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 exist anywhere.

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 purpose.

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.

Additional Resources:


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 Press, 1989.

Howe, Irving. The UAW and Walter Reuther. New York: Da Capo Press, 1949.


Michigan Education Portal for Interactive Content

Michigan Historical Museum

Walter Reuther Library

British Broadcasting Corporation

Progressive Labor Party Pamphlet

New Vista High School, Boulder, Colorado

University of Michigan-Flint Labor History Project

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