In 1935, as part of the Committee for Industrial Organization, the United Automotive Workers union was established and with it’s creation, the dream for unionizing the automotive industry. However, the UAW was considered to be a weak union and automotive companies would not negotiate with them. It was then that Walter Ruther, an executive of the UAW, devised a plan that would set into motion automobile industry unionization. Under his direction, the first Michigan sit-down strike took place at Kelsey Hays Wheel Company, a company that supplied brake shoes for Ford. Nine days after the sit-down began, and under pressure that Ford would take his business somewhere else, Kelsey Hays Wheel Company negotiated with the UAW. With one victory under their belt, the UAW set their sights on Flint Michigan, the home of General Motors, the world’s largest automotive company.
At this time, GM controlled most of Flint with more than 80% of its population dependent upon GM for their livelihood whether they worked at the plant or not. For those employed by GM, treatment was far from fair. Workers could be fired for no other reason than a foreman’s dislike and with each firing, the production demands led to “speedup” (Rubenstein & Lawrence 242) along the lines. These men also experienced layoffs for months at a time when models where updated, during which they were given no pay or any form of unemployment insurance. As former Governor Woodbridge Ferris wrote, “The men of wealth, in all forms, are asleep over a volcano of discontent and anarchy. An industrial, or rather an economic, revolution is fast approaching” (Grimm 129). Thus, on December 30, 1936, the workers in GM’s Fisher Body No. 1 plant went on strike.
During those first few days of the strike, I imagine there was an air of excitement and hope for a deal with the union and yet, a feeling of uncertainty. Francis O’Rourke, a GM employee, kept a diary during the strike and wrote of how the men were getting to know one another and how he missed his family. Even though the strikers must have been worried to the well-being of their families, I imagine they must have incredibly proud to be united with their co-workers for a better life. As the strike continued, the men anxiously awaited any news from the outside to whether a deal had been made. On January 11, 1937, after detaining the men’s warm dinner, the plant was assaulted by police with tear gas and guns, upon which the strikers retaliated with rubber slingshots and auto hinges. O’Rourke wrote of the attack saying, “More gunfire. It’s terrible. Wild shouts and women crying for the safety of their loved ones” (Grimm 158). It must have been a terrible time indeed, and yet the men still persevered.
More than a month later, General Motors was finally forced to negotiate with the UAW and the Flint strike was finished. Chrysler soon after signed with the UAW to avoid a similar strike, leaving only Ford to accept. Then in the spring of 1941, Ford and the UAW reached an agreement and the “Big Three” (French PP week 4) were finally unionized. The success of these strikes motivated many other business and soon cigar factories, hotels, laundries, and department stores began to go on strike. Through these strikes we can see how the dynamic of the employer/employee relationship changed. No longer were the workers unable to do anything about their jobs, rather, they were able unite and confront those in a place of power.
Throughout this period in history, unionism was strengthened by the New Deal’s initiative to provide jobs for people. By providing jobs through federal programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, parks were built, cities renovated, and unemployed entertainers hired by the government for the enjoyment of the people. The WPA was influential in the building and updating of many schools, airports, theaters, and libraries. Thus, you could say that the New Deal gave Michiganders a better life, a sense of pride, and the courage to sit-down and demand a better way of life.
Brecher, Jeremy. “A striker’s orchestra in the occupied Flint plant”. Library.org 4 September 2013, https://libcom.org/history/flint-sit-down-strike-1936-1937-jeremy-brecher
“Flint Sitdown Strike–Pt. 1”. YouTube, uploaded by James Von Shilling 6 January 2010,
“Flint Sitdown Strike–Pt. 2”. YouTube, uploaded by James Von Shilling 6 January 2010,
French, Amy. Impact of the Automobile PowerPoint week 4.
Grimm, Joe. Michigan Voices: Our State’s History in the Words of the People Who Lived It. Wayne State University Press, 1987.
Rubenstein, Bruce A. and Lawrence E. Ziewacz. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. Wiley Blackwell, 2014.