring. Genora led the Women’s Emergency Brigade to distract the police while the men regrouped. Then she took the microphone from the sound car, almost out of batteries, and started berating the police. The voice of a woman, over the sound of bullets and shouting, through the haze of tear gas and smoke. 

“Hang in there, men! We’re going to win this yet, they can’t intimidate us! Cowards, all of you cowards, shooting at the mothers of children.” 

And when the crowd started to calm, with a trembling voice, she led the protesters in singing "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.