Sit-down strike of 1936-1937 - History of Business in the U.S.The Event: Strike by General Motors employees that shut down plant operations in Flint, Michigan, and other cities
Date: December 30, 1936-February 11, 1937
Place: Flint, Michigan, and Cleveland, Ohio
Significance: The action against GM brought the tactic of sit-down strikes and their effectiveness to the attention of the general public. At the time of the strike, GM was a huge and powerful corporation, while the unions behind the strike were relatively weak.
A sit-down strike involves workers remaining in the workplace while on strike to prevent normal business operations from being conducted. The first such strike to become national news was conducted by the United Auto Workers (UAW), a member union of the Committee for IndustrialOrganization (CIO; later known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations). On December 28, 1936, a few workers in the Cleveland Fisher Body Plant of General Motors (GM) started a sit-down strike against the company. On December 30, at 7:00 a.m., fewer than fifty workers sat down on the production line in Fisher Body Plant Number 2 in Flint, Michigan. At 10:00 p.m. that night, Fisher Body Plant Number 1 was also closed by a sit-down strike. In the weeks that followed, the strike spread to other GM plants and to cities in other states.
On January 11, 1937, police stormed Fisher Body Plant Number 2 but were driven off by the strikers. This became known as the Battle of the Running Bulls, a play on words recalling the U.S. Civil War’s Battles of Bull Run (1861, 1862).
Michigan governor Frank Murphy, U.S. secretary of labor Frances Perkins, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressured GM’s management to talk with the leaders of the UAW and find a way to end the strike. Finally, after much pressure from Governor Murphy, talks did occur. As a result, GM decided to recognize the UAW as the collective bargaining agent for workers in seventeen plants and to negotiate a contract with the UAW. The workers were thus able for the first time in history to participate in the running of GM.
Sit-down strikers read newspapers at General Motors’ Fisher Body plant in Flint, Michigan, in 1937. (AP/Wide World Photos)
After the successful sit-down strike against GM, sit-down strikes became recognized as a powerful tool for workers. Such strikes occurred in many other industries, with about one-half million people participating in them.
Many labor historians call the sit-down strike against GM the most important event in labormanagement relations to take place during the 1930’s. As a result of the strike and its aftermath, workers became part of the decision-making apparatus in many large American corporations, including United States Steel. The UAW became a powerful union, and the CIO became a powerful organization in American labor and politics.
Beik, Millie Allen. “The General Motors Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937.” In Labor Relations.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Fine, Sidney. Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.
Kuhn, Arthur J.GMPasses Ford, 1918-1938: Designing the General Motors Performance-Control System. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.
See also: AFL-CIO; automotive industry; Labor history; labor strikes.