Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Flint sit-down strike's role in history

The anniversary of the Great Flint Sit Down Strike was December 30. The strike took place in 1936 and is important because it resulted in General Motors' recognition of the UAW as a bargaining agent. For the next 41 days, Christine at Blogging for Michigan will be writing a series of posts describing what life was like during the strike. Christine asks the following:
Feel free to comment, or not, but I do hope you'll at least spend a minute thinking about it. Let it become part of who you are ... carry it with you, and pull it out when someone starts twaddling on about the right to work for less. If you really care about the future of the working men and women of this country, you'll do your best to understand their past.
I have a post over there too that reminds everyone it's important to understand the past. The Flint sit-down strike is a history lesson about the birth of unionization. For instance, what was the auto industry like prior to the Great Depression? Historian Stephen Sears described it as follows:
Before the Great Depression, unionism was in truth not much of an issue in Detroit. The vast labor army recruited during the auto boom of the twenties — white dirt farmers, poor city dwellers, southern blacks, recent immigrants — was docile and innocent of trade-union experience. Any labor grievances were defused by pay scales higher than those in most other industries and by a system of “welfare capitalism” (group insurance, savings programs, housing subsidies, recreational facilities, and the like) in which General Motors was a pioneer. Openshop Detroit had little to fear from the nation’s largest union, the American Federation of Labor. The craft-minded AFL devoted itself to horizontal unionism—organizing all the machinists, for example, regardless of industry. It studiously ignored industrial unionism, the vertical organization of the unskilled or semiskilled workers within a particular industry such as autos, steel, or rubber.
Then the Depression hit and everything changed.
[...] In the early 1930's Detroit auto workers found themselves powerless as the industry collapsed like a punctured balloon. Welfare capitalism was silent on job security. Wages and work time were slashed. As layoffs mounted, workers with ten or twenty years’ experience discovered that their seniority counted for nothing; it counted for nothing, either, in the call-backs that marked an upturn in auto sales beginning in 1933. Assembly lines were speeded up mercilessly to raise productivity and restore profit levels. Bitter men protested. “You might call yourself a man if you was on the street,” a Fisher Body worker recalled, “but as soon as you went through the door and punched your card, you was nothing more or less than a robot. ” “It takes your guts out, that line. The speed-up, that’s the trouble,” another said. “You should see him come home at night, him and the rest of the men … ,” a Flint auto worker’s wife testified. “So tired like they was dead.… And then at night in bed, he shakes, his whole body, he shakes. …”
The auto workers saw unionism and the strike as their only hope of redressing the balance. Stop and think about the courage those workers showed. As wizardkitten pointed out at BFM, "the fact that they did this in the middle of the Depression is astounding."

Sears described the gains the workers made like this:
Victory in the Flint sit-down by no means ended the discontents of the auto worker. Yet now, for the first time, he could envision himself as something more than simply an insignificant part of a great impersonal machine; as “Solidarity” phrased it, the union had made him strong. “Even if we got not one damn thing out of it other than that,” a Fisher Body worker said, “we at least had a right to open our mouths without fear.” [emphasis added]
Unions are more than just bargaining units for better wages and benefits. They give workers a voice. That's something you can't put a dollar sign on.


abi said...

It's sad to see union rolls dwindling like they have.

Kathy said...

Abi, the unions dwindling influence is also one of the reasons fewer people have pensions, health insurance and job security.