“When You’re Right You Can’t Lose”

When Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1932, he had a job to help the people of America and to reorganize things from the Great Depression. The New Deal was implemented which included a variety of programs to bring relief, recovery and reform. In 1936 when Roosevelt was elected to a second term as president, he carried out the Second New Deal which also included more programs to better America. With this came the movement of unionism. Today, Michigan has the Freedom to Work law, which went into effect March 28, 2013. This law “is a simple measure that gives every worker the right to choose for themselves whether to join a union. It’s based on the simple truth that Michigan workers should never be forced to join – or not to join – a union.” (The Great Water pg. 197)

In 1937 workers at the General Motors Chevrolet and Fisher Body plants in Flint fought management to bargain collectively. Their reasoning was that “by locking themselves in the plants, workers believed that management would be reluctant to take any action that might result in destruction of machinery and thus would be forced to negotiate peacefully.” (Michigan pg. 241) They were striking for a minimum wage, agreement to recognize the UAW, a maximum limit of hours, and the stop to an overload of work on employees due to the firings of other workers. They did not know what was ahead of them, and surely, they would be making history.

Francis O’Rourke, a sit-down striker says in his diary, “We have done no harm. We’re just honest working men that have been pushed so far and so hard that we can’t keep it up any longer. They say we’re lazy workers. Is a man lazy if he has not missed a day’s work in two years, has not been late, and kept up with a line manufacturing forty-five bodies in an hour all that time?” (The Great Water pg. 179). However, management did not negotiate peacefully as the strikers thought they would with a sit-down strike. They wouldn’t give in to the strikers. The employees would fend off police with icy cold-water hoses and throw stones, bottles, bricks, hinges, and bolts. Police broke the glass in the windows and fired tear gas. They spent a lot of their time praying – “Reds, I see they call us. Reds if you will but I wish I could take you down the aisles of this silent factory about midnight and see these men on their knees at their cotton beds, asking their heavenly father for protection and blessings and I know asking the father of peace to guide them right. Men on their knees in prayer.” (The Great Water pg. 186). Francis misses his family tremendously too, evidenced throughout the diary but in particular after Christmas he says, “I wonder if Patsy can ride the tricycle Santa Claus brought her, and Jerry the bike. I have some Christmas shirts I’d like to try on. Sweet probably want the basement cleaned.” (The Great Water pg. 180) He also talks about missing his wife (Sweet) and the nights they would normally go out to the movies. They suffered cold, but toughened up to it – “Well I see the heat has been shut off again, and it’s getting quite cold in here. Well let’s wrap up a little warmer, we’ll have no trouble about that.” (The Great Water pg. 182) They suffered hunger when the police locked their doors – “Those hot meals those ladies have out there will be cold in a few minutes.” “Won’t they let our dinners from union headquarters in either?” “You can be cold, you know, but cold and hungry is too much.” (The Great Water pg. 182)

They would hear news from the outside and try to listen to the radio to keep updated on the meetings and conferences taking place on the issue. They had put their faith and trust in Governor Murphy that the turnout would be reasonable. It brought down employers manufacturing output when they sat in the plant, putting it out of use, that they did have to come to some terms for the employees as Governor Murphy “refused to summon troops to end the sit-ins, choosing instead to urge the opposing sides to bargain collectively. He told Michigan citizens that he would never use bullets to end a strike.” (Michigan pg. 244) These men felt hopeless, as there was highs and lows in the gloomy plant in the winter months from December 30, 1936 to February 11, 1937 and finally on that day “Despite pleas from the mayor that the police attack, on February 11, General Motors gave in and the strike was over.” (Michigan pg. 243) To this day, labor organizations tend to still be an issue, but a much smaller issue then it was during this time. Strikers made it known that their voice was to be heard, endured violence and harsh conditions to prove a point. Because of their striking, today we have safe workplace rules, employee protection rights, numerous regulations varying from industry to industry and overall more structured workplaces.

Sources used:

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.

9 thoughts on ““When You’re Right You Can’t Lose”

  1. I can only imagine how tough it must have been for these workers and their families. They didn’t know if their efforts would work or if when it was all said and done they might not even have a job, let alone gain higher wages or better working conditions. I think the hardest thing would have been the roller coaster ride of one day thinking things were going well and an agreement would be met, only to have their hopes crushed and find out that management refused to even negotiate with the union reps. Also, these men were used to being the providers for their families and they knew that things were getting tough at home and coal was running short. I’m sure there were many days when the workers considered just calling the strike quits and going back to work, just so they could start making money again.

  2. First, I love your blog title, very fitting for the topic. I loved your analysis of the O’Rourke letters. I too used them for my post but really enjoyed your take on some that I did not use. Very well informed. It is crazy to hear about all the events that occurred during the strike and how it changed the game. I can not picture a world without unions in them. Great analysis!

  3. Strikes were such a very bold move for workers because nothing was guaranteed for them. They risked everything by performing these sit down strikes. Roosevelt’s new deal program was extremely important to the revival of the states and countries economy. I was shocked reading how unchanging Ford’s views were with the union issues and new deal issues. Overall this was a very well written post.

  4. I could never imagine conditions being so bad you have to go on strike. I personally don’t like the unknown and that is exactly what these people went through. It takes a very courageous and strong person to stick up for themselves and demand better wages and conditions. I thought you take on this was really good.

  5. Workers didn’t know if their efforts would pay off for their families. This must have been a very difficult thing. Strikes are such a risky move, to have the courage and ambition to make change is such a courageous thing. The conditions must have been very bad to strike.

  6. As a industrial worker I completely understand what was going on in the workers minds that caused them to want to go on strike. I personally was a part of a labor strike at Nexteer not too long ago. At some point you have to just stand up for yourself and show the owners of the companies that you are not willing to put your health at risk anymore just to make the company money.

  7. Maggie,

    I really enjoyed all the quotes you used throughout this blog. It really helped prove your point. All these men wanted were things that we look at as very basic today, and a lot of it was with their families in mind. You are correct, labor issues do still exist today but situations like this pathed the path for individuals today, and strikes are fortunately not quite like this anymore.

    Great post,

  8. I loved all the nice facts you formed into your blog. Labor issues still exist today and are a major problem. However, I have a feeling they will always be an issue. Strikes back then moved mountains compared to if people were to strike today. Great job!

  9. I can only imagine how stressful striking could be, the strikers were treated as “commies” labeled as lazy, and disliked by many including the press, their bosses, and even some of their co-workers, all while struggling or unable to support their family. Reading O’Rourke’s testimony proved the true goals and traits of the strikers. Proud and determined.

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