Flint Sit-Down Strike

Sit-down strikers guarding window entrance to Fisher body plant number three. Photo by Sheldon Dick, 1937.

The 1936–1937 Flint Sit-Down Strike changed the United Automobile Workers (UAW) from a collection of isolated locals on the fringes of the industry into a major union and led to the unionization of the domestic United States automobile industry.



The UAW had only been formed in 1935 and held its first convention in 1936. Shortly thereafter the union decided that it could not survive by piecemeal organizing campaigns at smaller plants, as it had in the past, but that it could organize the automobile industry only by going after its biggest and most powerful employer, General Motors Corporation, focusing on GM's production complex in Flint, Michigan.

Organizing Flint was a difficult and dangerous plan. GM controlled city politics in Flint and kept a close eye on outsiders. As Wyndham Mortimer, the UAW officer put in charge of the organizing campaign in Flint, recalled, when he visited Flint in 1936 he received a telephone call within a few minutes of checking into his hotel from an anonymous caller telling him to get back where he came from if he didn't "want to be carried out in a wooden box."

GM also maintained an extensive network of spies throughout its plants. Mortimer concluded after talking to Flint autoworkers that the existing locals, which had only 122 members out of 45,000 autoworkers in Flint, were riddled with spies. Accordingly, he decided that the only safe way to organize Flint was simply to bypass those locals. Mortimer, Eric Branoff, Roy Reuther, Henry Kraus and Ralph Dale began meeting with Flint autoworkers in their homes, keeping the names of new members a closely guarded secret from others in Flint and in UAW headquarters.

As the UAW studied its target it discovered that GM had only two factories that produced the dies from which car body components were stamped: one in Flint that produced the parts for Buicks, Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles and another in Cleveland that produced Chevrolet parts. The union planned to strike these plants after the New Year, when Frank Murphy would become Governor of Michigan.

The strike

Young striker off sentry duty sleeping on assembly line of auto seats

Events forced the union to accelerate its plans, however, when the workers at Cleveland's Fisher body plant went on strike on December 30, 1936. The UAW immediately announced that it would not settle the Cleveland strike until it reached a national agreement with GM covering all of its plants. At the same time the Union made plans to shut down Fisher # 1 in Flint.

On December 30, 1936 the Union learned that GM was planning to move the dies out of Fisher # 1. Travis immediately called a meeting at lunchtime at the union hall across the street from the plant, explained the situation, then sent the members across the street to occupy the plant. The Flint sit-down strike began.[1]

In a conventional strike the union takes its members outside the plant and attempts to prevent the employer from operating by discouraging other employees from entering. In a sit-down strike, the workers physically occupy the plant, keeping management and others out.

The Flint sit-down strikers did just that, electing their own "Mayor" and other civic officials and maintaining the plant throughout the strike. The Union kept up a regular supply of food to the strikers inside while sympathizers marched in support outside.

A state court judge issued an injunction ordering the strikers to leave the plant. The UAW investigated, and they discovered that the judge held roughly $200,000 in GM stock, which disqualified him from hearing any case involving GM.


National Guardsmen with machine gun overlooking Chevrolet factories number nine and number four

The Flint police attempted to enter the plant on January 11, 1937. The strikers inside the plant turned the fire hoses on the police while pelting them with hinges and other auto parts as members of the women's auxiliary broke windows in the plant to give strikers some relief from the tear gas the police were using against them. The police made several charges, but withdrew after six hours. The strikers dubbed this "The Battle of Bulls Run," a mocking reference to the police ("bulls").

At the time, Vice President John Nance Garner supported federal intervention to break up the Flint Strike, but this idea was rejected by President Franklin Roosevelt.

GM obtained a second injunction against the strike on February 1, 1937. The union not only ignored the order, but spread the strike to Chevrolet Plant # 4. To avoid tipping its hand, the union let it be known in the hours before the move that it intended to go after another plant in the complex, only changing directions at the last minute. GM, tipped off by a spy within the UAW, was ready and waiting for the union at the other plant and caught completely off guard at Plant # 4.

That development forced GM to bargain with the Union. John L. Lewis, President of the United Mine Workers and founder and leader of the CIO, spoke for the UAW in those negotiations, while the UAW sent its President Homer Martin on a speaking tour to keep him out of the way. GM's representatives refused to be in the same room as the UAW's, so Governor Frank Murphy acted as courier and intermediary between the two groups. The parties finally reached agreement on February 11, 1937 on a one page agreement that recognized the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for GM's employees who were members of the union for the next six months.

As short as this agreement was, it gave the UAW instant legitimacy.[2] The UAW capitalized on that opportunity, signing up 100,000 GM employees and building the Union's strength through grievance strikes at GM plants throughout the country. Several participants in the strike, including Charles I. Krause, went on to greater prominence within the union. Other notable participants in the sit-down strike were future D-Day hero and Greco-Roman wrestling champion Dean Rockwell, labor leader Walter Reuther and the uncle of filmmaker Michael Moore.

In the next year the UAW saw its membership grow from 30,000 to 500,000 members. As later noted by the BBC, "the strike was heard round the world."[3]



Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Direct Action  –  Factory Occupations  –  Labour History  –  Sitdowns/Sit-ins  –  Strikes  –  Strikes/United States  –  Workers History