It is not said often enough, that when people engage in direct action, it not only can get immediate results, it can inspire others to take similar action. When people become aware of the courageous acts of others, it often creates space for people to realize their own power and organize.
One powerful example of direct action from the 20th century in Michigan, was the 1936-37 Flint Wildcat Strike. The auto industry was booming and pushing its workforce to crank out more and more vehicles in less time. The pace of production at auto plants across the state in 1936 was taking its toll on workers, that it caused the spouses of auto workers to describe their husbands as old men. One woman said, “They’re not men anymore if you know what I mean. They’re not men. My husband he’s only thirty, but to look at him you’d think he was fifty and all played out.” (The Labor Wars, by Sidney Lens)
1936 was also a year that saw a harsh summer heat wave, with a period in July at over 100 degrees for a week straight. The heat, combined with the work pace, resulted in hundreds of auto workers being hospitalized and several dead. On top of that wages in the auto industry declined from the late 1920s through 1936 and the Pinkerton’s, notorious union-busting thugs, had infiltrated many of the unions, especially the American Federation of Labor (AFL). These conditions laid the ground work for an uprising and Flint, Michigan would be the battle ground.
The United Auto Workers (UAW) was relatively young in 1936, so they had as yet succumbed to bureaucratic dynamics. Responding to oppressive working conditions, slave labor wages and a greedy industry, auto workers at a GM factory in Flint engaged in a wildcat strike, also known as a sit down strike. Instead of leaving the plant and picketing outside, workers right in the middle of production stopped working, occupied the factory and in effect took control of the building.
The wildcat strike lasted from December 30, 1936 through February 11, 1937. However, the owners of GM were not going to make it easy for the striking auto workers and local cops, anti-union thugs and national guardsmen were all used to try to squelch the labor uprising. There are dozens of accounts of physical confrontation between striking workers and those acting on behalf of the capitalists. When cops or other servants of the auto industry would attempt to enter the factory, workers would through auto parts at them from open windows above.
The sit down strike had a terrifying effect. The people of Flint rallied to support the auto workers and after 6 weeks they won numerous demands, including better wages, the right to organize, improved working conditions and the respect of people all across the country. In addition, the UAW sit down strike provided an opportunity for workers to follow the example of their fellow workers in Flint and begin to make demands of their own all across the country, even in Grand Rapids.
Still reeling from their defeat during the 1911 furniture workers strike, unions were not effectively mobilized to respond to the growing power of industrial capitalists. However, the insurgent labor organizing by the UAW and the CIO provided new inspiration and new opportunities for workers to challenge the business community in Grand Rapids.
In the Spring of 1937 the UAW called for strikes at the Robert Irwin Co., the Macey Co., and Irwin Seating, which involved roughly 1,000 workers over a five week period. In September of that same year more strikes would break out at the Furniture Shops of America, John Widdicomb, Grand Rapids Chair and other furniture factories. In each of these instances the union got a closed shop contract, a check-off procedure and wages increases.
After a failed attempt to organize a union at the Kelvinator plant, the UAW tried again in 1937 and won their first contract, which included the recognition of the union and wage increases. Known as Local 206, this UAW organizing effort became a model for many of the other labor organizing efforts across the city.
In some cases workers defied an anti-picketing injunction that the local courts imposed and many workers went to jail for brief periods in order to win labor contracts and build worker power from the ground up. In the photo above, you see striking workers being booked at the Kent County Jail in June of 1937.
While most of the labor organizing in Grand Rapids at that time did not involve a sit down strike, it did involve other types of strikes and picketing that were effective for making gains. There was one factory occupation that lasted for three days at the Atwood Brass Works in grand Rapids. In the archival photo below, you see some workers taking their makeshift bedding after the strike was over.
What the radical direct action efforts of the workers in Flint did was to scare the business community enough to be willing to negotiate with angry workers in Grand Rapids, for fear that a wildcat strike might break out here. When people engage in radical direct action it pushes everything to shift. Workers in Grand Rapids were able to seize the moment created by the wildcat strike in Flint and mobilize workers here to push for greater demands and to unionize several thousand workers over the next several decades, thus providing them the opportunity to rise out of poverty and to create a working class culture that can still be found in Grand Rapids today.
Photos of Grand Rapids workers come from the book, The Story of the UAW Region 1-D.