On the night of December 30, 1936, workers at one of the General Motors automobile assembly plants in Flint, Michigan, locked the doors from the inside and guarded the windows.
The Flint Sit-Down Strike had begun.
For the next forty-four days, the striking workers occupied General Motors (GM) plants in Flint trying to force the world’s largest automaker to accept the United Automobile Workers (UAW) as their employees’ union. The strikers could have picketed outside the plant, but police would have harassed them. Outdoor strikers also risked losing their jobs to employees who did not go on strike. A new, more successful striking method was to “sit down” in the plant itself. Factories could not operate with strikers in the way and the companies would lose money.
The Flint Sit-down Strike, which remains to this day one of the most important moments in American labor history, began when workers banded together to protest dangerous working conditions and unfair wages. They hated plant managers who increased the speed of the assembly line. Workers who complained — or were caught talking about unions — were fired.
After the strike began, the “sit-downers” formed committees for cleaning, exercise, security, entertainment and defense. They slept on unfinished car seats, faced tear gas attacks and battled with police and company security guards who tried to get them to leave.
Wives of the strikers played important roles in the strike. They formed the Women’s Auxiliary, which introduced a public relations’ campaign to convince others that the strike was worthwhile. These women confronted police and company bullies outside the factory and delivered food and supplies to the sit-downers.
To maintain peace, Governor Frank Murphy ordered the National Guard to Flint. He was ready to force the strikers out of the plants, but he wanted to avoid bloodshed. Murphy sympathized with the strikers and knew that General Motors needed to settle the disagreement quickly. In the month before the strike, GM produced about 50,000 cars. During the first ten days of February the company built 125 cars.
On February 11, 1937, the sit-downers poured out of the GM plants to the sounds of cheering crowds. General Motors agreed to recognize the UAW and to allow the union to organize its workers. The company also agreed not to discriminate against the strikers who were returning to work. Less than two years old, the United Automobile Workers had won its first major victory.
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