The strike, which helped guide the UAW to prominence in the twentieth century, provides a blueprint for better working conditions and a revival of the middle class
By Edward McClelland
The Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 created the twentieth century middle class. Fed up with assembly lines that ran at an inhuman pace, piecework wages, and foremen who could fire any worker for any reason, autoworkers occupied three General Motors plants, violently resisting efforts by police to evict them. After forty-four days, GM capitulated, agreeing to recognize the United Auto Workers as the bargaining agent for its employees. The UAW was the nation’s flagship union, setting wages for all industrial workers.
“We used to get stoned in the newspapers, every time we’d get something [new] in our contract,” said a UAW member who participated in a 1970 strike that won autoworkers an annual cost-of-living raise and the right to retire on full benefits after thirty years. “‘Well, the autoworkers drove the price up because they got a raise.’ But then everybody else would start getting raises, too, after we did.”
As late as 1980, when General Motors employed eighty thousand workers in Genesee County, Flint boasted the highest median wage for workers under thirty-five in the country, thanks to union contracts that allowed new employees to start at the same wage as their more experienced line mates. The city’s overall median income was higher than San Francisco’s. Flint was the model of a community whose wealth was shared broadly, rather than concentrated among an elite. Flint’s only true aristocrat was Charles Stewart Mott, who in 1907 accepted a five percent share in GM to move his wheel manufacturer to Flint. Mott died in 1973, leaving his fortune to a foundation that has spent more than $1 billion on civic projects.
Flint, the middle class, the union movement, and the auto industry aren’t as prosperous as they used to be. The decline of all four is intertwined. In the early 1980s, the American auto industry began losing customers to Japanese and German manufacturers. Motorists responded to gasoline shortages by purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles, which foreigners built well (the Toyota Corolla, the VW Beetle) and Americans built like crap (the Ford Pinto, the Chevy Chevette). The term “Rust Belt” became synonymous with the industrial Midwest. GM’s layoffs and factory closings hit its hometown particularly hard, resulting in what locals call “the pull out.”
Today, GM’s Flint-area workforce is down to sixty-five hundred—less than a tenth of what it was in the 1970s. That’s consistent with the overall decline of GM’s hourly employment, which has fallen from more than five hundred thousand to just fifty thousand, as a result of automation and the loss of market share. It’s easier to argue that Flint suffered because it was a one-industry town, where three-quarters of the workforce depended on an auto factory paycheck, than to argue that GM singled out the city for disinvestment as revenge for the sit-down strike. Flint, the city that once boasted the nation’s strongest middle class, now has the nation’s highest poverty rate, with nearly half its residents unable to pay for basic needs.
Were the victories of the sit-down strike ephemeral, not just for Flint but for the entire middle class? Was the middle class just a moment, an interlude between two gilded ages that more closely reflect the way most societies have structured themselves economically, with an aristocracy and a peasantry?
The middle class’s decline in the United States is coterminous with the decline of the labor movement. In the 1950s, thirty-three percent of private-sector workers belong to unions. Today, that figure is six percent. At the 2019 White Shirt Day, a commemoration of the sit-down strike held each February 11 in Flint (union members wear white shirts, reflecting their view that they’re just as good as management), UAW vice president Cynthia Estrada noted that the union no longer represents a majority of workers who build vehicles in the United States. Foreign manufacturers here, such as Volkswagen, Toyota, and BMW, have resisted unionization by building their plants in the South, a region traditionally hostile to labor unions.
The UAW, which peaked at 1.5 million members in 1979, is now down to four hundred thousand. The union is so weak, politically, that it could not stop the Michigan legislature from passing a right-to-work law in 2012, or Gov. Rick Snyder from signing it. Snyder, who had come into office as an opponent of changing the state’s labor laws, changed his mind after Indiana — another state suffering from an out-migration of college degrees — became the first right-to-work state in the Rust Belt that same year. That put pressure on Michigan to compete with its neighbor for unskilled jobs.
The anti-labor movement’s successes have been not only in busting industries traditionally organized by labor but also in preventing the unionization of those unskilled jobs which have replaced well-paying industrial work. In the 1970s, General Motors was the largest private employer in the United States. In the twenty-first century, that title is shared by Walmart and Amazon, two companies that have staunchly resisted unionization and whose owners are among the ten wealthiest Americans. Given the billions in profits these companies generate, there’s no reason their employees can’t be as well compensated as autoworkers. The reasons given for the low pay—that retail work and package handling are unskilled, entry-level jobs not meant to support a family or lead to a career—are ex post facto justifications made possible by the reality that Walmart and Amazon can get away with paying low wages because they don’t fear unionization.
The shrinking of the middle class is not a failure of capitalism. It’s a failure of government. Capitalism has been doing exactly what it was designed to do: concentrating wealth in the ownership class, while providing the mass of workers with just enough wages to feed, house, and clothe themselves. That’s the natural drift of the relationship between capital and labor, and it can only be arrested by an activist government that chooses to step in as a referee—as Frank Murphy, Francis Perkins, and Franklin D. Roosevelt did for the Flint Sit-Down Strikers in 1937, helping them win their struggle with GM.
Free-market conservatives, though, consider unions cartels that restrain trade and raise wages above market rates. They’ve been at war with the labor movement since just after World War II, when a wave of strikes led to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which outlawed the closed shop, making so-called “right-to-work” laws possible. Ronald Reagan’s firing of the striking air traffic controllers in 1981 was considered the most decisive signal that the federal government would henceforth take the side of employers rather than unions. Collective bargaining is inimical to the conservative ideal of the rugged individual.
Can the middle class rise again? During the coronavirus crisis of 2020, workers at an Amazon delivery center in Chicago organized a movement that contributed to the company’s granting paid time off to all employees, both full and part time. Amazon workers also walked off the job to demand that the company shut down the facility after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. During the crisis, workers deemed “essential” such as grocery clerks, waiters, baristas, and package handlers were among those who generally receive the lowest pay and fewest benefits. Indeed, Amazon hired a hundred thousand new package handlers to handle the surge in online shopping that resulted from stay-at-home orders.
The crisis was a radicalizing experience for many of those workers. It taught them that their labor is worth more than they’ve been told. Could it have been a step toward another sit-down strike? The workers trying to unionize an Amazon warehouse in Alabama want the same things the Sit Down Strikers wanted: a humane pace of labor, better job security, and more say in the workplace. Amazon’s services are as essential to twenty-first-century life as the automobile was to the twentieth. The company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is wealthier than Henry Ford was. If workers were to occupy Amazon fulfillment and delivery centers to demand greater safety and job security—the same causes that motivated GM workers in Flint in 1936—they could shut down American commerce.
Unions have also been an important tool in civil rights movements. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw unions as a key component of economic justice, and organized with workers until the end; he was killed in Memphis, Tennessee, where he’d gone to support sanitation workers on strike. A revived labor movement would recognize that unions don’t just belong in factories, and would extend its improved wages and benefits to communities left out of the first boom: women, immigrants, the urban poor. A sit-down strike is not an obsolete tactic. It’s a blueprint for better working conditions, and for a revival of the middle class.
In the words of Olen Ham, a sit-down striker who died in 2012, at the age of ninety-five: “We created the middle class.” It may take another sit-down to recreate it. ■
This essay is adapted from Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike that Created the Middle Class, out today from Beacon Press.
Edward McClelland is the author of Midnight in Vehicle City and How to Speak Midwestern, and other books.
Cover image of sit-down strikers in the Fisher body plant factory number three. Flint, Michigan. (Library of Congress/Public Domain).
*Commentary pieces are the work of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.
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