The Flint Sit-Down Strike Audio Presentation


The formation of the Auto Workers in earnest, in serious, began, so far as John L Lewis was concerned, began in nineteen thirty-five...nineteen thirty-six. And as these strikes were taking place through-out the United States in the auto industry, in Atlanta, some of the rubber strikes down in Akron, Ohio, some of the auto industry, Kelsey Hays and so forth over in Detroit.

Of and by themselves they were successful in that many of these were settled without real recognition. But they were one to this extend, that management could not discharge these people as they formally had because there was such strength there, but they were never an overpowering thing. No auto facility, manufacturing site, manufacturing plant, had been able to overpower the auto industry.

Now here in Flint on December the thirtieth, nineteen thirty-six, Fisher number two went down. Fisher number two was the automobile body plant which supplied bodies for Chevrolet. A few hours later December thirtieth, nineteen thirty-six Fisher number one who supplied bodies for the Buick motor company went down.

Now these plants were completely occupied, but still it was not bringing General Motors to their knees, they were not negotiating, they were saying as a matter of fact that they would not negotiate. The point was how do you bring a giant corporation like General Motors to its knees.

Well obviously if you cut of their main source of profit, it would be much faster then it would be to cut off the automobile bodies. Because with respect to Chevrolet they had seven assembly plants, six outside of Flint here.

And they could ship these Chevrolet engines to any of these other six assembly plants in the United States who had Fisher body plants and continue to make Chevrolets. So the Fisher body plant for Chevrolet and the Fisher body plant for Buick was a real nuisance for General Motors, but it was not of such a nature that it would bring them to their knees.

Now there had already been a strike strategy committee elected at the Chevrolet facility and as its chairman was a young man by the name of Kermit Johnson who was then about twenty-three years old. And while they were groping about to find a way to successful shut down the Chevrolet facility.

Kermit came up with the idea, of well why not shut down the manufacturing motor plant, which is Chevrolet plant number four, was then and still is today known as Chevrolet number four. Now working in conjunction with the strategy to shut down the plant was a man by the name of Bob Travis, who had been sent in here by the UAW as a professional organizer.

And with him was also Roy Reuther a younger brother of Walter. Kermit presented the idea of having a phony strike take place in another Chevrolet plant when in reality the target for the shut down would be Chevrolet plant number four the one that made all the engines for the entire Chevrolet division.

Now in order to do this they figured you had to let the traders, the rats, the people who were really in the union but informing the company, you had to let them know that there was going to be a sit-down. And the sit-down was to take place in a plant called plant number nine, which made small parts for the motor division.

Now this idea was tossed around for quite a long time. Kermit was never able to convince Bob Travis and Roy Reuther that this plan would succeed, they were afraid it would fail and if there was an attempt at occupation, sit-down of a plant and it failed this would be so disheartening that maybe they would never get another sit-down.

So they took it to Detroit, now Walter Reuther of course was not the real power in the UAW at this time, but he was an advisor for the UAW. Walter rejected the idea. He said it was too risky, it wouldn't work he was afraid. And for the reasons I just outlined if it did fail then maybe we would never have another chance for a sit-down in Flint. The union membership would melt away. ect. ect.

They kept discussing the plan with him and Walter finally said well I'll tell you what I'll do, I won't oppose it, but I'm not going sponsor it either. You fellows go ahead, and if it works fine, but if it fails I don't want you telling anybody. Let this be known right now this not my idea it's your idea. And the owness of failure rests on your shoulders not on mine.

Now, this you see, this presentation is a bit different picture of the Walter Ruther that a lot of people know. You see. That Walter was infallible in his judgment and he was a gun hoer all the time. And as intelligent as he was he didn't see the possibilities in this particular thing.

Well at any rate they came back to Flint. They designated Chevrolet plant number nine as the diversionary tacit sit-down, where the sit-down was going to take place. And the irony of it was that these real strong militant union people who were working in plant nine, were not told that this was a ploy, they were not told that they weren't going to have a sit-down there.

They were told that this was the sit-down, this was the key plant. Plant nine. To shut her down at the change of shift. Which would have been at three o'clock on February the first nineteen thirty-seven. So this is what they did. And the stool peguins of course got back to management, told them plant nine was going to be shut down.

This is where the big thing is. So Chevrolet management concentrated all the plant protection men, all of the company watchmen, plus all of the key people in the security business they had in the personal building which was adjacent to plant nine. They put them down in the basement.

Ready to spring out and quell that sit-down which was extensively going to take place at the change of shift at three o'clock. Now on cue, these people in plant nine, did stage the phony sit-down. And when they did all of the plant protection people rushed into plant nine. They had their tear gas, they had their tear gas masks and they put them on and went in and clubbed the men into inaccessibility.

Oh yes, well indeed there was fighting inside the plant. That's right, it was street warfare you might say. And of course the workers were at a great disadvantage because they had no gas masks. They didn't have the weapons, the Billy clubs and so forth.

And while this was taking place the real sit-down forces were forming in the various plants in Chevrolet. They marched into plant four which lies behind plant nine. They marched in there, and all the security people where busy at plant nine. The men who got into plant four barricaded the gates. Began welding the gates shut. And thus began the occupation, the illegal occupation of plant four.

Show Transcript Speaker: Larry Jones. Interviewed by U-M Flint Labor History Project. Date of interview: 6-9-1978. Edited by Michael Van Dyke.

Copyright: ©2002 Michigan State University.