SIT DOWN! SIT DOWN!
By Dick Meister
When they smile and say, no raise in pay,
Sit down! Sit down!
When you want the boss to come across,
Sit down! Sit down!
-- Sit-down strikers' song of the 1930s
Sit down they did, thousands of workers all across the country. But
especially they sat down in the automobile plants of Michigan, where the
United Auto Workers Union is marking in February the 64th anniversary
of its victory in the greatest sit-down strike of all. The victory, in
Flint, ended one of the most dramatic and important economic battles
in U.S. history.
The battle pitted the UAW, then struggling desperately for mere
survival, against General Motors, then the world's largest and most
profitable manufacturer of any kind.
Mighty GM had vowed publicly that it would never allow the UAW to
represent its employees. But the corporation ended up granting that
right -- and more -- to the union. It was a stunning victory. It led
way -- and swiftly - to the unionization of workers throughout heavy
industry and, ultimately, to unionization in all fields.
For 44 bitterly cold winter days the auto workers in Flint held out,
eventually inspiring more than two-thirds of GM's l45,OOO other production
workers to strike as well, at dozens of other plants. The strikers in
seized, shut down and occupied one, then two, then three of the key GM
plants that stood within a few hundred yards of each other.
They defied court orders to leave the plants. They hurled nuts and
bolts and pop bottles and sprayed powerful jets of water from the plants'
firehoses at the squads of local police and company guards who fired
buckshot and tear gas canisters into the plants in attempts to oust the
"It was like we were soldiers holding the fort," a striker declared.
"It was like war."
Marching just outside the plants were hundreds of pickets -- members of
the strikers' families, fellow unionists and other supporters from nearby
and from elsewhere across the United States and Canada.
The supporters provided immense aid and comfort. That included,
especially, three hot meals a day, prepared for what ultimately amounted
5,000 strikers by volunteers at a rented restaurant across the road from
plants. The food was passed through open plant windows while municipal
company police stood by in frustration, fearing the publicity they would
reap from an attack, given the heavy presence of women and children and
reporters from all over the country. Nor did they keep supporters from
entering the plants to entertain, reinforce and otherwise help the
A contingent of state guardsmen also stood by, but Michigan's
newly-elected Democratic governor, Frank Murphy, was extremely reluctant
order the men into action. He finally did bow to severe employer pressure
one evening just before the strike ended, announcing that the troopers
drive strikers from the key Chevrolet engine plant the next morning if
did not leave on their own. The governor backed off very quickly,
after he was confronted by John L. Lewis, the flamboyant leader of the
Congress of Industrial Organizations.
If the eviction order was issued, Lewis told Gov. Murphy, he would go
inside, tell the strikers to disregard it, and "then walk up to the
window in the plant, open it, divest myself of my outer raiment, remove my
shirt, and bare my bosom. Then when you order your troops to fire, mine
will be the first breast that those bullets will strike! And as my body
falls from that window to the ground, you listen to the voice of your
grandfather [an Irish rebel hanged by the British] as he whispers in your
ear, 'Frank, are you sure you are doing the right thing?"
Why were they so driven, so militant, the strikers and their
Albert Cline, a retired assembly line worker who took part in the
strikes, recalls working "in an atmosphere where you got two cups outside
the plant each morning -- one for coffee and the other to urinate in.
were no cooling fans, no gloves, no relief men. You could see 150 people
lined up at the front door, all wanting your job .... Our backs were so
we'd lie on the grass after work until we could straighten out and walk
We were ready to do anything we could to get dignity on the job."
The rate of pay was set by management whim. GM's president, vice
presidents and other top executives averaged $200,000 a year, even in
years of general economic depression. Production workers averaged $1,000
year, even with mandatory overtime work, paid for, of course, at the same
rate as any other work.
There were no health and safety regulations, no rules governing GM's
unceasing efforts to speed up assembly lines. Layoffs were frequent and
workers do not even have rehiring rights. They had to get in line with
thousands of others desperate for jobs. They dared not complain about
they were getting on the job or what they were offered, and they did not
dare to engage openly in union activity. GM hired dozens of private
detectives and workers to spy on union organizers and help the corporation
ferret out union sympathizers for firing.
"Before, foremen never called us by name, just by number," recalls
George Edwards, who was one of the GM strikers' rank-and-file leaders.
they damn well knew our names after that strike. We became people."
The auto workers became people with rights most workers had only
dreamed of. General Motors agreed to negotiate a contract with their
representatives that would determine their wages, hours and working
conditions. GM would rehire all strikers and would not discriminate
union members. The contract, signed just a month after the strike ended,
included procedures for workers to effectively redress their grievances.
And it guaranteed that the jobs which were the workers' most important
possessions would be theirs as long as they adhered to the conditions
approved by their representatives.
Suddenly, workers everywhere were sitting-down. There were 477 sit-down
strikes by the end of 1937, involving more than 500,000 workers, mainly in
industrial plants but also in mines, in hotels and restaurants, even in
five-and-ten-cent stores. Butchers, saleswomen, milliners, laundry
garbage collectors, sailors, glass blowers, movie projectionists and many
others followed the factory workers' lead. Most won at least partial
victories, including, above all, the right to bargain with their
Two years later, the Supreme Court declared sit-down strikes an
unlawful seizure of property. By then, however, workers in virtually all
private employment outside agriculture had won a firm legal right to
collective bargaining and so could turn to other tactics and other
But it should not be forgotten that whatever their later tactics and
demands, workers could have done nothing truly effective to improve their
working lives -- and can do nothing truly effective today -- without the
tool of collective bargaining.
Workers never would have won the right to use that essential tool had it
not been for those who sat down on the job in Flint, Michigan, a
Dick Meister, a freelance columnist in San Francisco, has covered
issues for four decades as a newspaper and broadcast reporter, editor and
commentator. Copyright c 2001 Dick Meister.