Discussing the role of the Women’s Emergency Brigade in the Flint Sit Down Strike, on the Keeping Democracy Alive radio show. Listen here.
I talked with Amanda LeClaire, host of “CultureShift,” about Midnight in Vehicle City. Listen here.
My first novel, “Running for Home,” will be published in April by Bottom Dog Press. Set in the 1980s, it’s the story of Kevin Ward, a track and cross-country star at a high school across the street from the auto plant where his father works. When the plant closes down, his father has to decide whether to take a transfer to Tennessee, and Kevin steps up his training in an attempt to win a scholarship to the state university.
“Running for Home” is a fictional sequel to “Midnight in Vehicle City,” taking place at a time when the half century of prosperity created by the Sit Down Strike was ending. As many first novels are, it’s also autobiographical. I ran track at Lansing Sexton High School, across the street from a Fisher Body plant, which has since been demolished. I didn’t run the mile in close to four minutes, as Kevin does, but as the saying goes, “If you can’t have it in real life, you can have it on paper.”
By Roger Lowenstein
Here’s a remarkable fact: In 1980 the median income for young workers in Flint, Mich., was higher than in San Francisco. Flint was a company town, and as Edward McClelland says in “Midnight in Vehicle City”: “There was never a better time to work for General Motors.”
Who could disagree? Employees at GM and the other big auto makers had cost-of-living adjustments, two cars in their driveways, lifetime health care and a pension. In Michigan, they had summer cottages and deer hunting trips Up North.
It all arose, so Mr. McClelland posits, from a 1936-37 sit-down strike when auto workers in Flint struck GM and demanded bargaining recognition for the fledgling United Auto Workers of America.
The strike lasted 44 days. It was violent on both sides but turned into a standoff in which the UAW refused to call an end until it won exclusive bargaining rights, and GM refused to talk until the workers left its premises.
Mr. McClelland tells the story of those tension-filled days, when strikers armed with car-door hinges and homemade blackjacks fended off tear gas and the Flint police. According to the book’s subtitle, Flint was “the strike that created the middle class.” The author, a journalist and historian from Lansing, barely bothers to substantiate that claim, but his chronicle of the strike is compelling.
The workers, who risked dismissal for union organizing, had plenty of grievances: piecework wages, undependable hours, grueling “speed-ups,” capricious foremen, intolerable heat and lack of ventilation, risk of injury—all without health insurance.
The UAW, energized by the up-and-coming Reuther brothers, probably represented only a minority of the workers. John L. Lewis, the head of the umbrella Congress of Industrial Organizations and the union’s patron saint, refused to sanction a vote on representation. The union’s demand to be the workers’ exclusive representative struck Alfred P. Sloan, president of GM, as outrageous.
He wasn’t the only one. Many employees expressed support for a company-friendly labor organization hostile to the strike (some surely felt pressured to do so), and even the American Federation of Labor, a rival labor umbrella, took issue with Lewis’s demand for exclusive bargaining. But Lewis, a charismatic labor leader who spoke in biblical allusions, was a shrewd tactician. Striking workers occupied the GM plants that manufactured the dies and engines on which the entire GM universe depended. Workers in other plants also struck. Ultimately, 125,000 workers in 25 cities were idled.
Sloan was one of the first modern CEOs, but he was no match for Lewis in public relations. An anti-New Deal finance guy who worked in New York, not Detroit, Sloan didn’t have a feeling for conditions on the line. His $201,000 salary and high starched collars made him easy to satirize.
Sloan had the law on his side, procuring an injunction ordering the strikers to vacate the factories. Lewis gambled that Frank Murphy, Michigan’s labor-friendly governor, who had dreams of higher office, wouldn’t enforce it at the risk of violence. And indeed, Murphy employed the Michigan National Guard only as a peacekeeper, installing them as a buffer to prevent further violence.
Sloan tried turning off the heat in the buildings (the strike began in frigid weather on Dec. 30) and barring food deliveries. But he couldn’t risk a public-health disaster and soon relented. Meanwhile, the workers played poker.
It was left to officials, especially in Washington, to resolve the strike, which they were eager to do—this being the eighth year of the Great Depression. The secretary of labor, Frances Perkins, a progressive social reformer and the first woman to serve in a cabinet, struggled to get Sloan and Lewis in the same room. She pleaded with her boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, to help. The patrician FDR (rounding out Mr. McClelland’s very good cast) was horrified by the union’s seizure of property, but he wasn’t about to anger labor, which had supported his 1936 re-election. He kept his distance.
Ultimately, Sloan had to make a deal. Within months, the UAW was recognized in 17 plants and soon became the exclusive agent in the industry. As the years went by, the auto company earned a new corporate sobriquet: “Generous Motors.”
“The communists boasted of creating a workers’ paradise in the Soviet Union,” Mr. McClelland chortles, “but Michiganders lived in the real thing.” Paradise is nice, but was the UAW truly a success? Flint is now famous not for its middle class but for violent crime and a contaminated water supply. The author says its poverty rate is the highest in the nation. As for UAW membership, it has collapsed. Today librarians are more likely to belong to a union than auto workers. The UAW’s slump has now endured for as long as its glory days. This fact casts a shadow over “Midnight in Vehicle City.” Mr. McClelland gets around to the union’s decline in the epilogue, where he pointedly asks: “Were the victories of the sit-down strike ephemeral?”
The author clearly thinks they weren’t. Far from being obsolete, Mr. McClelland says, the UAW model, sit-down strikes and all, could be recycled today. If workers were to occupy Amazon’s fulfillment and delivery centers, he says, they could “shut down American commerce” and revive the “middle class.”
The other possibility is that the UAW reached its zenith at a singular historical moment, when Europe and Japan were recovering from war and developing nations had yet to emerge as industrial competitors. Management signed labor contracts that turned out to be devil’s bargains—unsustainable in any world in which global competition was restored. It’s not that labor can’t, or shouldn’t, reorganize. But they would be wise not to ignore the unhappy coda to the story that Mr. McClelland has set forth.
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.