Memories of the Flint Sit-Down Strike Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The struggle between labor and industry was long and often bloody in the United States. After the abuses of the Gilded Age, suffering through court battles and attempts by industrialists to prevent collectivization, American workers began to organize the first unions at the end of the nineteenth century. After major declines in the labor movement during the 1920s, mainly due to anti-labor sentiment in both industry and government, the Great Depression brought about a new age for unions. Beginning in 1932, and gaining urgency under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, government passed a series of acts greatly expanding the power of organized labor. Through the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, in particular, labor unions saw massive gains in power and membership. Unions organized protests and strikes to improve working conditions and negotiate higher wages, most often employing techniques of passive resistance, such as work stoppages and sit-downs. Between 1936 and 1937, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union in Flint, Michigan, initiated just such a strike. As the men occupied the General Motors plant, calling for a redress of grievances, women, such as Genora Dollinger, found new forms of empowerment.

Summary Overview

The struggle between labor and industry was long and often bloody in the United States. After the abuses of the Gilded Age, suffering through court battles and attempts by industrialists to prevent collectivization, American workers began to organize the first unions at the end of the nineteenth century. After major declines in the labor movement during the 1920s, mainly due to anti-labor sentiment in both industry and government, the Great Depression brought about a new age for unions. Beginning in 1932, and gaining urgency under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, government passed a series of acts greatly expanding the power of organized labor. Through the passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act, in particular, labor unions saw massive gains in power and membership. Unions organized protests and strikes to improve working conditions and negotiate higher wages, most often employing techniques of passive resistance, such as work stoppages and sit-downs. Between 1936 and 1937, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union in Flint, Michigan, initiated just such a strike. As the men occupied the General Motors plant, calling for a redress of grievances, women, such as Genora Dollinger, found new forms of empowerment.

Defining Moment

As the Industrial Age ramped up, working conditions in American factories became insufferable. Basic safety prevention, such as fire escapes, were often ignored, wages were extremely low, and workers were often forced to work long hours without any sort of overtime. As journalists began to call attention to the deaths of factory workers and the prevalence of child labor, reformers and organizers began to build the first-ever unions. Starting with the National Labor Union (NLU), the Knights of Labor, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and eventually the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), unions were first organized in major industries, such as railroads and textiles, but soon extended to all labor fields. As the Progressive Movement took hold at the turn of the century, major strikes were called across the nation. Between 1900 and 1920, unions managed to negotiate higher wages and better working conditions in the railroad, steel, and coal industries, among others.

With the economic boom of the Roaring Twenties, and the pro-business policies of several Republican administrations leading the federal agenda, labor unions suffered losses between 1920 and 1929. Lack of strong leadership, anti-union propaganda during the Red Scare, and general hostility from the courts, all led to major declines in union membership. This was reversed, however, with the 1929 stock market crash and the advent of the Great Depression.

As an increasing number of Americans lost their jobs, unions were able to step in to help and protect workers. With the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the passage of pro-union legislation, organized labor became the centerpiece for the New Deal's plan for economic recovery. Suddenly, new, more powerful umbrella unions began to organize, among them the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and the United Auto Workers (UAW), the formation of which was largely helped by the high-profile Flint sit-down strike. Throughout the 1930s, unions–with strong backing from both the government and the public at large–led several successful campaigns to improve the working lives of not just union members, but all American workers. Although unions would eventually decline in membership and power in the second half of the twentieth century, the strategies they employed would serve as inspiration for the civil rights and feminist movements to follow. In fact, one can argue, it was through the struggle of women such as Genora Dollinger that an entire generation of disenfranchised Americans first found their political voice.

Author Biography

Genora Johnson Dollinger was only twenty-three when she organized the Women's Auxiliary of the United Auto Workers during the Flint sit-down strike. Wife to a UAW committee member, Dollinger led the Women's Emergency Brigade, which not only fed and sheltered the more than 2,000 striking General Motors workers, but also shielded them from security agents hired by the auto manufacturer to physically attack workers. The strike, with no small help from Dollinger and her Women's Auxiliary, crippled GM, forcing the auto company to come to the negotiating table after just over a month of work stoppage. Owing to her part in the strike, Dollinger was blacklisted by GM and moved to Detroit, where she became the leader of a radical group within the UAW. In 1937, Dollinger was severely beaten in a Mafia-organized lead-pipe attack, part of a wave of violence targeting UAW leaders. A life-long Socialist and a Socialist Workers Party candidate for the Senate in 1952, Dollinger went on to organize against the Vietnam War and several other causes. In 1994, a year before her death at the age of 82, she was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Michigan Women's Historical Center in the state's capital, Lansing.

Document Analysis

Mainly a simple retelling of her memories, Genora Dollinger's account of the Flint sit-down strike and, specifically, her role in organizing the Women's Auxiliary of the UAW, is a powerful reminder of the importance of organized labor in American history. Through her account, we see the future of American protest. By organizing women, we see the foundations for the later feminist movement; and through Dollinger's tactics, we see much of the inspiration for civil rights. It is hard not to gain an appreciation for the slow building of the liberal movement, beginning in the shadow of FDR's New Deal and extending to the social and political struggles of today.

Genora Dollinger is a proud Socialist and repeatedly mentions the contributions of Socialism and the Communist Party in building organized labor and helping in the early stages of the strike, while workers occupied the plant. At first, one of the largest challenges for the union was simply helping the families of striking workers with food and shelter and making ends meet in the absence of pay. Other unions and organizations, most notably the United Mine Workers (UMW), helped as they could, but it was not enough. Learning from the women of the Communist Party, Dollinger begins to organize the wives of the UAW, despite the protests of some of their husbands, as a means to not only bolster the power of the UAW, but also to unify the workers against General Motors. It is dangerous work. The company uses whatever means it can to discredit both the workers and the women. The strikers are under near constant attack. Women's sexuality is used against them, they're denounced as “whores” and “prostitutes.” No “decent” woman would take part in such an act. But for every tactic used against them, Dollinger comes up with a plan to strike back.

The Women's Auxiliary organizes a medical unit and public speaking and labor history classes for its women members. Women serve as a buffer against the attacks on the strikers and go door-to-door checking in on families, providing whatever assistance and reassurance they can. Throughout the document, we gain an appreciation for Dollinger's awakening as a political organizer. She is empowered by the Flint sit-down strike, and, perhaps even more so, she is empowering other women. Thanks in large part to her actions and that of the Women's Auxiliary, the strike is a success. For Dollinger, it remained the best experience of her life.

Essential Themes

Genora Dollinger is a firm believer in the power of socialism to change society. As a union member and organizer, she strongly believes that only through a shared commitment can society truly provide for all of its members. The story that Dollinger presents is very much David and Goliath, with the union struggling to provide for families in the face of great opposition. One gets the sense that capitalism is inherently uneven, and that only through organization can ordinary people hope to get ahead. Although we never gain insight into her politics when it comes to social issues, we can definitely see that she is committed to economic fairness. It is no wonder that so many of the political movements to follow would gain so much inspiration from the activities of unions in the 1930s, in terms not only of best practices, but also of organizational philosophy. Most related to this document is the eventual development of the feminist movement of the 1970s. One can see the beginnings of women's empowerment in the work of Dollinger and others to educate women, encouraging wives and husbands to speak as equals.

Interestingly, Dollinger repeatedly draws the reader's attention to the use of female sexuality as a weapon. Detractors call the UAW women “whores,” “dykes,” and “prostitutes,” while the Women's Auxiliary uses men's perceptions of women as the “weaker sex” to help the strikers in ways men could not. It would be this type of coded language, the difference in standard between the sexes that would eventually lead to a revolution in the ways in which women are perceived in American society. Dollinger may never have achieved her ideal socialist vision, but as an organizer, union leader, and especially as a woman, she helped shift the conversation and transform the way people perceive themselves and others. In the end, it was these social changes that remained as the enduring legacy of Dollinger and other women who worked in the labor movement, for in the decades to come, the unions would begin to become partly corrupt and fall increasingly out of favor.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bernstein, Irving. The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933–1941. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1970. Print.
  • Dollinger, Sol, & Genora Dollinger. Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers' Union. New York: Monthly Review P, 2000. Print.
  • Dray, Philip. There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America. New York: Anchor Books, 2011. Print.
  • Jackson, Carleton. Child of the Sit-Downs: The Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2008. Print.
  • Morris, Bob. Built in Detroit: A Story of the UAW, a Company and a Gangster. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2013. Print.
Categories: History Content