From the early to mid 20th century, industrial workers had been fighting for decent wages and safe working conditions. At the beginning, their efforts were either futile or, they gained very few advantages. The employers were mainly interested in earning profits. They would pay their workers whenever and however they chose, or in some cases, not at all. It didn’t seem to bother the managers that the men, because of deplorable working conditions and inhumanely long hours, were basically risking their lives going to work. They were not valued employees, especially during the Great Depression when there were so many unemployed men standing in line ready to take their places. It was quite common for a foreman to fire someone on the spot and then, hire someone else. In those days, losing your job meant losing your dignity, because society looked down on men who were out of work (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 232).
Wanting their grievances heard, many workers would go on strikes and, or join unions. Strikes were often bloody battles as workers protested unfair working conditions and unlivable wages. In answer to their complaints, there was no end to the unfair tactics companies would use to intimidate the men into going back to work. To break up strikes, it was common for employers to depend on politicians, law enforcement officials, and the military, to side with them against the striking factory workers (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 126). The law was on their side. It evident to me, the employers would always get their way, because many government officials had stock in the companies, or as with Henry Ford, the owners of the companies were also political figures. Some companies even went so far as to hire thugs, such as the Black Legion, (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 238-239, 241) who would harass, beat, and sometimes kill striking workers. Americans, still remembering the Red Scare of 1919 (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 222-223 ), saw striking as the un-American thing to do, and strikers were seen as Communists and as enemies of the American Way, or Capitalism. In reality they were simply men who wanted safe working conditions and decent living wages, so that they could take care of themselves and their families. For their efforts, they were beaten, arrested, and sometimes even murdered because they wanted fair treatment and a share in the profits they helped to earn for company owners who paid themselves millions of dollars a year while paying the people who did most the work for them barely enough to get by. For instance, “In a year when the average factory worker earned a maximum of $900, General Motors reported record net earnings of $238.5 million, and its 1,678 salaried employees, including officers and directors, received $10,408,000”(Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242). At GM factories, workers had to endure unfair treatment by foremen, unpaid layoffs that could last up to five months without compensation, had no unemployment insurance, and were subjected to “speedups” to catch up production after other workers had been fired (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242). No matter how hard workers tried to get their fair share, company owners and management were unrelenting. Most of the workers just gave up and went back to work under the same conditions as before.
One successful technique, which was first used by rubber workers in Akron, Ohio in 1936 and consequently forced management to the bargaining table, was the sit-down striking method (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 241) . The basic strategy of the method was, the striking workers took control of a factory, lock themselves inside, and would not budge until management agreed to negotiate. Because of its effectiveness, (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 241) this technique was adopted by Michigan autoworkers. It had to work, they had no other options. Even at a time when some laborers had unions, the auto workers, because they were unskilled labor, were not qualified to join (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 241). Companies had their own unions that the employees could join, but those were not there to benefit the workers. During the forming of unions, (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242) companies such as GM would hire spies to harass workers into not joining them. Getting caught joining a union could mean getting fired. With the creation of the Committee for Industrial Organization/United Automotive Workers in 1935, (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 241) unskilled workers had another option, but company owners refused to negotiate with this new union. If the workers joined the union and went on strike, management could easily replace them with other workers. The odds did not stand in their favor.
During the sit-down strike of Flint, Michigan (Grimm, 158) which began December 30, 1936, and ended February 11, 1937, factory workers took control of the Chevrolet and Fisher Body Plants, owned by General Motors, one of the three automobile giants in Michigan. This was a big move on their part, because General Motors controlled almost everything that took place in Flint. They had influence over everyone from political, judicial, and welfare officials, on down, to the local newspaper (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242). Approximately eighty percent of Flint’s residents depended on GM for their livelihoods in one way or other (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242). Technically, General Motors owned Flint, Michigan.
In 1937, the nation was still recovering from the Great Depression. When the factory workers in Flint, Michigan went on strike, they were risking everything to go against General Motors. One can only imagine what they had to go through while being surrounded by law enforcement and people who opposed the strike. Remembering how other strikes ended badly in years past, they must have been worried, not just for themselves, but also for their families on the outside. Were their loved ones safe? Were they being called Communists? Were they being harassed? The automobile industry held a lot of political clout. General Motors tried all of the usual tactics that had worked for companies in the past when it came to striking workers (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242-243). However, unlike his predecessors, Governor Frank Murphy, (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242) refused to get involved with labor disputes and encouraged each side to work it out amongst themselves. I think, his decision not to evict the strikers helped to tip the battle in the favor of the striking factory workers (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 242). By using the sit-down striking method, the workers held their ground, refusing to give in to the threats, lack of support from fellow workers, or luring promises, and miraculously gained the upper hand over the “giant” forcing General Motors to negotiate. Shortly thereafter, other automakers followed suit (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 243). Henry Ford was the most reluctant to give in, but he relented eventually after putting unionization to a vote for his workers to decide (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 243). The majority of them were in favor of unions. Finally, April 4, 1941, Ford signed a contract with the United Automotive Workers union, making it a reliable resource for auto workers (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 243).
The Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike of 1937 helped to change labor relations nationwide. The rubber workers of Akron, Ohio should not be forgotten for setting off a chain reaction that inspired that change. If it had not been for the tenacity of few brave souls, sitting down in cold, dark factories in the middle of a Michigan winter, risking their lives to resist a giant corporation like General Motors, who knows what labor relations would be like today?
Rubenstein, Bruce A., and Lawrence E. Ziewacz. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. John Wiley & Son, 2014
Grimm, Joe, Michigan Voices: Our State’s History in the Words of the People Who Lived It, Detroit Free Press and Wayne State University Press, 1987