A win for labor laid the groundwork for workers’ rights

A strike at General Motors, led by the rising UAW, brought concessions that improved the lives of workers across the United States.

Beacon Press
“Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike that Created the Middle Class” by Edward McClelland, Beacon Press, 232 pp.

Even before the job losses of the pandemic, many American workers were facing a tough situation. In recent years, fed-up employees – from fast-food workers to university adjunct instructors – have seen little choice but to unionize. The signs of a rising new labor movement makes journalist Edward McClelland’s latest book, “Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike That Created the Middle Class,” remarkably timely.

McClelland details what was arguably the most important strike in American history. On Dec. 30, 1936, a few thousand workers took over one small GM plant in Flint, Michigan, and brought the nation’s leading automaker to a standstill.

GM employees as far away as Atlanta and Kansas City, Missouri, joined the Flint workers in walking off the job. And unlike many earlier strikes in U.S. history, the one in Flint was successful. Instead of being blacklisted, most strikers were eventually rehired, and even won concessions from management that ultimately set new standards for pay and benefits. For decades afterward, unionized factory workers were able to earn a middle-class living thanks to the Flint strikers.

Drawing on newspaper archives and oral histories, McClelland gives a day-by-day accounting of the strike as well as conversations between the fledgling United Auto Workers union, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and GM Chairman Alfred P. Sloan – conversations that determined the future of the American labor movement.

While the pay at General Motors plants in 1936 was relatively good for Depression-era America, the working conditions were horrific. The assembly lines often ran so fast many workers couldn’t keep up – or were injured trying to. Anyone who complained could be fired immediately. To make matters worse, pay was partially determined by plant productivity, so workers never knew in advance exactly how much they would receive.

McClelland’s account of how union leaders and plant workers carried out the strike – and how GM management and local law enforcement responded to it – reads like a story of master tacticians fighting a battle. And much of the time, the strike was a battle. Workers barricaded themselves inside the Flint plant. Plant security and local police fired tear gas through broken windows. Strikers responded by blasting them with water from industrial hoses. And as days lengthened into weeks, the strikers improvised smuggling operations to bring food into the plant. All the while, key players – Sloan, Michigan Gov. Frank Murphy, and UAW President Walter Reuther – kept an eye on press coverage and waited for the federal response.

Almost as gripping as the passages about the strike is McClelland’s retelling of the talks Perkins convened between GM management and union leadership. And the story of the final stages of the negotiations is oddly riveting, as each subtle change in the wording of the agreement put the UAW a step closer to solidifying its victory.

“Midnight in Vehicle City” isn’t flawless. McClelland’s narrative has puzzling gaps, such as when he writes about UAW Vice President Wyndham Mortimer’s recruitment drive with GM’s Black employees. McClelland writes that Mortimer’s initial factory contact, a white man, exhibited racial prejudice, but did the majority of white workers share those attitudes? Did Mortimer’s subsequent successful recruitment of Black members provoke many white workers to stay out of the UAW? And to what extent did the UAW keep Mortimer’s promise to Black workers – “to fight discrimination and Jim Crow” – at the Flint plant? McClelland doesn’t tell us.

Still, “Midnight in Vehicle City” is well worth reading. It’s a reminder that during a century that included two world wars, the most important battle for American workers was the one fought in Flint.

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