Kirkus review of “Midnight in Vehicle City”

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.