Introduction: The Flint Sitdown for Beginners

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

Charlie Post

THE SITDOWN STRIKE at GM’s Flint, Michigan Fisher Body and Chevrolet plants (December 1936-February 1937) was a turning point in the history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).  The United Automobile Workers (UAW- CIO) had won strikes and union recognition in individual auto plants and from smaller parts and auto manufacturers.  The Flint strike, however, won its first national contract with a major producer: General Motors, at the time, the world’s largest industrial corporation.

Within weeks of the victory at GM, the militantly anti-union United States Steel Corporation recognized the Steel Workers Organizing Committee and signed a contract.  By late 1937, the wave of militant strikes and industrial actions had ended, leaving in their wake mass CIO internationals in auto, steel, electrical machinery, longshore, rubbermaking and other mass production industries.

As Art Preis, in his classic “Labor’s Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO”, put it “The GM sitdown strike of the winter of 1936-1937 became the major point of CIO combat.  Flint, Michigan, became the ‘Gettysburg’ of the CIO.”  The Flint strike was the culmination of four years of organizing and strike activity in the automobile industry.  It began with the victory of the Briggs Motor Strike in Detroit during the winter of 1933, sparking attempts to build industrial unions throughout the auto industry in 1933 and 1934.

Unfortunately, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) officials who reluctantly formed federal locals of skilled and unskilled workers in the auto, steel, rubber and machine- making industries rejected militant strike action in favor of reliance on the Roosevelt administration’s mediation under the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA).  Despite section 7(a) of the NIRA’s promise of collective bargaining rights, the federal government’s intervention in the auto industry derailed industrial unionism.

The Toledo Auto-Lite strike of the summer of 1934 turned the tide of organizing in the auto industry.  This militant strike, whose leaders rejected reliance on capitalist state mediation in favor of mass picketing and organized self- defense against private and government strikebreaking, helped coalesce a rank-and-file movement among auto workers in the AFL federal locals.  This movement, organized in the “Progressive Caucus,” agitated for a democratically run industrial union, industry-wide strikes to win union recognition, no reliance on federal mediation and the organization of an independent labor party.

Despite the continued opposition of the AFL bureaucracy, which ran the federal locals in a completely autocratic manner, the rank-and-file movement sparked strikes in Cleveland, Toledo, Kenosha (Wisconsin) and South Bend (Indiana).  The partial victory of the Toledo Chevrolet Strike of April-May 1935 set the stage for rank-and-file militants organizing the UAW, the first international industrial union in auto. While the first UAW convention in August 1935 remained under the control of the corrupt and ineffectual AFL bureaucrat Francis Dillon, the second convention in July 1936 threw out Dillon, elected a new militant leadership and affiliated with the newly created CIO.

Radical and revolutionary workers led the rank-and-file movement that created the UAW, the largest, most democratic and militant union in the CIO. The Communist Party (CP) was by far the largest radical organization active among auto workers.  CP members like Wyndham Mortimer of Cleveland and Robert Travis of Toledo played a crucial role organizing the UAW. Between 1934 and 1936, they and their fellow Communists abandoned their ultra-left “revolutionary unions” and pursued a policy of joint action with other radicals and revolutionaries and independence from the officials of both the AFL and CIO.

Alongside CP workers were revolutionary workers in other organizations.  Veterans of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), left-wing Socialist Party (SP) members, and dissident Communists in the Proletarian Party (PP) and Communist Party-Opposition (headed by Jay Lovestone) were also central to the creation of the UAW. The most important political group, outside the CP, organizing in the automobile industry were the followers of A.J. Muste in the American Workers Party (AWP), who led the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike of 1934.

After they regrouped with the Trotskyists of the Communist League of America (CLA) to form the Workers Party (WP) in 1935, the Musteites played a central role (alongside CP militants) in the Toledo Chevrolet Strike of 1935.  By the time of the Flint strike, some of these militants had joined the SP, where they collaborated with long-time left Socialists like Kermit Johnson and Genora Dollinger Johnson in organizing auto workers.

The UAW-CIO convention targeted General Motors for organizing in the fall of 1936.  While John L. Lewis and other officials of the CIO discouraged militant direct action to win union recognition at GM, GM workers began taking matters into their own hands in November and December 1936.  Following the examples of the Akron rubber workers in February and the French workers in May-June, auto workers in Flint, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta, Janesville (Wisconsin), Norwood (Ohio) and Kansas City began unauthorized sitdown strikes in the winter of 1936 under the leadership of CP and SP members.

The most important sitdown took place at Chevrolet’s Flint, Michigan plants, the center of the GM productive apparatus in the United States.  With their occupation of the Chevy complex, the Flint workers became the leadership of the first corporation-wide strike against a major U.S. automobile corporation.

As Sol Dollinger makes clear in his essay, neither GM nor the CIO leadership around John L. Lewis were happy with the strike.  The rank and file’s seizure of GM plants forced Lewis to authorize the strike against GM and publicly back the sitdowns.  However, Lewis and his new found allies in the CP (whose adaptation of the “popular front” strategy aligned them with Lewis in a “center-left coalition”) repeatedly attempted to convince the strikers to accept the demand to evacuate the occupied factories prior to winning recognition from GM.This was demanded by both President Roosevelt and Michigan’s “New Deal” Governor Murphy

GM and its allies in the Flint “Citizen’s Alliance” and the local police used more direct methods to combat the sitdown strike.  On January 12, GM shut off the heat in the plants; the Flint police announced that food would no longer be delivered to the strikers.  Dollinger describes the ensuing “Battle of the Running Bulls.”

The turning point in the strike came with the seizure of Chevy Plant 4 on February 1.  Despite Governor Murphy’s threat to send the National Guard into the occupied plants, the workers in Chevy Plant 4 stood firm. On February 11, “General Motors, fearful that any attack on the strikers in their determined mood would mean devastation of its plant and machinery, cracked.”  (Preis, “Labor’s Giant Step”, 61)

GM signed a six-month contract that recognized the UAW as the sole bargaining agent in seventeen of its struck plants, agreed to rehire all workers fired for striking and other union activity, and began negotiations on wages, hours and working conditions, in particular the issue of production speedup.

Sol Dollinger makes an important historical contribution in his essay.  He questions the claims of Henry Kraus, Roger Keeran, Franco Ottanelli and other historians sympathetic to the CP that Communist auto workers played the sole or major leadership role in the historic victory at Flint.  He attempts to recover the role of other revolutionary and radical workers in the creation of the UAW generally and the GM sitdown specifically.

In particular, Dollinger sheds important light on the role of two left-wing SP activists in Flint, Genora Johnson Dollinger and Kermit Johnson.  Genora Johnson Dollinger (who was featured in the documentary “With Babies and Banners”) was the primary organizer of the Women’s Emergency Brigade, which played a crucial role in defeating GM and the Flint police during the “Battle of the Running Bulls.”

Kermit Johnson (elected chair of the rank-and-file GM strike strategy committee created on January 3, 1937) emerges in Dollinger’s account as the main architect of the successful seizure of Chevy Plant 4, at the moment the CIO leadership (including leading CPers like Mortimer and Travis) were preparing to evacuate the Flint Chevrolet complex.

Genora Johnson Dollinger and Kermit Dollinger continued to play an important role in the UAW through the 1930s and 1940s.  While Kermit was in the army during World War II, Genora was active in the movement against the no-strike pledge in Briggs Local 212.  After the war, Sol Dollinger worked in the Flint Chevrolet Assembly plant for seven years.  As members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Genora, Kermit and Sol were leading figures in the fight to establish the escalator clause in the GM contract in 1947 (later known as the cost-of-living clause).

ATC 62, May-June 1996