INTRODUCTION TO GALLERY
In early 1978, Neil Leighton, a political science professor at
the University of Michigan-Flint, went to an academic conference
at Duke University. While there, he ran into Professor Laurence
Goodwyn, who, when informed of Leighton's place of work, asked him
what he was doing in North Carolina when he could be back in Flint
doing research into "the greatest strike in American history."
The two men went out to get a drink together and discussed what
could be done to bring more attention to the significance of the
strike. As a result, Goodwyn agreed to come to Flint and teach a
group of professors and students how to do an oral history of the
Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37. Thus was born
the Labor History Project at UM-Flint. The faculty members who conducted
interviews included Leighton, Kenneth B. West, William Meyer, and
Nan Pendrell. Dozens of students who attended labor history classes
at UM-Flint carried out the rest of the interviews, all of which
were completed between 1978 and 1984. The project was immense in
scope and depth, and the tapes that were produced are some of the
most important primary materials on American labor history that
Most of the strike participants were over seventy years old at
the time of their interviews, and many were over eighty. Yet their
memories of what transpired more than forty years earlier turned
out to be surprisingly clear. They remembered the working conditions
that led to the strike, especially the dreaded "speed-up";
they remembered what they were doing during the strike, inside the
plants and out; and they remembered the difficult months after the
strike when the fledgling UAW was trying to establish long-term
credibility. Their memories, added together, create a comprehensive
oral history of the event, and are an invaluable complement to scholarly
books available on the subject.
In the late Spring of 2001, Michael Van Dyke and David Bailey of
Matrix became aware of the existence of these tapes through the
auspices of John Revitte, a friend of Leighton's and a professor
of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State. We subsequently
met with Mr. Leighton and Paul Gifford, Archivist at UM-Flint (where
the tapes had been deposited), and discussed the possibility of
digitizing these aging audiotapes and making them available on an
educational website. They agreed that this was a good idea, and
graciously allowed us to bring the tapes to Michigan State for this
As these audio clips demonstrate, the strike itself has remained
interesting because it was a classic case of David versus Goliath.
In 1936, General Motors was the richest industrial corporation in
the world, with plants in over fifty cities and towns across the
United States. Moreover, the largest stockholders were the fabulously
wealthy Du Ponts. The strikers, on the other hand, averaged about
a tenth grade education, came from poor families, and consisted
of many Southerners and Eastern European immigrants. As such, it
was easy for strike opponents to claim that they were being forced
into their acts of radicalism by "outside agitators" (code
words for Communists and Socialists). To a certain degree this charge
may have been true, yet it is untrue to say that the aim of most
of the strikers was to take over the plants on a permanent basis.
Like most of the country, they only wanted a "new deal"
that might help them better their lot in life. This meant not only
better working conditions and higher pay; it also meant an affirmation
of their basic humanity.
Fine, Sidney. Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937.
Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1969.
Kraus, Henry. The Many and the Few: A Chronicle of the Dynamic
Auto Workers. Los Angeles: The Plantin Press, 1947.
Reuther, Victor. The Brothers Reuther and the Story of the UAW:
A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976.
Mortimer, Wyndham. Organize! My Life as a Union Man. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1971.
Dollinger, Sol and Genora Johnson. Not Automatic: Women and
the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers Union. New York:
Monthly Review Press, 2000.
Lichtenstein, Nelson and Meyer, Stephen, eds. On the Line: Essays
in the History of Auto Work. Urbana: University of Illinois
Howe, Irving. The UAW and Walter Reuther. New York: Da Capo
Portal for Interactive Content
Labor Party Pamphlet
Vista High School, Boulder, Colorado
University of Michigan-Flint Labor History Project
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