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Michigan autoworkers win strike for union rights, 1936-37
In December 1936, autoworkers at General Motors' (GM) plants across Michigan staged multiple sit-down strikes, the longest of which lasted 44 days. The workers originally demanded that GM recognize their union, the United Autoworkers of America (UAW) as the sole bargaining agent for all GM employees. The autoworkers also demanded that GM end all discriminatory practices against its workers and relax efforts to speed up production. The strike had significant financial repercussions for GM and its success inspired unions and workers across the country and world to stand up for their rights. At the end of the 44-day strike, GM agreed to recognize the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for all of its employees in the plants where the workers had struck. The company also agreed to end discrimination and increase hourly pay by five cents.
In December 1936, the UAW requested a conference with the chief officers of GM to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of all GM workers. GM denied this request and instead told workers to address grievances with their individual plant managers.
The UAW presented a proposed contract to GM's top management on December 29 and requested an answer within a week. The next morning, the workers at GM's Fisher Body plant No. 2 in Flint, Michigan, sat down in reaction to a GM decision to transfer inspectors to other jobs because they would not leave the union. That day, GM attempted to transport dies out of Flint by rail to other plants with weaker unions. In response, the workers at Fisher Body Plant No. 1 sat down that afternoon, halting production and retaining possession of the plant and the dies.
Over the next month and a half, the strike spread through the GM system in Michigan. In early February, the majority of GM's 200,000 workers were on strike and production of cars had diminished to 1,500 per week, from 53,000 in mid-December.
GM refused to negotiate with the UAW unless the workers vacated the plants. The workers knew, however, that if they left their factories, GM would lock them out and they would lose their position of power. The workers agreed to leave the plants on condition that GM would not resume production while negotiations took place. GM refused.
On January 2, 1937, at GM's request, Judge Edward Black issued an injunction against the workers. This injunction restrained the autoworkers from continuing to occupy the plants, and barred them from picketing the plants and from preventing any worker from voluntarily entering the plant to work. The Flint sheriff, Thomas Wolcott, showed up at the Fisher Body plant and read Judge Black's injunction. To obey would be to concede defeat, so the workers laughed the sheriff out of the building. Three days later, the UAW charged that Judge Black had ruled in a case in which he had a significant financial interest. The union claimed that he owned 3,665 shares of GM stock. The union petitioned the state legislature to impeach Judge Black for conflict of interest.
On January 11, GM turned off the heat in the plant. City police mobilized around the plant and GM police attempted to starve out the workers by attacking supporters who provided food. GM police also removed ladders that the supporters used to get food through the windows of the plant. In response, the strikers captured the plant's gates. The city police then attacked the strikers and attempted to recapture the gates. Police threw tear gas bombs at the strikers and their supporters, and used clubs and riot guns against them. From within the plant, some strikers used internal fire hoses against the police and threw small metal objects out the windows. The strikers, who had only been in possession of the second floor of the building, then took control of the entire building. The battle lasted for four hours. Fourteen workers were wounded and were hospitalized. Through it all, union organizers broadcasted encouragement over loudspeakers and gave directions on how to effectively ward off the police. At the end of the battle, the workers remained in possession of the plants.
As soon as the fourteen workers who had been wounded in the January 11 battle were released from the hospital, they were immediately jailed. The county prosecutor also obtained 1,200 anonymous warrants to jail any strike sympathizer. Seven UAW leaders were jailed and charged with malicious destruction of property and unlawful assembly. During this period, the National Guard started to arrive in Flint.
At this point, GM and the UAW reached an agreement that called for both sides to enter into negotiations and for the workers to evacuate all plants. Ahead of these negotiations, the UAW insisted that GM recognize it as the sole bargaining agency for all GM workers. After workers in other plants around the state and region abandoned their sit-down and left their buildings, and half an hour before the workers in Flint were to do the same, the UAW discovered that GM's executive vice-president, W.S. Knudsen, had agreed to negotiate with the Flint Alliance. The Flint Alliance was a semi-union, semi-company organization, which the UAW saw as a threat. Upon learning Knudsen's plan, the workers in Flint abandoned their plan to exit the building, and remained in control of the plants.
February 1 was a pivotal day in the UAW's struggle. On this day, workers shut down the main Chevrolet plant in Flint, (No. 4) in which all Chevrolet motors were assembled. To take control of this plant was not easy because it was very close to GM's personnel building, which was headquarters for company police. At 3:35 p.m., the workers staged a mock attempt to take control of Chevrolet plant No. 9, which was in a far corner of the complex. GM police quickly responded and rushed towards No. 9 in an effort to keep the workers from entering the building. Upon hearing the commotion, workers in plant No. 6 started to move towards plant No. 9 to provide backup. Union organizers, however, redirected the plant No. 6 workers towards plant No. 4. When GM police arrived at plant No. 4, the workers had already occupied the motor -assembly building, halting all production of Chevrolets.
GM police threw tear gas into plant No. 4 and No. 6 and tried to storm the main gates of plant No. 4. The Women's Emergency Brigade, a group comprised of wives, mothers, and sisters of the workers, smashed both plants' windows to prevent their loved ones from suffocating from the gas. This group also locked arms to prevent the police from entering the main gates at plant No. 4.
On February 2, Circuit Judge Paul V. Gadola issued a similar injunction to that of Judge Black. Judge Gadola ordered all sit-down protesters to vacate all GM plants by 3:00 p.m. the following day or face a fine of $15,000,000. He also ordered the workers to stop picketing and interfering with those who wanted to enter the buildings to work. Sheriff Wolcott ordered the evacuation of occupied buildings, but again the workers did not adhere to these orders. The sheriff, understanding that he lacked the resources necessary to force the workers out of their plants, asked Michigan Governor Frank Murphy to call in additional National Guard.
Governor Murphy complied with the sheriff's request. The Guard surrounded the various occupied plants. At Fisher Body plant No. 2 and Chevrolet plant No. 4, the Guard prevented union supporters from providing any food to the strikers inside. The Guard also prevented all reporters from speaking to the strikers. At Fisher Body No. 1, however, strikers were permitted to enter and exit the plant freely.
The stalemate continued through the week. On February 11, GM and the UAW reached an agreement whereupon the strike would end immediately and the workers would return to work. Under the agreement, GM would recognize the UAW as the sole bargaining agent for its workers in the 20 plants that had gone on strike. In addition, GM agreed not to discriminate against any UAW member and drop all court charges. The UAW agreed to refrain from recruiting on GM property and go on strike only after every other method for addressing grievances had been tried.
The autoworkers saw this agreement as a victory and felt as if they had won a battle against a powerful corporation. After the agreement was announced, workers at all of the 20 occupied plants marched out, singing "Solidarity Forever.”