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A G.M. Stockholder Visits Flint
By Robert Morss Lovett
January 30, 1937
Vol. 144, No. 5, P. 123-124
As the owner of a few shares of the General Motors Corporation I became somewhat alarmed when I learned that the workers were sitting down in my plants at Flint, Fisher Body No. 1 and Fisher Body No. 2, preventing the company from finishing and shipping cars and threatening to interrupt the orderly of dividends. Accordingly I took Sunday for a visit of investigation. Arriving at Flint I went to Fisher 2, and on introducing myself as their employer was cordially received by some 400 men occupying the plant. I must admit that I was fortunate in having as my companion Adolf Germer, who is on the board of strategy directing the strike.
My first anxiety was for the condition of my property, and I was relieved to find it well cared for. Springs and cushions were being used for beds, it is true, sometimes laid side by side as in a dormitory, sometimes isolated in cubicles between bales of goods. I was glad to see certain marks of domesticitya clothes tree, an alarm clock, a whisk broom. The boys had made themselves pretty comfortable. I asked who was responsible for cleanliness, order, and protection of property, and learned that the government was what might be described, except for its unfortunate connotation, as a soviet. Mass assemblies were called at frequent intervals at which ever thing of importance was discussed. Court was held every morning. I asked what crimes were committed and was told that bringing in liquor and circulating rumors were the usual offenses. Those found guilty of the charges against them were put out.
After a hearty Sunday dinner of roast chicken and ice cream, I was preparing to go over to Fisher 1 when I noticed several round holes in the great glass windows, and inspecting more closely some of the foetus-like bodies of cars on the tracks, awaiting their delayed birth, I saw similar holes in the glass and dents in the metal sides. I thought these indicated wanton violence against my property, and asked how it occurred. Gun fire by the police, was the answer. I knew that there had been fighting on the Monday before in the street outside, but these disasters were on the second floor. It was obvious that there had been firing from a distance into the plant, endangering the lives of my employees, whom I was beginning to like though they were on strike, and damaging my property. Accordingly I asked for particulars, and as I have seen no clear account of the affair in any newspaper, despite the columns of newsprint that have been given to the strike, I will set down the facts as they were related to me by at least eight participants and eyewitnesses.
The sitdown strike involving 1,500 to 2,000 workers started at Fisher 1, when it appeared that the management was loading dies and special machinery into box cars to be shifted to other cities. Our company is fortunate in having factories scattered over the country; so that by transferring equipment a strike in Flint, Michigan, can be broken by workers in Atlanta, Georgia. Incidentally, that is why the workers demand the industrial form of organization and insist on dealing with General as a whole instead of with the component companies.
The sitdown strike spread to Fisher Body 2, where from 400 to 600 men were involved. Relations were harmonious with the company police, who agreed to let the outer door stand open for food to be brought in. Attempts were made from time to time to shut off heat, light, and water, but workers with a mechanical turn of mind turned them on again.
On Monday afternoon the city police under Chief James Wills undertook to block both ends of the street in front of Fisher 2, to prevent food from being brought in. Later the police made an attack in force with tear gas and gun fire, to enter the plant. The strikers from inside countered the tear gas with streams of water, and the bullets with heavy hinges and other missiles. Some twenty-eight persons were injured, fourteen so seriously as to be taken to the hospital, which, I was told, had received warning beforehand to have an emergency ward ready. The defeat of the forces of law and order is referred to as Bulls' Run. The company police of Fisher 2 apparently took no part in the battle, and were found next morning in a ladies' rest room, where they had stood all night at attention, lacking room to sit down. They were released without acrimony by the workers in the factory.
Leaving Fisher 2, I went over to Fisher 1. After the battle, through Governor Murphy's efforts, the strikers and the management of General Motors had been brought to an agreement to go into conference on Monday, January 18, the workers to evacuate the Fisher plants on the promise that the company would not move machinery or dies. They were to march out of Fisher 1 at one-thirty, and a big crowd was collecting outside to see the evacuation. In the long fašade of Fisher 1, which stretched away, it seemed, for half a mile into the foggy distance, no door was open, and I had to go in by a window; but once inside I found the boys very good-natured and, when they realized that I was their employer, flatteringly eager for my autograph. Suddenly a loud-speaker blared forth. It seemed that the General Motors management had agreed to negotiate also with the Flint Alliance, and this was regarded as a breath of faith by the board of strategy of the United Automobile Workers of America, since the question whether the U. A. W. A. should be the sole bargaining agency was one of the points to be negotiated. Accordingly orders were given to hold the plant, the sitdown strike to continue until negotiations were finally complete. The crowd surged back to Fisher 1, where an impromptu outdoor meeting was held to protest against the action of the company.
The agreement of the company officials to admit the Flint Alliance to the discussion was a highly provocative action and was deprecated as such by Governor Murphy. It looked like an attempt of the company to get out of the negotiation into which it had been persuaded. The Flint Alliance is an anti-strike organization mainly of white-collar workers and their families and various beneficiaries of General Motors, directed by George Boysen, ex-mayor of Flint and a former paymaster of the Buick Company. It is in no sense a labor union and is detested by the workers. It represents rather the political forces of Flint, which are aligned with General Motorsmayor, police, courts. On that Sunday in Flint there was meeting the Michigan Conference for the Protection of Civil Rights, at which it was forcibly pointed out to the workers that they had only to use their ballots to turn out the whole nest of unclean birds at the next electiondefeat the mayor, move the impeachment of Judge Black for his action in granting a sweeping injunction against the union and in favor of a corporation, General Motors, in which he has substantial holdings, and force the removal of Chief of Police Wills for invoking violence both savage and futile.
The General Motors strike of 1937 may prove to be historic inasmuch as it has acclimated the sitdown strike in this country as a weapon of industrial conflict. The right of non-working employees to occupy the plant can hardly be classed among civil liberties. It is rather one of the industrial liberties which are on the way to becoming legally recognized. A little over a century ago it was illegal for workers to combine to refuse work for less than a certain sum. Quite recently it was against the law to picket a struck plant. Today picketing is among the civil rights. Already intelligent governors are applying the rule of reason and common sense to situations which law has not reached in its majestic progress. Governor Earle of Pennsylvania has refused to order the state troops to dispossess the bootleg miners, who are taking coal from seams which are their natural source of livelihood, which the legal owners refuse to work. Governor Murphy has refused to use his militia to throw out the sitdown strikers in the General Motors plants, and has ordered the company to cease the effort to cut off heat, light, and water.
The sitdown is the most effective form of strike. It permits the strikers to remain in comfort, even if somewhat bored, instead of tramping about on the picket line in heat, cold, wind, and wet. It obviates the most unpleasant and demoralizing feature of a strike, the use of strike-breakers. It eliminates violence, or at least places responsibility for it squarely on the police. It promotes the morale of the strikers. Above all it is a forcible reminder to workers, to management, to shareholders, and to the public that legal title is not the final answer to the question of possession. Who has the better human and natural right to call the Fisher plant hisI, whose connection with General Motors is determined by the price recorded on the New York Stock Exchange, or the worker whose life and livelihood are bound up in the operation of making cars? I bought my shares at long odds and probably have already collected the purchase price in dividends. When I place a winning bet in a horse race I do not claim a share in ownership of the horse. I know from my political economy that my position is the result of labor and sacrifice. Whose? Not mine. Obviously the enormous mass of wealth represented by the capitalization of General Motors, repeatedly enlarged by split-ups and stock dividends, is the surplus resulting from the toil of millions of workers over many years. Obviously they have not shared fairly in the wealth they have produced.
Some years ago I gave in the New Republic an account of the effort to mobilize the stockholders of the textile mills of New Bedford in support of the strikes against a wage cut. The strikers drew up a powerful plea to the stockholders arguing that the plight of the companies was due largely to the graft and nepotism of managers, who were in effect double-crossing both owners and workers. It would be a less hopeful effort to bring any considerable number of the holders of General Motors stock to intervene in behalf of the workers against the immensely successful management of the company, but nevertheless an appeal from the U. A. W. U. board of strategy to the shareholders, broadcast through the press, would have some effect. We should be informed of the fact that since the settlement arranged by President Roosevelt three years ago there has been constant chiseling by some of our employees to the disadvantage of others. In the Chevrolet plant men are dismissed for wearing badges, for speaking of the union in the lunch hour. At the A. C. spark-plug works girls are entitled to pay increases based on the length of their employment, but they are dismissed when they rise too high in the scale. They may be taken back after a time as beginners.
It is absurd to pretend that either the company or the government under whose auspices the agreements were made has provided any practicable means of rectifying these grievances of the workers. The managers to whom we pay grotesquely huge salaries act the part of ownership, and their behavior is an insult to the intelligence and humanity of those to whom they are legally responsible. They interpose objection to dealing with the U. A. W. U. on the ground that it does not represent all the workers. I should judge that at Flint it was pretty nearly their unanimous choice. In any case it does represent the only effective form of labor organization applicable to a gigantic and far-flung industrial aggregation such as General Motors, and the only practicable method of forcing the elimination of unfair practices under which the workers suffer. As such it deserves the support of the public and especially of that not inconsiderable number who hold the legal responsibility of ownership of the corporation.