UAW marks 75th anniversary of victorious strike at GM

February 10, 2012
UAW marks 75th anniversary of victorious strike at GM
Strike veterans recall effort that sparked labor movement
By BRYCE G. HOFFMAN / The Detroit News
Flint — In February 1937, Geraldine Blankinship was a vivacious 17-year-old in a red beret and cape, dodging police and company thugs to get food to her father and thousands of other striking auto workers occupying General Motors Co.’s Fisher No. 1 body plant and other nearby factories.

Today, the United Auto Workers will mark the 75th anniversary of the victory they won over GM — a victory that forced the company to sign the first national contract with the union and sparked the growth of the U.S. labor movement. It is a victory that Blankinship and other veterans of what became known as the Flint Sit-Down Strike say is as important in 2012 as it was in 1937.

A Flint native, Blankinship remembers her father, Jay Green, coming home so tired after days of forced overtime at Fisher Body that he would fall into bed without pausing to eat. She also remembers the long, hot summer of 1936 when he came home with stories of workers collapsing from heat exhaustion.

“People on the line working were told, ‘Just step over them until we can get them out of the way,'” she said. “He got tired of being a slave.”

So did many of Green’s co-workers — which is why Blankinship was sent upstairs one night in December as her father and other members of the fledgling UAW huddled around the family dining table and whispered the word strike.

Richard Wiecorek heard a lot of whispering, too, the next day in the cafeteria at the Fisher No. 1 plant. But he returned to his place on the assembly line and waited for it to start back up. It never moved.

Wiecorek, now 95, can still remember the foreman sending a man down the line to find out what the problem was.

“He said, ‘The boss wants us to start the line,'” Wiecorek recalled. “One of the guys I knew (from the union) said, ‘No, this line ain’t starting!'”

Wiecorek and his co-workers were called back to the cafeteria, where they were told by UAW leaders from Detroit that the plant was on strike. Blankinship’s father was elected vice chairman.

Instead of picking up picket signs, they were going to sit down and refuse to move. It was a move aimed at keeping GM from bringing in strikebreakers or moving the equipment to another factory.

Farmers were excused so they could go home and tend their animals, but Wiecorek and the rest stayed in the factory. When the company cut off the heat, they fired up the big oven in the paint shop and huddled around it. Their wives and daughters formed the Women’s Emergency Brigade to smuggle food to the strikers and carry picket signs outside.

When the sheriff ordered them to leave and threatened to storm the plant, Wiecorek and his comrades made blackjacks out of rubber hoses and lead solder. But the sheriff never made good on that threat. Company guards did attack strikers and members of the Women’s Emergency Brigade at the nearby Fisher No. 2 plant. They were supported by local police armed with tear gas and batons.

When newly elected Gov. Frank Murphy called out the Michigan National Guard a few days later, Blankinship feared a massacre. But she said the soldiers were given orders to protect the strikers and prevent further violence. On Feb. 11, 1937, after its efforts to beat and gas the strikers into submission failed, GM capitulated and inked its first contract with the UAW.

Wiecorek got a raise from 80 cents to $1 an hour. He immediately bought a new car. Blankinship married a striker.

Chrysler quickly followed GM and signed its own labor agreement with the UAW. The union’s membership rose from 30,000 to 500,000 in a year. Sit-down strikes spread to other companies and industries.

“Ford proved more difficult. But four years later, they signed, too. It was transformative for the labor movement and for the U.S. economy,” says Harley Shaiken, a labor studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “It jump-started the labor movement and helped revive the economy in depths of the Depression. You had a strong labor movement working with a strong manufacturing base to really expand the middle class.”

Wiecorek worked at GM until he retired in 1986. He said he was always grateful that the union looked out for him.

“They might do something bad, but they do a lot of good things,” he said. “I called a committeeman myself a few times.”

UAW President Bob King said he is “very, very proud” of Wiecorek and the other strikers, as well as Blankinship and the other women who supported their effort and put their own lives on the line for the union.

“It’s a very important part of our history,” King told The Detroit News, adding that the UAW is still fighting for the same things today. “People need to understand that collective bargaining is democracy. A strong attack on that from the right wing in the U.S. has really undermined that, and it’s undermining our middle class.”

Blankinship, the last living member of the UAW’s Women’s Emergency Brigade, not only agrees but collects newspaper articles that she says chronicle the rollback of workers’ rights.

“They’re trying to cut out collective bargaining,” she says, pointing to a press clipping about the battle between Gov. Rick Snyder and unions representing state workers. “It hurts.”

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