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Flint Faces Civil War
By Charles R. Walker, An Article in The Nation, February 13, 1937
Flint, February 8
Judge Gadola has issued his ouster injunction and the tension which may break into civil war has reached a new high. Only cool heads in the union, plus superior numbers, plus telephoned warnings from Governor Murphy to the forces of “law and order,” prevent the expected massacre.
“We’ll stay in till they carry us Out on stretchers,” is the message sent out by the sitdowners in Fisher 2. “We’d rather die than give up.” But will the 400 special police, deputized from Flint Alliance members, actually try to carry out the injunction at the zero hour of three o’clock? Will the 4,200 tin hats of the National Guard, equipped with howitzers, machine-guns, rifles, bayonets, and tear gas, be ordered to enforce the court order? The union does not know. But they mobilize hastily to resist. A picket line of 3,000 forms around Fisher 2, 10,000 citizens gather across the Street, and a stream of cars from all over Michigan brings in automobile workers by the hundreds to reinforce the picket line. The picket line cheers while it marches, and when 500 women of the “Emergency Brigade” with red berets and “E. B.” armbands join the line, the sitdowners at the windows of the huge plant go wild. What will happen? By nightfall Judge Gadola announces that until General Motors again goes to court to give evidence that the court order has been held in contempt, there will be no ouster. The sitdowners remain in possession. Flint breathes again.
At midnight a new crisis comes. The Flint Alliance people are furious; a mobilization of special police takes place; the Mayor openly tells newspapermen, “We are going down to the plants to shoot.” The union mobilizes again on the streets. Finally a conference between union heads and the chief of police results in an agreement that if the chief will demobilize the deputies, the union will send the pickets home.
The pact lasts till the next day, when the police break it by swearing in 600 new deputies, bringing the number to 1,000. The city’s temperature rises, and General Motors gets a writ from the court for the arrest of the union leaders. Sheriff Wolcott frantically tries to telephone Governor Murphy to ask that the National Guard be permitted to assist him in ousting the sitdowners. The Union sends word to the sitdowners in all three plants: “Be calm, probably nothing will happen, but be prepared.” Wives, sweethearts, and mothers hold a dance in a snow storm in front of Fisher 2.
I try to take the temperature of opposing forces.
A National Guard captain says to me, “If the Governor doesn’t let the National Guard evict the strikers all government is at an end! We are under terrific pressure,” he says, “the ‘good’ citizens of Flint can’t be held under much longer.” In a drugstore I talk to three guardsmen. “We have faith in Governor Murphy; he’ll never order us to put out the strikers. And if he does, we’ll shoot over their heads; we’re automobile workers too.” But in the big houses on Du Pont Avenue there is plenty of pressure for military eviction. George Boysen has just announced that Governor Murphy should be impeached. The owner of the drugstore has another view. “This whole block of stores,” he announces proudly, “is solid for the union. Hell,” he says, “I never got anything out of G. M. dividends; a union victory is better for my business.”
In the three plants held by the sitdowners morale has been high all week. In Plant 4 (Chevrolet) heat and electricity have been turned on and off intermittently by the company in an apparent effort “peacefully” to evacuate the plant. The company sends foremen to the wives of sitdowners urging them to send “come home” messages to their husbands. But only a handful have left. In Fisher 2 the original Flint sitdowners are thoroughly cheerful. Since their battle with vigilantes on Monday food has been coming in regularly; the men have three radios, and by knocking the bottoms out of two wastebaskets and tying them to stanchions in a storeroom, they have made themselves a basket-ball court. Both plants are guarded by howitzers and machine-guns and detachments of bayonet-armed guardsmen. In Fisher 1 I attend a night meeting of all the sitdowners. They have organized themselves in preparation for a siege. They declare that they are ready to “get shot” if General Motors gives the signal for enforcing the court order.
Unquestionably the distinguishing feature of the Flint strike, apart from the heroic determination of the sitdowners, is the almost military control and discipline that prevail among the strikers in the whole area. Union headquarters in the Pengelly building are thoroughly departmentalized into strike strategy, commissary, women’s auxiliary, transportation, publicity, and other committees. Inside the plants a committee governs through a corps of plant stewards with from twenty-five to fifty men under each. Machinery in the plants is scrupulously protected, and the whole plant is cleaned once a day. Internal police keep order, and there are sentinels on the roof. A stream of workers signs up daily with the union in the Pengelly building. Since the first sitdowner sat, membership has doubled in the Flint area. But there are still thousands of non-unionists.
Through the endless negotiations it is Flint which has been the chief threat to Knudsen’s position, the chief weapon in Lewis’s arsenal, and incidentally the bomb on which Governor Murphy has been manfully sitting for more than a week. Will it explode?
Source: Walker, Charles R., ” Flint Faces Civil War,” The Nation, Vol. 144, No. 7, P. 175 (February 13, 1937), http://newdeal.feri.org/nation/na37144p175.htm. New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org (June 17, 2014).