During the Great Depression, even workers with employment often found themselves in desperate situations.
As part of the many laws passed during the New Deal was the National Labor Relations Act (also known as the Wagner Act). The Wagner Act protected labor organizing and activism. One of the first tests of this was in Flint, Michigan, where auto workers in the new United Autoworkers Union staged a strike, occupying manufacturing plants. Below are excerpts of interviews conducted in the late 1990s.
“During July, a torrid heat wave sent the thermometer boiling over 100 degrees for a week straight. But the assembly lines pounded away mercilessly while the workers fell at their stations like flies. Deaths in the state’s auto centers ran into the hundreds within three or four days.” Jan McFarlane, 3.
“And maybe the foreman or something needed his barn painted. You were expected to go out on a Saturday. And if you didn’t, you better forget your job the next day, you know.” Marian Snyder, 9.
“I got laid off to make room for a basketball player. See, Buick used to have a big basketball team.” Carl French, 11.
“They wouldn’t take old people in the shop. They’d just use ‘em as long as they could get a day’s work out of ‘em and then kick ‘em out. It didn’t make any difference how many children you had or anything.” Raymond Carey, 11.
“You couldn’t get a drink of water if you wanted a drink of water. You couldn’t leave your line, you know. You couldn’t even go to the bathroom. What I mean, you was tied down that closely. They didn’t give a darn about you, you know.” Joseph Martinus, 15.
“[My husband] told about men that would just soil their pants because they wouldn’t relieve them to go to the bathroom.” Marian Snyder, 15.
“I never went to any [union meetings before the strike] because they never invited me to any. Maybe they think the women at that time wasn’t sturdy enough.” Mary Nightingale, 21.
“The fall in union membership from 26,000 in 1934 to 120 in 1936 was attributed to a fear of company spies. Any kind of union activity could be cause for dismissal. GM spent $994,855.68 for at least 14 detective agencies to spy on unionists between January 1934 and July 1936.” Jan McFarlane, 29.
“It bothered me just a little bit to think that we were holding somebody else’s property. You know, I wasn’t brought up that way but then I got to thinking again, “What the hell, we’re fighting for our lives, for our very livelihood.” Maynard (Red) Mundale, 47.
“. . . .The leader of the union, in our plant, his name was Bud Simons, he got up in that ring. And believe me, he really read the riot act to us poor folks. . . .He told us haw bad General Motors was and how bad we needed the strike, and all the bad things that was going on. And we should stay in there and fight, really fight. Boy he drove it to us. You never heard the like of it in your life. . . .” Jim Londrigan, 53.
“We had to patrol the plant because they had paint mixers running. So we had to put in three hour shifts. And you had to work and keep everything going because if the stuff got solidified in the pipes, the plant couldn’t run. It wasn’t our idea to destroy the plant. We just was protecting our jobs.” Jim Liguori, 57.
“Really, believe me, without the help and the assistance that we had received from the people outside the plant, we could never have won the strike. No way. . . .” Fred Ahearn, 61.
“We had some two by twos in the corner because we expected any time to be raided. But fortunately we weren’t.” Geraldine Blankenship, 63.
“I have never seen people stick together. Once they got it in their head, they stuck together and they clung together and it was just a universal whole. There was no one group or no one–it took the effort of every single one of us, the efforts of our own people that was working, the efforts of the brigade, the auxiliary, the other unions, the efforts of the Governor of Michigan. He played an amazing role in it. John L. Lewis played an amazing role. It took all of us, it took everybody together as a whole, coming together as a whole.” Nellie Simons, 63.
“In seeking to organize Flint’s automobile workers the UAW had to contend not only with the most powerful manufacturing concern in the world but also with local law officers who were prepared to support the corporation at every turn.” Jan McFarlane, 69.
“We met the police head on. . .We fell back, grabbed the fire hoses. . .turned them on full force . . .and literally washed them on their butts right straight across the street backwards. And then we broke out into the street and from there all hell broke loose. . .It was. . .the only time that I’ve ever saw. . .mob action, and [it] really got out of control. It scared me, it frightened me to death and I never want to see it again. . .I believe that night there must have been close to. . .three to five thousand people on that street and hour after this [started to happen]” Fred Ahearn, 73.
“I was frightened and you first lose all your power of thinking for just a matter of moments and then you become terribly, terribly angry that armed policemen are shooting into unarmed men. The men were grabbing up boxes of hinges and throwing back at the police and paving stones and running back into th plant to get fresh air because this tear gas was terrific, and blinding.” Genora Johnson Dollinger, 73.
“I was up the hill far enough so that I could witness what was going on. . .Here was my one brother down there and I knew that he could get shot any time. He could get killed. My other broker they was taking up this hill. And I think it was Pinkerton men. . .I thought it was a couple of them and maybe I’d never see him again, you know.” Marian Snyder, 73.
“I said, ‘I am going to walk right up to that firing line and let them shoot a woman and then maybe Flint will wake up and they will find out just what is happening here’. . .So I got up [to the loudspeaker] and I made my plea to the citizens of Flint. And I said, ‘Do you know that these cops who are cowards enough to fire into unarmed men are also cowards enough to fire into the mothers of children. There are women down here. There are mothers of children down here that the cops have been firing into. Now I am making a please for all of you women up there to come down and stand besides us. Break through those lines. Don’t let the police stop you. Break through, please. For God’s sake, come down here and help us.’ And this became the end of the battle. We saw the cops grab one by the coat. She pulled out of the coat. Of course, they did not want to shoot women in the back as they started breaking through. We saw those women trickle down there followed by the men and the firing stopped. That is when we really won this battle.” Genora Johnson Dollinger, 75.
“Oh Frank [Murphy], as far as I’m concerned, he was one of the greatest governors we ever had. We was lucky that he was in there at the time. Because when they sent soldiers around, you know, he said he wasn’t sending them over here to take the people out of the plant. He was sending ‘em here to keep the peace.” Howard Washburn, 77.
“Our people would have been killed. But [Murphy] wouldn’t let ‘em. He sent in the National Guard to promote peace and make ‘em negotiate. And we were lucky. And another thing that helped us at that time, that was about the time we had an administration that allowed the Wagner Labor Act and labor legislation. We had a few friends in the nation’s capitol.” Charlie White, 77.
“Well, Fisher Number 1, at one time there we had about a hundred and fifty in there. . .We had people come in from Anderson, Indiana, Toledo, Ohio, to help us out, you know. . .’Cause one them there was just about twenty-five of us in there.” Lester Kenney, 79.
“I peeled potatoes from seven to seven for a week. But the crowning blow came on Saturday night when I thought we were done early, a farmer came in with two one-hundred pound bags of carrots. And we didn’t have carrot peelers. . .So you know how long we worked with all those carrots that night.” Adeline Palovich, 83.
“The Methodist superintendent. . .of Court Street Methodist Church, and the minister at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, went out secretly. . .and climbed through the window of Fisher and gave communion and did a prayer service for the strikers.” Shirley Foster, 87.
“The Flint Alliance. . .called a meeting in the IMA and they were trying to start a back-to-work movement. . .Money was scarce. Some of them people. . .they lived from paycheck to paycheck. . .If you have your kids crying and you can’t pay your rent, it’s rough.” Jim Liguouri, 87.
“You might say all the business places or whatever in Flint was against the union. . .And one of the big things they said was they blamed the Communists. You’re all Communists, you know. The guys striking, they’re all Communists. And there wasn’t a Communist in the bunch as far as I knew. .. .But the only thing that I ever heard tell of the Communists was they had a paper. . .But they supported the working people.” Howard Washburn, 89.
“Farmers, a lot of those farmers around brought all the different foods, like potatoes and things of this sort, that they got into the strike headquarters where the women’s auxiliary could prepare the stuff and bring it to us.” Fred Ahearn, 89.
“Everybody practically that was in the union was accused of being a Communist.” Geraldine Blankenship, 91.
“. . .[We] were greatly encouraged when we heard we had the backing of the militant United Mine Workers and John L. Lewis whom we thought would dare to do anything in the whole wide world. The financial backing and the moral support of John L. Lewis and the mine workers was our greatest source of inspiration. . .” Genora Johnson Dollinger, 93.
“[John L. Lewis] went to the mine workers and they assessed themselves, I think it was seven dollars and a half a month. It went to the strike fund for the UAW.” Jim Liguori, 93.
“My dad told me ahead of time that if I carried a bar of soap in my purse, in my pocket, and a bobby sock, that I could always take that bar of soap and use it for a weapon and I couldn’t be charged with a concealed weapon. . .But several of the women–you know, our coats at that time were longer–they had boards underneath their coats. . .One of the strikers. . .broke a window out. His face was all blood and he screamed, ‘They’re gassing us, they’re gassing us.’ Just about that time the women turned and went into action.” Nellie Simons, 99.
“They were shooting tear gas and beating ‘em and everything else. The place was blue with tear gas. The women was outside. . .They was breaking them windows and letting air in.” Jim Liguouri, 99.
“This girl. . .got hit on the head with a crowbar and her sister got kicked in the stomach and she was six months pregnant. Oh, it was rough.” Mary Nightingale, 99.
“Then, Genora and the rest of us Lieutenants [in the Women's Emergency Brigade] went for a stroll down to Chevrolet 4. She knew that they were gonna take 4, she was the only one that knew. . .As we were walking up to Plant 4 somebody hollered, ‘Hold them gates, don’t let anybody in or out.’ So we strung ourselves across the gate and interlocked our arms like this. . .before we got help there was a bunch of police down there harassing us and trying to move us. We said, ‘Our families are in there and we are not going to let anybody through.’ We talked long enough that all at once we heard this shouting and this singing and we looked up at the top of the hill and here come the women and the men with them. It was the most beautiful sight in the world.” Nellie Simons, 101.
“So then there was an old organ up there on the one side of the cafeteria. . .And there was somebody that knew how to play it. And they played ‘Solidarity Forever, and the union makes us strong.’ And we was singing them songs.” Jacob Hutton, 101.
“One day after the takeover of Chevy 4, Judge Gadola issued an injunction to force the sitdowners to evacuate the plants and fined them $15,000,000. Fearing that vigilantes would try to evict them, a huge crowd gathered outside Fisher 1 on February 3. When the city agreed not to try to evict the strikers, the crowds agreed not to congregate in large numbers. On the same day, GM and UAW representatives began negotiations which would bring the strike to a close on February 11, 1937.” Jan McFarlane, 103.
“Tom Wolcott, he was the sheriff, he come in and read us a contempt order that General Motors had got from the judge. And he said. . .we had to evacuate the plant. And if we didn’t we was all gonna be fined so many thousands of dollars a day. . .But we didn’t have thirty cents, so we couldn’t see that kind of money to start with. But of course, when the strike was over and we won the strike, they dissolved that order.” Howard Washburn, 103.
“The news of an agreement which would permit the UAW to bargain collectively for its members with the assurance that GM would not interfere with an employee’s right to join a labor organization created an atmosphere of joy throughout the striking community.” Jan McFarlane, 105.
“I walked out to the corner of Fourth Street and South Saginaw. . .It was a gray February day. . .And suddenly as we stood there. . .suddenly in the distance we heard singing. And we looked down South Saginaw Street and were suddenly silent. And everybody began to press toward the singing. . .Next we could hear them singing, “Solidarity Forever.” And the song grew louder and people along the sides got so excited. Remember, they’d been out for forty-four days! And away from home for forty-four days. . .And people. . .were so excited they were going to see them. . .They went up to Third Avenue and across to Chevrolet Avenue and walked down into the hold to pick up the Chevrolet people. And then it was an enormous celebration all over the city that night. . .Flint would never know a feeling just like that again. Because it was the first break-through, and it was a national. . .almost an international breakthrough. It was an amazing feeling. The feelings for some months afterwards were electric. I can’t think of any other word.” Shirley Foster, 105.
“But we had strikes afterwards, you see. . .You couldn’t get anything settled. You didn’t have no grievance procedure. You just had bargaining rights. And the only leverage you had on getting their attention is shut the line off. And we just about run that company crazy for two years. That’s the only way you got anything settled.” Robert Keith, 109.
“And the women got seats. Oh yeah, the union got us seats so we could sit down. Otherwise, we would have stood up all the time.” Estelle Hodges, 111.
“So after the sit-down strike. . .we had our control of the line and we. . .put a lock on the line. They couldn’t go ahead and crank the line up for more production.” Lester Kenney, 111.
“They kept the married men and they laid off the single ones. That was another thing that the union don’t allow anymore. If you got the seniority, you stay.” Lloyd Berdan, 111.
Source: Witnesses and Warriors, edited by Jan McFarlane, et al, of Mott Community College, Flint, 1999.
- What were some of the specific problems workers had with their conditions?
- From the testimony given here, what role did women play in the strike?