The Flint Sit-Down Strike started on December 30, 1936 — 76 years before this photo was taken. Workers occupied several GM factories in Flint for 44 days, ultimately resulting in GM signing the UAW (United Auto Workers) contract. The strike is frequently credited with changing working conditions and wages for people across America. The truth of that sort of statement mostly rests in how unionized manufacturing jobs ultimately made the country an economic powerhouse.
Prior to the strike, workers weren’t allowed to take breaks during their 8- or 10-hour shifts. Frequently, they weren’t even allowed to get water or go to the bathroom. There was no overtime pay, no sick pay, no vacation pay, no workman’s comp, no safety requirements and no medical help (workers would die doing their work and their sacrifice meant nothing to their families). If the assembly line stopped GM wouldn’t pay workers for their time, and if they needed to shut down the assembly line for retooling, they’d simply lay off the workers without notice and without pay. During the July prior to the strike, temperatures in Flint reached 100 degrees for a week. Constant pressure to keep the assembly line moving as quickly as possible resulted in hundreds of Flint’s auto workers dying.
The UAW’s plan to gain leverage is worthy of praise. This is what the historical marker at the memorial says:
On February 1, 1937, the wave of sit-down strikes against General Motors broadened as Chevrolet Plant No. 4 was seized. The United Auto Workers strategy was a diversionary strike at the nearby Flint No. 9 to draw company personnel to that point while the true target, Plant No. 4, was secured. As a battle between between unionists and company guards took place inside Plant No. 9, other strikers captured the key Plant No. 4. Pickets outside were aided by the Women’s Emergency Brigade, which fended off police until strikers inside secured the vital plant. Since all Chevrolet engines were produced in Plant No. 4, elimination of this supply would close Chevrolet operations nationwide. On February 11, 1937, the strike ended as General Motors recognized the UAW as bargaining agent for its members. This represents one of the most significant events in labor history.
After the Flint Sit-Down Strike, the UAW also organized Chrysler and Ford. While the UAW was distributing leaflets in Detroit near Ford’s River Rouge Complex, up to 40 security guards from Ford attacked them in a fight known as the Battle of the Overpass. Coincidentally, the UAW organizers were attacked while they were posing for photos with the Ford plant in the background. The resulting photos led to the creation of the Pulitzer Prize for photography.
The Sitdowners Memorial Park is located near the corner of Atherton and Van Slyke in Flint, Michigan. The backdrop is GM’s Flint Truck Assembly plant (it’s the beige blur with smokestacks in the background). My Dad worked there on the assembly line for 9 years (before transferring to the Pontiac East assembly line and then to the Warren Tech Center). Both of my grandfathers and one of my grandmothers also worked for GM in Flint.