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International Socialist Review, January-February 1970


Howard Reed

Strike against GM


From International Socialist Review, Vol.31 No.1, January-February 1970, pp.59-60.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Sit-down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937
by Sidney Fine
University of Michigan Press. 448 pp. $12.50.

This book is an account of the 1937 United Auto Workers strike in Flint Michigan against General Motors and is the first documented narrative of this momentous social upheaval. Although Henry Kraus, a strike participant, has written a previous account of the strike, the massive documentation and detail of Fine’s book makes it valuable.

Fine discusses the development of the UAW and GM up to the point of the strike, and also devotes a chapter to the history of Flint, as a town dominated by GM. The rest of the book deals with the strike, including an interesting chapter on how the strikers conducted themselves inside the plants and the spirit of camaraderie that arose among them.

The strike was “not only the ‘most critical labor conflict’ of the 1930s, and perhaps in all of American history, but it was also a part, the most dramatic and important part, of a vast labor unheaval.” Fine indicates how the successful outcome of this crucial strike contributed to the growth of the UAW, as well as the CIO and its policy of industrial unionism as a whole.

Fine’s failure to realize the full significance of the sit-down, however, constitutes a shortcoming of this book. As Art Preis notes in Labor’s Giant Step [1], the sit-downs were

“a defiance of the dogma of the sacredness of private property and free enterprise. If workers could seize the plants to enforce their union economic demands, why could they not seize them as part of a more far-reaching social program? Why could they not eliminate the private owners altogether and organize production on the basis of social ownership?”

The UAW and CIO leadership made a serious mistake in placing reliance on capitalist politicians, especially Governor Murphy of Michigan, to help settle the strike on terms favorable to the union. On this key point Fine also falls short of the mark. He quotes Wyndham Mortimer, a UAW vice-president, as saying that Murphy “may or may not have been on our side, [but] at least would not be against us.” Fine says that Mortimer was guilty of an understatement!

Murphy sent 1,500 National Guardsmen to Flint at one point and then, calling for Guard reinforcements, alerted the Guardsmen to seal off all highways and prevent reinforcements for the strikers. Murphy constantly raised the specter of violence to discredit the strikers, themselves the victims of political violence, and he did everything in his power to convince the strikers to evacuate the plants without a contract.


1. Available from Merit Publishers, 873 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10003. $7.50.

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