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Standing Up by Sitting Down

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Greenhouse, S. (2019). Standing Up by Sitting Down. In Greenhouse, S. Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. Knopf Publishing Group, pp. 80-93

80

IN 1936, Fortune magazine described General Motors as “not big, but colossal,” “the world’s most complicated and most profitable manufacturing enterprise.” With sixty-nine auto plants in thirty-five American cities, GM had 250,000 employees and produced nearly half of the nation’s automobiles. It was an icon of American industry and the world’s largest company.

In sharp contrast, the United Automobile Workers was, at that time, a proverbial ninety-seven-pound weakling. Founded in 1935, the union emerged from a hodgepodge of other labor groupings that had floundered because of factional feuding and fierce opposition from GM and other automakers. Systematic company-sponsored espionage had badly undermined earlier efforts to unionize autoworkers. GM’s spies posed as workers and joined fledgling union chapters so they could tell managers who the activists were. Inside the factories, these spies helped get union supporters fired by snitching to management whenever supporters broke a rule. Company spies sometimes even took positions as officials in union locals and deliberately sowed tensions to divide and weaken the locals. At times, an astonishing number of spies—two hundred—kept tabs on union activities in GM’s plants, with the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency maintaining an office literally next door to the UAW’s Detroit headquarters. [...]

GM’s spies kept close tabs on union activities in Flint, Michigan, which was one of the auto giant’s production hubs, with fifty thousand workers employed at GM’s Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Fisher Body, and AC Spark Plug plants there. In the mid-1930s, GM employed 80 percent of Flint’s workforce, with one writer calling Flint, sixty-five miles north of Detroit, “a shabby shrine to the automobile.” Many of Flint’s autoworkers were transplants from Appalachia and the Ozarks, searching for a better life. In 1930, when a predecessor union to the UAW staged a walkout in Flint, police on horseback rode down the strikers, while other police officers arrested union leaders, seized the local’s membership rolls, and prohibited union meetings within city limits.

GM’s spying was so elaborate that in 1936 five of the thirteen executive board members of the UAW’s Flint local were either GM agents or Pinkerton spies. One union supporter told a Senate committee that because of all the surveillance, many autoworkers were too scared to openly back the UAW. “You don’t know who you’re talking to,” he said. “You never take a chance….You get suspicious of everybody.” According to a Senate committee report, spying and union busting had been so successful that auto union membership in Flint had plummeted from several thousand in 1934 to a mere 120 in 1936.

Flint’s union rolls shriveled even as autoworkers complained bitterly of dehumanizing conditions. One Chevy worker said, “Where you used to be a man…now you are less than their cheapest tool.” A New York Times reporter who visited a GM plant in Flint was shocked to see the beehive-like swarm of workers and the speed and monotony of their labor. That reporter, Russell B. Porter, wrote of “thousands of men…perform[ing] the same operation all day or night, five days a week, the year round.” Completing sixty cars an hour, “they seem to work on strings as a monster jerks them back to begin another car,” Porter added. “Speed, speed, speed—that is Flint morning, noon and night.”

One Buick worker complained, “We didn’t even have time to go to the toilet…if there wasn’t anybody to relieve you, you had to run away and tie the line up, and if you tied the line up, you got hell for it.” A Chevrolet worker said, “The supervisors…were just people with a bullwhip, so to speak. All they were interested in was production. They treated us like a bunch of coolies. ‘Get it out. Get it out. If you cannot get it out, there are people outside who will.’ ”

GM’s foremen had nearly absolute power to hire, fire, and discipline, which led to resentment, favoritism, and kickbacks to keep one’s job. Some foremen fired higher-paid, longtime workers and then rehired them at entry-level pay. “We was only beggars…with no power to demand anything that we asked for,” said James Mangold, a Chevy worker in Flint.

Many autoworkers said they could hardly support their families because of the severe seasonal employment that resulted from GM’s frequent plant closings (usually to retool for new models). While GM boasted that it had the highest hourly wages in the industry, many GM workers complained of meager annual earnings. In a 1936 speech in Detroit, President Roosevelt said one autoworker had told him that he worked just sixty-eight days the previous year, meaning he earned around $680 (about $12,000 today).

—p.80 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago

IN 1936, Fortune magazine described General Motors as “not big, but colossal,” “the world’s most complicated and most profitable manufacturing enterprise.” With sixty-nine auto plants in thirty-five American cities, GM had 250,000 employees and produced nearly half of the nation’s automobiles. It was an icon of American industry and the world’s largest company.

In sharp contrast, the United Automobile Workers was, at that time, a proverbial ninety-seven-pound weakling. Founded in 1935, the union emerged from a hodgepodge of other labor groupings that had floundered because of factional feuding and fierce opposition from GM and other automakers. Systematic company-sponsored espionage had badly undermined earlier efforts to unionize autoworkers. GM’s spies posed as workers and joined fledgling union chapters so they could tell managers who the activists were. Inside the factories, these spies helped get union supporters fired by snitching to management whenever supporters broke a rule. Company spies sometimes even took positions as officials in union locals and deliberately sowed tensions to divide and weaken the locals. At times, an astonishing number of spies—two hundred—kept tabs on union activities in GM’s plants, with the famed Pinkerton Detective Agency maintaining an office literally next door to the UAW’s Detroit headquarters. [...]

GM’s spies kept close tabs on union activities in Flint, Michigan, which was one of the auto giant’s production hubs, with fifty thousand workers employed at GM’s Chevrolet, Buick, Oldsmobile, Fisher Body, and AC Spark Plug plants there. In the mid-1930s, GM employed 80 percent of Flint’s workforce, with one writer calling Flint, sixty-five miles north of Detroit, “a shabby shrine to the automobile.” Many of Flint’s autoworkers were transplants from Appalachia and the Ozarks, searching for a better life. In 1930, when a predecessor union to the UAW staged a walkout in Flint, police on horseback rode down the strikers, while other police officers arrested union leaders, seized the local’s membership rolls, and prohibited union meetings within city limits.

GM’s spying was so elaborate that in 1936 five of the thirteen executive board members of the UAW’s Flint local were either GM agents or Pinkerton spies. One union supporter told a Senate committee that because of all the surveillance, many autoworkers were too scared to openly back the UAW. “You don’t know who you’re talking to,” he said. “You never take a chance….You get suspicious of everybody.” According to a Senate committee report, spying and union busting had been so successful that auto union membership in Flint had plummeted from several thousand in 1934 to a mere 120 in 1936.

Flint’s union rolls shriveled even as autoworkers complained bitterly of dehumanizing conditions. One Chevy worker said, “Where you used to be a man…now you are less than their cheapest tool.” A New York Times reporter who visited a GM plant in Flint was shocked to see the beehive-like swarm of workers and the speed and monotony of their labor. That reporter, Russell B. Porter, wrote of “thousands of men…perform[ing] the same operation all day or night, five days a week, the year round.” Completing sixty cars an hour, “they seem to work on strings as a monster jerks them back to begin another car,” Porter added. “Speed, speed, speed—that is Flint morning, noon and night.”

One Buick worker complained, “We didn’t even have time to go to the toilet…if there wasn’t anybody to relieve you, you had to run away and tie the line up, and if you tied the line up, you got hell for it.” A Chevrolet worker said, “The supervisors…were just people with a bullwhip, so to speak. All they were interested in was production. They treated us like a bunch of coolies. ‘Get it out. Get it out. If you cannot get it out, there are people outside who will.’ ”

GM’s foremen had nearly absolute power to hire, fire, and discipline, which led to resentment, favoritism, and kickbacks to keep one’s job. Some foremen fired higher-paid, longtime workers and then rehired them at entry-level pay. “We was only beggars…with no power to demand anything that we asked for,” said James Mangold, a Chevy worker in Flint.

Many autoworkers said they could hardly support their families because of the severe seasonal employment that resulted from GM’s frequent plant closings (usually to retool for new models). While GM boasted that it had the highest hourly wages in the industry, many GM workers complained of meager annual earnings. In a 1936 speech in Detroit, President Roosevelt said one autoworker had told him that he worked just sixty-eight days the previous year, meaning he earned around $680 (about $12,000 today).

—p.80 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago
83

Workers at the Goodyear tire plant in Akron, Ohio, had conducted several sit-down strikes in the spring of 1936, while French workers had staged a huge wave of such protests that May and June. The sit-down had many advantages over traditional strikes. In typical strikes, workers trudged back and forth in front of their workplace, exposed to cold, rain, and snow. The police often attacked them, and replacement workers could easily take their jobs while the strikers picketed outside. With sit-downs, however, the workers were comfortably indoors, staying at or near their machines so “scabs” couldn’t take their jobs. Management was reluctant to send in the police to oust sit-downers out of fear that the company’s valuable machinery would be damaged or sabotaged. With most workers still too scared to stand up in favor of a union, it often took only a few dozen militant unionists to shut down an entire factory through a sit-down.

[...]

From the very first day, as Sidney Fine explains in Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937, the strike became a huge story, the lead article in newspapers across the nation. The sit-downers occupied the north end of the giant Fisher No. 1 plant because that section had the cafeteria and many finished car bodies to sleep in. The workers formed a fourteen-member governing council and a dozen committees: for food, education, press, sanitation, recreation, postal services, and more. The governing council banned liquor and established daily cleanup crews and six-hour-long patrols to watch for counterattacks and company spies. The sit-downers even set up a reading room—the chairs were car seats—and invited theater groups to perform. And the sit-downers sang. One song that became popular was this:

When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs,
Sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk,
Sit down! Sit down!

[...]

America’s corporate leaders condemned the sit-down, with one business group commenting that if workers “can seize premises illegally, hold [them] indefinitely, refuse admittance to owners or managers…and threaten bloodshed [in] all attempts to dislodge them…then freedom and liberty are at an end, government becomes a mockery, superseded by anarchy, mob rule and ruthless dictatorship.”

—p.83 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago

Workers at the Goodyear tire plant in Akron, Ohio, had conducted several sit-down strikes in the spring of 1936, while French workers had staged a huge wave of such protests that May and June. The sit-down had many advantages over traditional strikes. In typical strikes, workers trudged back and forth in front of their workplace, exposed to cold, rain, and snow. The police often attacked them, and replacement workers could easily take their jobs while the strikers picketed outside. With sit-downs, however, the workers were comfortably indoors, staying at or near their machines so “scabs” couldn’t take their jobs. Management was reluctant to send in the police to oust sit-downers out of fear that the company’s valuable machinery would be damaged or sabotaged. With most workers still too scared to stand up in favor of a union, it often took only a few dozen militant unionists to shut down an entire factory through a sit-down.

[...]

From the very first day, as Sidney Fine explains in Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936–1937, the strike became a huge story, the lead article in newspapers across the nation. The sit-downers occupied the north end of the giant Fisher No. 1 plant because that section had the cafeteria and many finished car bodies to sleep in. The workers formed a fourteen-member governing council and a dozen committees: for food, education, press, sanitation, recreation, postal services, and more. The governing council banned liquor and established daily cleanup crews and six-hour-long patrols to watch for counterattacks and company spies. The sit-downers even set up a reading room—the chairs were car seats—and invited theater groups to perform. And the sit-downers sang. One song that became popular was this:

When the speed-up comes, just twiddle your thumbs,
Sit down! Sit down!
When the boss won’t talk, don’t take a walk,
Sit down! Sit down!

[...]

America’s corporate leaders condemned the sit-down, with one business group commenting that if workers “can seize premises illegally, hold [them] indefinitely, refuse admittance to owners or managers…and threaten bloodshed [in] all attempts to dislodge them…then freedom and liberty are at an end, government becomes a mockery, superseded by anarchy, mob rule and ruthless dictatorship.”

—p.83 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago
89

A week after meeting with Perkins, Sloan told her that he would meet with UAW leaders and Lewis, but Sloan soon reversed himself, saying it was indefensible for the sit-downers to throw so many other GM employees out of work. His about-face enraged Perkins. In a phone conversation, she told Sloan, as she later recalled, “You are a scoundrel and a skunk, Mr. Sloan. You can’t do that kind of thing. That is a rotter….You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men. Decent people don’t do such things….You have betrayed your government. You have betrayed the men who work for you.”

Sloan was appalled, telling Perkins, “You can’t talk like that to me! I’m worth $70 million, and I made it all myself. You can’t talk like that to me! I’m Alfred Sloan.”

love it

—p.89 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago

A week after meeting with Perkins, Sloan told her that he would meet with UAW leaders and Lewis, but Sloan soon reversed himself, saying it was indefensible for the sit-downers to throw so many other GM employees out of work. His about-face enraged Perkins. In a phone conversation, she told Sloan, as she later recalled, “You are a scoundrel and a skunk, Mr. Sloan. You can’t do that kind of thing. That is a rotter….You don’t deserve to be counted among decent men. Decent people don’t do such things….You have betrayed your government. You have betrayed the men who work for you.”

Sloan was appalled, telling Perkins, “You can’t talk like that to me! I’m worth $70 million, and I made it all myself. You can’t talk like that to me! I’m Alfred Sloan.”

love it

—p.89 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago
92

The day of the settlement, the sit-downers marched triumphantly out of the Flint plants, proud that they were not vacating under a sheriff’s order. Thousands of supporters cheered them as the strikers sang “Solidarity Forever.” Outside the plant hung a fifty-foot banner proclaiming, “VICTORY IS OURS.” Roy Reuther described the scene: “I never saw a night like that and perhaps may never see it again. I liken it to…a country experiencing independence.”

Suddenly thousands of autoworkers who had been too scared to support the union or who had doubted that it could succeed flocked into the UAW’s ranks. Its membership nationwide soared from 88,000 in February 1937 to 400,000 in October. By late 1941, it had jumped to 649,000.

—p.92 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago

The day of the settlement, the sit-downers marched triumphantly out of the Flint plants, proud that they were not vacating under a sheriff’s order. Thousands of supporters cheered them as the strikers sang “Solidarity Forever.” Outside the plant hung a fifty-foot banner proclaiming, “VICTORY IS OURS.” Roy Reuther described the scene: “I never saw a night like that and perhaps may never see it again. I liken it to…a country experiencing independence.”

Suddenly thousands of autoworkers who had been too scared to support the union or who had doubted that it could succeed flocked into the UAW’s ranks. Its membership nationwide soared from 88,000 in February 1937 to 400,000 in October. By late 1941, it had jumped to 649,000.

—p.92 by Steven Greenhouse 4 years, 3 months ago