In the mid-1930s, waking up to work at Flint, Michigan’s car factories meant crawling out of bed and into a nightmare. General Motors (GM) held sway over the town of Flint: Safety regulations were laughable as each day workers sparred with the possibility of injury and even death on the job. In fact, a heat wave in July 1936 saw hundreds die of heat stroke throughout factories across the state.
On top of this, Michigan auto workers’ wages were insufficient to support their families. In the midst of the Great Depression, the average employee took home only $900 per year, or just over half of the government’s recommended salary for a family of four.
By winter of 1936, Michigan’s factory workers could stomach no more. The United Automobile Workers’ (UAW) union had formed largely as a response to what they felt was grievous abuse on the part of GM. They had been organizing for years, and with the passage of 1935’s Wagner Act, which legalized strikes, the UAW’s leaders believed it was time to act. On December 30, a plan was put in motion in Flint. Lead UAW organizer Bob Travis sent union reps to seize control of GM’s Fisher One plant, teaming with workers to stop production, occupy the plant, and force management out.
Throughout the following weeks, the UAW resisted numerous attempts by GM’s mercenary squad to ply workers “sitting down” out of Fisher One. A few of GM’s maneuvers were actually legal, such as when they declared that workers were trespassing on company property and obtained the court order needed to rally police in an attempt to invade the plant. On January 11, the 2,000 workers held off a strike force of armed cops, winning what was dubbed “The Battle of Bull’s Run.” Both sides sustained injuries; however, although no one died, eleven officers were injured after being pelted with bottles, bolts and hinges, and sixteen workers were shot.
Spurred by the success of their initial strike, the UAW kept momentum strong, organizing sit-downs in GM facilities adjacent to Fisher One, including the massive Chevrolet Four engine factory, effectively decimating GM’s output. GM had produced 50,000 cars in December, but the strikes were so damaging that in January, they managed only a meager 125. On February 5, UAW ambassadors reached an agreement with GM to recognize the union as legitimate representatives of over 100,000 auto workers nationwide. The strike was ended on the condition that Flint’s workers be given a 5 percent raise, and permission to speak during lunch.
Perhaps the farthest-reaching effect of the strike was the legitimacy it granted the UAW, which previously was discounted, threatened and intimidated into the status of ragtag underground movement by large auto makers. The UAW’s actions over a few harrowing weeks provided impetus for eventual unionization of the entire country’s automobile industry. Even today, the UAW still represents hundreds of thousands, spanning 391,000 active members and more than 580,000 retired over 600 local unions.