Chapter 1: The Sit-Down Striker

The Flint Sit-Down Strike, which lasted from Dec. 30, 1936 to Feb. 11, 1937, was to the American labor movement what Lexington and Concord was to the American Revolution. At Lexington, a gang of farmers stood up to the British Empire, the most powerful nation in the world. They lost the battle, but the war they started resulted in the founding of the United States, a new kind of nation, in which no man swore allegiance to a king. In Flint, for the first time, workingmen defeated a major industrial power — in this case, General Motors, the largest corporation in the world. Their victory resulted in the founding of the United Auto Workers, and in a new kind of America, one in which every man had a right to the wealth his labor produced.

Whether we still live in that America is one of the subjects of this book, but Everett Ketchum lived in it for most of his career. One of the last surviving Sit-Down Strikers, Everett not only participated in the battle that founded the blue-collar middle class, he enjoyed all the spoils of the peace that followed. As a tool-and-die maker at General Motors, Everett earned $27 an hour in the 1970s: more than any of the necktied budget analysts and wildlife biologists in Lansing’s mazes of state government cubicles. After he retired, he was guaranteed free health care for the rest of his life — 38 years so far, only a year less than he worked in the shop.

That’s why, into his 90s, Everett was still healthy enough to flirt with waitresses. Everett and I are no kin, but in the complicated way that extended families form, he’s the grandfather I haven’t had since I was a teenager. For years, he and his second wife lived across the street from the woman who became my father’s second wife. After Everett was widowed, he married my stepmother’s mother. Widowed again, he shared our Sunday dinners, our pew at the Presbyterian Church, and our Christmas Eve men’s luncheons. Sometimes, his randiness was embarrassing. At one of those luncheons, he used the cream pitcher to tell the waitress an off-color joke about breast milk. And I could never bring a date home without Everett winking at me and drawling, “Boy, you sure got an eye.”

Other times, though, his fondness for waitresses — and the savings from a lifetime of well-paid work — inspired him to benevolence beyond the call of Christianity. A hostess at his favorite pancake house always covered her mouth when she led him to a booth. Everett asked why. Reluctantly, she revealed a mouth with two missing teeth and a cracked incisor. Soon after, Everett handed her a dentist’s card.

“Go there today and make an appointment,” he ordered.

Dentures cost $7,000. Everett paid. A busgirl wouldn’t smile due to bad hygiene. Everett sent her to a dentist, too. Word got around about the Flap Jack Shack’s tooth fairy. The Lansing State Journal called. Everett would not allow his name to appear in the newspaper for an act of charity, so the reporter dubbed him “Dental Man.”

“I sat there day after day, watching those girls,” he told the columnist, “and thought, ‘It must be terrible to have to walk around with your hand in front of your mouth.’ And these girls were both hard workers. What’s money, compared to a chance to help somebody?”
After his legs became so frail he had to trade in his Buick for an aluminum walker, he moved to a retirement home, where actuarial reality made him extremely popular with the widows. One asked to hold his hand during the nightly movie.

“If I hold your hand,” he warned her, “I’m going to want to hold something else.”

Without the benefits the UAW won from General Motors, Everett would have lived his old age as an unwanted uncle — if he were living his old age at all. He’s decided 100 years will be enough life. After GM went bankrupt in 2008, I told him that his superannuation — both the result of, and the cause of, his consumption of health benefits — was personally responsible for GM’s financial crisis. Everett cackled.

“I don’t know where I’d be living without it,” he said. “I’d be living with one of my nephews or one of my nieces. My two sisters is gone. I really don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have what I have. If I had to buy my insurance that I got, I wouldn’t be living in this $2,000-a-month apartment. But how long are my benefits gonna last, ’cause I’m not working? All the money that I’ve got is interest money that I saved through the years.”

In his own lifetime, which began three months after World War I broke out, Everett went from northern Michigan farm boy to autoworker to prosperous pensioner. America went from agrarian society to foundry of the world to post-industrial nation. And Flint went from a small town where building cars was a cottage industry, to the city with the highest per-capita income in the United States, to a depopulated slum with the highest murder rate in the nation. How did all this happen, in the span of one man’s years?
Everett’s father, Earl Ketchum, wanted to be a farmer, but he couldn’t make corn and beans grow in the northern Lower Peninsula’s silt. So he worked in the family general store, driving a horse and buggy around the countryside, trading goods for milk, potatoes and eggs.

When America entered the Great War, it was join the Army or work in a factory, so Earl moved his family to Flint, where he built airplane engines at “the Buick,” as the locals called the auto manufacturer that would eventually employ two-thirds of the city.

By the early 20th Century, Flint was already on its third great industry, each a descendant of the last. In 1865, a sawmill began operating on the Flint River, slicing the pine woods into lumber. Once the forests were exhausted, Flint used the timber to become the nation’s carriage-making capital. When the automobile made carriages obsolete, a Scottish-born tinkerer named David Dunbar Buick added an engine and formed the company that grew into General Motors.

For a factory town, war meant work. In the teens and twenties, Flint’s population nearly tripled, from 38,500 to 156,600. GM head-hunters sought out dirt farmers all over the Middle West and the Mississippi Valley, handing them one-way tickets to Vehicle City, as Flint nicknamed itself. The newcomers to this boomtown slept in shacks, tents and railroad cars. Earl Ketchum’s family rented a tiny house, all he could afford on his factory pay. After the war, Earl tried farming again, failed again, and returned to Flint for good.

Everett grew up a city boy, with no agricultural ambitions. After graduating from high school in 1933, he enlisted in General Motors as an apprentice tool-and-die maker, at 50 cents an hour.

Not only were the wages low, the job could disappear in a day. If a supervisor wanted to hire his brother-in-law, he created an opening by handing a worker a yellow slip, the color of termination. Bachelors were laid off while married men with lower seniority kept their jobs. Wives were laid off because their husbands worked in the plant.

“The supervision, they had no control, either,” Everett recalled. “You could come in to work today as a supervisor and have a desk and have a yellow slip on there that said, ‘You’re all done.’”

Labor’s last great campaign to unionize American workers, a 1919 steel strike, had been crushed in the post-World War I Red Scare. But Franklin D. Roosevelt was now president, and his National Industrial Recovery Act gave workers the right to bargain collectively. In 1936, the United Auto Workers sent a missionary to Flint. If the UAW failed to organize Vehicle City, it had no future. General Motors tried to pacify its employees with a pay raise and time-and-a-half for overtime. But it also sacked many of the 150 men who’d been brave enough to join the UAW. What worker would risk his job to join a union too weak to win a contract? GM controlled Flint so thoroughly that Genesee County Relief Board case workers asked clients whether they belonged to unions or read labor publications. The workers didn’t just want more money. They wanted an end to the arbitrary firings. They also wanted an end to assembly line speed-ups. The “speed up” was profitable for GM — 1936 was Chevrolet’s first million-selling year — but workers were breaking down under the hectic pace.

“Working conditions [are] so bad a man [can] hardly keep up the pace for nine hours,” a Flint autoworker wrote to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. “I [haven’t] worked an eight hour day for two years. It’s not the amount of pay so much. A man hasn’t time to get a drink of water and take care of his personal affairs during working hours. At lunch time a man has to shut one of his two machines, take off his apron, and walk a block or two and wash his hands, walk back, find his lunch pail and eat lunch on a piece of sheet metal that has been out in a car/truck for several hours and just unloaded. Abraham Lincoln freed the colored people from slavery and now we are slaves…Today in the factories one man does the work of five men.”

Only a union could change that.

On November 12, at the Fisher 1 Plant, three welders conducted a short, pro-union sit-down demonstration. The foreman pulled their time cards from the rack. In protest, an entire department in the plant stopped working. Faced with a shutdown, the plant manager agreed to meet with a UAW representative, who told him production would not resume until the militant welders returned to work. The next day, 500 autoworkers signed up with the union that had prevented the firings.

The UAW high command had planned the strike for January, when GM’s new model-year production would be at its peak, and when Michigan’s newly-elected New Deal governor, Frank Murphy, would be sworn in. But the week after Christmas, the company forced the union’s hand.

On December 30, a rumor circulated through Fisher No. 1 that GM was about to ship dies to Grand Rapids and Pontiac so it could stamp out 400 Buick bodies a day if suddenly radicalized Flint went on strike. The move ended up causing the shut down it was intended to prevent. At 10 p.m. The night shift stopped working, and refused to go home. The Sit-Down Strike had begun.

“This strike has been coming for years,” autoworker Francis O’Rourke wrote in his diary. “Speed-up system, seniority, overbearing foremen. You can go just so far, you know, even with working men.”

Everett was working at the Chevrolet plant known as “Chevy in the Hole,” because it was located in a low-lying area beside the Flint River. When the strike spread to Chevy in the Hole, Everett asked his supervisor whether he should keep working or join the union.

“Join it,” his foreman told him. “You need it.”

For the first week-and-a-half, the strike was peaceful. Inside the plants, the men slept on car seats and filled the long idle days playing pedro and euchre, the Michigan farmers’ version of bridge. They watched movies and made up songs mocking GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan and Vice President William S. Knudsen. To banjos, mandolins and guitars, they sang this parody of “Goody Goody,” a big hit in 1936:

We Union men are out to win today, Goody, Goody
General Motors hasn’t even got a chance, Goody, Goody
Old Sloan is feeling blue
And so is Knudsen too
They didn’t like the bitter sit-down
What could they do?

Strike pay was $25 a week, enough for Everett, who still lived with his parents, but not enough for the family men. Grocers and truck farmers sold food to strikers at half price. To oust the strikers, GM sought a court injunction and sent Genesee County Sheriff Thomas Walcott after the “trespassers.” Fearing the company would use force, the strikers fashioned blackjacks out of hoses, leather and lead.

On January 11, GM’s plant police shut down the furnaces of Fisher Body No. 2. Winter seeped through the building’s brick walls. Wives delivering baskets of food to their striking husbands were turned away by company guards. A 30-member strikers’ police force, wearing armbands to identify themselves as soldiers in a workingman’s army, broke open the gate, then barred it with a hose to prevent the cops from following them into the factory. A Flint police captain demanded admission. When the strikers told him to shove off, he fired a gas bomb through a window. Officers gassed 150 pickets on the sidewalk, but as they advanced toward the plant, the strikers inside hurled door hinges, bolts and milk bottles from an upper window. They hosed down the cops with cold water. Outside, picketers still smarting from the gas attack overturned Sheriff Wolcott’s car, while Wolcott was inside.

Outside the plant, UAW organizer Victor Reuther (whose brother, Walter, would later lead the union for 24 years) shouted commands from a sound truck. Threatening to destroy the plant if the attack continued, Reuther ordered workers to barricade Chevrolet Avenue with automobiles, so the police couldn’t pull their squad cars up to gates and snipe through the windows.

The police retreated to a bridge spanning the Flint River, north of the plant, but returned an hour later. This time, they launched gas grenades over the gate, covering their attack with pistol fire, to prevent strikers from picking up the projectiles and tossing them back. Several autoworkers standing on the roof of the plant were struck by bullets. But even the wind was on the strikers’ side. A cold blast from the south blew gas back into the attackers’ faces, forcing them to retreat again. Sensing a rout, the pickets chased after the cops, pelting them with snowballs, chunks of concrete, milk bottles and whatever other garbage they could convert into projectiles. This time, the police turned and fired at their pursuers. Thirteen autoworkers were wounded in what came to be known as the Battle of the Running Bulls.

The day after the skirmish, Governor Murphy dispatched the National Guard to Flint, to prevent more violence between police and strikers. Guardsmen in doughboy uniforms set up machine guns in the streets, but instead of throwing the sit-downers out of the plants, the Guard made sure they stayed inside. This was why the UAW had tried to wait until January. They knew Murphy would take the workingmen’s side. (As a consequence of his union sympathies, Murphy was defeated for re-election the next year; President Roosevelt rewarded the beaten liberal by naming him attorney general, then associate justice of the Supreme Court.)

“They came down there and tried to stop it, but they was overwhelmed,” Everett would recall, 73 years after the battle. “Even the city police. We had everybody behind us. If you’re in a police car, just move on. I don’t care how many police cars you had. Just move on. It was do or die. We had to make it go, to let the union be in control. In a way, it was kind of comical. General Motors, as big as they was, as strong as they was, didn’t have a choice. A lot of the guys wanted to go back to work, but the union said no work, no machines. You go to start your machine up, they shut it off and kick your butt out.”

A month after the Flint Police and the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department lost the Battle of the Running Bulls, General Motors surrendered, too. The company recognized the UAW and raised wages a nickel an hour. It had no choice. From Flint, the center of the GM universe, the strike had spread nationwide. In the first 10 days of February, GM produced only 151 automobiles.

“The sit-down strike had idled 136,000 GM workers across the land at a cost in wages of just under $30 million,” wrote University of Michigan history professor Sidney Fine in Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-37. “GM, as the result of the strike, was estimated to have lost the production of more than 280,000 cars valued at $175 million.”

When the armistice was announced, thousands of autoworkers paraded through Flint behind a drummer and a flag bearer. The workers waved the Stars and Stripes and sang “Solidarity Forever.”

“It was a whoopee-doo, holler holler, we’re all done, we’re going back to work starting Monday,” Everett said.

Everett Ketchum worked another 39 years in General Motors, but the Sit-Down Strike was the most important event of his career. It made his workingman’s fortune possible, and was the source of his superannuation. There was never a better time to work for General Motors than the 1940s through the 1970s. There was never a better time to be a laborer, period. After GM recognized the UAW, Everett received a pension plan and health insurance. During World War II, he stayed out of combat by building armored trucks for Chevrolet. Once the war was won, “Flint was booming. They even bused people up from the South, bring ’em up here to work. Everybody was working, everybody had a job, everybody had one or two cars, and you kept getting bigger homes. Oh, boy.”

Widowed when his first wife died in an automobile accident, Everett married a woman who ran the 4-H program at Michigan State College, and transferred to the Oldsmobile plant in Lansing. As a tool-and-die maker, producing dies that stamped out fenders, he belonged to the shoprat elite. Skilled tradesman at GM was the best job in town, blue- or white- collar. The tradesmen earned more money than the assembly line workers, and when GM went bankrupt, in 2008, the retirees held on to their company health insurance, unlike the non-union salesmen and engineers. With his night-shift bonus—another union perk—Everett bought houses near campus, and rented them to MSU students. In the early 1960s, around the time he began wearing the UAW 25-year service ring that still protrudes from his fist like a pewter nut, he joined the company glee club, the Rocketaires, named after the Oldsmobile Rocket engine. Oldsmobile provided the Rocketaires’ satin uniforms, gave them time off to rehearse, and paid them to sing at Christmas concerts in the plant’s 2,000-seat auditorium. Every two years, Everett bought a new Oldsmobile in cash, at an employee discount. When he retired in 1976, two years before the American auto industry hit its all-time high of 977,000 workers, the former four-bit apprentice was earning over 50 times his starting wage.

“The whole picture, to me, I was in the right place at the right time,” he reflected. “I always had a job right from the time I was a 5-year-old kid, I always had a job. My father was a small-town mechanic and he and another fella had a garage and my job was, after school, I come back and cleaned the tools up for the next day. I was 12, 14 years old. I got $5 a day every day that I worked. For me, that was big money. At GM, I come in there at a good time. It was just the right era for a lot of things, and I appreciate that.”

America’s greatest 20th Century invention was not the airplane, or the atomic bomb, or the lunar lander. It was the middle class. We won the Cold War not because of our military strength, but because we shared our wealth more broadly than the Communists and, as a result, had more wealth to share. Everett has a Depression boy’s gratitude for his good fortune. Born half a century later, I assumed that universal prosperity was the natural condition of American life. Now that another half century has passed, I’m beginning to assume otherwise.

As the unions saw it, the labor movement overthrew an economic order in which the mass of humankind had been born with saddles on their backs, to be ridden by a booted and spurred aristocracy — an order in which the many toiled to provide pleasures for the few. Collective bargaining made obsolete the iron law of wages, which stated that labor could command no more than a subsistence living from capital. It made obsolete the notorious marketplace known as “bidding at the factory gate,” in which workers offered their services for ten cents an hour, only to lose the job to a more desperate man who offered nine. If preserving the victory of the Sit-Down Strikers is foolish nostalgia, then perhaps we have to ask whether the Golden Age of the American worker was a historical aberration, made possible by the fact that we were the only country to emerge from World War II with any industrial capacity. Was that golden age destined to end as soon as the rest of the rest of the world rebuilt itself, making blue-collar burghers such as Everett an obsolete class, a relic of the American Century? In this Global Century, will laborers again have to reconcile themselves to their roles as members of an international peasantry, bargaining for work against the exotic Hindoo and the heathen Chinee?

We have to ask, was the American middle class just a moment?