When we envision a strike, do we imagine a brutal, blood war? Of course not, and that is thanks in part to the union strikers of the 1937 Flint strike, who challenged how Michigan, and the U.S. as a whole would handle unions, labor laws and the possible strikes that might ensue.
The sit down strikes that occurred in Flint in 1937 were “a new device, first used in 1936 by rubber workers in Akron, Ohio to force management to bargain collectively.” (Blackwell, 241) As tensions increased due to unexplained firings, unpaid layoffs, no employment insurance and “speedups” in production which were almost impossible to bear, Flint was a natural setting for a strike.
In the early hours of December 30th, 1936, the strike was on. In the personal diary of Francis O’Rourke, O’Rourke explains life of the strikers who inhabited the numerous plants of strike, and the hardships they faced. Politics played a huge role in the strikers lives, and every day they awaited news on the strike and its resolution, while also living in total fear of the local police and the Flint Alliance which was “made up of General Motors employees and local businessmen, was formed allegedly to speak for the majority of workers by denouncing the strike and expressing a desire to return to their jobs.” (Blackwell, 242). The strikes took their toll on the strikers in numerous ways and as explained in O’Rourke’s personal words from the last days of the strike others would state “look out, he’s about ready to blow his top.” (Thick, 193) in regards to O’Rourke’s rattled composure and health. O’Rourke even claimed “I have lost 26 pounds and it seems like I’m losing more each day.” (Thick, 192) Many morals of O’Rourke’s were tested throughout also, as he was forced to work on the holy day of Christianity, The Sabbath (Sunday) and away from his family for over a month with very little contact and unable to provide for them.
As tensions finally escalated during certain points however, all of the strikers lived in constant terror of violence and bloodshed. On different occasions the shop was raided by the police, to an almost warlike scene. As O’Rourke states “They have broken the glass in the front door. Bang! Tear gas fired through the broken glass.” (Thick, 182-183) To defend themselves, O’Rourke states “Bring up those hoses. Come on you pickets. Stones, bottles, bricks, hinges, bolts, flying through the air, not much for defense but that’s all we have.” As O’Rourke highlights the aftermath of one of the battles, it sounds more like a battlefield, and not a automobile plant. O’Rourke hears gunfire and a shotgun fired closely amid the haze and confusion, ambulances, the wild shouts and cries on women, and bottles breaking thrown from the roof to combat the police. The police finally retreat, and the strikers air out the tear gas, tend to their wounded, and pray.
All was not lost for the strikers, and for peace, however. The governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy, decidedly pledged neutrality in the conflict, sending the national guard to protect the strikers, and stop any unnecessary violence. This stoppage in tension was crucial to understanding the scene, and that the workers had taken exceptional care of the plants, which shifted public opinion. The Lieutenant Governor of Michigan was allowed visitation and “He was quite surprised that there was no destruction after all he had read and [he] said too that we men did not appear to be the violent characters that we were painted by some of the newspapers.” (Thick 188)
Upon this neutrality, peace would be achieved. On February 11th the strike would end, but not without its infamy. O’Rourke. recollecting on his time in the strike, states “Two wars we’ve been through and this last one we knew what we were fighting for.” (Thick, 193) The Flint strikes of 1937 would set a precedent in how labor disputes are handled, and the rights every worker has. Through the strikers respect during the injustice they incurred, they won a powerful battle in the war over union rights.
Thick, Matthew R. The Great Water. Lansing, Mi.: Michigan State University Press, 2018.
Blackwell, Wiley. Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State. Mi.: University of Michigan-Flint, 2014.