Flint and the Rewriting of History

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Sol Dollinger

THE 1937 SITDOWN strikes were a thunderbolt shattering minimal labor-management relations. The victory of the Flint auto workers heralded the most profound social changes in the United States since the Civil War. It changed every aspect of social, cultural and political life in America.

It is understandable that these events, which were led by radical political parties, would produce partisan perceptions of these historic happenings. In the main this history has been the major province of the supporters of the Communist Party (CP). It is my intention to counterbalance the biased claims of these writers, in particular the claims of Henry Kraus, author of The Many and the Few and Heroes of Unwritten Story. Kraus’ book, which appeared in 1947, inflated the role of the Communist party to exaggerated proportions and diminished the activities of the Socialist Party (SP) and other dedicated unionists.

Ben Hanford, vice-presidential candidate on the Socialist party ticket in 1904, wrote about the mythical character Jimmie Higgins — the guy who swept the floor at party headquarters who arranged the chairs at meetings, passed the collection hat and was available for any and all sundry tasks that made it possible for an organization to function. Ben Hanford showed respect and admiration for the small cogs that helped to turn the big wheels. While he honored the Jimmie Higginses, he didn’t exaggerate their contributions.

Kraus takes any Tom, Dick or Jimmie — as long as he was a member of the Communist Party — and elevates him to non-pareil leadership roles. Political opponents of Kraus were subjected to a blue pencil — edited out of history or their contributions hardly ever get on a balanced scale. If the occasion warranted, he was prepared to smear an opponent with a yellow brush.

Kraus’ version of history has misled many other writers who used his book as a point of reference. Some used his book to consciously slant history in favor of the Communist Party. Even political opposition to the CP did not prevent some writers from falling unwittingly into the pitfalls that Kraus put in their path.

When the strike ended over five decades ago, the union records were carted off by Kraus. The union and its officers could not see the importance of these records. Many of these workers had the minimum of education. Kraus, however, from his first association with auto workers, wrote of his intention to write a book some day. Where others saw dross, Kraus saw gold.(1)

The records accumulated in the Kraus collection were a significant contribution to the history of the strike. A critical addition to the history saw the light of day in 1969 with the publication of Sitdown by Sidney Fine, the most factual review of the strike and the personalities engaged in it.

It was not until two documentary films on the sitdown strikes were produced in 1977, with the special assistance of Genora Johnson Dollinger, that a correction of the historical balance was begun. “With Babies and Banners” focused on the role of the women in The Women’s Emergency Brigade, which Genora Dollinger organized and led. A wider lens was used by the BBC production “The Great Sitdown Strike.”

The sitdown at Fisher Body #2 started on December 30, 1936. It was followed by a sitdown strike at Fisher Body #1. The former plant produced bodies for Chevrolet, the latter for Buick. While the strike was in progress the Corporation, working through individuals associated with General Motors, was organizing its anti-union forces into the Flint Alliance.

The Alliance enrolled thousands of members from the plants and the public. Corporation foremen and supervisors were instructing all their GM workers to join the Alliance if they wanted to keep their jobs. In other major strikes of that era similar groups had been used as strikebreakers. It was feared that history would be repeated.(2)

In addition to a huge army of GM hired Pinkerton goons, all the city agencies were dominated by GM, and not the least part was the police and sheriff departments. The city’s only daily paper kept up a steady barrage of anti-union propaganda.

On January 11 a counterattack was launched against the small force of workers occupying the second floor of Fisher Body Plant #2. The heat was turned off in the plant and outside the police tried to make it impossible for food to be delivered to the strikers. The union forces led by Victor Reuther in the union sound car advanced to the front doors of the plant, to reinforce the picket line which had been kept going since that morning.

The union men were attacked by the police with tear gas and more lethal weapons. Strikers in the plant repulsed the advancing police by hurling heavy car hinges from the second floor of the plant. To prevent the police from approaching, Victor Reuther called on his forces to overturn cars on Chevrolet Avenue. His call was heeded and on each side of the north and south side of the entrance overturned cars obstructed the way.(3)

While the fight raged on, the radio described the battle as a revolution in the streets of Flint. Thousands of Flint citizens poured to both barricaded ends of Chevrolet Avenue. They could see the police firing into the small embattled band of unionists in front of Plant #2.

The battle went on for several hours until Reuther confided to Genora, Kermit Johnson (Genora’s husband) and Jarvis Albro (Genora’s brother) that the batteries on the sound truck were giving out. In front of Victor were a score of unionists bleeding from rifle and buckshot. It was a desperate situation with the possibility of defeat facing the strikers.

How did the historians see this conflict concluded? Let us begin with Kraus’s Many and the Few:

But it turned out to be nothing. Perhaps it was the company that feared an attack from the union’s side. Another time a queer enormous thing-on-wheels began to rumble down the hill toward the plant. What was that. To the pickets it looked like some monstrous new instrument of attack… Then suddenly some torch flares on the truck bursting into flame and the monstrosity could be recognized as the ambulating apparatus of a newsreel photographer….

As things quieted down everybody got busy making preparations for an all night vigil certain that the police would attack again as soon as they received a new supply of gas. (138)

In 1980 Roger Keeran published The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Union. His research is notable for his attribution of many facts long suspected, but never before confirmed, by Communist Party sources. He claims that Wyndham Mortimer, Kraus and Bob Travis were members of the Party long before the Flint strike.

Mortimer was a leader of the UAW and no one can deny the signal role of Bob Travis in the 1936-7 events; but it takes a huge leap of faith for Keeran to claim that the Communist Party exercised the primary role in the winning of the strike. Keeran’s biased sympathy for the role of the Communist Party all through his book leads to many false conclusions.

Let us see how this pro-CP historian brings the battle at Plant #2 to a conclusion.

In the afternoon of January 11, the guards locked the plant gates, turned off the heat and prevented the delivery of food to the strikers. Apprised of this situation, Travis rushed to the scene. Over the union’s sound car, he ordered the men to seize the gates. The small band of guards ‘phoned the police and then locked themselves in a nearby ladies’ room. Under the pretext that the strikers had kidnapped the guards, the Flint police attacked the plant with tear gas. Workers from Fisher #1, men from Travis’s local in Toledo and a group of unemployed workers organized by Communist Charles Killinger fought the police with bottles and rocks.

From inside their fortress, the sit-down strikers pelted the police with hinges and soaked them with fire hoses. Victor and Roy Reuther yelled encouragement and directions over the sound car loudspeaker, and Travis directed operations in the front lines. In the course of several hours fighting the workers successfully repelled several police assaults and demolished the sheriff squad car. Seven workers received gunshot wounds, and Travis required brief hospitalization for gas wounds.” (173-4)

Victor Reuther’s recollection is quite different:

Roy and Bob Travis had been watching from the fringers, unable to get near. When they joined us, we all rejoiced that Fisher Two, which we had considered the weakest link in our chain, had proved heroically able to withstand the brutal onslaught. (Voctor Reuther, The Brothers Reuther, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1976, 157)

This is in sharp conflict with the versions of Kraus and Keeran, who have Travis in the tick of the battle.

Indubitably, the most searching examination of the battle of Bull’s Run can be found in Sidney Fine’s Sitdown. The same diligence that he brought to the writing of The Automobile under the Blue Eagle is the foundation for the successor volume, Sitdown. While Kraus and Keeran are constricted by the effort to portray the strike under the leadership of the Communist Party, Fine has a broader scope to his work. His examination of fifty participant interviews by the Senate LaFollete subcommittee, immediately following the battle, sheds new light.

After a period of comparative calm the police, now forty five in number…the original force of officers had been reinforced by police moving south on Chevrolet Avenue toward the north end of the plant…opened fire once again, this time from both ends of Chevrolet Avenue. The police shot gas shells at long range toward the pickets in front of the plant, and the strikers on the roof of the factory. There was to be no further direct assault on the plant, but the long range firing was to continue for some time. It was at this stage of the battle or perhaps earlier — the accounts are unclear — that a restaurant on Chevrolet Avenue in which workers and reporters were congregated was hit by a gas bomb.

In the midst of the battle, twenty-three -year-old Genora Johnson, the wife of a union man who worked in the Chevrolet No. 4 plant, asked permission to speak from the sound car to the spectators beyond the police lines at both ends of Chevrolet Avenue. Mrs. Johnson had been rehearsing a play at union headquarters that afternoon when she heard that trouble was brewing at Fisher No.2. She drove to the plant but finding the scene peaceful did not remain. She returned, however, later in the day to take a turn on the picket line, and soon found herself a combatant on the battlefield. ‘During this time,’ she later declared in an affidavit, ‘I did not know fear. I knew only surprise, anguish, and anger.’ Taking the microphone in the sound car, she addressed herself first to the police. ‘Cowards! Cowards,! she shouted, ‘Shooting unarmed and defenseless men.’ Then she spoke to the women in the crowd beyond the police lines, telling them that it was their fight also and urging them to join the picket line but warning them at the same time that if the police were cowardly enough to shoot unarmed men they would no doubt fire at women also.

3rd quote The firing from the bridge continued in the darkness until after midnight, as the strikers and their allies prepared for another direct assault on the plant that never came. The police ran out of tear gas…” (7)

While Fine’s version is more accurate it still does not decide how the battle was concluded. The police may have run out of tear gas but they were armed with pistols, shotguns and rifles. The wounded gave graphic testimony to their being used. Fine reports fourteen were wounded, thirteen by gunshot.

In 1976 Genora gave an oral history interview with Sherna Gluck which is in the Bentley Library of the University of Michigan. Her account brings the battle to a final conclusion and raises the question as to the failure of Victor Reuther and Henry Kraus to have reported this in their books. While Victor admitted that rewriting was called for, Kraus’s second, more recent book of 1993 continues with the earlier false report of The Many and the Few.

Genora Dollinger: “Oh yes, but we didn’t have any body contact. This was all shooting, you know. We had the water hoses from the plant and the hinges and the stones, that’s all. Those hinges were kind of heavy hinges, you know; the old car door hinge was a different thing. And they got box loads of them and they got down so they could fire them downstairs, and they were upstairs on the roof firing them, too. No, we didn’t have any…The blackjacks would do no good; there was no hand to hand combat. Those cops had rifle shot and buckshot; there (were) firebombs; and there were tear gas canisters. We would run out and grab — the men were faster at that, they were better pitchers, I didn’t try anything like that — the tear gas canisters and hurl them back. And the fire bombs, they usually got those things — I mean they attempted to; the timing on those were very important.

“So this went on. This was all we had, that was all there was that goddamn night. Looking back on it, there were a couple of humorous incidents that occurred right in the midst of all this danger. Fisher Two had swinging doors — one person’d come out and you’d go in — double doors. Habits are so ingrained that at one point when I was going through and a man was going out, he tipped his hat at me (laughter) I never forgot that. I thought, ‘Of all things,’ you know, ‘tipping his hat’– in the midst of a bloody battle! And so anyway, the battle raged. The sound car was down there and Victor Reuther was the primary speaker, and then he would pull in other men to make their appeals, and this went on and on. It never dawned on me to speak. In the first place, this was primarily a man’s operation and I was down there to help out. Although I never thought too much about men and women when we were right there in the heart of the battle, come to think about it. But it never dawned on me — I’d never made any kind of a public speech over a microphone — until Victor came back and told us that the battery on the sound car was running down and we couldn’t get our message across, (much) longer, to the crowds that had gathered at both ends of the battle area.

He said, “Well, we may have lost the battle. The war is not lost but we may have lost the battle.” And I said to him, “Well, Victor why don’t I talk to them over the loudspeaker” And he replied, “Well we’ve got nothing to lose.” He had no great confidence that this would help; men really didn’t feel that women could do too much — although we were good and wonderful women for wanting to help them.

“So that’s when I got to take the mike, and again, under such circumstances you lose yourself; you go beyond yourself and think of the cause. I was able to make my voice really ring out on that night because I knew the battery was going down and we had only a few minutes left. That’s when I appealed to the women of Flint. I bypassed everybody else then and went to the women, and told them what was happening. That’s when I said, There are women down here, mothers of children, — I made (it) sound plural because I knew there was this gallantry that’s always present in the hearts of men and other women (who might) come down here and stand by women in such a situation — ‘There are women down here, mothers of children,and I beg of you to come down here and stand with your husbands, your loved ones, your brothers, your sweethearts.

“And when I made that appeal, it was a strange thing. It was dark too, but I could almost hear a hush. There was a general buzzing of the growing crowd at both ends. A hush came over that crowd the minute a woman’s voice came over the mike. It was startling! All night long they (hadn’t realized) that there was even a woman down there. Then I saw — I don’t know, there were car lights or whatever it was in this darkness that we could see the action going on up there; probably, maybe they were factory headlights or spotlights on us or something, police lights. But then I saw the first woman struggling and I noticed when she started to break through and come down, that a cop grabbed her by the coat. But she pulled out of her coat — and this was in freezing weather, freezing weather, there were icy pavements and everything was frozen — and she just kept on coming. And as soon as that happened other women broke through and then we had a situation where the cops didn’t want to fire into the backs of women. When the women did that, the men came, naturally, and that was the end of the battle.” (Interview with Sherna Gluck. See Michigan Historical Collections–Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan)

From the above it is clear that the leading roles in this decisive battle were played by two members of the Socialist Party, Genora Johnson and Victor Reuther. Nor can we ever forget that anonymous woman who pulled out of her coat and defied the police. Even though Kraus and Keeran try to puff up the roles of Travis, his participation was incidental, if anything.(4)

Following the events of the battle, Governor Murphy invited the representatives of the company and the union to a meeting on January 14 in the State Capitol. The Company was represented by G.M. President Knudsen, John Thomas Smith, son-in-law of a DuPont, and Donaldson Brown, treasurer of G.M., and the union by Wyndham Mortimer, John Brophy and Homer Martin.

After a long session an agreement was reached to evacuate the plants in return for an agreement by GM to continue the negotiations and not to attempt to resume production in any of the struck plants. Implicit to the understanding was that the negotiations were confined to the UAW.

This accord is clouded in mystery even to the present day. The union committee composed of Mortimer, Brophy and Martin had agreed to give up the most powerful strike weapon for GM’s flimsy promise, which had already shown that its promise was not worth the paper it was written on during the 1935 Chevrolet strike!

The three union UAW leaders were also counseled by a core of SP and CP leaders. They included Adolph Germer, Len De Caux, Leo Krzycki. The blame can be spread equally for this colossal error that could have had catastrophic results. The leaders, without consultation with the ranks (who, according to Kraus, Fine and Victor Reuther, overwhelmingly opposed any settlement without a signed contract with GM) began to execute the agreement. Sidney Fine reports that John L. Lewis had opposed the ending of the sitdowns before obtaining union recognition.

Two days later Walter Reuther, Dick Frankenstein and Homer Martin led the sitdowners out of Fleetwood and the Cadillac plants in Detroit and the Guide Lamp plant in Indiana. Plans were underway to end the sitdown in Flint. Victor Reuther asserts the evacuation plans had the prior approval of Bob Travis. One must keep in mind that in the spring of 1935 Travis was on the strike committee of the Toledo Chevrolet plant.

The union’s partial victory was the first over GM in the NRA era. Immediately following the strike victory GM cut production of transmissions in the plant by one half and sent the work to other GM plants. Employment was cut in half. It is a puzzle that Travis and Mortimer were not on guard against the perfidious behavior of GM.(5)

The CP had just entered into its Popular Front strategy period. It was a pretty heady advance in the life of this hounded organization to have one of its leaders invited to the bargaining sessions at the Governor’s executive offices. Mortimer was the one committee member who had the ability to frustrate the evacuation of the plants, yet we know that he had agreed to it in principle.

These leaders were looking for salvation from Murphy, the Democratic governor of the state. This was a sharp departure from the earlier union declarations that only the independent action of the GM workers could bring victory.

After the completed evacuation of the three G.M. plants the union learned that GM had no intentions of making the UAW the sole bargaining agent. Bill Lawrence, a reporter for the United Press read a press release of the Flint Alliancex which had not yet been released. It confirmed that GM was not excluding the Alliance as a factor in the bargaining process. (Victor Reuther, 162)

In Detroit GM sent telegrams recalling employees back to work, violating the accord reached in Lansing. GM’s actions blew up the agreement. Plans to evacuate the Flint Fisher Body plants were rescinded.

The strike had been in a stalemate even before the proposed evacuation of the plants. The G.M. representatives, by their Machiavellian negotiations, had reconfirmed in the eyes of some of the militants that only new drastic measures could break the impasse. It was common knowledge that a shutdown of the Plant 4 Chevrolet would bring production in all of the Chevrolet plants in the nation to a halt.

Plant 4 was the largest of the ten plants in the Flint Chevrolet complex. Four thousand workers were employed on two shifts turning out Chevrolet motors. The plant faces Chevrolet Avenue opposite Plant 5, but its back end leads to Plants 6 and 10. There are many doors giving ingress and egress to the plant.

The actual design for shutting down Plant 4 originated with the twenty-four year old chairman of the city-wide strike committee, and a leading Flint Socialist Party member, Kermit Johnson. He brought home an oil-smeared diagram on a small piece of shop paper showing all of the entrances to the plant and the proximity of the locations of the other nearby plants, so that time for workers coming to the aid of Plant 4 could be measured.

He discussed with his wife Genora, head of the Women’s Emergency Brigade and also a leading militant in the Flint Socialist Party, the feasibility of his plan. Kermit explained to his wife that a diversionary attack on one of the other Chevrolet plants could make it possible to shut down Plant Four.

The Johnsons submitted their proposal to a meeting of S.P. members that included Walter Reuther in from Detroit. Walter opposed the plan as too risky and it was narrowly voted down.

That night Genora wrote a two-page typewritten letter to Norman Thomas appealing to him for help in overturning the decision taken in the local S.P. meeting. Thomas, a novice in union matters, referred the matter to the National Labor Secretary, Frank Trager, a university professor, who responded to the local grievance and came to Flint where the matter was reviewed again.

Genora had arranged for Bill Roy and other party members to take Trager to all the strike centers. He witnessed hundreds of strikers going and coming from the Pengelly building union headquarters looking for some action. He talked with dozens of workers on the picket lines or involved in other strike duty.

The lull in the strike was dramatically emphasized by the union’s showing of the Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times.” Meanwhile the Flint Alliance was purposefully continuing to speed up their drive to sign up members. The contrast in the dour mood of the workers wanting action contrasted with the comic relief of the film. This  was palpably clear to any outside observer.

Trager’s intervention tilted the scales in support of the Johnson plan. Walter Reuther threatened Kermit, “if this fails the responsibility will fall on your head!”

Roy Reuther and Kermit were instructed to take the plan to the Strike Committee. The rest is history, but not according to Henry Kraus, the alter ego of Bob Travis and Mortimer. Kraus embroiders his story to maintain his fantasy about the unique role of the CP in the strike:

What chance would the union group, inexperienced, none too big yet, have against this mustering? With Ed Cronk, Howard Foster and Kermit Johnson, three Chevy workers, Travis retired to his Dresden Hotel room, with stringent orders not to be disturbed, to discuss these questions of strength and weakness and to work out a plan, if possible, of outwitting the Chevrolet guards.” (192)

Kraus devotes considerable attention to the techniques employed by Travis in putting the plan into operation. It is clear that Travis deserves much credit for the implementation of the ingenious strike strategy. Not the least is in employment of the three leading members of the Communist Party-Opposition (led by Jay Lovestone), Ted LaDuke, Tom Klasey and Melvin Center who were in Plant nine and slated to bear the brunt of plant guards gas and club attack.

While Plant nine was under siege in the inside, the Women’s Emergency Brigade, acting independently, was to engage the Flint police on the outside of the plant.

As the Plant 4 action was underway Kermit Johnson and the union supporters were locked in a struggle to oust the non-union forces and to barricade the huge doors of Plant four. Turmoil reigned inside Plant 4. The strike leaders had to know that success or failure hinged on this dramatic action. Writing long after this event, Kermit Johnson attested to the drama of the action leading up to the final major strike action with an article in the Chevrolet Local 659 union paper, The Searchlight:

I was remembering all these things and many others as I walked through the plant gate that afternoon. February 1, 1937. I was doing a lot of thinking. Everything that had happened in the past week was flashing through my mind over and over again. I thought about last night’s final secret meeting held deep inside the South Fisher plant. What a farce that had been! I laughed to myself and felt like a conspirator when I recalled all the pretense we’d gone through to arrange a meeting for one despicable man, a stool pigeon. Thirty men had been secretly picked for that meeting by Bob Travis, Organizational Director, and his aide Roy Reuther, including Ed Cronk and myself from Chevrolet The four of us, who alone knew the actual plans, put on a real show that night selling the right guy the wrong bill of goods. It seemed like a dirty trick to dupe so many good men, but to make the big fish swallow the bait we had to have a lot of little fish nibbling. I was sure we had convinced the stool pigeon that today at 3:30 p.m. the men in Plant 9 would stage a sit-down strike. I was sure because he asked so many pointed questions about strategy, and because others, taking a natural part in the discussion, helped to allay any suspicions he might have had.

Kraus detours in his story telling, by leaving the reader with the implication that Kermit Johnson was irresponsible and perhaps suffering from last-minute fear of this undertaking. One can ask why does he attempt this smear long after the strike?

Could it be that the role of the SP in the strike entitles it to share in the leadership of the strike which the supporters of the Communist Party are assiduously trying to arrogate to their organization? It should be palpably clear that the SP role predominated in the final stages of the strike.

One can only conclude that it was the unity, not only of Communist and Socialists, but also of Communist Party (Opposition) and Proletarian Party members that made it possible for successful strike action. The CP resented the claims of the SP, but the SP had every right to say that it was their leaders that made the final victory possible.

Sidney Fine in Sitdown has a variant version which deserves repeating:

Participants in the strike and those who have written about it have generally given either Bob Travis or Roy Reuther the principal credit for having devised the strategy that resulted in the UAW’s seizure of Chevrolet No. 4. Travis himself has declared that Mortimer, Kraus, and he worked out the details of the maneuver; but he has said that his own thinking had been influenced by Kermit Johnson, who was to be designated the chairman of the strike committee in Chevrolet No. 4 and who had advised Travis that if the UAW planned to capture the plant it should try to create a diversion somewhere else. Travis insisted that Reuther took no part in the planning of the strategy, but he is certainly in error on that point.” (267)

The logic of Travis, Mortimer and Kraus… three outsiders with only a passing knowledge of Plant 4, working out the strategy, or for that matter Roy Reuther, stretches the imagination to the breaking point. In his new book Heroes of Unwritten Story, Kraus is surprised to learn from Fine’s Sitdown that Travis himself credited Kermit Johnson for the diversionary tactic. He chokes on the small piece of crow but insists that his slander of Johnson must be taken for the coin of the realm.

According to Kraus the strategy of capturing and barricading Plant 4 fell on the shoulders of three men: Kermit Johnson, Howard Foster and Ed Kronk. Kermit Johnson had been nominated by Howard Foster for strike chairman. Foster had just been transferred to the second shift and professed not to know anyone on the second shift. Ed Kronk worked in Plant 6 and obviously had minimal knowledge of Plant four personnel, but had promised to bring assistance to the plant. He arrived with twenty supporters from his plant. There is no existing record of the fight inside the plant.

What Kraus hides from us is the charismatic stature that Kermit Johnson had attained with Chevrolet workers by his “rabble rousing” at the mass meetings in the Pengelly building. He was the ablest speaker among the GM workers. He had no equal except Roy Reuther. Travis was a factual but uninspirational speaker. Kermit could bring the crowd to its feet. That helps to explain his ability to lead in the shutdown of the plant.

Thus, we are confronted with three leaders, according to Kraus, two of them, without contacts of consequence. Kermit had stature from the strike meetings but also from the years of building the meetings of the League for Industrial Democracy prior to the strike. These meetings attracted several hundred people, many of them Chevrolet workers. Most of the SP members were employed at Chevrolet which also helped make it possible to implement the strike plan.

A small determined body of union men shut down a plant that employed four thousand workers. It was an extraordinary feat and Kraus uses his book to slander the one man who made it possible. He suggests that Kermit overslept and did not go to work on his shift, but waited for the change of shift to start the strike. (200) It is totally immaterial in light of the successful action and certainly unproveable at this date.

We left the reader with the strike in progress at the change of shift in Plants 9 and 4. Outside the Plant 9 the Flint police were in the street facing male pickets on the opposite sidewalk from the plant. At the backs of the police stood the Women’s Emergency Brigade armed with clubs. Suddenly a window was opened and the bloody head of Tom Klasey appeared. He shouted out, “They are gassing and clubbing us in here!”

Without any hesitation the Emergency Brigade sprang into action and shattered windows in the plant on Kearsley street. When the police threatened to attack the pickets on the sidewalk, the Brigade threatened the police with their clubs.

Did you hear the shrilling
screams of angry women
That dared the slugging blue
coats with their lives
And stormed the streets outside
the factory gate
Did you see them break the windows
glass by glass
And let escape the blinding,
strangling force of gas
In fighting female fury to suc-
cor endangered mates?(6)

When the action had concluded Genora sent the Brigade back to the Pengelly building, a few blocks away. She confided to her lieutenants to remain behind because the main strike action was at Plant 4 on Chevrolet Avenue. They immediately walked the half mile and arrived at the gate just as one of the sit-downers instructed them not to let anyone past them, “we are having a hell of a time in here!”

Genora instructed one of the lieutenants to call headquarters for reinforcements. In what seemed to be a very small span of time the main corps of the Flint police came down the hill. They made their intentions known that they intended to enter the plant.

“Over our dead bodies,” the women replied. The five brigade leaders clasped arms across the gate.

“Well we’ve got a job to do. Just stand aside” were the insistent instructions of the police Captain.

Genora said years later in her interview with Sherna Gluck, “…we were very determined. Well naturally we couldn’t hold out against them. They could have shoved us…or clubbed us…but at that point … the Brigade came marching down and they had the American flag flying at its head and they were singing Solidarity and those red berets bobbing like that and they reached the scene just in time. And so I said, set up the picket lines in front of the gate…then the sound car rounded the corner and men started arriving…I climbed up in the sound car and started giving instructions.”

This event was reported in The New York Times February 1, 1937. One can search through the pages of The Many and the Few for an account of this event that helped bring victory to the UAW, but not a word of this appears. Could Kraus just have missed this one event and no one called it to his attention?

Fifty years later his Heroes of Unwritten Story continues this silence. Kraus, like his mentors in the Communist Party, cannot write the true history because it destroys their thesis that they were the principal leaders and organizers of the Flint sitdowns.

Another partisan of Kraus’ history is Fraser M. Ottanelli. He breaks no new ground in The Communist Party of the United States. His concoction of fact and fantasy is an example of the truth limping along while the lie has winged feet.

Communists were present at every stage and level of the confrontation: from its leadership down to the most menial tasks.  Bob Travis was the chief UAW organizer in Flint; Henry Kraus was in charge of the union’s paper as well as of publicity. Bud Simons, the head of the strike committee inside Fisher 1 was a communist as were most of the committee members. Bob Travis played an essential role in devising the basically military strategy for the capture of the vital Chevrolet No. 4 engine plant in February. By enlarging the strike, this helped bring General Motors to its knees.

Outside the plant Communists also organized a network of support for the strikers. In Flint, Dorothy Kraus and Margaret Anderson formed a Women’s Auxiliary of the UAW which organized a number of essential activities in support of the strike. (155)

Keeran, in The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Union, posits his thesis on the key role of the party, not only in its staff leadership, but also in its numerical strength in the city of Flint. He cites Hy Fish, SP organizer sent to Flint after the strike began, claiming the SP as having only 67 members for the entire state in auto while the CP had a hundred members in Flint.

It is needless to quarrel over the figures, although Genora states that the SP had close to forty members in Flint and Detroit had three to four times as many members. There was a qualitative difference in the numbers.

Keeran demonstrates a book knowledge and pedantic approach to the numbers. The CP in Flint was concentrated in the North End among the foreign born. They often had difficulty with the language. They worked mainly in Buick, which played no role in the strike.

More native Flint auto workers were in Chevrolet. This author knew each of the handful of CPers in Chevrolet. Like their political comrades in Buick they were not great balls of fire. This in no way deprecates their role in the union. Each person contributed to the level of their ability.

The CP had no one to match Kermit in Chevrolet and they had no one who could organize a thousand women like Genora did or who played an independent union role. Those women who worked at kitchen duty made an enormous contribution, but it lacks balance with the work of Genora and the Emergency Brigade.

In an article in the Socialist Call Frank Trager claimed that “outside of Bob Travis ‘all of the rank-and-file leaders are well-known Socialists.'” Keeran thinks this is at variance with the reality. CP leaders thought it boastful.(7)

Let history be the judge. Without Roy Reuther, Victor Reuther, Kermit and Genora Johnson we would be writing a different history of the 1937 GM strike. The SP leaders were more than a match for the CP.

Let history be the judge. Without Roy Reuther, Victor Reuther, Kermit and Genora Johnson we would be writing a different history of the 1937 GM strike. The SP leaders were more than a match for the CP.

Every previous major strike in auto was deluged by fierce red-baiting campaigns. The unofficial Flint alliance between the left political parties gave the united force some protection from the charge that outsiders “should go back to Russia.” The Johnsons were natives of Flint and the public could not be taken in easily by the anti-radical fervor of the media. Other auto strikes had been torn asunder by red-baiting. The anti-union forces did not succeed this time because of the special circumstances.

The CP would want us to believe that the strike was under the aegis of Bob Travis. While he was the public figure, his co-adjunct was Roy Reuther, a Brookwood Labor College graduate where he studied labor strategy with A.J. Muste and other socialists. Roy had more standing in Flint — and especially in Chevrolet — because of his teaching public workers’ education classes two to three years before the strike.

The strength of the CP was concentrated in Buick, which was out of the strike loop. The other source of its support was in Fisher Body 1. While Simons, Moore and Devitt were outstanding CPers, they were in a special situation that significantly aided their efforts. Far outnumbering the CP was a score of militant Proletarian Party members who made their role possible. The PPers were far more schooled in Marxism and better known than the CPers. It is not by accident that they receive no credit from the CP oriented writers.

The role of the three CP leaders was a bold act in responding to the beginning of the strike in Fisher 2. In time the focus of the action shifted away From Fisher 1 to the Chevrolet complex which alone had the capacity to bring the strike to a victorious conclusion.

The facts are that the Socialists, Communists, Proletarian Party and the Communist Party Opposition, (Lovestoneites) functioned under the unwritten united front accord. This was one of the few occasions in recent labor history where the Communist Party played by these rules.

In 1934-35 auto strikes radical opponents of the Communist Party like Socialists, Muste’s supporters in the American Workers Party, Lovestoneites and of course, Trotskyists were called social fascists by the CPers. The CP failed to practice the united front in the Toledo auto strikes and were pushed aside by the Muste supporters.

It took the strikes of 1934-5 to teach the Communist Party that it had a failed program. The Communist Party writers slough off this period, but it was these events that prepared and established the ground rules that led to the great victory of 1937.


  1. Foreword of Nelson Lichtenstein in Heroes of Unwritten Story by Henry Kraus (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), XI: “I (Henry Kraus) was a would-be writer who was very conscious of his shortcomings. I had worked on a novel for more than a year.”
    back to text
  2. John Steuben, Strike Strategy (Gaer, 1950) Chapters 12 & 13. The Mohawk Valley Formula to break strikes was developed during the Remington-Rand strike in the spring of 1936. It was endorsed and promoted by the National Manufacturers Association. Resolutions were mailed to its two million business and merchant mailing list. 1–It called for the labeling of union leaders as outside agitators. 2–The demands of the strikers was to be discredited with mailings to the media. 3–Leaders of the community — civic, church and merchants were to be organized into a citizens committee. 4–Armed forces in addition to the police were to be used. 4–Vigilante violence was to be used against the strikers. 5–Back-to-work movements were to be initiated. Canton, Ohio was among the first to create a Citzens Law and Order League. In nearby Youngstown, Ohio the Steel Barons organized the Mahoney Valley Citizens Committee.
    back to text
  3. “Along with the several thousands of Flintites that responded to the alarming radio broadcasts of the battle at Fisher Body 2 were Genora’s father and mother. When the strikers threw the tear gas canisters back at the police the crowd rushed into the restaurants on Chevrolet Avenue to escape from the tear gas.” (Henry Kraus, The Many and the Few, 138)
    back to text
  4. Statement by Victor and Sohie Reuther, read by Katrina Bauer, at the tribute dinner of the Michigan Historical Center, which inducted Genora Dollinger into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame October 20th, 1994: “In a voice full of indignation over this unprovoked attack on the strikers she called on the women of Flint to break through the police lines and join her at the gate in a common defense of ‘our men.’ For a moment there was hesitation, but then a cheer went up as hundreds of women, and men too who had been onlookers, broke through and came down the hill and joined the pickets.”
    back to text
  5. Sidney Fine, The Automobile under the Blue Eagle: Labor, Management, and the Automobile Manufacturing Code (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1963) 402: “Dillon (AFL auto union leader) as later events were to show, was too optimistic about GM’s good will with regard to automobile unionism. His words were to turn particularly sour in Toledo, for the company in the fall of 1935 removed about 50 per cent of the machinery from the Toledo plant to Saginaw and Muncie, thus displacing anywhere from nine to twelve hundred workers.”
    back to text
  6. Searchlight, official newspaper of Chevrolet Local 659. Poem, “Were You There” by Floyd Hoke Miller February 11, 1959. Floyd was the poet laureate of the local and a sitdowner in 1937.
    back to text
  7. Roger Kerran, The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Union (Bloomington: Indiana Univeristy Press, 162-164. Keeran, an ardent supporter of the C.P.’s policy of the People’s Front, gags on a straight-forward class struggle declaration of a socialist. “… Norman Thomas argued that the sitdown represented ‘a weapon, which by its very nature challenges some of the basic premises of the capitalist system.'” Isn’t it ironic that the so called revolutionary Communists abjured Marxist analysis and the consequences of the class struggle, at the very moment it had reached its apex in the United States?
    back to text

ATC 62, May-June 1996