75th anniversary of the beginning of the Sit-Down Strikes - ABC 12 – WJRT – Flint, MI

75th anniversary of the beginning of the Sit-Down Strikes

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(12/30/11) - Friday marked the 75th anniversary of a pivotal movement in American labor history.

On Dec. 30, 1936, several hundred auto workers took over General Motors' Fisher One in Flint, beginning the sit-down strike.

Most of their names are not in the history books.

But what they did as group changed the face of labor, gave birth to the UAW and helped shape the middle class. 

Seventy-five years has not eroded the memory of Richard Wiecorek. He was only 20 when the strike began on Dec. 30, 1936.

Wiecorek worked at Fisher One and can still remember the words that started it all inside of the plant. "Ladies and farmers go home, we stayed in there we just stayed right there," Wiecorek said.

Flint in the 1936 was GM's backyard, a manufacturing mecca in the height of the great depression. But workers say conditions inside the plant were tough.

Former University of Michigan Professor Neil Leighton says "the term was 'sweated their labor.' If you got old and couldn't do the physical task, and in those days you were fired.  If you got sick and could not show up on the job, too bad."

On Dec. 30 inside Fisher One, workers took matters into their own hands.

"One of the foreman looked at someone cross wise and was giving them a hard time and just threw their tools down and sat down," Leighton said.

Workers refused to leave, sitting down inside the plant. The strike soon spread to Fisher Two and when police tried to take back Fisher Two on a chilly winter's morning, workers fought back.

"The temps were about 15 degrees so the guys went up on the roof. The workers got fire extinguishers and fire hoses and the police were on the bottom. They opened the fire hoses and turned them into cop cicles and started throwing the fire extinguishers at them," Leighton said.

Their stand was known as the Battle of Bull's run and it wasn't the last.

The union was under an injunction to vacate the Fisher plants. They refused.

As tension mounted, the National Guard was called in.

Sit downer Jimmy Todd remembers, "it was serious then, but they come in and they kept it peaceful."

The peace didn't last long. For a while, the Guard got between the strikers and police until a pitched battle ignited at Chevy Four that had been taken over by sit downers.

"Chevrolet had problems. They shot gas in there tried to gas them out," said Richard Wiecorek.

During the battle, it was one of the first times women took an active role in a strike. "The women's brigade knocked out the windows the cops tries to tear gas them out," Leighton said.

Their resilience turned the course of the strike and by February 1937, it was over.

The UAW struck a deal with GM.

It took 44 days, but the UAW was recognized and workers celebrated in the streets of Flint.

"After that strike, we got jobs on the machines and we made a hell of a lot more money," Todd said.

"We got 80 cents an hour. After the strike, I got $1 an hour," Wiecorek said.

Richard Wiecorek ended up working at GM more than 50 years.

He is still proud of his involvement in the sit-down strikes and what the union has become. "If you got a union, you got seniority rights, you got someone to represent you," Wiecorek said.

The UAW is planning to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Flint Sit Down Strike in February, coinciding with the anniversary of the ending of the strike.

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