Wall Street Journal review of Midnight in Vehicle City

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.