The Flint sit down strike changed unionism and transformed the United Auto Workers (UAW) from a fringe group to a major force. The UAW decided to occupy General Motors’ (GM) Fisher body plant to block the auto makers’ attempt to break the union. The group attacked police, ignored court orders, and eventually won recognition. The UAW victory boosted membership and gave the organization political clout.
The UAW formed in 1935 and decided to organize the bigger auto plants. Organizers believed the union might not survive culling together smaller plants. They decided to take on GM in Flint, Michigan. General Motors practically owned the city and its politicians. Union forces contended with death threats, spies, coercion, and the political power structure. They decided to strike several plants in January 1937 when the leftist Frank Murphy assumed Michigan’s governorship.
Workers at the Cleveland Fisher Body plant did not wait for Governor Murphy. They struck on their own initiative before the New Year. The UAW quickly declared they would not settle until they reached an agreement covering all GM facilities. Then, they moved to target the Flint plant.
GM seemed one step ahead of the UAW. The auto giant decided to temporarily move operations out of the plant. In response, the workers decided to occupy the plant on December 30, 1936. Basically, they held the plant hostage. The sit-down strike kept workers in the plant and all others out.
General Motors did not take the strike lying down. They found a judge with GM stock and won an injunction against the strike. The stock revelation disqualified the judge. The strike continued into January.
Flint sent police into the plant following the injunction fiasco. Authorities lobbed tear gas into the plant, workers smashed windows to air the structure, and then attacked police. The police marched repeatedly at the workers for six hours while workers threw parts and unleashed fire hoses. Eventually, law enforcement pulled back.
The union evicted the police on January 11, 1937. As a result, they felt emboldened enough to ignore a second injunction on February 1. On top of this, the UAW extended the strike to another facility. The union misdirected GM into defending the wrong plant. GM feared further strikes and opened negotiations. On top of this, Governor Murphy used the National Guard to defend workers.
The UAW and GM reached an agreement on February 11. Basically, it gave the UAW the right to represent GM workers who had been in the union for six months. The UAW now had credibility, respectability, and power. The organization had become legitimate. They quickly added over 100,000 workers to their rolls. By World War II, the organization had over 500,000 members, which quickly assumed a major role in local, state, national, and Democratic politics for decades.
The UAW formed in 1935 and became immensely powerful and popular in short order. Their bold gamble in Flint paid off handsomely through expanded membership, power, and legitimacy. However, their rise came through violence and flaunting the law. In the end, the organization became respectable and represented millions of workers.