BRIA 1 4 a Sit-Down Strike

Bill of Rights in Action
Spring 1985, Volume 1, No. 4


Sit-Down Strike!

When they tie the can to a union man, Sit down! Sit down!
When they give him the sack, they’ll take him back,
Sit down! Sit down!

In 1937, a newspaper reporter described how workers assembled automobiles in a General Motors factory. In one part of the plant the reporter saw "thousands of men working, but not moving back and forth." Each worker stood in one spot adding one small part to an auto body while it moved steadily past him on an assembly line. "He performs the same operation all day or night, five days a week, the year round," the reporter wrote. At the end of the assembly line, the reporter continued, the men "walk or run along the line twenty feet or so, screwing something on, trimming a fender, spraying a side with paint, or performing their own special operation. They seem to work on strings as a monster jerks them back to begin another car."

As the newspaper reporter observed, factory assembly lines during the 1930s tended to transform men into puppets. But what workers on an assembly line dreaded most was the "speed up." During times of peak production the men would be forced to work faster. Those who could not keep up with the pace set by the company were fired and replaced.

One auto worker complained, "We didn’t even have time to go to the toilet . . . you have to run to the toilet and run back. If there wasn’t anybody there to relieve you, you had to run away and tie the line up, and if you tied the line up you got hell for it."

After World War I, a new type of worker began to fill the factories of America. These workers held assembly line jobs requiring little skill or training. Most of them did not belong to labor unions and had no desire to join them. The largest labor organization in the country, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), had skilled worker members like carpenters, printers and electricians. The AFL had little interest in organizing the new unskilled assembly line workers.

Organizing Unskilled Workers

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal ushered in a number of laws favorable to labor. The most important of these laws, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, also known as the Wagner Act, guaranteed a worker’s legal right to join unions and negotiate with their employers. Furthermore, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) was established to investigate and stop "unfair labor practices" by employers.

It soon became clear that many corporations, especially the largest ones, would do everything they could to prevent the new labor law from working. Henry Ford declared in 1936 that he would never recognize any union in his factories. He reflected the view of many employers who believed that only they should decide how much a worker should be paid or how a factory should be run. The Wagner Act called for employers and employee unions to meet and decide such matters together at the bargaining table.

Encouraged by the Wagner Act, union leaders from the American Federation of Labor formed a committee in 1935 to unionize unskilled workers. This Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) soon began to unionize workers in the large auto, rubber, and steel industries.

Employers found many ways to stop unions from organizing workers. Companies hired spies to work on the assembly line and report any worker who talked about joining a union. A union organizer would often be fired as a "troublemaker." Simply wearing a union button could be grounds for dismissal. Sometimes, union men who tried to pass out leaflets outside factory gates would be attacked and beaten by company police or hired thugs. Employers set up and ran their own employee unions. Workers would be pressured to join these "company unions." A worker who refused to join took the chance of being fired. Even when the CIO managed to organize factory workers into a union, the company usually would neither recognize it nor negotiate with it.

By January 1937, one of the unions organizing workers in the auto industry, the United Auto Workers (UAW), had been able to sign up only a small number of members. To a large extent, this failure was due to the union-busting tactics of the employers. A U.S. Senate report described how company spies intimidated a typical General Motors employee, "Fear harries his every footstep, caution muffles his words. He is in no sense any longer a free American."

Other factors also caused auto workers to hold back from joining the UAW. Most of the auto assembly-line workers had come from rural areas where few people ever joined a union. Moreover, the Great Depression had thrown millions of Americans into unemployment. The average worker at General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford felt grateful to even have a job. Given these facts, many auto workers wondered if a union was in their best interests.

The GM Sit-Down Strike

In 1936, General Motors (GM) was the largest privately owned manufacturing company in the world. GM operated 69 auto plants in 35 cities throughout the United States. The corporation also produced auto parts, refrigeration equipment, household appliances, airplanes, train engines, and power plants. GM’s stockholders received over $200 million in dividend payments in 1936. The mammoth company employed 172,000 hourly employees. They earned an average of 76 cents an hour, a good wage in 1936.

General Motors, like the other two major automakers, Chrysler and Ford, bitterly opposed union organizing. GM resorted to all the common union-busting tactics and regularly fired workers who tried to join the United Auto Workers' union.

Soon GM and the UAW were embroiled in a major conflict even though the UAW represented only a minority of GM workers. GM argued that all labor issues should be negotiated in local GM plants. When the UAW leaders tried to negotiate with local plant managers, they found that these individuals had little authority to resolve even basic issues. The UAW decided to try a different tactic. It wanted to negotiate a single labor contract for all its workers in all GM plants. GM refused to cooperate.

Union leaders planned a strike at General Motors to force the giant corporation to negotiate a single labor contract. But when the strike started, it came as a surprise even to UAW leadership. On December 30, 1936, a group of about 50 UAW assembly-line workers, angered over yet another attempt by GM to weaken their union, spontaneously sat down and refused to work at GM's Fisher Body Plant in Flint, Michigan. This action stalled the whole assembly line. Quickly, union leaders got involved and called for other sit-down strikes in nearby GM body plants. The workers responded. The long-awaited showdown between the world’s largest automobile company and the struggling UAW had begun. Before the sit-down strike was over, 50 other GM plants in the United States closed down because of worker walkouts or auto part shortages.

Sit-down strikes became a favorite tactic of unions during the 1930s. The basic idea was for workers to stop what they were doing on the assembly line and bring all production to a halt. The workers then, in effect, occupied the factory. This lessened the chance of strike-breakers taking over their jobs.

Also, an employer would think twice about calling in thugs or the police to break up a sit-down strike for fear that plant machinery or property would be damaged.

The sit-down strike against GM in Flint, Michigan was well organized by the UAW. Up to 2,000 men occupied three GM plants during the strike. All the sit-downers were assigned specific duties each day. Some became members of plant police patrols or fire squads. Committees were set up to arrange for the delivery of food. Rules of behavior were posted: no liquor, no yelling, no guns, and no damage to company property. Workers enforced these rules. The men passed their time playing cards, reading, and attending union-taught classes in labor history and public speaking. The workers sang to keep up their morale and professional entertainers even entered the plants to perform for the sit-downers. The men slept inside the car bodies that sat unmoving on the stalled assembly lines.

The strikers knew that the status quo wouldn’t last forever, so they prepared for an attack by company or city police. The sit-downers made blackjacks out of rubber hose and stockpiled nuts, bolts, and heavy car-door hinges to throw at police. Fire hoses were tested for use as a possible weapon. They covered windows with metal sheets. One sit-downer later said, "It was like we were soldiers holding the fort."

First Blood

On January 22, 1937, 12 days after the strike began, about 100 strikers occupied the second floor of the Fisher Body Plant where the sit-down had started. Another 150 strikers and sympathizers picketed outside the plant in 16-degree weather. Trouble began when GM officials ordered the heat turned off in the plant.

At 6 p.m. company guards at the main gate blocked delivery of the strikers' evening meal. About 30 strikers descended by rope from the second floor to confront the company guards. Outnumbered, the guards stepped aside as the strikers smashed the ground floor door lock to bring in the food. The guards retreated inside the plant and made a call to the Flint Police Department. They then barricaded themselves inside the women’s restroom for the rest of the night.

Soon, 30 Flint police officers arrived, about half of them with gas masks. Without warning they fired teargas at the picketers outside the plant and into the plant through unbarricaded windows.

Victor Reuther, a UAW leader, was sitting near the plant in a car equipped with loudspeakers. "I shouted to the men inside to defend themselves with everything they had," he later said. Bottles, stones, and two-pound car door hinges flew through the air at the policemen. They also hit the officers with streams of water from fire hoses manned by strikers on the roof of the plant. The police began to run away from the onslaught of missiles and water.

After falling back, the police regrouped and charged again with the same results. This time as the officers retreated they drew their pistols and fired into the picketers. Thirteen people were wounded by the police gunfire.

A stalemate followed. The strikers remained in control of the plant. The police held a position a short distance down Chevrolet Avenue. The police did not charge again, but began to lob long-distance gas grenades at the strikers.

By this time 3,000 onlookers had gathered to witness the police assault. At one point, the wife of one of the strikers begged Victor Reuther to let her use the loudspeaker in his car. She cried at the police, "Cowards, cowards, shooting unarmed and defenseless men." Reuther, who was convinced that GM planned the police attack, said later that the actions of the officers turned the tide in favor of strikers that night.

Turning Point

The newly elected governor of Michigan, Frank Murphy, arrived in Flint the next morning. He quickly ordered the Michigan State Guard into the city to maintain order. But unlike prior governors, Murphy refused to order the state guardsmen to break the strike. Instead, he called for GM to turn the heat back on at the Fisher plant and allow food deliveries to continue.

On February 1, 1937, a Flint judge issued a court order declaring sit-downs and even peaceful picketing illegal in Michigan. This order put pressure on Governor Murphy to end the strike by using force if necessary. Still, the governor delayed action against the strikers and called for talks between GM and the UAW. Governor Murphy worked day and night to hammer out an agreement. President Roosevelt telephoned both GM and the UAW encouraging a compromise. Finally, on February 11, GM agreed to negotiate a labor contract for all UAW members in all its plants. Furthermore, the company promised not to interfere with UAW efforts to sign up new members in GM factories. In exchange, the union agreed to end the sit-down strike and get the production of cars moving again.

The sit-downers had won a great victory, not only for themselves but for the entire labor movement in the United States. GM auto workers, originally reluctant to join the UAW, now signed up by the thousands in Flint and other cities. Shortly after the GM strike ended, the UAW called a strike against the second largest automaker in the U.S., Chrysler Corporation. A month later Chrysler gave in and agreed to negotiate a contract with the UAW. Soon, thousands more in other industries began joining unions.

The Battle of the Overpass

By May 1937, only Ford Motor Company held out against negotiating a union contract for its employees. Henry Ford had once declared, "We’ll never recognize the United Auto Workers Union or any other union."

On May 26, UAW organizers wanted to distribute union leaflets outside the gates of Ford’s mammoth River Rouge factory complex near Detroit. As Walter Reuther, Victor’s brother, and other UAW leaders crossed an overpass on the way to Gate No. 4, they were attacked and beaten by a group of 40 men. Local police who witnessed the attack did not try to stop the violence.

Officials at Ford denied any responsibility for the beatings. However, a number of newspaper reporters at the scene recognized several of the attackers as belonging to Ford’s "Service Department." This was a 3,000 member private police force hired by Henry Ford to stop union activity among his workers. Even more convincing evidence of the company’s role in the beatings turned up with release of dramatic photographs clearly identifying Ford "Service Men" assaulting Walter Reuther and the other union organizers.

Henry Ford continued to hold out against the UAW until the spring of 1941. By this time Ford had lost several court cases that proved the company had unfairly fired union members. When the man in charge of Ford’s "Service Department" fired all UAW Grievance Committee members, the majority of the workers at the River Rouge plant walked out on strike. Only 10 days later, Ford agreed to a worker election to decide what union would negotiate a labor contract. The UAW won the election by an overwhelming margin.

By then, virtually all auto industry workers were protected by labor contracts negotiated by the UAW. In addition, other unions signed labor contracts with most of the big rubber and steel corporations. The struggle to unionize millions of industrial workers in America had been won.

For Discussion and Writing

1. Auto industry wages were higher than most other wages during the Great Depression. Why did the workers believe that a labor union was needed? What other alternatives were possible for the workers?

2. Why did unions like the UAW have difficulty signing up members after the Wagner Act of 1935 guaranteed workers the right to join unions? Describe the problem in your own words.

3. Why was the sit-down strike an effective union strategy? What other methods might have been as effective?

4. Rank the following causes of union success from most to least important. Explain the reasons for the order you selected.

A. Election of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1932 and 1936).

B. Passage of the Wagner Act (1935).

C. Leadership of the UAW and other unions.

D. GM sit-down strike of 1936–37.

E. Violence against strikers and union organizers.

5. Write a letter from Walter Reuther to Henry Ford. In this letter try to convince Ford to allow his workers to join the UAW. Write a reply from Henry Ford to Walter Reuther.


Supreme Court Brainstorm

Questions about the rights of workers to organize and strike have come before the courts on many occasions. In 1937, the Supreme Court had to decide whether sit-down strikes as described in this article were legal. Recreate that case with the following brainstorm activity.

Step I

As a class, read the following factual situation.

In 1936 and 1937, the UAW argued that sit-downs were legal since GM and other companies refused to obey labor laws, including the Wagner Act. Most employers viewed the sit-down as little more than trespassing. The facts of one sit-down strike in 1937 led to a U.S. Supreme Court case.

Soon after the GM strike ended, workers began a sit-down against Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation in North Chicago, Illinois.

The company fired the sit-downers and secured a court order requiring them to leave the plant. The men refused and fought two pitched battles with sheriff’s deputies before being arrested and jailed.

Later, the strikers tried to get their jobs back on the grounds that the company had violated provisions of the Wagner Act before the strike. In 1939, the Supreme Court agreed that the company had engaged in unfair labor practices. Still, the Supreme Court had other laws to consider. The strikers had seized and held Fansteel’s private property against state law and court orders. The Wagner Act did not give them this right. Would the fact that Fansteel had violated provisions of the Wagner Act protect the workers from being fired by the company as a result of their own illegal actions?

Step II

Select nine students to take the roles of Supreme Court justices. Divide the rest of the class into groups of three or four students each. Half of these will represent the sit-downers position, the other half will represent Fansteel.

Step III

Once students are in groups, they should prepare as follows:

1. Sit-downers. As a group brainstorm and list five reasons why the company did not have "good cause" for firing the sit-downers and why they should get their jobs back.

2. Fansteel. As a group brainstorm and list five reasons why the sit-downers were fired for "good cause" and should not be rehired.

3. Supreme Court. As a group discuss the facts of the case and what each "justice" thinks about the issues presented.

Step IV

Call on one sit-downers group to present its list. Write the five reasons on the chalkboard. Ask the other sit-downer groups to add additional items. Repeat the process with the Fansteel groups.

Step V

Give the Supreme Court a few minutes to discuss the lists and then poll the justices for their decision. Majority rules.

The minority should also express their views. Many times in the history of the Supreme Court, the views of the minority became those of the majority at a later date.


1. What other factors should the Supreme Court have considered?

2. Read the Supreme Court decision below. Do you agree or disagree with the result? Why?

3. What effect might this have had on union growth?

4. Are there times when an action judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court should be reconsidered? Why or why not?

* * * * *

Supreme Court Decision

Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes writing for the majority of the Supreme Court declared that the sit-downers were fired for good cause when they refused to leave the plant. The chief justice ruled that "the seizure and retention of [Fansteel’s] property were unlawful. It was a highhanded proceeding without a shadow of legal right."
(National Labor Relations Board v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corporation,1939, 306 U.S. 240– 268)



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