Episode 658: Strike One : Planet Money On today's show: The birth of unions as we know them. It's a story that includes, among other things, bravery, cunning, and auto-part projectiles flung out of giant sling shots.
NPR logo

Episode 658: Strike One

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/449264812/449288388" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Episode 658: Strike One

Episode 658: Strike One

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/449264812/449288388" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Here's a thing you just don't see that often anymore - big strikes. A company and a union can't agree on a contract. The workers walk out. It just doesn't happen that often. And when it does, it's frankly pretty boring.


Yeah, you see some workers walking around the sidewalk for a few days carrying signs. And, you know, maybe, at least here in New York, they bring out this giant inflatable rat they put outside the company.

GOLDSTEIN: But pretty soon it's over. You know, the company and the union agree to a new contract. Everybody goes back to work. They take the air out of the rat. And it's done.

SMITH: Strikes did not used to be this way. For a long time, for decades and decades in this country, forming a union, going out on strike, was illegal. It was dangerous. It was the kind of thing that could definitely get you fired, sometimes get you killed.

GOLDSTEIN: There is this one moment really just a few weeks in a single factory town that separates that old world from the one we live in now. It was a moment that created unions as we know them, created those giant masses of workers that became the industrial middle class in the 1950s and '60s.

SMITH: And it happened because of just a few people who did this really unlikely, really risky thing.

GOLDSTEIN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Jacob Goldstein.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Today on the show - the birth of unions as we know them.

GOLDSTEIN: One detail includes projectiles made from auto parts flung out of giant slingshots.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: PLANET MONEY and the following message are made possible by Squarespace, providing tools to create a beautiful website or online store. Squarespace covers more than the basics of domains, hosting and e-commerce. Their award-winning templates set your idea or business are part, all with marketing tools and 24/7 customer support. Visit squarespace.com/planetmoney for a free trial and 10 percent off.


GOLDSTEIN: It was December of 1936 and a few autoworkers had a plan. They wanted to shut down the biggest carmaker in the world - General Motors. The way they were going to do it was they were going to seize a few key factories in Flint, Mich., shut down the machines, kick everybody else out and stay there until the company gave them what they wanted.

SMITH: Leo Robinson, one of the workers, remembers how it went down. There was one guy who gave the signal. And then...


LEO ROBINSON: We waited just about five, six minutes before we started to pull.

SMITH: Pull, pulling switches, turning off the machines.


ROBINSON: And I had three bosses running behind me, brother, hollering you're fired, you're fired, you're fired, and I was still grabbing switches.

GOLDSTEIN: Leo Robinson was interviewed by a BBC documentary crew back in the 1970s.


ROBINSON: We started for the stairway and here we met a bunch of bosses, and there was about 50 coming through the dining room and up the steps. And they got us - 15 or 16 - took us to the front gate, shoved us out and slammed the gates, too, and locked them. And me and three or four other guys climbed the gate and went back in.

SMITH: On the first day the workers managed to turn off all the machines in two different autobody factories. Most of the workers and all the supervisors were outside, and a few men stayed behind to keep the factories closed.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, it's called a sit-down strike, right, because they're basically sitting down in the factory. And there are actually pictures and, you know, think of cars made in the '30s, right? They don't have bucket seats. They have those big springy bench seats. And the guys would actually sleep on those seats. There's pictures of guys sleeping in the factory on those big ol' seats.

SMITH: They were members of the United Auto Workers, which would go on to be one of the biggest unions in America, probably one that you've heard of, but at this time it was this tiny new organization. It represented a small percentage of GM workers at the time. Kevin Boyle, a historian at Northwestern, says the UAW had a problem signing up more people.

KEVIN BOYLE: A lot of workers were interested in the benefits a union might bring to them, but before they were willing to take the chance of joining that union, which was a big risk. You could get fired for doing that. You don't want to lose a job in December of 1936. Before you were willing to - they were willing to take that chance, the union had to prove that it could actually deliver what workers wanted.

GOLDSTEIN: What workers wanted is basically what we think of as a union, right, a group that could negotiate with the company on things like benefits and job security. But companies like GM just didn't negotiate that stuff with unions then.

SMITH: Yeah, the UAW was caught in this Catch-22. How could they deliver what workers wanted when a vast majority of the workers are not in the union?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, that's why - that's why they chose this kind of sit-down strike, right, 'cause it doesn't take that many people to shut down a factory. If they had just, like, a regular march out, walk a picket line kind of strike, it would have been a joke. GM would have been like, that's not enough people to scare us.

SMITH: And it was hard to get workers to join in on these strikes because they didn't end well. You know, it was common for companies to get court orders. They would demand the union end the strike. And if you're a company, once you have that court order...

BOYLE: Yeah, you call the cops. You call the National Guard. You send them in to open up the plant and bring workers into the plant to run the plant. That's - some of the greatest conflicts in American economic history took place at exactly that point. This was bloody, bloody conflict.

SMITH: Steelworkers, minors, people who worked on railroads - they all had strikes where people got killed.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, they were famous events that, you know, we'd still know the names today - the Homestead Strike, the Ludlow Massacre.

SMITH: And the workers striking in Flint, they would've known about these events, and for a couple of weeks, there was this sort of stalemate. GM posted guards outside the occupied factories. The workers stayed inside.

GOLDSTEIN: Victor Reuther was a union organizer for the UAW and he'd come around and visit the occupied factories every day. He had one of those cars, you know, those old-school cars with, like, the big old loudspeaker on top and a microphone inside. So he'd come around and he'd play music for the workers. He called it marshal music. We couldn't exactly figure out what that means. There's no recordings of it. But, you know, he'd come by, talk to them, play some music, make sure food was getting into the factory.

SMITH: And it was pretty calm for a while. Then one day, about two weeks into the strike, everything changed. Here's Reuther speaking in a documentary called "Brothers On The Line."


VICTOR REUTHER: When I arrived there and I started playing some music and started talking and they said, cut the crap, Reuther. Don't you know what's going on?

GOLDSTEIN: One of the factors was two stories high. The workers only held the second floor, so people had been bringing food into them by climbing a ladder that went up to an open window. But earlier that day, GM guards had taken the ladder away. Around the same time, the company cut off heat to the factory, and it was 16 degrees out.

SMITH: Then after Reuther showed up, the guards disappeared. Something was coming, and pretty soon, Reuther saw what it was.


REUTHER: The police had gathered at the top of the hill, and as they got close enough to the bridge, they began firing tear gas shells.

GOLDSTEIN: Reuther picked up the microphone in that sound car and he told the strikers to go up to the roof of the building. They'd been making weapons up there out of spare parts they had scrounged from the factory.


REUTHER: They had these pound-and-a-half hinges, which they made there, and they stretched inner tubes between two heavy steel poles so they could use them as a great slingshot to throw these hinges.

SMITH: Hinges.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, well, you know, so it's the '30s. These are great, big, heavy metal cars and they have these big old hinges for, you know, like, for the door on the body. These were big, heavy pieces of metal.


REUTHER: There was a barrage of hinges that flew over there, and when they hit the first cars, they damaged them enough that our people on the picket line, they pulled the cars and turned them over as a sort of barricade. We blocked the traffic.

SMITH: It was intense. The strikers turned over the sheriff's car with the sheriff still in it. Then the sheriff got out of the car and got hit in the head by a flying hinge.

GOLDSTEIN: The battle went on for a while. The cops started shooting real bullets. Thousands of people around Flint just came out into the streets to see, you know, to see what's going on. The police got pushed back from the factory, and they formed a barrier, you know, a perimeter as kind of a standoff. You can picture it like there are three concentric circles. You know, at the center there's the factory, the strikers in and around the factory. Then a ways back there's a police line and then out beyond the police line are basically spectators, just thousands of ordinary people, standing in the streets.

SMITH: This standoff went on for hours, and it finally ended when a woman named Genora Johnson, who was on the picket line just outside the factory, came up to Reuther.


REUTHER: She came over to me and said to me, give me the mic. I want to help you. Let me talk to them. And I gave her the mic.

GENORA JOHNSON: So I took the microphone and I was intensely furious.

GOLDSTEIN: This is Johnson speaking in that BBC documentary from the '70s.

SMITH: First, she talked on the mic to the police. Then she started talking to the people massed out beyond the police line.


JOHNSON: And I said to the women this is your fight. You have everything to gain by coming down here. Don't be afraid of the cops. Break through those lines. Come down here and stand with us. There was the big roar that went up on both sides of the lines, and the women started to break through the lines of the police. And once that happened and the men streamed down and we had the police then outnumbered, that was the end of the battle bull's run.

GOLDSTEIN: Bull's run because people used to call police bulls. Nobody was killed. About a dozen people went to the hospital and the workers kept occupying the factory.

SMITH: So you have this group of strikers who have seized a factory, which is pretty clearly illegal, and now they've attacked the police with hinges. This is the moment that the governor calls in the National Guard.

GOLDSTEIN: This is it. You know, this is the story of how strikes usually ended - National Guard marches on the factory, you know, the strikers leave peacefully - and probably lose their jobs - or they stay and get shot.

SMITH: The National Guard shows up in Flint the next day, along with the governor, Frank Murphy. But - but the guard doesn't try to kick out the workers. It doesn't start shooting. Instead, Murphy orders the guard to keep the peace, to get between the local police and the strikers.


FRANK MURPHY: We are not going to settle this strike by force and violence. We will work our way out of this strike peacefully and without injustice to anyone.

SMITH: He's essentially saying, hey, union and company, you two need to need to work this on your own. And this is huge for the UAW because remember what they really wanted was not some particular wage increase or anything specific. They wanted GM to agree to negotiate with them. And now the governor was saying do it.

GOLDSTEIN: And this wasn't just, like, some random lucky break. This probably was not a huge surprise to the union. Murphy had just been elected and he was a straight up New Deal Democrat. In fact, the UAW had organized the whole timing of the strike, largely because they hoped that this governor would come in and help them out.

SMITH: So they negotiate, and at 2:30 in the morning on February 11, GM and the United Auto Workers reach a deal. It fits on a single page. Basically, GM agrees to negotiate with the union and the union agrees to end the strike. Governor Frank Murphy goes in front of the newsreel cameras with people from the company and people from the union.


MURPHY: Well, strike has ended, thanks to these good men who are about me here. I trust it will mean a new mutual atmosphere of goodwill and good faith between employer and employee.


GOLDSTEIN: Goodwill and good faith is maybe pushing it. The GM deal sets off this wave of strikes around the country. Industry after industry gets unionized. In just a few years, this big central swath of the economy is transformed.

SMITH: We talked with a labor economist at Harvard, Richard Freeman. And he says this vast, dramatic kind of shift is actually the way it usually happens. The history of unions in the U.S. and almost every other country is not some slow, steady evolutionary process.

RICHARD FREEMAN: When the unions go up, they go up in a really sharp, you know, boom bang, and that's what the Flint strike helped set off. Workers were very upset and they see that they can make their lives better through unionization, and everybody sees this.

GOLDSTEIN: This kind of sharp takeoff of unions doesn't just happen. It takes a really particular set of circumstances. In this case, you had - for one thing, you had these massive industries that suddenly needed a large numbers of low-skilled workers. That gave workers leverage. Also there was almost no foreign competition. And the political climate was really friendly to unions, not just in Michigan. The year before the Flint strike started, the federal government had passed this law that made it easier for workers to join unions.

SMITH: As we sort of head to the end of the show, like, people must be thinking, well, what happened (laugher)?

GOLDSTEIN: What about the last 60 years?

SMITH: They've just had this huge victory. They had the peak in membership. What went wrong?

FREEMAN: There's no single incident, like the Flint strike or something, where you say, oh, this company went out there and just busted unions and fired all the workers, replaced them with somebody else. It's gradual.

GOLDSTEIN: The share of private sector workers and unions has been falling steadily since the '50s, and there are a lot of reasons for this, Freeman says. You know, heavy industry is more mechanized. They don't need as many workers. There's tons of foreign competition now.

SMITH: There's no Governor Frank Murphy swooping in to save the day for unions.

GOLDSTEIN: And yet, you know, plenty of workers are discontent. I mean, if you just look at the numbers, right, the economy is growing. Productivity is going up, and yet, median wages have been stagnant for years now.

SMITH: Yeah, it's enough to make you mad enough to get up on the roof of a building with a bunch of hinges and start to fling them at somebody. But the problem now with unions is that they are so weak it's hard to imagine a big dramatic moment like Flint happening again.

GOLDSTEIN: But, you know, Freeman says that moment would've been hard to imagine back in the '30s.

FREEMAN: This was - I think it was 1932. The head of the American Economic Association was a labor specialist, and he said I see no possibility for the unions growing in the next five years because it was the middle the Great Depression. Workers seemed weak. Obviously, they were unemployed. Why would you suddenly see a burst in unions? You did. So my view is that if I said I expect this to happen or something to happen, I might be as foolish sounding as he would so I would never say that. But I would expect something will happen that will change the situation - country cannot continue with so much of the wealth and income going to so few.

GOLDSTEIN: If something does happen to change the situation, Freeman says, it probably will not look anything like the UAW and those other big unions of the 20th century.


SMITH: Let us know what you thought of today's show. You can email us - planetmoney@npr.org - or you can tweet us- @planetmoney. I'm @radiosmith.

GOLDSTEIN: I'm @JacobGoldstein. Also @nickfountain, aka Nick Fountain, produced our show today.

SMITH: Our new producer.

GOLDSTEIN: New producer - welcome, Nick Fountain. Oh, special thanks today for Sasha Reuther for letting us use his interview with his grandfather, Victor Reuther. It's from a documentary he made calls "Brothers On The Line."

SMITH: And if you want to try another show now that you're finished with PLANET MONEY, you should check out "Alt Latino." You can find "Alt Latino" at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app. I'm Robert Smith.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.


GOLDSTEIN: Full disclosure - Robert, you and I are paid up union members.

SMITH: Never gone on strike, but we are members of SAG-AFTRA, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artistes

GOLDSTEIN: That's such a, like, grandpa joke. That's - we're old men.

SMITH: (Laughter) Sorry about that - artists.

GOLDSTEIN: Fartists (ph).

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.