February 2: Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, Mich.: 6 p.m. (with Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy.)
February 2: Everybody Reads, Lansing, Mich.: 7 p.m. (ET)
February 4: Magers & Quinn, Minneapolis, Minn.: 7 p.m. (CT) (with Connor Coyne, author of Urbantasm.)
February 5: Book Cellar, Chicago, Ill.: 7 p.m. (CT)
February 24: Willoughby-Eastlake Public Library, Willoughby, Ohio: 6:30 p.m. (ET)
March 1: Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag Series, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.: 12:15 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. (ET)
March 1: R. E. Olds Transportation Museum Lecture Series, Lansing, Mich.: 7 p.m. (ET)
March 4: Flint Public Library, Flint, Mich.: 2 p.m. (ET)
March 18: Evergreen Park Public Library, Evergreen Park, Ill.: 6:30 p.m. (CT)
An account of an unprecedented 1930s strike that tested the power of factory workers.
In 1908, Buick, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Cadillac, and Chevrolet merged to become General Motors, making Flint, Michigan, the nation’s automobile capital. Now better known for its scandalous water crisis, Flint in the 1930s became famous as the birthplace of the United Auto Workers, which mounted a 1936 sit-down strike that ended in workers’ success. Drawing on newspaper reports, memoirs, and oral histories of more than 100 strikers, McClelland uses present-tense narration to create a sense of immediacy and tension among workers locked in their plant, the Flint community in upheaval, and the protracted process of frustrating negotiations. Efforts to unionize had repeatedly failed, not least because GM “spent nearly $1 million on Pinkerton spies to infiltrate the workforce and report on union activity.” The advent of the steel-body car, which led to the speedup of the assembly line, intensified workers’ discontent; finally, they agreed to a sit-down strike, “more effective than walking out of a plant because if workers abandon their machinery, the bosses can hire scabs to get it running again.” McClelland creates lively portraits of the many players in his well-populated history: among them, GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan (later benefactor of the grant-giving Sloan Foundation and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center), who was “by his own admission, a ‘narrow man’ with no interests whatsoever outside the business world”; Franklin Roosevelt’s feisty labor secretary, Frances Perkins; and Michigan governor Frank Murphy, an advocate for a strong labor movement to rein in the profit system. A champion of unions, McClelland attributes their successes to the rise of the now-beleaguered middle class and urges a renewal of union activity. “A sit-down strike is not an obsolete tactic,” he writes. “The blueprint for better working conditions, and for a revival of the middle class, is in this book.”
A spirited history of labor’s triumph.
McClelland, a historian, journalist, and author of numerous books (Young Mr. Obama, 2010; Nothin’ But Blue Skies, 2013), traces the story of the Flint, MI, workers who advocated for collective bargaining and for better work benefits against General Motors (GM) in the 1930s. Home to GM, one of the world’s biggest corporations at the time, Flint propelled the automobile industry and was known as Vehicle City. Over time, labor concerns and strikes began to increase among auto workers who demanded better work benefits. McClelland here examines the conflicts and negotiation processes precipitated by these workers, using oral histories, memoirs, interviews, and newspapers. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the presidential cabinet, is spotlighted in this fascinating labor struggle. Readers interested in American labor and social history will find McClelland’s engagingly written, informative work a key to understanding the voices and roles of those who advocated for better working conditions for all working-class people.
Publishers Weekly writes that “students of labor history will relish this enthusiastic chronicle of a victory for ordinary workers.” Read the full review here.
I talked to WGN’s Nick Digilio about Mayor Lori Lightfoot suggesting that the city’s COVID-19 response would be worthy of a fifth star on the Chicago flag. You can listen to our conversation here and read the Chicago magazine story that inspired it here.
My next book, Midnight in Vehicle City, will be published in February 2021 by Beacon Press. It’s the story of the 1936-37 Flint Sit Down Strike, during which a group of autoworkers occupied General Motors plants until the company recognized the United Auto Workers. It was the beginning of the modern labor movement, and, its participants said, the beginning of the modern middle class.
I talked to WGN’s Nick Digilio about why the 1990s were the greatest decade in Chicago’s history. It wasn’t just because of the Bulls. Read the Chicago magazine article that sparked the conversation here, and listen to the interview here.
My CityLab article about how accents are changing in Chicago and Pittsburgh popped up on the MSN homepage. As a result, I was invited back on to WGN’s “Bill and Wendy Show” to talk about the state of the Chicago accent. You can listen here.
After eight years, I finally got into Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office to ask him about school closings, declining neighborhoods and the Laquan McDonald shooting. He was combative. He was defensive. He was Rahm. Read what he had to say here.
I visited the brand-new Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Indiana, for Slate. Read my report here.