The New Deal and Unionism in Michigan


The 1937 Flint sit-down strikes consisted of multiple peaceful strikes that took place on the property of General Motors in hopes of taking down the leading automotive manufacture in the United States. The UAW formed in 1935 and soon realized their small peaceful rallies were not taking hold and making a big impact. As automotive workers were overworked and underpaid while working in dangerous conditions the UAW knew the working force needed a voice. As the strike began the workers of the Fisher #1 plant in Flint, MI took a seat and stopped production. This would start multiple sit-down strikes throughout GM’s main plants. None bigger than the strike to shutdown GM engine plant #4 that was the main component of GM and the heart of the operation. Over a month of striking and many failed attempts to connect with GM to achieve a deal, in February of 1937 GM and the UAW signed a one page contract to work with the UAW. This form of bargaining and agreement was all made possible from the courages efforts of GM workers to take a peaceful stance and force GM’s hand.

All of the action the UAW was able to accomplish was due large impart to president Roosevelt’s New Deal and its positive impact on unionism. The New Deal signed into effect two major acts, the National Labor Relations Act and the National Industrial Recovery Act. Both of these acts made it possible for collective bargaining and enforced that companies had to bargain within good faith with all unions that held a majority of employees in their company. This made it possible for the UAW to take aim at GM and all three major automotive companies.

After president Roosevelt created his New Deal and passed many acts that promoted unions, the UAW was born and subsequently would change employee/employer relations forever. As we remember from the copper strike of 1913, relations between employee/employer has not always been fair and controlled. With the idea of a peaceful sit-down strike it created a way of voicing your displeasure in a nonviolent and effective way. By not leaving the factory the protestors made it impossible for the company to replace them and their peaceful manner made it hard for them to attack the workers with force. There certainly was a length of time between the strike and the conclusion, but the mostly peaceful protest was finally heard and revolutionized how workers asserted their displeasure.

The Flint sit-down strike of 1937 may have started in a small nonviolent way, but it changed how workers viewed their employers. The UAW gained over 400,00 members in the process of taking down GM and created a new life for unions over all fields of employment. It is not to be forgotten the importance of those protestors who lived inside factories for over a month and struggled to stay as the mighty GM was not bending. The conditions were dirty and uncomfortable as many created beds anywhere they could. However, they kept occupied and focused on the larger goal of better working conditions and better pay.

7 thoughts on “The New Deal and Unionism in Michigan

  1. My dad works at GM in Flint and when one plant isn’t operating it really puts a wrench in the whole company. I can imagine how devastating it would be to the company to have these sit down strikes. It was a great way to get the attention of the company! Great blog!

  2. My husband work for GM Powertrain in Flint, in 1994 and was a non union worker. He and myself both working for GM has seen a few strikes. All were pretty peaceful except for one, which I don’t remember the year, became pretty violent. He was trying to leave after a day of work and protesters were outside and wouldn’t let anyone leave and if they tried to leave they would take boards and hit your car. Unfortunately, most GM plants in Flint are gone and no is a ghost town in that area. With working with all UAW workers I really got to understand there means and respect the people they are. They are like a family and protect each other. Very well written blog and with my history of working with GM I found this weeks study very interesting.

  3. The conditions that employers forced on employees was very dangerous. Workers invested a good majority of their time, working long stressful hours in General Motors. The workers weren’t treated with respect and on top of that they weren’t paid enough. The suffering that workers faced brought in the involvement of unions. Unions didn’t really feel like GM’s working conditions was beneficial to the workers. GM abruptly responded and made workers sign agreements not to have any affiliation with any unions. This would soon get overruled by the president. I couldn’t imagine facing the problem that GM workers did.

  4. It is amazing to me that such a peaceful protest evoked such violence and outrage. The persons of the time were so proud and really wanted to work, they truly just wanted to be treated fairly. Unions were born of great need and with a mission to level the playing field. As many other things in this world has changed and evolved one item to remember is why and where they came from.

  5. The sit-down strike was effective because of many different factors. The depression created a huge pool of workers for the owners. Conditions at work grew worse and if anyone complained, they were simply replaced. The union helped to prevent this displacement of workers. The media played a large part in reporting the sit-down strike and helped to gains support for the workers.

  6. The UAW helped not only the workers at GM, but workers all around the country. It is cool to see that an organization, with a bunch of followers stand up to a very powerful company for ethical and fair treatment of its workers.

  7. I really liked your last paragraph. While I was reading I was amazed that the workers made beds and stayed inside the factory no matter what. Like you said, they had a goal and they weren’t going to stray from that. The resilience of the workers paved ways for unions and workers alike.

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