Flint, Michigan–The sit-down strike of 1936-37 that gave rise to the United Auto Workers Union is just as relevant today as it was then, says the author of a new book on the strike.
Edward McClelland recently published his latest book, “Midnight in Vehicle City,” and it gives an intimate look at the strike that might surprise even some history buffs.
Most people with a basic understanding of Flint history know the core aspects of the sit-down strike: workers weren’t happy, so they sat down, refused to work, and forced GM to the bargaining table.
The rest, as they say, was history.
But history, in this case, is far more fascinating.
“It’s got action. It’s got a plot. It’s got a message, it’s got these characters…everybody from guys on the shop floor to these larger than life characters like John Lewis and Franklin D Roosevelt,” Edward McCelland said.
He’s right. The book kicks off with an organizer who shows up in Flint with the lofty goal of organizing the mighty General Motors.
What follows is the stuff of movies. Late-night secret meetings with shades drawn. Spies (yes, actual spies), gunshots, love, betrayal.
Even though it’s the first book to be written about the sit-down strike since 1969, there was so much documented material on the strike that McClelland was able to piece together a narrative that goes far beyond the average boring history book.
Written in the present tense, the book follows different characters, from the President of the United States to GM execs to the average laborer trying to provide for his family. Drawing on old documents, letters, and personal memoirs, McClelland pieces together entire scenes playing out between these characters as though he was in the room with a tape recorder.
For the auto workers themselves, McClelland relied heavily on the University of Michigan-Flint’s Labor History Project, where researchers gathered the oral histories of sit-down strikers. (You can read those documents here.)
Those stories reveal just how bad it could be to work at GM before 1937.
The conditions weren’t simply bad, they were awful. Before the strike, McClelland writes, workers over 40 were likely to be fired, certainly not hired. They weren’t expected to keep up. Workers breathed fumes and floating scraps of metal, and a coughing fit that took you away from your work would lose you your job. The foremen of the time were more like feudal lords than managers. If they wanted a worker to throw him a party, or paint his house, the worker better do it. If the foreman had a thing for a worker’s wife, well, there was only one way to keep your job.
When the strike began, the workers didn’t simply sit down, and GM did not give up easily. The National Guard was called in to surround plants. Police fired shots. Strikers improvised weapons and used fire hoses to keep the cops at bay. To prevent, and stop, the strike, GM employed spies, and attempted to freeze and starve the strikers out of the shops.
McClelland has written plenty about the auto industry in Michigan and Rust Belt before. His previous book, “Nothin’ But Blue Skies,” offers what he calls a “panoramic history of the Rust Belt.” The book touches on the sit-down strike, but McClelland said wanted to take the time in “Midnight in the Vehicle City” to really dive in. He was partially inspired by a family friend and GM tool and dye maker he called his surrogate grandfather. He died in 2013 at 90 years old, leaving behind a long life of being a happily married man, of giving money, sometimes in secret, to those who needed it.
When McClelland talks about him, it’s easy to see why he believes the sit-down strike remains relevant all these years later.
“His life to me just exemplified all the gains and the victories and the sit-down strike had won. He started off as an apprentice earning 25 cents an hour, and ended up turning $27 an hour,” McClelland said.
The auto industry might not be the driving economic force of the country anymore, but now, he said, we need to be paying closer attention to today’s giant corporations, like Amazon.
McClelland believes that today’s workers need to stand up for themselves, just as Flint’s auto workers once did. “If you can organize Amazon, you can organize anything,” he said.
Reading his book, you wouldn’t know that’s how he feels, however, until you reach the epilogue of the book, where McClelland finally pipes up to share his own thoughts. The book is focused on the story, but the epilogue is all but a call to action. The sit-down strike might be a hell of a story, but as far as McClelland is concerned, the lessons for today should be clear.
“It’s been really remarkable to me how similar their (Amazon employees’) concerns are, to the concerns of the sit-down strikers. They want a more realistic quota system and pace of labor…they want more job security,” he said. “So, you know, I feel like we’re doing this all over again.”
McClelland isn’t done telling the story of the sit-down strike. Next month he has a novel coming out titled “Running for Home.” He calls it a “fictional sequel” to “Midnight in Vehicle City,” even though its set in the 1980s, when auto plants are starting to close down.