Bread Upon The Waters : Chapter 23 : General Motors Capitulates
(1896 - 1965) ~ Anarchist, Feminist Organizer and ILGWU Leader : ...an anarchist, feminist labor organizer and vise president within the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union. Born Rakhel Peisoty in Derazhnia, Ukraine in 1896 to a family of grain merchants, Pesotta was well educated during her childhood and, influenced by People's Will, would eventually adopt anarchist views. (From : Anarchy Archives.)
• "Soon after the 1929 stock market crash 30,000 persons in that city were jobless. Some organized the Unemployed Citizens' League, which set the pace for similar self-help groups all over the United States. Harvesting fruit and vegetable crops on a sharing basis, it set up various co-operative enterprises, which, however, were opposed by business men, who feared these would cut into their profits." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "I had no ambition to hold executive authority. Valuing my own freedom, I wanted to avoid getting into harness, and to keep from becoming enmeshed in inner-circle politics. Too, I felt that I could serve the cause of my fellow-unionists just as effectively as a rank-and-file member. And it was my contention that the voice of a solitary woman on the General Executive Board would be a voice lost in the wilderness." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
• "In the brief span of its life, the IWW produced men who became internationally known and whose names were torches of inspiration in many lands. Most of them paid a high price for their fame, some with their lives." (From : "Bread Upon the Waters," by Rose Pesotta.)
IN THE STRIKE ZONE the scene was war-like. Naked machine-guns mounted in the streets commanded every approach to the three plants-Fisher Body No. I and No. 2 and Chevrolet No. 4. National Guardsmen stood on duty with fixed bayonets, steel helmets on their heads, mufflers protecting their ears and throats from the bitter winds.
Despite this, most of the people in strike headquarters were relaxing when I arrived that Saturday afternoon. Earlier there had been speeches, but now they were enjoying themselves with music and dancing. Outside, a strong guard of union men watched for any surprise move by the company.
Chevy 4 had been practically isolated, ever since the soldiers came. For 24 hours they refused to permit food to be sent in to the strikers there. Then, after the union telegraphed a protest to Governor Murphy, the ban was lifted. But to enter the plant it was necessary to get a military pass.
Company and city police had attempted to oust the sit-downers from Fisher Body Plant No. 2 on the evening of January 11. Fourteen strikers received bullet-wounds, while scores of those inside and pickets outside were felled by tear gas bombs. The sheriff's sedan was overturned and wrecked, and three police cars were captured by the auto workers. Meanwhile a union sound truck stood in front of the plant, with Victor Reuther, UAW organizer, and other leaders at the microphone directing the movements of the besieged sit-downers and the pickets. Fifty strikers guarded the truck against destruction.
At midnight the police tried a second time to force their way into the plant, but were met by a deluge of cold water from a fire-hose, and an avalanche of two-pound steel automobile door hinges. The cops' lines broke under this defensive onslaught. Defeated and shame-faced, they left the scene at top speed, followed by laughter and derisive shouts from the strikers. Recalling Bull Run in the Civil War, that fight has come down in labor history as "the Battle of the Running Bulls."
The wounded men were treated in a hospital. Then, without being permitted to go to their homes, they were jailed by order of the county prosecutor, owner of 61 shares of General Motors stock. He caused 1,200 John Doe warrants to be issued, so that persons openly sympathetic toward the strike could be arrested singly or in large numbers. The company hoped thus to frighten employes away from union meetings. Seven key men among the UAW rank-and-file were taken into custody, accused of "unlawful assembly and malicious destruction of property."
Soon after the troops came, "solely to preserve order," as Governor Murphy explained, a truce was announced. General Motors at last had agreed to meet with union representatives to discuss a settlement, and the union had conceded the company's condition that it evacuate all GMC buildings in the cities where sit-downs were in force.
Before union leaders could carry out this promise in Flint, however, they discovered that the company also had agreed to "bargain collectively" with the Flint Alliance, obviously a company union. So the strikers in the two Flint plants decided to sit tight. Then the company heads refused to go on with the negotiations.
All the local leaders in the sit-down were young. Kermit Johnson was chairman of the strike committee. Bob Travis, from the Chevrolet plant in Toledo, and president of UAW Local 12, had charge of headquarters.
Several of those in the forefront of the strike had been trained at Brookwood Labor College, and I found that the teachings there were serving them well. Especially notable in this group were Victor and Roy Reuther, organizers for the UAW-Vic tall and lanky, with reddish brown hair and a humorous twinkle in his eyes; Roy debonair, and, like his brother Walter, president of the auto workers' Detroit West Side local, possessing wavy auburn hair that a woman might envy. Sons of an old-time German Socialist and former brewery workers' organizer, the brothers hailed from West Virginia. Other competent Brookwood graduates in the auto workers' fight were Merlin Bishop, UAW educational director; Frank Winn, its publicity director; and Hi Fish, a young Socialist. I had recommended Bishop and Winn for their jobs.
The company asserted that 110,000 workers had signed back-towork petitions circulated by the Flint Alliance. Immediately the union countered with documentary proof that intimidation had been widely used by foremen and other minor GMC executives in getting signatures.
For the moment the Flint Alliance was discredited. But the union leaders had ample cause to be worried.
In Anderson, Indiana, on January 25, a mob broke up a union meeting attended by General Motors workers and besieged UAW organizers for hours at union headquarters. Vic Reuther's wife narrowly escaped being beaten, and the others were forced to leave town. On the 27th four union men were clubbed by another mob in Bay City, Michigan, where GMC also had a factory; and that same night these four were badly injured when their car was deliberately sideswiped by some of the clubbers. Next day UAW members were mobbed in Anderson as they waited for a train.
Though the strike lines in Flint appeared to be holding firmly, the leaders felt the growing pressure of the forces working against them. Aggressive action was needed. As in a war, something unexpected and startling was called for to tighten the sit-downers' morale.
Weighing all possibilities carefully, the leaders planned a masterstroke. Chevrolet No. 4 was the key plant, in which all GMC motors were assembled. If this could be captured, it would shut off the corporation's entire production in Flint.
But this plant was stoutly guarded, and the company police were quartered in the personnel building, close by. The strategy committee wrestled with the problem of luring the guards from the vicinity of Chevy 4. Finally it figured out a way.
Supposed plans for the union% "next move" were freely discussed at a meeting attended, the leaders knew, by company spies. They announced that on Monday, February 1, at 3:30 p.m. a sit-down would start in Chevrolet Plant No. 9, in which ball-bearings were produced. This was at the far end of the eight-acre Chevrolet area.
Early that afternoon all the company police, augmented by city detectives, poured into Plant No. 9, carrying clubs and tear-gas bombs.
Word systematically spread around town had caused more than 2,500 strikers to gather in Pengelly Hall or in the street outside. Prom a sound truck at the curb speeches were being made by some of the union leaders. Carrying out the day's strategy, a telephone call to union headquarters reported that the police had attacked pickets in front of Chevy 9.
To the cry of "Let's go! " the sound truck set off in the direction of that plant, the crowd following on the run.
Unionists who had got into No. 9 unobserved, began yelling for a sit-down, and the company police and the dicks now tried to drive them out with tear gas.
Outside this plant many pickets bad assembled, including dozens of members of the Women's Emergency Brigade-distinguished by their red berets-wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of strikers. They had seen the company police go in with the gas bombs, and as soon as they heard fighting inside, they began breaking windows, to save their men from suffocation.
Talking fast through the sound-truck microphone, Powers Hapgood and Roy Reuther gave continuous instructions to the strikers, and helped to keep the attention of the company forces concentrated on Chevy 9.
After more than a half hour of fighting, a motorcyclist brought an all-important message to Roy. "The sit-down is on in Chevy 4 ! " A picked group of 500 strikers bad seized it, brushing surprised foremen aside, and meeting with no resistance. Roy now asked the men and women in front of No. 9to disperse, shouting: "There's a good reason! " Then the sound truck sped to Plant No. 4, where Powers and Roy joined Walter Reuther, who was already inside.
Scores of pickets were outside No. 4 when the company police got there. The cops attempted to take the main gate away from them, but were halted by a long line of Women's Brigade members, who barred their way with locked arms, singing We Shall Not Be Moved.
Eighteen men had been injured in the fighting at Plant No. 9, some being badly beaten and cut. Two had to be taken to a hospital the others were attended in the first-aid station at strike headquarters.
With Chevy 4 captured, the company agreed to negotiate, and conferences were begun Hope for an early settlement was expressed on all sides.
But an injunction issued by Judge Gadola heightened the tension. It called for the surrender of all the occupied plants in Flint within 24 hours. Failure to obey the order would make the union liable to fines aggregating $15,000,000. The strikers ignored the injunction, and Judge Gadola ordered the sheriff to arrest all trespassers on GMC properties.
Sheriff Wolcott answered that, with his small force of deputies, this was impossible. He could make those arrests, he explained, only if Governor Murphy would instruct the National Guard to co operate. From Fisher Body No. I and No. 2, the sit-downers sent telegrams to the Governor, urging him to continue his publicly expressed stand against violence and bloodshed in Flint. Pointing out that they were unarmed, they declared their intention of remaining where they were, though it might mean death for many of them.
Governor Murphy viewed the question judicially. He refused to allow the troops to be used to enforce the injunction.
Now the Flint Alliance became increasingly active. Its members were being illegally armed with guns owned by the municipality. Police Chief Wills persisted in this despite the sheriff's protests. The vigilantes threatened to drive the sit-downers out of the plants and to "shoot the streets clear." Then a way was found to arm them legally. Somebody remembered an ordinance enacted at the time of the 1913 flood which provided for deputizing of citizens "in case of public emergency." Accordingly more than a thousand were sworn in as special police.
As the days passed, Adolph Germer commuted between Flint and Detroit, as exigencies of the strike required. Krzycki and Hapgood spent most of their time in Flint, speaking at strikers' meetings and at gatherings of citizens interested in knowing the facts about the conflict.
We all took turns in cruising on the sound truck, talking through the "mike," giving instructions to sit-downers and pickets, warning them of dangers, and reporting to the public on the progress of the negotiations. But none of us except Vic and Roy Reuther could do this more than 15 minutes, because our throats got dry. Those two could go on indefinitely, improvising.
One saw the Women's Emergency Brigade on duty at all hours of day and night-serving in the commissary, in the first-aid station, and on the picket-lines, working always to keep up the morale of the strikers' families.
The press was well represented, out-of-town correspondents making their headquarters at the Durant Hotel. They included Louis Stark and Russell Porter of the New York Times, Stark spending most of his time in Detroit watching the negotiations, while Porter covered Flint; Paul Tobenkin, Edward Angly, and Geoffrey Parsons Jr. of the New York Herald Tribune; Edward Levinson, New York Post; Paul Gallico, New York Daily News; Edwin Lahey, Chicago Daily News; Thomas McIntyre, Detroit News; William Lawrence and Mickey Maloney, United Press; Ted Peck and others, Associated Press.
Beside the writers and artists who came to help give the story of the strike to the outside world, others of liberal tendencies appeared on the scene offering co-operation. Among them were Norman Thomas, and Mary Hillyer of the League for Industrial Democracy.
On Sunday afternoon I visited the strikers in Fisher Body No. 1. The boxes on which I had climbed to get through the window entrance had been replaced by wooden steps. As I entered, the announcer boomed through the microphone: "A lady is coming in," presumably so that none of the men would be caught in any embarrassing position.
Those inside had settled themselves for a long stay. There had been no let-down in order or discipline. Every part of the building occupied by the strikers was kept scrupulously clean. In the cafeteria 17 bearded young men were scrubbing the floor. These fellows were the butt of many jokes and yet the envy of others. For weeks they had not shaved. One had put red polish on his long pointed fingernails, to prove to his foreman he hadn't worked during the strike!
There was a better supply of reading matter now in the "lounge," as well as playing cards, checkers, ping-pong tables, and a roulette wheel.
The sit-downers regarded the roof as their fort, but on every floor the water-hose was ready for any emergency; and at every strategic spot, objects that might serve as weapons were piled Before the strike ended these men expected to be compelled to defend themselves.
In the evening another mass-meeting in Pengelly Hall was jammed, women predominating. The speakers included Josephine Herbst, the novelist, Walter Reuther, Wyndham Mortimer, Addes, Germer, Hapgood, and myself. We spoke confidently of the outcome of the strike and of better days ahead.
But afterwards I lay awake, acutely conscious of the seriousness of the immediate situation, and worried. The strike leaders had not been able to conceal their Uneasiness. There was no telling what might happen even before morning.
We knew the Flint Alliance was steadily adding to its membership. Despite the presence of the troops, some atrocity might be committed which would set off the works. We were living in a powder magazine.
There was no alarm in the night, but I was up early, wide-eyed and with torn nerves.
Soon after the sit-down in Chevrolet 4, the company had shut off the heat and electricity there, and many of the men inside were suffering from colds. General Motors agents industriously spread rumors of epidemic illness among them. One pro-company doctor volunteered to pull every man out of the plant by pronouncing him dangerously ill, so as to scare their families and bring the city and state health departments into the picture. But the union insisted on sending in its own physicians and nurses, who found no epidemic.
On Monday afternoon Genora Johnson, Dorothy Kraus, and I accompanied the committee carrying hot food into Chevy 4. The militia officers consented to let us in, but went with us.
The interior of the plant was cold, and dim because of the opaque window glass. Dampness was in the air, and fumes from cold metal dipped in acid clutched at one's innards. With neither heat nor electricity, it was not possible to make life as cheerful here as in Fisher Body No 1. The sit-downers in Chevy 4 were bundled in anything they could lay hands upon. Many walked around with flannel pajamas over their clothes.
We took the names and sizes of men who were insufficiently clad, and that night bought out a general store's entire stock of heavy underwear, pajamas, woolen socks, mufflers, and canton flannel. Icut up the flannel in the form of small ponchos, the size of a long towel, with a hole in the center to put one's head through. These would keep the strikers' chests and backs warm.
We had promised to return to Chevrolet 4 on Wednesday. But at strike headquarters Bob Travis told me that a National Guardsman, a member of the union from another part of the state, had phoned a warning that warrants had been issued for "Miss Rose Partola," Roy Reuther, and several others, and that "Miss Partola had better keep away from Chevy 4." I did.
Thousands of letters dealing with the strike passed through the headquarters "post office." Two of these are worth reproducing here, for the light they throw on the types of individuals involved. One came from a Negro, a former share-cropper, living in another Michigan city. The second was from a sit-downer.
The first wrote in part as follows:
January 15, 1937
I am a Chevrolet foundry worker here the Past six years. I stouck out on the convear [conveyor] for about 3 1/2 years now I am to old and to slo for that so I am on the Brooms. I heard add the mass meading Wansday Jan 13 that you got organizers all over the city. So fare I have not seen any or seen anbody that has seen any.
I am very much in simpothe with you hole hart and mind. I am 43 years old 4 childirn 2 going to School. I had hard loock 3 mongths ago. Lost my wife. so don't get around musch mabe that is why I dont see any of your organizers. I want to be com a member of your U.A.W.A. What Freadom and Proticktion can you ofer me? Do not ask me to commeat suicide as a lone member here.
Why can't we organize this town with its 10,000 A.W.s? One reason is there is a big coulerd line here. When it is neassesary for the Polotishen or the G.M. then the colerd man is O.K. 100% cidezon. We expearance that last tuesday night an Wansday at the mass meading. Outside of that he is the same G D N to them. A nother reason to my openon is the larsch bounch of Farmers we got here.
Oh well if I get lade off here I go behind the Plow. My way of thincken it has to be mad compulsory here. Organize or we wont tack your producks. I hop you understad my letter. I am not very good rider an hop to get an answer from you soon. Can you tack me in as a member at larsch?
From Chevrolet Plant No. 4, the sit-downer wrote:
February 7, 1937
Gee whiz it was sure great to hear from you folks at last, you don't have any idea how I felt, not knowing if everything was all right or not. Tell Mother I got her message all right last Mon. night but I was way down in the other end of the plant at the time helping barrocade the doors and they looked for me about two hours before they found me and they had gone by that time, tell her I was awfully sorry.
I am writing this in one of the front offices overlooking Kearsley street, and at present there are about 15 of these mugs cleaning up the place, it is one of the dormitories, room for about 20 cots in it so I am having a Hell of a time concentrating on what I am doing
Am awfully glad you and Bob are going to Mothers for dinner today, it will kind of take the lonliness away, by the way we are having chicken and ice cream for our Sunday dinner, but as far as the ice cream is concerned the heat has been off for five days and it is cold enough. I see by the paper the Union has bought 1200 pounds of chicken for today's dinner, thats lots of chicken what.
The menue yesterday Breakfast, oatmeal, coffee, grape-fruit peaches or prune, and bread and butter: Dimmer roast pork dressing mashed spuds gravey coffee or milk and the roast was swell. Supper, pork and beans, bread and coffee....
There are a lot of fake messages coming in to the boys that their families are sick to weaken our ranks so if any boss comes to the house and tries to feed you a lot of junk you tell him to go to the devil.
Listen Honey the Union will furnish you with groceries and fuel, they will see that our rent is paid so you go down to the tempel and see them. And if you need me don't send for me through a letter but get a pass and come to the gate and get me and then I will know it isn't a fake....
If you want to send me a clean shirt sox and underwear take it to the hall and you can get my dirty clothes a day or so later by calling back there for them. Sure need sox.
Will dose with loads of love to all.
Word from Detroit on Tuesday, February 9, said the conferees were deadlocked We got new warnings of possible raids by the vigilantes, and the union strengthened its headquarters guard.
Tuesday passed with no violent action, but with the strikers generally nervous and jumpy. I got to bed after 2, heavy with fatigue, and slept fitfully, waking often and listening for noises. There might be a raid in the night.
Wednesday morning there were more alarms. The vigilantes had increased their numbers, and we heard rumors that additional troops would be sent in.
Yet this day-the forty-third since the strike started-also passed without violence. That evening there was heightened watchfulness by all the strikers and their friends.
I got to bed after midnight, dead weary. At 3 a.m. the phone,bell awakened me. Powers Hapgood calling-the strike had been settled. "Great news l " I cried happily, and went hack for a couple of hours of restful slumber.
At 6 o'clock I was at headquarters. The strike committee met briefly, and decided to wait until the union's national officers arrived before evacuating the plants.
Some of our crowd presently came from Detroit, and gave us the gist of the agreement. It recognized the UAW as the collective bargaining agency for its members, and the company agreed not to interfere with the right of its employes to belong to that union The strikers would get their old jobs back without discrimination or prejudice. In turn the union agreed to terminate the existing strikes in Flint and nine other cities, and evacuate all plants occupied by its members.
The contract provided also that on February 16 the company was to begin collective bargaining with the UAW on its demands for a 30-hour week, a six-hour day, pay and a half for overtime, minimum rates of pay to provide "an American standard of living," seniority rights, abolition of piece-work systems of pay, and mutual agreement on speed of production lines.
Though not part of the settlement, but undoubtedly because of the strike, a wage increase of five cents an hour in all GMC plants had been announced overnight by President Alfred P. Sloan Jr. This was featured in the press as adding $25,000,000 a year to the corporation's payroll.
By 4:30 the UAW national leaders had arrived from Detroit, Toledo, and elsewhere President Martin, Secretary-Treasurer Addes, the vise-presidents, and Walter Reuther and the other executive board members. The CIO representatives-Brophy, Germer, lLrzycki, and others-also had returned to Flint. We rounded up the local leaders and drove over to Fisher Body No. I to lead the strikers out. Thousands of auto workers and their families and friends were assembled outside and hundreds of cars were lined up in front of the plant and in nearby streets.
We climbed in through the entrance window. The sit-downers were waiting just inside, with their belongings. Everybody began shaking hands and talking all at once. Strikers embraced their officers like long lost brothers. Unshaven, many of them had the look of castaways rescued from a desert island. They had been away from their families 44 days, and there were no bounds to their happiness now that the sit-down was over and they had won.
When the main gate of No. I was thrown open, they came out singing, led by their band, and with many carrying American flags. Tremendous cheers went up as they emerged- cheers for the strikers, for the union, for John L. Lewis, and for Governor Murphy, who had been indefatigable in his efforts to bring about a settlement.
Quickly Chevrolet Avenue, in the vicinity of the big Chevy plant, became jammed. With the arrival of the paraders, the scene took on the aspect of a Mardi Gras. At Chevy 4 the sit-downers were massed on an outside stairway. They lingered there to sing Solidarity Forever while flags waved, toy balloons floated through the air, and colored paper streamers and confetti were thrown in every direction. Newspaper photographers took flashlight pictures, news-reel cameramen ground their machines on top of trucks, and flares lighted up the faces of the crowd.
Then the parade continued to Fisher Body No. 1, where the scene was repeated, and thence downtown to the Pengelly building. I couldn't get within half a block of it, so densely was the street packed. Tens of thousands of workers from other towns poured in to join the celebration.
These people sang and joked and laughed and cried, deliriously joyful, Never had anything like this been seen in Flint To great numbers of workers the UAW victory was more important than the ending of World War I, for it meant a freedom they had never known before. No longer would they be afraid to join unions.
Watching that tumultuous scene, I compared it with my first visit to Pengelly Hall, attended by only a few dozen venturesome workers and their women. They and others like them had paved the way for tonight's triumph. I realized suddenly that my face was wet. Tears of gladness were streaming down my cheeks.
From : Anarchy Archives
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