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There is no question that the auto workers needed a new weapon with which to fight the giant corporations. Eighty per cent of Flint's adult population were directly dependent on GM for livelihood, 20 per cent indirectly. Forty-five thousand men and women toiled in the GM Flint plants, heart and nerve center of the corporation's world-wide empire. In the summer of 1936 every city official-the mayor, city manager, police chief and the judges-were GM stockholders or officials, or both. The only local newspaper, The Flint Journal, was 100 per cent GM, all the time. The corporation controlled the radio station directly: even paid-for time was denied the union during the fight for unionization. The school board, welfare department and all other government agencies were directly under the thumb of the corporation. Billboards throughout the city acclaimed "the happy GM family."

Total domination of the workers and the community in which they lived was part of the system by which GM was able to net an average annual profit of $173 million from 1927 to 1937 6 during the depths of the Great Depression. Eighty stockholders became millionaires in four years during the late Twenties on GM dividends alone. In 1936 the auto giant completed a quarter-century with profits that totaled an astronomical $2.5 billion, a figure unequalled by any other corporation in the world up to that time. Its 1936 net profit was $225 millions, a rate of 24 per cent on a capitalization of $945 millions. No wonder it earned and kept the title of the "world's greatest money-maker" among all corporations.

GM, in 1936 employing 55 per cent of all U.S. auto workers in 69 plants, was bigger than Ford and Chrysler combined. Three hundred and fifty of its officers and directors were paid ten million dollars in salaries that year. Its two top officers, Alfred Sloan and William Knudson, received $375,000 each in 1935. Its seventh vice-president, one Charles Wilson, received $190,000.7 The giant was controlled by the DuPont interests, which owned about a quarter of the stock.

The condition of the auto workers was in stark contrast to that of their bosses. In 1935, a year in which the government declared $1,600 as the minimum income on which a family of four could live decently, the average auto worker took home $900. Most lived in fearful insecurity. A foreman could fire at will. Layoffs between the old and new model year lasted from three to five months, without unemployment insurance. A compulsory loan system prevailed, under which GM deducted principal plus interest on the worker's return to employment in the fall, cutting wages 10 per cent.

But it was the speed-up that made life intolerable. A wife described her husband as "coming home so dog-tired he couldn't even walk upstairs to bed but crawled on his hands and knees."

One witness reported: "The men worked like fiends, their jaws set and eyes on fire. Nothing in the world exists for them except the line chassis bearing down on them relentlessly. They come along on a conveyor, and as each passes, the worker has to finish his particular job before the next one bears down on him. The line moves fast and the chassis are close together. The men move like lightning. Some are underneath on their backs on little carts, propelling themselves by their heels all day long, fixing something underneath the chassis as they move along." 8

Young workers, unused to the unbearable pace, couldn't eat until they threw up their previous meals when they got home. One worker told Atlantic Monthly that he had been made so dizzy by the constant noises of the assembly line that when he left the plant he could not remember where he had parked his car.9

Walter Moore, a welder, father of eight and section organizer for the Communist Party in Flint, told a reporter: "Did you ever see a house in the country on fire? They tear up the carpets, rip out the furniture, throw everything out of the windows and doors, work at white heat while great, red flames shoot up to the sky. Well, that's a shop, only in a shop It goes on and on; the fire never goes out."10

Flint workers were described as having a "peculiar, gray, jaundiced color," like "a city of tuberculars,"11 and in July, 1936, when temperatures soared over 100 degrees, deaths in Michigan's auto plants rose into the hundreds.12

The speed-up was intensified by the ever-present threat of layoffs.. "The fear of layoff is always in their minds, even if not definitely brought there by the foremen. The speed-up is thus inherent in the…lack of steady work and an army of unemployed waiting outside."13

It was the speed-up that organized Flint.

6 Henry Kraus, The Many and the Few, The Plantin Press, Los Angeles, 1947, p. 9
7 Samuel Romer, 'Profile of General Motors' in The Nation, January 23, 1937, p. 97
8 Labor and Automobiles, International Publishers, 1929, quoting a study by R.R. Lutz, p. 60
9 Kraus, op. crit., p. 44
10 Ibid
11 Ibid, p. 23
12 Henderson Report for the National Recovery Administration, Jan. 23, 1935
13 Daily Worker, Feb. 14, 1937.

Show Transcript Speaker: Walter Linder. Interviewed by U-M Flint Labor History Project. Date of interview: 1-29-1969. Edited by Michael Van Dyke.

Copyright: ©2002 Michigan State University.