Politics and Memory in the Flint Sitdown Strikes

— Nelson Lichtenstein

TO THE UNDERGRADUATES in my labor history courses at the University of Virginia, the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37 is truly ancient history. Those dramatic events are nearly three generations old; moreover, Flint, Detroit and the other old auto towns are now seen as an industrial wasteland and a political backwater.

Indeed, the sitdown strikes of the 1930s might well seem to have a good deal more in common with the Pullman Boycott of 1894 than with the vexing racial and employment issues of contemporary America. In fact, that's the way I teach it. The sitdown strikes of 1937 stand as the last of the great strike insurrections that convulsed the nation at least once a decade from 1877 onward. There have been strikes after 1937 of course, but they have been imbedded within an increasingly constrained and repressive legal/administrative straightjacket.

So what does it matter if the Communists or Socialists are given credit for leadership in the General Motors sit-down strike, an event perhaps not quite as decisive as some would like to believe, but unquestionably a moment in labor history that has retained an imaginative grip on the left for nearly 60 years? Unless we are left-wing antiquarians, who simply want to make certain our ideological ancestors are given the proper recognition, the important issue is one of consequences.

Would the history of the United Automobile Workers, or of collective bargaining with General Motors, been substantially different if the role of ideological radicals with which we identify had been given their proper recognition, either in 1937 itself or in the years of political rivalry and debate that followed?

Sol Dollinger renders a great service in correcting the historical record. Whether by omission or outright bias, Henry Kraus has slighted the role played by Socialist Party activists in the leadership of the Flint sit-down strikes. As Dollinger points out so well, the Socialists dominated the left in the city of Flint long before the strike broke out. Unlike the immigrant Communists, who were politically and ethnically ghettoized, the SP had enormous credibility in the city. There had been a socialist mayor but twenty-five years before.

Under the leadership of young firebrands like Genora Johnson the YPSL chapter had become a lively forum for the left. Roy Reuther taught Brookwood-style workers education in the Pengelly building on a New Deal paycheck, and after his return from the Soviet Union Walter Reuther lectured in the city as well -- quite enthusiastically -- on the progressive character of the Soviet "experiment." Just as the Communists would soon come to dominate the left in Dearborn and Detroit, the SP held the high ground in Flint.

It doesn't really matter if it was Roy Reuther or Kermit Johnson or Robert Travis (not yet in the CP) who first came up with the plan to seize Chevy Plant Number 4. What is important is that these militants had the credibility to push this daring gambit through, relying upon the cooperation of a cohort of advanced workers who looked to the Socialist cadre for leadership. They did so independent of the formal leadership of the strike -- of UAW President Homer Martin, CIO chieftain John L. Lewis or the UAW executive board. This demonstrated the genuinely "rank and file" character of the strike, of course, but this ignorance by the top leadership might well have been useful had the paramilitary assault failed. Lewis could then have blamed the whole affair on undisciplined radicals.

Though Sol Dollinger is right to criticize Henry Kraus for down playing the role of the Socialists in the GM strike, the far greater bias in Kraus' chronicle is the effort he makes to marginalize and devalue the politics of all the leading participants in the strike, and most especially the politics of the key Communist leaders with whom he worked so closely. Since Dollinger knows all the players, he reads between the lines as Kraus has written them, but for all but the professional historians and the few remaining sitdown strike veterans yet among us, most readers will find the two books Henry Kraus has published on the UAW's formative years written with the politics of the leading personalities heavily veiled.

This flaw is not without its virtues. Sixty years on, we can look back on the formative years of the CIO and see that the distinctions that once loomed so large between Communists, Socialists, Trotskyists and Lovestonites now seem far less clear. They were all political cadre: young, secular, mainly white, cosmopolitan radicals who shared a good deal more in common with each other than with those autoworkers who thought Father Charles Coughlin or Henry Ford or Homer Martin their most trusted spokesman. As Kraus himself put it when he first stepped into the crowded lobby of Milwaukee's Schroeder Hotel for the UAW's first really big convention in the summer of 1937. "All these people were unknown to us and we felt that this was no longer 'our UAW" but a mass of strangers."(1)

Still, Henry Kraus keeps the politics fuzzy in both his 1947 book on the GM sitdown strike, The Many and the Few, and in his more capacious 1993 history of the UAW in the 1930s, Heroes of Unwritten Story. Kraus' biography explains, though it does not justify, why he depoliticized this history.

Henry Kraus grew up in Cleveland where his parents were socialists. He graduated from college in 1928 and with his new wife, Dorothy Rogin, he spent a couple of years in Europe, where his life-long fascination and scholarly interest in medieval architecture was born.

When he returned to Cleveland he made contact with the nascent auto worker movement, quickly establishing a close political and personal relationship with Wyndham Mortimer, the White Motor Communist whose steadfastness of purpose and solid tactical judgement proved so important in the transformation of a collection of plant-site locals into the national UAW. Kraus found a place in the movement as newspaper editor and publicist; and from 1934 onward he kept a growing set of notes and interview records. Mortimer and he were making history -- and Kraus knew that one day he would write it up.

I don't know if Kraus was a member of the Communist Party or not. In our letters and discussions held in the early 1990s when he was writing his last book, he always denied it. But he was clearly close to the Party, with Mortimer as a mentor and guide. Whatever his actual political affiliations, Kraus' usefulness to the union movement came by projecting a sense of himself -- and his co-workers -- as simply "progressives" unaffiliated with any "outside" group.

This self-presentation was reinforced in 1941 when Mortimer recruited the Kraus's to work on the UAW Aircraft organizing campaign in Southern California. The effort ended in a disaster, both personal and political, when government officials and CIO leaders repudiated the North American Aviation strike, denouncing its organizers as unpatriotic Communists.

From this point on Henry and Dorothy Kraus were out of the labor movement, although he intervened one last time, in 1947 when his account of the GM sitdown strike appeared under the title The Many and the Few. Its publication coincided with the bitter UAW faction fight between Walter Reuther and a Communist-backed caucus led by George Addes and R. J. Thomas.

Since Reuther deployed the rhetoric of anti-Communism in his attack on "outside" political influences within the UAW, Kraus' book, which emphasized the non-political, rank-and-file character to the strike, clearly served as a factional document against the Reutherites. Kraus could not openly celebrate the role of the Communists in founding the UAW -- that would have been poison in the 1940s -- but he does seek to demonstrate, correctly, that Reuther and the socialists were hardly the only elements who helped found the UAW a decade before.

Henry Kraus never escaped this mind set, so that forty years later, when he began writing Heroes of Unwritten Story: The UAW, 1934-39 he continued to downplay the political motivations of the organizers and spark plugs who built the union. In commentary upon an early draft of his manuscript, I pleaded with him for more candor on this issue, in the interests not merely of academic accuracy, but because a new cohort of radicals and unionists needed to understand the real motivations and aspirations that generated such sacrifice and dedication from his generation of union pioneers. I largely failed in this effort: indeed, I was appalled when the Kraus's insisted that I refrain from identifying Wyndham Mortimer as a "pioneer Communist" in the forward I wrote to Heroes of Unwritten Story.

But Sol Dollinger's narrative is not without its own oversimplifications. He implies that had the SPers been given credit for the heroic and militant role they played during the GM strike, the whole subsequent history of the UAW and of the left might well have been quite different.

Given their Popular Front orientation, the Communists were far too willing to defer to Michigan Governor Frank Murphy, to John L. Lewis and ultimately to General Motors management itself. I'll not defend Popular Front moderation here: in 1937 there was clearly room for a more militant, politically independent set of politics. But Dollinger underestimates the obstacles that faced the relatively thin stratum of radicals upon whose shoulders the UAW would have to rest. Their greatest problem was that of the utterly mixed consciousness of the GM workers themselves.

During the six weeks of the GM strike, the sitdowners represented an embarrassingly small proportion of all Flint workers. Thousands of workers remained at work; and on at least one occasion pro-GM conservatives mobilized several thousand demonstrators against the sitdown. The strategy of Mortimer, Lewis and Walter Reuther was therefore a minimal one. If they could just get a "foot in the door," then the real organization of the autoworkers could begin after the first contract was signed. This is why union recognition, not wages or shop stewards, was the key demand for which Lewis and Mortimer held out.

This strategy seemed to work in the months after the end of the strike on February 11. Tens of thousands poured into the UAW; shop stewards popped up everywhere, "wildcat" strikes erupted, not in defiance of a nascent union bureaucracy, but as a weapon to force recalcitrant foremen and plant managers to actually treat with the new UAW shop stewards. By the summer of 1937 Flint really was a union town.

But neither the Socialists nor any of the other UAW radicals were able to win leadership of this new movement. GM and its business allies began a furious ideological and political counterattack, Governor Murphy and Franklin Roosevelt stood aside, and UAW membership plunged during the layoffs of 1938. As this hostile political terrain unfolded, a whole set of ethnocultural fissures reappeared within the Flint proletariat, giving Homer Martin, the ex-Missouri preacher turned UAW president, the chance to champion all the racist, parochial and anti-Communist currents that lay just beneath the surface of Protestant working class life.(2)

Thus the leadership of several of the big Flint locals went to workers who had opposed or stood on the sidelines during the sit-down strike. Homer Martin easily purged Flint of most of the outside radical organizers who had led the sitdown; and Roy Reuther was defeated in his bid for a local presidency in the vehicle city.

Indeed, the Socialists themselves were internally divided on Homer Martin. While the Reuther brothers and many younger SPers saw him as a disaster, the majority of Michigan socialists, who had been politicized during the Debsian era, endorsed both his anti-Communism and his pacifism, as well as feeling at ease with his brand of evangelical Protestantism. For example, Roy Reuther's mentor at Brookwood was not A. J. Muste, a revolutionary socialist in the mid 1930s, but Tucker Smith, pacifist and Methodist minister, whose anti-Stalinism aligned him with Homer Martin (and got him a job on Martin's staff) in the bitter faction fight that convulsed the UAW in 1938.

For nearly two years Homer Martin counted upon Flint workers as one of his most important sources of political support inside the union. He failed to sustain his UAW leadership because his incompetence and right-wing politics threatened the very existence of the union, but these post-sitdown strike developments in Flint had lasting importance for the UAW and the entire trade union movement. The disarray and defeat into which the UAW fell during the 1937-38 recession proved far more consequential than did the sitdown strike itself for the entire future history of the UAW-GM relationship. Most radicals were eliminated from the union leadership, the stop-steward system was still born, and GM managers recovered the organizational initiative.

As head of the UAW's GM Department, Walter Reuther deserves much credit for reestablishing a collective bargaining relationship with the corporation 1939 and 1940, but because he fought from a position of such weakness he could negotiate a new contract only upon a basis which clearly defined the limited reach of union power on Flint's assembly lines. The General Motors strike of 1936-37 was the most important union victory of the 20th century, but the very meaning of its success was ambiguous indeed.

Notes

  1. Henry Kraus, Heroes of Unwitten Story: The UAW, 1934-39 (Urbana University Press, 1990), 324.
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  2. For a discussion of the extent to which these ethnocultural fissures (the "culture wars" of the 1930s) coincided with divisions within the working class over the New Deal, Communism, race relations and the looming war see the following outstanding books. Steven Fraser, Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (New York: Free Press, 1991); Joshua Freeman, In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), and Gary Gerstle, Working Class Americanism: the Politics of Labor in a Textile City (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989). And see my book, The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (Basic Books).
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ATC 62, May-June 1995

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