Today is the 75th anniversary of one of the key moments in the history of organized labor in the United States: The beginning of the Flint Sit Down Strike.
The Flint Sit-Down Strike was pivotal to the birth of the United Auto Workers.
Three-quarters of a century later the echoes of the event still resonate.
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.”
Al Bodette worked for GM in Flint in the 1930’s. His job as a metal finisher was to buff metal edges down in the body shop. In a 2006 interview with the Flint Journal, Bodette talked about what it was like to work without a union when health and safety rules were basically non-existent. Bodette described a dangerous workplace, where a man could lose his job at the whim of a supervisor and getting caught with a union card would get you fired.
General Motors was closely watching the UAW in 1936, well aware that a strike was looming in Flint. A strike at an auto plant in Cleveland accelerated the pace of events. When GM planned to shift some supplies out of the Flint plant to avoid a possible disruption to production, the UAW acted, ordering its members to sit down on the job, effectively stopping production.
For 44 days, UAW members held their ground. Striker Al Bodette recalled that the UAW members were isolated, alone, sometimes fighting with GM security, local police and even other auto workers who just wanted to get back to work.
"They were against us….all the judges were against us…the whole city you know," Bodette told a reporter with the Flint Journal, "But any how we made it…we didn’t give in.”
Eventually, Michigan Governor Frank Murphy sent in the National Guard. But unlike in the union movement’s past when this kind of escalation would have meant violence and bloodshed, the guardsmen were not ordered to evict the sit-down strikers, but instead to keep the peace.
Walter Reuther library archivist Mike Smith says politicians like Governor Murphy were aware of a shift in public opinion in the union’s favor.
“For example….the president of the United States…Franklin Roosevelt said … ‘if I worked in a factory, I would join a union’. When was the last time you heard a president support unions to that degree," Smith asks.
Eventually, General Motors relented and agreed to recognize the United Auto Workers. Smith says the victory of the sit-down strikers legitimized the UAW. It also served as a building block for future union contracts.
Al Bodette died in 2007. His son Ron followed his father into the U-A-W. Ron Bodette, now retired and living in Mount Morris, agrees that over time the hard fight was, if not forgotten, under-appreciated.
“It seems to me that there’s a lot of stuff that I myself even took for granted even hearing the story every day when I was growing up you know," says Ron Bodette.
The reality facing unions today is dramatically different today than 75 years ago. Sit down strikes are illegal now. The economy’s different. The makeup of the workforce is different. And the public has a dimmer view of organized labor.
There are a few monuments honoring the sit-down strikers in Flint. One historic marker stands on a lonely stretch of road near the site of a former auto plant, long since torn down and now an empty lot. The historic marker a few years ago fell victim to vandals.
A short distance away, there are a few people hoping to recapture some of the spirit of the sit-down strikers. A handful of young men in their 20’s is huddled around a wood stove trying to keep warm. On an empty lot that the property owner has loaned them, members of Occupy Flint have filled a large tent with supplies they hope will keep them warm and their movement going through the winter. They are all aware of the sit-downer strikers history in Flint.
One of them, a man named Sean, says he see parallels between the sit down strikers and the occupy movement.
“There’s things that happened there…75 years ago…that are happening today…people’s eyes are opening," says Sean.
Another occupier named Jason agrees. “What they won for us has slowly been bled away and changed back to the system the industry mongers would like to see," says Jason, "which is….low wages…low regulations on things like safety and health.”
The occupiers see themselves as something of a 21st century version of the sitdown strikers. They feel they are starting a movement that can affect the kind of change the union movement achieved in the 1930’s.
Walter Reuther library archivist Mike Smith feels equating the Occupy movement with the Flint sit down strike to be ‘somewhat of a leap’.
“You don’t have an industry that needs hundreds of thousands of workers where you have a base so that you’re not only just occupying and having signs…and sitting in a park." says Smith. Reflecting on the sit down strikers, Smith says "(They had actual) tools…i.e., shutting down production that can influence the situation.”
Longtime UAW member and son of a sit down striker, Ron Bodette sees it a little differently. Bodette likes the Occupiers, but he also sees the movement’s future as limited.
“These Occupy Wall Street people that are out there now they’re trying to do everything legal that they can. Every place they turn they run into a dead end," says Ron Bodette, "They’re not asking for much. And they’re peaceful, as peaceful as you can get. And what’s happening? They’re not getting anything done.”
Bodette says for real change to take place, the Occupiers will need to take a cue from the sit down strikers and break some rules.
The UAW is planning to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Flint Sit Down Strike in February, coinciding with the anniversary of the ending of the strike.