On December 30, 1936, workers seeking union recognition at the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, sat down on the job. Thus began a series of sit-down strikes, then a relatively new labor strategy, that worked as intended to keep management and strikebreakers out.
“Production came to a screeching halt, at a time when demand for automobiles was high,” writes Brandon Weber in his new book, Class War, USA. In response, “GM used every tactic it could to force the strikers out of the plant, including cutting electricity, heat, and food.” But outside vendors and a sympathetic restaurant sprang into action to provide meals. And when police armed with tear gas tried to enter, they were rebuffed by strikers with “fire hoses and car parts.”
The strike, organized by the then-fledgling United Automobile Workers union, Weber notes, was not about money. It was about working conditions, including dangerous assembly line speeds and management disregard for worker health and safety. In the summer of 1936, hundreds of workers died from heat exhaustion in Michigan auto plants. Injuries were common and workers damaged for life were cast aside, without compensation.
In the summer of 1936, hundreds of workers died from heat exhaustion in Michigan auto plants. Injuries were common and workers damaged for life were cast aside, without compensation.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to intervene, and strikers ignored a court injunction ordering them to desist. The strike ended with a union victory after forty-four days, and established the UAW as one of the nation’s top unions. Today, the UAW has more than 400,000 active members, including staff at The Progressive.
The story of the Flint sit-down strike is one of twenty-five vignettes in Class War, USA. Weber, a longtime union activist and historian, devotes only a few pages to each. Besides significant events affecting American workers, the book also briefly profiles great figures in labor history, from Joe Hill to Eugene Debs to “Rosie the Riveter” to Woody Guthrie. The writing is occasionally clunky but the cumulative effect is powerful. Weber presents the labor movement’s long arc of moral history as bending toward justice, one clash at a time.
Featured are the women mill workers of Lowell, Massachusetts, who went on strike in the mid-1830s for the right to work only ten-hour days. And the black Atlanta washerwomen who struck in 1881, seeking a pay rise, greater autonomy, and more respect from clients. And the Pullman porters who fought for decades for basic rights like adequate rest breaks, succeeding only after the passage of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.
Weber also writes of the 1894 miners’ strike in Cripple Creek, Colorado, where it received a helping hand from the state’s populist governor, Davis H. Waite, who at one point branded a group of deputies aligned with the companies as an illegal force. It was, Weber writes, “the first time, and likely the last, that a state militia force was called out in support of a striking union rather than against it.” The union won the strike.
It was, Weber writes, “the first time, and likely the last, that a state militia force was called out in support of a striking union rather than against it.” The union won the strike.
Usually, labor wins are achieved against a backdrop of repression from powerful industries and their allies in government. What’s remarkable about many of these struggles is how workers win in the end, after multiple and crushing defeats.
Take the mining fights in West Virginia in the early 1920s that culminated in the nation’s deadliest labor conflagration, the Battle of Blair Mountain, which claimed more than 100 lives. The union lost badly but, Weber writes, “these bloody conflicts drew the nation’s attention to the plight of the long-suffering mine workers” and launched new and more successful union campaigns. “Each battle laid some groundwork for the next. Each of these fights in West Virginia solidified the resolve and desire of the miners and their families to stand up for their rights to improve their lot in life.”
Some of the vignettes recall horrific events, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, where a rag bin fire in a horrendously unsafe sweatshop in Manhattan led to the deaths of 145 garment workers, mostly women, some of whom leapt from windows rather than be burned alive. But even here Weber finds the silver lining: The tragedy spurred the enactment of new workplace safety laws, and new union organizing drives.
Weber wraps up Class War, USA on this note: “If we have learned anything from these stories of union members, veterans, prisoners, and simple, common, hard-working men and women fighting back, I hope it’s this: We can win. Sometimes, that victory might take a number of battles. It might take years. It might mean the loss of some of our people along the way, and of other things very important to us as the battles rage on . . . . But we must fight. And we will win.”
One momentous but largely unheralded labor struggle is the subject of a forthcoming book by journalist Lynn Waltz. Hog Wild (publication date: May 15) recounts the fourteen-year fight by workers at the pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, to obtain union representation, against a jaw-dropping array of dirty tricks employed by its owner, Smithfield Foods.
The plant, billed on its opening in 1992 as “the largest slaughterhouse in the world,” kills, bleeds, and disassembles tens of thousands of hogs each day. The work is dirty and dangerous, and the pay is as low as Smithfield is able to get away with. The Tar Heel plant, when it opened, paid less than other Smithfield plants, where workers were represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. The difference amounted to higher profits for Smithfield. It was prepared to defend them by any means necessary.
Waltz, in the book’s introduction, explains that opening the plant in the rural South was part of a strategy to discourage unions. So was its pitting of poor black workers against undocumented migrants, its “massive, well-oiled anti-union marketing” campaigns, and its firing of union advocates to show “what would happen to other workers if they tried to organize.”
The first union vote occurred in August 1994. Smithfield had erected billboards that said, “NO dues, NO strikes, NO union-caused trouble, Vote NO UNION.” It handed out T-shirts that showed one hog asking, “What do you think of this union mess?” and another replying, “Well, I don’t want to get BUTCHERED by the union.” Workers were bullied and threatened. The union filed more than one hundred complaints alleging labor law violations. It lost the election 704 to 587.
A second union vote took place at the plant in August 1997, and included illegal firings and allegations of vote tampering. After the union lost, 1,910 to 1,107, members of management physically attacked some workers, though it was the unionists who were arrested.
The following spring, investigators for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) charged Smithfield with 286 separate violations of labor law, including more than two dozen violations involving employees fired for union activity. Intensive hearings were held, generating much of the source material for Waltz’s book.
In December 2000, an administrative law judge with the NLRB ruled that Smithfield had committed “egregious and pervasive” violations of labor law during the two unsuccessful organizing campaigns. The judge found that the company created a “violent atmosphere” during the 1997 vote and that management “planned, orchestrated, and incited” the post-vote violence. He ordered that eleven fired workers be rehired and a new election held.
Smithfield fought these findings, through multiple appeals processes, for years. So much time passed that, in 2005, the company argued that it was no longer fair to “draw sweeping conclusions from events in 1994 and 1997,” since so much had changed.
That same year, 2005, Smithfield reported profits of nearly $300 million on a record $11.4 billion in sales. Waltz says the difference between the base pay rates of $8.60 per hour at the Tar Heel plant versus $11.10 at the company’s union plants added up to $34 million in annual savings to buoy that bottom line.
In May 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the NLRB’s finding that Smithfield repeatedly engaged in illegal conduct in its efforts to beat back the union. The company was forced to read the settlement aloud to workers, in English and Spanish. But even this was not the end.
The company was forced to read the settlement aloud to workers, in English and Spanish. But even this was not the end.
It wasn’t until after the union launched a national campaign to call negative attention to conditions at the plant, spurring a lawsuit from the company accusing the union of violating federal anti-racketeering laws, that a third vote on union representation occurred. In December 2008, workers at the Tar Heel plant voted 2,041 to 1,879 to unionize. The union is still representing workers at the plant today.
Waltz’s book honors those who made this happen, sometimes at great personal cost. It serves to remind that the path to success is often riddled with failure, and that the arc of moral history does not bend on its own.
Bill Lueders is managing editor of The Progressive.
James Brown is more than perhaps the best running back in the history of football. He’s also a figure of towering importance to the Black Power movement, one who always insisted on playing on his own terms. “I’m not looking for your trophies or your acceptance or your validation,” he tells Dave Zirin in his forthcoming book, Jim Brown: Last Man Standing.
Brown quit football rather than endure the indignity of being ordered about. He went on to work as a film star and producer, a booster of black businesses, and an advocate against gang violence. His close associates included Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Richard Pryor. The book builds on the work of others, including Brown’s two memoirs, and takes things to a new level with thoughtful and often disturbing contemporary interviews.
Zirin, who writes a column for The Progressive, appreciates the complexity of his subject and is willing to be quite hard on him, as with the allegations of Brown’s abuse of women. The portrait that emerges is not always positive. But it is always riveting.