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Strikes had been attempted in Flint in 1930 and 1934, but had been viciously broken up by company stooges and the Flint police force. In 1935 Congress passed the Wagner Act, which legalized strikes and invigorated the new Congress of Industrial Organizations under the leadership of John L. Lewis. Among the first attempts at establishing independent unionization in industrial plants were the strikes at Cleveland's White Motors and Toledo's AutoLite factories in 1934 and 1935. These strikes were notable because of their use of a new tactic - the sit-down.

Workers did more than picket outside the plant and risk replacement by scabs; they actually occupied the plant itself in order to prevent further production. This gave labor an edge in negotiations that they had not enjoyed before. However, due to its infringement of the property rights of the company, it was a tactic that scared most Americans. Even after the strike was successful, some workers were uneasy about their participation in such an activity. Nevertheless, it proved to be a very effective strategy. And after years of abuses and failures to get the company's ear, most of the men were ready for anything.

During the summer of 1936, Wyndham Mortimer, who had been a leader of the White Motors strike, came to Flint at the behest of the infant UAW to attempt an initial organization of workers there. It was a challenge no other organizer wanted, since the town of Flint was almost entirely controlled by General Motors. Yet Mortimer recognized that if Flint could be won for the union, the CIO and UAW would have established their most important beachhead within industrial America. Working from the obscurity of a hotel room, he began to send letters to workers whom he felt might be sympathetic, while in the evenings he held secret meetings in workers' homes in order to elude the notice of company spies. Gradually, the union grew.

In October, tensions within the national UAW leadership forced Mortimer out of Flint. He was able to name his own replacement, though, and his choice for the job was Bob Travis. Travis had been a strike leader in Toledo, and was very good at convincing others of the value of a union. Though not a great public speaker, he had a genius for organization and for motivating small groups into action. His personality made it hard for people to dislike or distrust him. In retrospect, Mortimer could not have made a wiser choice. With the help of other transplanted leaders like the Reuther brothers - Victor, Roy, and Walter - Travis continued to hold meetings and sign up members throughout the fall and early winter of 1936, building on the foundation that Mortimer had established.

Travis's major challenge was to contain the growing strike fever among the workers until the time was right, which he thought might be just after the new year. Workers would not be cheated out of their Christmas bonuses if they waited until then, and besides, a liberal, New Deal governor, Frank Murphy, was to be sworn into office on New Year's Day. For the strike to begin before all the pieces were in place would be potentially disastrous.

Things didn't quite work out as planned. On December 29, word came to Travis that the company, in anticipation of a strike, was removing from the Fisher II plant the huge dies that were used for casting car bodies. If these dies were removed, GM would be able to produce car bodies elsewhere and weaken the union's strategic position. Travis gave the word that the dies were to be protected at all costs and that the workers at Fisher II should occupy the plant to prevent any further company subterfuge. With this directive, the strike was on, two days early. The next day, workers at Fisher I sat down, and GM knew that it had something serious on its hands.

Show Transcript Speaker: Michael Van Dyke. Interviewed by U-M Flint Labor History Project. Date of interview: 10-13-2001. Edited by Michael Van Dyke.

Copyright: ©2002 Michigan State University.