In December 1936 US workers occupied General Motors’ (GM) car plants in Flint, Michigan, and won an inspiring victory.The tactic of occupation came to the fore during the Great Depression.
Workers had taken part in sit-down strikes, or occupations, in the past, but it was in the 1930s when bosses attacked workers’ pay and conditions that this became a key weapon for the working class.
Rumours of management moving equipment to plants where workers’ organisation was weaker sparked the occupation.
The background was a much wider struggle to build unions across the car industry.
The workers took action in difficult circumstances.
“Once you pass the gates of General Motors, forget about the United States constitution,” was a well-known saying of the time. It’s easy to see why.
GM plants were notorious for “speed-up” practices. One witness described the working conditions, “The men worked like fiends, their jaws set and eyes on fire. Nothing in the world exists for them except the line of chassis bearing down on them relentlessly.”
Foremen had the power to sack workers for any or no reason at all.
Yet workers faced a dilemma. While conditions at GM were terrible, there was the constant fear of what lay in store if you got the sack.
Of the 146,000 residents in Flint, 44,000 worked for GM. Not only were their families dependent on them, the entire city depended on them buying food, clothing, and the rest.
GM wasn’t merely the major employer – it ran the city. It controlled the main daily newspaper, the radio stations and had its own police force.
Every city official – including the mayor, police chief and judges – were either GM officials or held stock in the company.
As Irving King, a GM worker, recalled, “In this town, I guess everywhere, their authority was absolute. And even when the strike was finally pulled, it was only about one man in four, or maybe less, that thought GM could be beaten.”
The United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) was formed in 1936. It was part of the wave of new unionisation that swept the US at the time. Previously, car workers had been seen as a section that could not be organised.
Flint and other struggles showed that belief to be wrong.
GM workers trying to build union organisation risked their jobs and lives.
The corporation went to great lengths to try and stop workers organising. Bosses hired lip-readers to watch workers to see if they were talking about the union. People who wore a union badge into work were fired.
The company spent almost $1 million on spies between January and June 1936. It had more tear gas and other riot control equipment than the combined supply of every city across the US.
GM hired thugs to beat up workers they suspected of trying to organise the union. The occupations are a testament to the bravery of the workers in the face of this repression.
The Flint sit-down strike began on 30 December. Workers immediately secured the plant. They formed barricades at all entrances and put bulletproof metal sheets over the windows.
They put paint spraying guns around the plant in readiness to deal with any invaders.
Then workers held a mass meeting and elected committees to run the strike. From then on, strikers held two meetings a day of the entire plant. They created their own community.
Organisation outside the plant was just as important as that inside. Food was critical – thousands inside and outside the plants had to be fed every day.
Just one day’s food supply included 500lbs of meat, 100lbs of potatoes, 300 loaves of bread, 100lbs of coffee, 200lbs of sugar and 30 gallons of milk. Bus drivers handled the transportation of food – repaying the solidarity shown to them by car workers during their own strike.
Other groups of workers raised solidarity with the occupation.
One problem strikers faced was boredom. But there was no shortage of people to help counter it. Detroit’s Contemporary Theatre put on plays and a graduate student from the University of Michigan led a writing class.
Charlie Chaplin donated his film Modern Times and workers held film showings. They wrote poems and songs, and put on plays ridiculing GM bosses.
Women were a key part of the strike. Socialist activist Genora Dollinger set up a Women’s Auxiliary to help on the picket lines and spread solidarity.
At the Battle of Bulls Run on 11 January, GM and the police launched an attack on the strikers, teargassing them and shooting at them.
A long battle ensued. The turning point came when Genora used the union’s soundcar to address the women in the watching crowd saying, “Break through those police lines and come down here and stand beside your husbands and your brothers and your uncles and your sweethearts.”
The women began to push through the police and walk down towards the pickets. The police were forced to retreat and the battle had been won.The Women’s Emergency Brigade was formed to mobilise women to intervene wherever a battle broke out.
GM set up a strike-breaking organisation, the Flint Alliance, and tried to use it to start a “back to work” movement.
Flint governor Frank Murphy called both sides in to negotiate on 13 January and GM said that it would begin national bargaining with UAW. After lengthy discussions about what to do, workers prepared to leave their occupations.
Then they discovered that GM planned to negotiate with the Flint Alliance. The union stopped the evacuations of the plants while workers discussed this new development. They decided to stay in – bringing cheers from their supporters outside.
The unions argued that US president Franklin D Roosevelt should force GM to engage in collective bargaining – but he refused.
By mid-January things had reached a stalemate and one side had to escalate. Workers found a way to do it.
Chevrolet Plant 4 in Flint was GM’s single largest unit, producing engines. It was heavily guarded.
Workers came up with a plan to take Plant 4. They would use GM’s own spies against the company. The workers held a “secret” meeting and said that they were going to shut down Plant 9.
The informers told GM bosses, who then mobilised all of their forces outside Plant 9 – leaving Plant 4 unguarded.
Police brutally attacked the pickets who gathered at Plant 9 and gassed the workers inside. But other workers took Plant 4.
GM was forced into negotiations on 4 February, having previously refused to talk while workers remained inside.
Then GM won an injunction to remove the workers and people prepared for the worst. People arrived outside to defend the occupations.
Various plants shut down because so many workers had left work to go and defend the workers in Flint. 10,000 came from Detroit’s Dodge and Chrysler plants.
Around 20,000 people from Flint massed at the plants.
GM surrendered on 11 February 1937. It signed an agreement recognising the UAW as the representative of the workers. Victorious workers marched out of the occupation and led a two-mile parade that thousands joined.
In 1936 GM controlled 43 percent of the US car industry. It was bigger than Ford and Chrysler combined. Yet workers had forced it into a humiliating defeat.
For some of the workers, leaving the occupation after 44 days was an odd feeling. John Thrasher said, “As the exhilaration of our first union victory wore off the gang was occupied with thoughts of leaving the silent factory.
“One found himself wondering what home life would be like again. Nothing that happened before the strike began seemed to register in the mind any more. It is as if time itself started with the strike.”
People were different after the strike. “The auto worker became a different human being,” said Genora. “The women that had participated actively became a different type of woman, their heads were high and they had confidence in themselves.
“The whole nature of the city changed.”
The foremen, used to using threats to cow workers, were now walking on eggshells. The workers’ fear had gone.
Through their union, workers then went on to win other things. In the following two weeks, 87 sit-downs took place in Detroit. Unionisation spread across the car industry.
After the occupations, GM president Alfred Sloan acknowledged that once workers ignored the law, “the corporation stood powerless”.
As one of the Flint occupiers put it, “Now we know our labour is more important than the money of the stockholders, than the gambling on Wall Street, than the doings of the managers and foremen.”
It can sometimes seem that militant action like this couldn’t happen today. But the story of Flint is not simply a history lesson.
As more and more workers are beginning to use occupations to fight back, the experience of the Flint workers hold valuable lessons in how to win.
Go to » www.historicalvoices.org/flint for more details and voices from the occupation