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The Detroit Strike
By Samuel Romer, An Article in The Nation, February 15, 1933
Detroit, February 2
AT nine o’clock on Wednesday morning, January 11, a worker at the main tool-and-die-making plant of the Briggs Manufacturing Company was told by his foreman to step into the office and receive a wage cut. Instead, the worker went to the head of his shop committee and then, along with the other workers in his department, from floor to floor, announcing that a strike against wage cuts had been called. There were only about 450 men working in the plant then–but every one of them put away his tools and walked out. So began the first major labor struggle in Detroit since the period immediately following the war.
Today there are between 10,000 and 14,000 * workers on strike at the four plants of the Briggs Company and at the Murray Manufacturing Company’s plant. The huge Ford factories all over the country have shut down–admittedly because they cannot get bodies from the two factories crippled by the strikes; the Hudson Motor Company has shut down; and the Chrysler Motor Company plant is working on part time when ordinarily it would be operating at the peak of production. The story of these strikes is the story of how manufacturers seeking “low production costs” slashed wages, disregarding or dismissing the possibility that the victims might revolt, and of how unorganized workers spontaneously struck at a time when, according to the estimate of the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, there were more than 175,000 jobless in Detroit. It is a story of remarkable unity, not only between the strikers and the workers at other plants, but also between the employed and the unemployed. Incidentally, it exposes the class character of the Detroit daily newspapers.
Detroit in the past ten years has won renown among chambers of commerce as an open-shop area second only to Southern California. Advertisements by the various industrial associations boasted of an “open-shop paradise,” while the vested interests were able to prevent effective enforcement of such social legislation as was passed by a reluctant legislature. Nevertheless, during the war period and immediately after, there was a strong Auto Workers’ Union in Detroit. It boasted some 20,000 dues-paying members and was growing rapidly. But anti-red hysteria and the split in the Socialist movement caused the union slowly to lose strength, until in 1925 it was completely broke as the result of an ill-advised strike at the Fisher Body Corporation. The Auto Workers’ Union became merely another Communist paper union.
The Detroit workers, in contradiction to the widely advertised Ford gospel “high wages,” were never really well paid. The automobile industry is a seasonal one. The factories slacken production during the fall months in order to prepare for new yearly models; and the automobile worker had to stretch the “high wages” of eight months to cover the full twelve-month period.
The automobile market collapsed with the crash of 1929, and the period of steady work was cut to three and four months or even less In the mad scramble of the manufacturers to grab a slice of what little market there was, labor costs were slashed and slashed again. The workers took the cuts apathetically. They grumbled, it is true, but they were also aware of the fact that there were plenty of men ready to take their places if they did not care to work. The Auto Workers’ Union endeavored to organize the men, but because of the powerful spy system in the automobile industry, the union had to function underground and it met with little success. A strike was called at the Fisher Body plant in Flint last year. It was greeted with cries of “red” and police brutality. The strike was lost and the few men who had harbored any idea of an automobile workers’ revolt gave up hope. Wage cuts continued, the conveyer belt was stepped up, and conditions in the factories became increasingly worse. Men reported for work daily, waited around for hours, and if they were lucky, secured two hours of work. In one instance a worker received for two weeks the munificent sum of 49 cents. His total wage for the two weeks was $2.49, but $2 was held out by the company for factory insurance. During the two week, however, he had been called to work six times, spending 12 cents car fare each time. His net loss, therefore, was 23 cents.
It was after a 15 per cent wage cut at the huge Mack Avenue plant, which was regarded as a preliminary to cuts in the Briggs Company’s other factories, that the men in the Vernor Highway plant began talking strike. Accepting the advisory leadership of the Auto Workers’ Union, “they elected shop committees and decided to meet the expected cut with a walkout. The cut came in less than a week and the men walked out. After a futile attempt at arbitration, the strike was called and a picket line established. The mere calling of the strike had immediate reverberations. In the Mack Avenue plant the cut was rescinded. At the Hudson Motor plant, where a 10 per cent wage cut had been posted, the cut was shortly after withdrawn.
At the striking plant, after fifty-two hours of picketing, the cut was rescinded–the first victory for strikers in Detroit since 1920. This victory was due to several causes, among them the refusal of tool-and-die-makers in other plants to accept the Briggs dies and the fact that pressure was undoubtedly brought to bear upon the Briggs Corporation by the Ford Company to hurry production in order that Ford might get his share of the market.
The daily newspapers carried not a word of the strike at the Vernor Highway plant, although every city desk was informed of the strike by telephone. During the strike one small item appeared to the effect that Briggs was hiring men, but the settlement was reached before any concerted attempt was made to break the strike. Despite this total lack of publicity, news of the victory spread among the workers like wildfire. And on the Thursday following the victory of the Briggs workers, between 900 and 1,400 employees of the Motor Product Company, manufacturers of automobile parts, walked out against a 15 per cent wage cut which had been announced January 1. Strikers said that girls working at the plant were getting as little as 8 cents an hour and men 17 cents. Under the slogan, “Give Us a Living Wage,” the strikers drew up a list of demands which included rescinding of the wage cut, minimum wages of 40 cents an hour for men and 30 cents for women, recognition of grievance committees elected by the workers, and no discrimination against strike leaders. After an attempt by the Briggs Company to send its employees into the Motor Products plant and the refusal of these men to scab, the company granted not only each of the strikers’ main demands, but also a 15 per cent wage increase!
The daily newspapers at the beginning published nothing about the strike. The men had appointed a publicity committee to deal with the newspapers, but at the strike meeting the publicity committee naively announced that it had no report to make since the newspapers had published nothing. Their ire aroused, the strikers elected a committee to call upon each city editor and threaten him with the picketing of his newspaper office if publicity were not given. Immediately following the action the newspapers grudgingly printed one-inch and two-inch items buried on inside pages, and even after the strike had been won, they mentioned only the fact that the men had gone back to work. The victory was not reported.
Following closely on the heels of the Motor Products strike, between 2,000 and 4,000 workers at the Highland Park Plant of the Briggs Company and between 4,000 and 6,000 workers at the Mack Avenue plant of the same concern walked out in protest against low wages and “dead time.” “Dead time” is the name given to the time spent by the workers in waiting between busy periods or in going from one part of the factory to another. The two strike committees joined forces and agreed not to go back separately. They were heartened by the news that the workers at two other plants of the Briggs Company, the Vernor Highway plant and the Meldrum Avenue plant, had walled out in sympathy and had declared their solidarity with the strikers in the other plants.
The strike committees established picket lines a thousand strong at the various plants, and then drew up their demands. These included abolition of what the strikers called “rackets,” such as health and accident insurance, a minimum rate of 40 cents an hour, a nine-hour day and five-day week with time and one-half for overtime, abolition of “dead time,” no victimization of strikers, and abolition of the vicious bonus piece-work system. The picket lines included not only strikers but many unemployed. Both the Unemployed Councils and the Unemployed Citizens’ League had pledged their solidarity with the strikers and were using their influence to keep the jobless from strike-breaking. At the Murray plant, which has interlocking contracts with the Briggs Corporation for Ford and Lincoln bodies, the men decided to strike. Instead, the company locked them out. The men, nevertheless, formed strike committees and decided not to return until demands similar to those of the Briggs workers were granted. In Grand Rapids more than 450 workers walked out against a wage reduction of 25 per cent in the Hayes Body Corporation plant, which manufactures bodies for Continental Motors.
Little was said about the strike in the newspapers until the Briggs Company officials decided to break it. While they refused to meet with the negotiations committee elected by the men or to deal with them collectively, they offered a jumbled pay scale and the abolition of “dead time.” Immediately the Detroit News ran a huge two-line scarehead: “Briggs Raises Rates; Will Open Tomorrow.” Over the radio the word went out too–“The strike is over, the company has conceded the demands of the workers and will begin production tomorrow.” What both the newspapers and the radio failed to mention was that the strikers in a mass-meeting had voted down the proposed settlement and had declared that they would go back only as an organized body.
The Briggs officials publicly gave as their excuse for not dealing with the strikers in a body the alleged fact that the strike was Communist. The men, however, vehemently denied the charge and pointed to the fact that they had picketed with American flags and had excluded known Communists from the strike committee. The newspapers played up the proud announcement of the Briggs officials that, contrary to certain rumors, they had never paid workers less than 25 cents an hour–despite the fact that picketers were showing checks ranging from $3 to $8 for two weeks’ work, which the strikers maintained meant rates of 8 cents and 10 cents an hour, and that strikers from the sewing department declared that the girls working there on a piece-work basis averaged from 3 cents to 5 cents an hour.
In what strikers declared was an effort to turn public sympathy away from them, Ford announced the closing of his plants throughout the country and the consequent laying off of nearly 150,000 men. This story, of course, gained the front pages of the papers. That the strikers’ contention was in many ways correct may be deduced from a leading editorial on the strike which appeared in the Free Press, organ of reaction in Detroit. After conceding that the conditions were bad, the writer declared: “They [the strikers] should remember, too, that they owe consideration to their fellow-workers; and that if they remain idle after securing the ratification of their principal grievance [abolition of “dead time”] they will be depriving more than 150,000 men and women in other plants of the means of livelihood, by forcing those plants to remain closed through lack of construction material.”
When Briggs officials asked for workers from the welfare rolls and the employment bureau of the Mayor’s Unemployment Committee, both the welfare department and the committee refused to send workers over after they learned of the strike. The Briggs Company has had great difficulty in recruiting workers to break the strike, although it maintains that it has smuggled 1,000 workers into the two main plants. The strikers feel secure in the knowledge that such key workers in the plants as the electricians and the tool-and-die-makers are striking solidly.
The strike has been orderly and the picket lines have been well disciplined, especially in view of the provocation offered by the presence of literally hundreds of policemen, deputy sheriffs, special deputies, and State troopers. There have only been a few minor cases of violence against strike-breakers. Although the police in general have let the pickets alone, in Highland Park they arrested about twenty of them on charges of disorderly conduct because the pickets dared to yell derisively at strike-breakers or went through the lines encouraging the men. If the present strike is won, it undoubtedly will mean the organization of nearly the entire automobile industry. The mere fact of the strike has already resulted in a tremendous surge of workers toward the Auto Workers’ Union. But even if the strike is lost, as long as low wages remain, as long as the speed-up exists, so long will walkouts against wage cuts and bad conditions take place with ever-increasing frequency. Only the return of prosperity and the restoration to the workers of a minimum living wage will stop this unrest. And prosperity is not in sight.
* The strike committee claims that 14,000 men are out; the company puts the figure at 10,000. Both estimates are given since it is obviously impossible to ascertain the correct number.
Source: Romer, Samuel, “The Detroit Strike,” The Nation, Vol. 136, No. 3528, p. 167 (February 15, 1933), http://newdeal.feri.org/nation/na33167.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org/ (June 9, 2014).