Immigration: Union History is Our History

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Immigration: union history is our history

Francis Russo

On February 8, 1937, John L. Lewis, leader of the fledgling Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), met with Frank Murphy, the newly elected governor of Michigan.

Just over a month earlier — and just two days before Murphy started his term — hundreds of autoworkers had seized two General Motors (GM) plants in Flint, paralyzing the massive corporation’s production line. The workers’ new tactic — the sit-down strike — was threatening to fundamentally change the balance of power between workers and management.

Recognizing what was at stake, GM cut the heat to the occupied plants, hoping the cold would break the sit-downers’ morale. But  the strikers were determined to stay. They sent Murphy a defiant telegram in response to rumors that he might mobilize the National Guard to evict them, announcing that they would be pulled out dead before they walked out on their own.

Murphy had to do some quick electoral math. On one side, there was Michigan’s most powerful employer. On the other were workers and their families, who would never vote for him again if he broke a strike. Murphy turned to Lewis, demanding that he “do something.”

Lewis replied: “I did not ask these men to sit down. I did not ask General Motors to turn off the heat. I did not have any part in either the sit-down strike or the attempt to freeze the men. Let General Motors talk to them.” He wasn’t being evasive. While Lewis was determined to organize industrial workers, he was wary of the sit-down.

Getting no help from the CIO’s leader, Murphy tried to split the difference. He ordered the nearly four thousand soldiers to shut down the highways into Flint, hoping to prevent the United Auto Workers (UAW) from calling in reinforcements. Then he tried Lewis again, demanding that he remove his strikers from the plants. He backed it up with a signed order permitting the National Guard to use force if necessary.

But something had changed in Lewis. No longer willing to leave it up to the workers and management, Lewis stood fully behind his members. He told Murphy (perhaps apocryphally):

Tomorrow morning, I shall personally enter General Motors plant Chevrolet No. 4. I shall order the men to disregard your order, to stand fast. I shall then walk up to the largest window in the plant, open it, divest myself of my outer raiment, remove my shirt, and bare my bosom. Then when you order your troops to fire, mine will be the first breast that those bullets will strike.

Lewis’s shift from ambivalence to militancy captures the dynamic of the Flint Sit-Down Strike. After years of industrialization built on their backs, workers were standing their ground — and actors across the economy, from GM bosses to labor leaders, were forced to take note. Spurred on by socialists and communists, organized labor grabbed a seat at the table, much to the chagrin of the ruling class.

Eighty years later, the Flint Sit-Down Strike offers an enduring lesson: that with a well-organized rank and file and a class-conscious leadership, an ambitious union can bring down the most powerful corporations in the world.

Expansion and Crisis

1920s America was a nation in transition.

The expansion of mass production industries and the collapse of agricultural prices triggered widespread migration. Millions of rural families in the South packed up and moved to northern towns and cities, lured by the promise of higher-paying factory jobs. The number of working women rose by almost 30 percent over the decade, and black farming families’ arrival in cities created the conditions for integration on a scale the US had not yet seen.

The rapid changes in the American workforce disrupted what little momentum the labor movement had built up. Employers played organized workers against the unorganized, skilled workers against the unskilled, employed against the unemployed, and the traditional working class against newcomers. Bosses used race and ethnicity to divide and conquer, and pushed for non-union “open shops” across the country.

American workers saw little way out of this bleak situation. The bosses’ blacklists, their “yellow dog contracts” (which forbid union membership as a condition of employment), and their vast network of saboteurs hobbled workers’ efforts to build solidarity. Courts jailed union leaders and granted pro-employer injunctions. When coercion and the law wouldn’t quell militant workers, employers used private and public police forces to violently break strikes.

The AFL, battered and beleaguered, struggled to survive the onslaught. The federation’s membership was concentrated in just a few industries — construction, coal, railroads, printing, water transportation, music — while the rapidly growing manufacturing sector was virtually union-free.

A conservative, hidebound institution, the AFL still organized by craft rather than industry, leaving out less skilled workers. The AFL not only didn’t attract the immigrant and black laborers joining mass-production industries — it often fought against them.

The federation’s leadership had also come to accept capitalism’s basic tenets and sought collaboration — rather than confrontation — with employers. They red-baited the socialists, communists, and radicals trying to push the unions in a more militant direction. Certain locals barred communists completely.

Francis Russo