Working on the line at General Motors in Flint was a job many men
needed desperately in the 1930's, but it was also tremendously difficult.
Terrible working conditions, combined with unfair and devious payroll
practices, made the auto plants of Depression-era Flint into ripe
locations for union organization.
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
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.