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The 1936 Sit-Down Strike That Shook the Auto Industry

Over 136,000 GM workers participated in the strike in Flint, Michigan that became known as 'the strike heard round the world.'

Though the Depression brought suffering for workers, a flicker of hope came in the form of the National Labor Relations Act. Known as the Wagner Act, the 1935 law guaranteed workers the right to organize and join labor unions and to engage in collective bargaining and strikes. It also set up the National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency designed to enforce labor law.

The United Auto Workers, a recently formed trade union, had slowly and secretly begun organizing at GM. If the union was to bring the automobile industry together, it had to go after its largest employer—and do so strategically. Organizers decided to focus on the Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Michigan, home to 7,000 workers and the place where car bodies were made. Organizers met with Flint workers at their homes and talked them out of walking off the job right away. Instead, organizers planned to stop production through a sit-down strike in January of 1937, after Christmas bonuses had been paid and a new labor-friendly governor was in power in Michigan.

That plan was derailed on December 30, 1936, when workers at the body plant saw critical equipment being lugged onto railroad cars to be sent to other factories. Word was out that the Flint factory was a union stronghold. Workers gathered for an emergency meeting, then flooded back into the plant. The strike was on.

Now, men who had worked in the plant occupied it around the clock. They slept on sheepskins, piled-up car mats and makeshift beds, and ate food donated by local grocery stores, farmers and families. Outside the plant, women raised funds, took care of families and even formed human shields to fend off police.

General Motors had been taken by surprise; though it had suspected workers might strike, it wasn’t aware that they would use the new tactic of “sitting down,” or occupying the plant. “Sitting down was a way of ensuring the factories wouldn’t operate and workers wouldn’t be replaced,” says labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

Though GM tried to stop the strike in the courts, and even received an injunction that said the workers were trespassing, the effort backfired. “The strikes were technically illegal, but when you have a mass democratic insurgency you really create new law on the ground," says Lichtenstein.