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This Month in Business History

The Flint, Michigan, Sit-Down Strike (1936-37)

Ertan Tuncer, Paul Peck Humanities Intern 2012
Ellen Terrell, Editor
July 2012

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Once called "the strike heard round the world,"1 the first major labor dispute in the U.S. auto industry ended after General Motors signed a contract with the United Auto Workers Union on February 11, 1937.

Over time unions have changed conditions for workers. In 1935, the average auto worker took home about $900, while the United States government determined that an annual/month income of $1600 was the minimum on which a family of four could live in that year of 1935. In addition, working conditions were often difficult and unionizing efforts were resisted by companies. For example, General Motors (GM) spent $839,000 on detective work in 1934 alone2 and used a group called 'The Black Legion' who employed various intimidation tactics against active union members. As a consequence of these policies, union organizers changed tactics and gradually the union gained strength.

Sitdown strikers in the Fisher body plant factory number three. Flint, Michigan.

Sitdown strikers in the Fisher body plant factory number three.
Flint, Michigan
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Farm Security Administration
Office of War Information Photograph Collection

Reproduction number: LC-USF34-040027-D

1936 would prove pivotal. In July of 1936 there were hundreds of deaths in auto plants in Michigan that were thought to be a result of a heat wave combined with difficult working conditions3. On November 12, 1936, General Motors workers started their sit down strike, which at the time was legal, gaining control of the Body Plant Number One in Flint. On January 1, 1937, workers controlled a second Plant in Flint. Although the strike was gaining power, some of the General Motors' plants were still running - most notably Chevy Plant Number Four, the largest plant owned by GM. But on February 1, 1937, the striking workers took control of this plant.

By remaining inside the plants strikers were protected from both violence and weather as well as from the threat of being replaced with other workers unwilling to go along with the strike. Inside the plants the striking workers were playing board games, organizing concerts, and giving lectures. Outside, union supporters arranged for food to be delivered to the strikers. After 44 days of striking, GM President Alfred P. Sloan announced a $25 million wage increase to workers and recognition of the union.4

This was the first major victory for unionization in America's history and its consequences were dramatic; within two weeks, 87 sit down strikes started in Detroit alone. Packard, Goodyear, and Goodrich announced immediate wage increases. Within a year, membership in United Auto Workers grew from 30,000 to 500,000 and wages for autoworkers increased by as much as 300%. This strike marked the beginning of decade of intense union activity.5

Internet Resources

BBC. "The 1936 - 37 Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike" (January 28, 2002). Retrieved May 18 2012 from External Link

Flint Sit-Down Strike - Audio Galery External Link

Davis, Sandra. "Before Flint, The Winning Momentum Created by Sit-Down Strikes pts. 1 and 2. External Link External Link

Short articles from the union point of view of labor unrest preceding the Flint strike.

Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives External Link

United Auto Workers - Walter P. Reuther Library External Link

Wirtz Labor Library. U.S. Department of Labor

Print Resources

Fine, Sidney. Sit-Down: The General Motors strike of 1936-1937. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1969.
LC Call Number: HD5325.A82 1936-1937 F5
LC Catalog Record: 73083455

Freeland, Robert F. The Struggle for Control of the Modern Morporation : Organizational Change at General Motors, 1924-1970. Cambridge, UK ; New York, NY : Cambridge University Press, 2006.
LC Call Number: HD9710.U54 G397 2006
LC Catalog Record: 2006275862

Kraus, Henry. The many and the few : A Chronicle of the Dynamic Auto Workers. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985.
LC Call Number: HD5325.A82 1937 .F5 1985
LC Catalog Record: 85001193

Langworth, Richard M. GM:100 Years. Lincolnwood, Ill: Publications International, 2008.
LC Call Number: TL215.G4 L363 2008
LC Catalog Record: 2007936268

Langworth, Richard M. The Complete History of General Motors, 1908-1986. Skokie, Ill: Publications International, 1986.
LC Call Number: TL215.G4 L36 1986
LC Catalog Record: 86060671

Library of Congress Catalog Searches

Additional works on this topic in the Library of Congress may be identified by searching the Online Catalog under appropriate Library of Congress subject headings. Choose the topics you wish to search from the following list of Library of Congress subject headings to link directly to the Catalog and automatically execute a search for the subject selected. Please be aware that during periods of heavy use you may encounter delays in accessing the catalog. For assistance in locating other subject headings that may relate to this subject, please consult a reference librarian.

Automobile industry workers--Labor unions.

Collective bargaining--Automobile industry.

General Motors Corporation Sit-Down Strike, 1936-1937.

Labor unions--Michigan--Flint.

Sit-down strikes--Michigan--Flint.

 1. "The 1936 - 37 Flint, Michigan Sit-Down Strike," BBC, Retrieved May 18, 2012, from External Link

 2. Ibid.

 3. Parshall, Lorene, "Remembering Iconic Flint Sit Down Strike of 1937," Gaylord Herald Times. 2012. External Link

 4. BBC.

 5. Francis L., Raymond, This Day in Business History, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006,) 45.

Last updated: 02/03/2017

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