Flint bookends the hopes of the American middle class

February 1, 2016
The top of a water tower is seen at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan January 13, 2016.  Michigan National Guard members were set to arrive in Flint as soon as Wednesday to join door-to-door efforts to distribute bottled water and other supplies to residents coping with the city's crisis over lead-contaminated drinking water.     REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

A water tower at the Flint Water Plant in Flint, Michigan, January 13, 2016. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

The most appropriate monument for Flint, Michigan, to erect would probably be a large sculpted alpha and omega — or perhaps just a giant pair of bookends. For Flint was where American workers won their first crucial battle for power — and it now appears to be a city whose residents have no power at all.

Roughly 80 years ago, the American working class began its ascent to post-World War II dignity, power and comfort with labor organizing in Flint. Yet in Flint today that same working class has been reduced to impotence and subjected to outrageous governmental neglect.

Among the key players in Flint’s rise and fall are two Michigan governors whose beliefs and actions are radically different: Democrat Frank Murphy in the 1930s and Republican Rick Snyder today. Their opposing views about the role of government in American life — and on whose behalf that government should act — could not be starker.


Sit-down strikers in Flint, Michigan, auto plant in 1937. Library of Congress.

Murphy, just a few weeks after taking office in 1937, made a gutsy decision that probably cost him re-election: He refused to order the state’s National Guard to evict the sit-down strikers occupying key General Motors factories in Flint. His decision essentially compelled GM to recognize the worker’s union, which laid the groundwork for the unionization of much of the U.S. working class.

Not merely a staunch New Dealer, Murphy was also a lifelong civil-rights supporter. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1940, and he authored a furious dissent in the Korematsu case, in which the court majority upheld the wartime internment of Japanese-Americans. Murphy condemned it as a “legalization of racism.”

But nowhere were Murphy’s sympathies for the underdog more evident — or politically risky — than in Flint.

No such sympathies have been detected in Michigan’s current governor. Snyder is a lifelong business executive and investor who’d never sought or held public office. Yet he was elected governor in the 2010 Republican landslide, powered by the Tea Party movement. In his first term, Snyder abruptly called for the GOP state legislature to enact a “right to work” law to weaken Michigan’s unions. The measure emerged without hearings or committee deliberations, and it was introduced and enacted in a single day.

Snyder also appointed emergency managers to supplant the local elected officials in several financially beleaguered — and largely African-American — cities, including Detroit and Flint. It was his managers who dismissed the chorus of protests from Flint residents that the water flowing from their taps had such a high lead content that it endangered their children.

Murphy’s inaction — his refusal to order the National Guard to break the strike — was a high point of the New Deal Democrats’ decision to side with labor and raise workers’ incomes by enabling them to bargain with management.


Walter P. Reuter in front of a WPA mural during the 1940s. Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library

The New Deal’s pro-labor policy had already emerged when Murphy was confronted with the Flintsit-down. In 1935, Congress enacted, and Roosevelt signed, the National Labor Relations Act, which gave workers the legal right to form unions by majority vote. That same year, led by United Mine Workers of America President John L. Lewis, a group of unions broke away from the more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) with the goal of organizing the millions of unorganized factory workers. They formed the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO).

Lewis initially planned to organize the steel industry, but a group of Michigan auto workers jumped the gun. They founded their own union, the United Auto Workers, in early 1936. Led by such firebrands as the young Walter Reuther (later to become the union’s president) and other leftists, they struck Detroit parts plants. They borrowed a tactic that workers in tire factories had pioneered earlier that year: occupying some factories until the companies agreed to recognize their union and sign a contract with them.

The fledgling union then began planning to unionize the industry giant: General Motors, the nation’s wealthiest company, which assembled most of its Chevrolets, Buicks and Cadillacs in factories clustered in the Detroit exurb of Flint. Organizers tried to keep their plans secret because GM, like most major corporations, employed a small army of spies to report on and undermine any move by employees to organize.

The plan was to sit in at GM’s Fisher Body plant, barricade the doors, surround the building with workers and their families and supporters, occupy the plant with union stalwarts, let the press in to see that no machinery was damaged and no liquor consumed, and wait out the company.

The hope was that the demonstrators outside could repel any efforts by company cops to storm the plants. The hope was also that they wouldn’t have to confront the more heavily armed forces historically used to break all major attempts to unionize U.S. workers – the state national guard and the federal army. From 1877 through 1919, governors and presidents had routinely sent in troops to break the strikes of railroad, mine and steel workers.


The Flint Sitdown Strike ends February 11, 1937. Courtesy of Walter P. Ruther Library.

On Jan. 1, 1937, Murphy was due to take office. On Dec. 30, the workers halted the assembly line in the Fisher Body plant and barricaded themselves inside. There they stayed — without heat (GM turned it off) in a cold Flint winter — for six weeks. The company refused to bargain, and local cops tried to evict the strikers in a battle in which 13 workers suffered gunshot wounds.

Fearing they’d lose the strike, the union then successfully shut down and occupied Flint’s Chevrolet Number Four, the plant that assembled the Chevy’s engines — crippling production of the company’s best-selling car.

At this point, GM’s only hope was that Murphy would send in the guard or Roosevelt would call out the army. Both tactics had been used before. Neither official, however, was inclined to do so. Both were pro-union and had received significant support from the CIO in the 1936 elections. Roosevelt’s largest donor was Lewis’ Mine Workers, which gave his campaign nearly $500,000 — real money in 1936. In addition, GM’s largest shareholders were the Du Ponts, who had funded a major anti-Roosevelt group called the Liberty League during the 1936 election.


Demonstration during the Chrysler strike in Detroit, Michigan, in 1937. Courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library

Murphy had also received union backing and understood that overcoming company intimidation required unconventional measures. Nonetheless, a court declared the occupation illegal, though that opinion was undermined when the judge was discovered to be a major GM shareholder. Murphy declined to carry out the order, but was daily taking a terrific beating from the press and in the court of popular opinion.

He did send the National Guard to Flint to prevent more worker-company violence. But Murphy resolutely refused to have it clear the occupied plants. His pro-worker resolve was stiffened by CIO leader Lewis, who vowed that if the National Guard was called out, he would join the workers inside the Chevy Four, open a window, bare his chest and take the first bullet that the guard fired. That settled it for Murphy: The guard was not called in.

That settled it for General Motors, too. On Feb. 11, it recognized the union. Chrysler, U.S. Steel, Ford and most large U.S. companies followed, so that by the end of World War II, the percentage of private-sector workers in unions had risen to 40 percent from less than 10 percent in the early 1930s.

In the next three decades, American workers’ pay increased to the point that the United States became the first nation in history to have a middle-class majority. They won employer-provided health insurance and retirement pensions because of the power they amassed through unions. And the battle where they broke through was the one they won — with Murphy’s help — in Flint.

Since the 1970s, however, U.S. workers have lost what they had won. In a globalized economy, companies began offshoring jobs. Businesses also began routinely opposing workers’ efforts to unionize by exploiting holes that had opened up in the National Labor Relations Act. Union power in the private sector has collapsed — the unionized share of workers is now just 6.6 percent.

The once mighty United Auto Workers, which not only set the standard for worker pay and benefits, but also funded virtually every progressive initiative in the postwar decades (the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, the National Organization for Women, and the first Earth Day), has seen its membership drop from 1.9 million to less than 500,000

Detroit has become a synonym for urban devastation. And Flint presents a devastating portrait of a hollowed-out city. No more auto plants or auto union. No more local government. No more potable water. A governor who not only is not on their side, but feels he can ignore Flint residents when they have no one but him to turn to.

A sadder, more infuriating epic is hard to conceive.


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Here’ a story that clearly demonstrates which political ideology supports American workers and the middle class. When we ignore the actions/results behind the rhetoric (like ‘trickle down’ economics), we have been duped.

Posted by distancematters | Report as abusive

Excellent and Thought provoking!
Thank you, Harold Meyerson!

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

Let’s see….

A country full of old and dangerous infrastructure….. and millions of middle class workers out of work, who used to build infrastructure.

There is no solution! What should we do?!?! So hard.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive