Today in Automotive History: Sit-Down Strike Turns Into a Riot in Flint, MI
150,000 UAW supporters crowd Detroit’s Cadillac Square. From detnews.com
On this day in 1937, the first significant strike by the newly-formed United Auto Workers turned into a violent brawl with police after the officers attempted to stop food trucks from reaching the strikers. Strikers revolted, and the ensuing battle between GM workers and police became known as “The Battle of Bulls’ Run” (other sources call it “The Battle of the Running Bulls”).
The UAW was formed only two years before the strike, after many members of the American Federation of Labor felt leadership was ineffective and didn’t do enough to address concerns at the major automotive plants. Despite having good intentions, however, the UAW had no bargaining power to speak of, and decided the best way to get the major players in Detroit to pay attention was to organize a major strike at a vital General Motors plant.
It wouldn’t be difficult to find potential allies in the plants, as most plant employees in the production hub of Flint, Michigan, were unsatisfied with the horrendous working conditions. Workers did not often receive lunch breaks during the 8-10 hour work shifts, there were no safety requirements, and life-changing injuries were not only frequent but uncompensated. As the Great Depression waned, there was not a large force of potential workers, and low-level employees were in a better bargaining position overall. The UAW realized that these challenges could be overcome with the right backing, and the sit-down strike was chosen as the instrument of that change.
On December 28, 1936, a Fisher stamping plant in Cleveland went on strike, and Fisher Body Plant #1 in Flint followed suit two days later, after workers learned GM was shipping the dies that make auto parts to plants with a smaller union presence; Fisher Body Plant #2 was shut down the same night. Over the next couple of weeks, the government, residents, and newspapers of Flint began an all-out immaterial assault on the striking workers, calling them communists and radicals. “Schoolchildren, including sons and daughters of strikers, were told by their teachers to write essays about why the strike was wrong.” [Source]
At the time, General Motors’ presence in Flint was so strong that it’s tendrils permeated the municipal government and Genesee county circuit court. Judge Edward Black issued an injunction against the workers, until the UAW was able to prove Black held roughly $200,000 of GM stock. The discontent of the workers combined with the corruption of local government came to a head on January 11, 1937. Police officers stationed at the gates to Fisher Plant #2 halted the food trucks that normally were allowed in to supply the striking workers. Strikers emerged from the plant to swarm the gate, demanding the gates be opened so food delivery could take place. The workers forced the gates open, and the police responded in kind with tear gas and riot guns. Workers returned the favor with blasts from high-pressure water hoses and threw two-pound hinges. Officers fled the scene, the image of which led to the riot being christened “The Battle of Bulls’ Run.”
The riot prompted Michigan governor Frank Murphy to summon National Guard troops to Flint, not to expel the workers from the plants, but to act as a buffer between strikers and police. Murphy himself attempted to broker a resolution between the UAW and GM, but word of a secret alliance between GM brass and a rival pseudo-union entity prompted the UAW to fortify existing positions and also shut down Chevrolet Plant #4. Shortly thereafter, at President Roosevelt’s request, General Motors met with the United Auto Workers to hash out a plan that resulted in the UAW given sole bargaining rights, fair treatment of employees, and pay equal to what most Americans were earning at the time. Plant shutdowns for Chrysler and Ford followed over the coming years and established the UAW as the liaison between worker and manager for those manufacturers as well.