The multinationals Ford and General Motors (GM) have launched a massacre of jobs across the car industry. These giant firms are destroying the lives of thousands of car workers at Dagenham in east London and Vauxhall in Luton. How can we beat Ford and General Motors? In the United States in the 1930s thousands of car workers took on General Motors, the world’s biggest corporation, and won. Their struggle forced GM to recognise the United Auto Workers union throughout its plants and transformed the trade union movement in the US. On 30 December 1936 some 3,000 workers occupied GM’s Flint plant in Michigan. The workers went on strike, in the face of huge intimidation from management, to demand that GM recognised unions. When workers at the Fisher Number One plant in Flint discovered GM bosses attempting to remove equipment a cry of anger went up. ‘Shut her down! Shut down the goddam plant!’ workers demanded.
Henry Kraus, a worker involved in the occupation, describes how ‘the cry was taken up by the whole room till it was nothing but one big shout’. The workers broke into the factory to occupy it. ‘They broke through the door and made a race for the plant gates, running in every direction toward the quarter-mile building front,’ is how Henry Kraus describes it.
When the plant was secure a worker waved from the window, shouting, ‘Hooray, Bob! She’s ours!’ The workers quickly organised themselves. They arranged picket duty at the gates.
They also organised outside patrols, sanitation, cleaning and 24-hour kitchens with hot meals. The strike did not just involve the car workers-it was a revolt against the way a whole town was run.
In the 1930s Flint was a ‘company town’, completely controlled by General Motors. Henry Kraus describes how ‘the city’s atmosphere reeked with sycophancy on behalf of the corporation’.
THE CITY’S political leaders, including the mayor and the police chief, were all GM shareholders and company officials. The only daily paper, the Flint Journal, and the local radio station were both under the corporation’s thumb. The Flint struggle came after US workers had suffered years of defeat and huge demoralisation during the Great Depression in the early 1930s. And it was led by a group of workers who were not previously known for their militancy.
The car workers had no tradition of organising collectively in trade unions. They were among the new unskilled workers pouring into the growing car factories from farms in the Deep South of the US. There were either no trade unions in the car plants or craft-based trade unions which only organised a minority of skilled workers. But the sit-down strike grew out of the struggle to unionise the car plants. Union activists recruited car workers in Flint to the United Auto Workers, going door to door, visiting workers at home and discussing why they should join the union.
A government committee headed by Leon Henderson reported in 1935, ‘Labour unrest [in the automobile industry] exists to a degree higher than is warranted by the depression. The unrest flows from insecurity, low annual earnings, inequitable hiring and rehiring methods, espionage, speed- up and displacement of workers at an extremely early age.’
Conditions inside the car plants were horrific. Henry Kraus describes how ‘during July a torrid heat wave sent the thermometer boiling over-100 degrees for a week straight. But the assembly lines pounded away mercilessly while the workers fell at their stations like flies. ‘Death in the state’s auto centres ran into the hundreds within three or four days, and the clang of the hospital ambulances was heard incessantly as they dashed to and from the factories in Detroit, Pontiac and Flint.’ Outside the car plants most factory workers lived in costly slum housing. Their homes had no indoor baths or toilets, no heating or hot running water.
WHEN WORKERS occupied the Flint plant everyone in the town rallied to the cause. Women who worked in the plant or had partners or sons working there became actively involved. They organised the strike kitchen, and got supplies by appealing to local farmers and workers for donations.
Women and children were also involved in the picketing. To allow women to march on the picket line, Wilma McCartney took charge of childcare. She had nine children and was about to have her tenth. She persuaded women to support the union by explaining the benefits to be won in the sit-down.
Many of the women were transformed by the dispute, and their involvement went far beyond the traditional supporting help of first aid and cooking. Women took public speaking classes laid on by the union and began to take a political lead alongside the male workers. Workers also took a stand against racism in GM.
Only one black man, Roscoe Van Zandt, was involved in the Flint sit-down. He had previously been forced to eat by himself in the corner. But on the first night of the occupation the other workers offered Roscoe the only clear table and blanket to sleep on. The revolt shook GM to the core. The bosses tried everything to break the sit-down strike.
They stopped food coming into the plant and tried to freeze workers out by turning off the heating. They used company and city police to shoot at the pickets and bombard them with teargas.
But the workers and their families fought back. Genora Dollinger, who organised the Women’s Auxiliary, shouted at police on a loudspeaker, ‘Cowards! Cowards! Shooting into the bellies of unarmed men and firing at the mothers of children.’ The police stopped the attack.
Dollinger organised around 400 women to form the Women’s Emergency Brigade, which defended the sit-in and picket lines from attack by the police and company goons.
THE FLINT strike inspired workers across other GM plants. Workers at 15 other GM plants across the country followed Flint’s example and also staged sit-downs. Workers occupied the Chevrolet plant which was the largest single complex producing engines for all the Chevrolet cars across the country.
The Women’s Emergency Brigade helped to take control of another plant. Union men threw out the scabs and called to the brigade to ‘hold the gate. Hold it. Don’t let the police come through here!’ The police tried to force the women who blocked the gates to leave. The women appealed to the police: ‘What would you think if your wife was out here with us and you were in the plant? What would you think? Wouldn’t you expect your wife to defend you and fight for better conditions for you?’
The police were delayed long enough to allow the workers to take the plant. On 11 February 1937, after 44 days of occupation, GM was forced to sign a peace agreement recognising the United Auto Workers. The victory marked a turning point. It transformed the trade union movement and heralded a wave of industrial struggle which would win better working conditions.
The Flint victory sparked a wave of sit down strikes and fights for union recognition, not only in the car plants but across other industries. All the major production industries in the US would be unionised in the wake of the Flint victory.
Above all, Flint showed how workers can take on a giant corporation like GM and win if they stop production and seize hold of the factory. Car workers in Britain are under the cosh of GM and Ford.
But, like workers in Flint in the 1930s, they have the potential power to humble even the most powerful giant corporations.
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