75 years ago: Flint autoworkers clash with police

Jan 11, 2012

Last month, Michigan Radio's Steve Carmody visited Flint to report on the 75th anniversary of the start of the Flint sit down strike, a work stoppage at multiple GM facilities beginning in 1936, which Carmody says was "pivotal to the birth of the United Auto Workers," and had profound implications for American organized labor in general.

Carmody writes:

The 44-day strike took place at a time when workers were fighting for safer working conditions and to reclaim wages lost during the depression. In the weeks leading up to the start of the Flint sit down strike, auto workers at General Motors plants in Atlanta and Kansas City had already walked off the job.   

But shutting down the General Motors complex in Flint would involve tens of thousands of workers and bring the fledgling UAW into direct conflict with General Motors.  

“The Flint sit down was a major test for labor at large," says Mike Smith,  the archivist at the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University,  "It was a major stepping stone for the UAW. United Automobile Workers really might not have existed if this strike was not successful.”

While the strike ultimately proved to be a victory for workers and led to recognition of the UAW, it was not without some violent confrontation, and as Ron Fonger with the Flint Journal writes, today marks the 75th anniversary of tensions coming to a head.

Fonger writes:

Known as the "Battle of the Running Bulls," the night of rioting, tear gas and shootings left at least 28 injured and triggered the mobilization of the National Guard by Gov. Frank Murphy the next day.

"On Jan. 11, violence began outside of Fisher Body 2 when company police shut off the heat, locked the gate to the plant and removed the ladder used to supply food to the strikers," according to the book "The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37: Witnesses and Warriors."

"When the sit-downers forced the gate open, the company police called in the Flint police for help and they responded with tear gas and bullets," the book says.

Picketers and bystanders outside Fisher 2 turned over county Sheriff Thomas Wolcott's police car and took it apart piece by piece, according to the same account.

Steve Carmody reports that although the events of January 11, 1937 resulted in the deployment of National Guard troops, "the guardsmen were not ordered to evict the sit-down strikers, but instead to keep the peace," in large part because "politicians like Governor Murphy were aware of a shift in public opinion in the union’s favor."

The sit down strikers reached a resolution with GM a month later on February 11, 1937

-John Klein Wilson, Michigan Radio Newsroom