On December 30, 1936, workers seeking union recognition at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, sat down on the job. Thus began a series of sit-down strikes, then a relatively new labor strategy, that worked as intended to keep management and strikebreakers out.
"Production came to a screeching halt, at a time when demand for automobiles was high," writes Brandon Weber in his new book, Class War, USA. In response, "GM used every tactic it could to force the strikers out of the plant, including cutting electricity, heat, and food." But outside vendors and a sympathetic restaurant sprang into action to provide meals. And when police armed with tear gas tried to enter, they were rebuffed by strikers with "fire hoses and car parts."
The strike, organized by the then-fledgling United Automobile Workers union, Weber notes, was not about money. It was about working conditions, including dangerous assembly line speeds and management disregard for worker health and safety. In the summer of 1936, hundreds of workers died from heat exhaustion in Michigan auto plants. Injuries were common and workers damaged for life were cast aside, without compensation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to intervene, and strikers ignored a court injunction ordering them to desist. The strike ended with a union victory after forty-four days, and established the UAW as one of the nation's top unions. Today, the UAW has more than 400,000 active members, including staff at The Progressive.
The story of the Flint sit-down strike is one of twenty-five vignettes in Class War, USA. Weber, a longtime union activist and historian, devotes only a few pages to each. Besides significant events affecting American workers, the book also briefly profiles great figures in labor history, from Joe Hill to Eugene Debs to "Rosie the Riveter" to Woody Guthrie. The writing is occasionally clunky but the cumulative effect is powerful. Weber presents the labor movements long arc of moral history as bending toward justice, one clash at a time.
Featured are the women mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts, who went on strike in the mid- 1830s for the right to work only ten-hour days. And the black Atlanta washerwomen who struck in 1881, seeking a pay rise, greater autonomy, and more respect from clients. And the Pullman porters who fought for decades for basic rights like adequate rest breaks, succeeding only after the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.