Was it truly so much to ask for? Rail workers have no paid sick days and were braced to go on strike. President Biden, however, signed into law on December 2, 2022, a measure imposing a contract agreement brokered by his administration, effectively averting the strike by making it illegal. A win for capitalism and a blow for railroad managers and their employees demanding better working conditions. Still no paid sick leave. But history doesn’t always lean in favor of capitalism. In this passage from Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike That Created the Middle Class, journalist and historian Edward McClelland writes about the brutal factory floor conditions that led to the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37 and marked the birth of the United Auto Workers. This strike set the standard for wages in every industry.
The heat wave begins on the Great Plains, in the Dust Bowl, that dead, dry land whose barren fields have transformed it into a furnace. The summer of 1936 is the hottest anyone can remember. After killing the meager yield of crops in the farm states, the dome of heat spreads north and east, smothering the Great Lakes. In the second week of July, every afternoon, workers preparing for second shift at the General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan, look out the kitchen windows of their company-built Cape Cods and slope-roofed bungalows, at the thermometers bolted to the walls. The gauges fill with red mercury, measuring triple-digit temperatures: 108 degrees, 105 degrees, 102 degrees, 104 degrees, day after miserable day in the lush, humid Saginaw Valley.
It’s so hot inside those brick factories. They were built to trap warmth during the hard winters, but they’re kilns during this heat wave, even with all the windows cranked open. There are no fans to cool the workers, no air conditioning. Building automobiles is a strenuous, sweaty occupation, even during mild weather. The assembly line never stops moving, not once in eight hours. If the company needs more cars, it cranks up the speed. Men who can’t keep up don’t keep their jobs, so the workers go home exhausted, too tired to talk to their wives and children, too tired to do anything but eat and sleep. They endure it, because every day, there’s a line of men outside the personnel office, hungry for a job in this Depression.
Gilbert “Gib” Rose has one of the toughest jobs at General Motors, grinding crankshafts at Chevrolet Plant Number Four, called Chevy Four, the engine plant in the Chevrolet complex, a collection of factories that steams and smokes and clanks all day and night on the south bank of the Flint River. One of the plants in that complex is nicknamed “Chevy in the Hole,” either because it lies in a depression alongside the river or because it’s a hellhole—probably both. The crankshafts weigh a hundred and eight pounds, and Rose has to lift each one off the assembly line, set it on a grinding rack, then carry it back to the line when it’s finished. By the end of a long shift, Rose will have lifted tons of metal with his bare hands and bare arms. Not even plowhorses pull so much weight during a day.
The men in the crankshaft department are the biggest and strongest at GM, men in the prime of their work lives. The company doesn’t like workers over forty; it looks for reasons to fire them in favor of younger hires. But even the strongest are not stronger than this heat wave. On the day the thermometer spikes at 108, the hottest ever measured in Flint, four of Rose’s coworkers faint on the assembly line. They’re rolled onto stretchers and carried off the shop floor, but the crankshafts never stop coming.
“Get him on a stretcher and get him the hell out of here,” a foreman shouts every time a man collapses. “And don’t stop that line! If you miss one crankshaft, we’ll fire you.”
At General Motors, the workers come and go, but the assembly line never stops moving. It moves as fast as men can bolt seats and doors and crankshafts onto cars . . . and then it moves faster. The heat wave passes, but the despised “speedup,” as the men call it, is an unceasing feature of factory life. Whenever there is a gap in the line, as a result of a parts shortage, the foreman speeds up the tempo for the rest of the day, to ensure the plant produces its quota. At the beginning of a shift, the line might move at forty cars an hour, but by the end, it can be cranked up to sixty. This is faster than the lines are engineered to run, so cars jerk forward under the stress of the speed. A trim-line worker whose job is to tack head linings to an auto seat pounds a tack into his finger when a car lurches suddenly. His foreman tells him that lunch is coming in fifteen minutes, so he can go to the infirmary then. By the end of a day, the men are working so frantically that everyone is clustered at the end of the line because they haven’t been able to keep up with the cars as they pass by. Workers arrive at the shop an hour early to lay out their parts—the only way to keep up with the pace of auto assembly and thus avoid getting fired. A factory wife complains that her wrung-out husband comes home so exhausted that “he throws himself on the floor, and he can’t sometimes hold a fork in his hand afterwards.”
A man whose job is to wipe down bodies at the end of the line with a gasoline-soaked rag doesn’t have time to wring it out between jobs, the cars come at him so fast. He spatters gasoline on himself, burning his arms and legs. The unceasing approach of auto bodies drives him so mad he begins to hallucinate and hear bells ringing. His brother drives up from Detroit to take him home. Most men aren’t driven crazy, but many are driven to drink. When the line is running, it doesn’t just run fast, it runs unceasingly—nine hours a weekday and five on Saturday, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve. You have to put in the time to save enough money for the next layoff. After work, men drown their exhaustion in beer gardens. Families come to know their fathers as drunk, tired, and surly.
“The man was so driven by the speedup inside the factory that he came home unable to be a decent companion either to his wife or children, and she had to take an awful lot of bad treatment from her husband,” one worker’s wife would recall. “When a person is driven beyond human endurance, you become so resentful inside yourself it’s got to spill out somewhere.”
Not only is the work exhausting, it’s dirty and dangerous. Workers dare not step off the assembly lines, even to use the toilet. There are no fans, no ventilation, no dust masks, no safety glasses. A man named Neil Yaklin works half blind because a chip flies off a chisel when he’s driving rails into car bodies—forty or fifty rails a minute—and lodges in his eye. He loses the eye but keeps working because there is no disability pay or unemployment insurance. There is no health insurance either, so it takes Yaklin four years and an appeal to the state labor board to get $1,800 for his missing eye.
Presses chop off fingers, hands, even a leg. In the nickel-plating department, where workers apply the finish to radiator grills with buffing wheels, the lye and lime dust settle in men’s hair and depilates their heads. The dust is so thick that “sometimes all you could do was to stand there and cough for a couple of minutes,” a worker later recalls. “If you had said anything to a foreman then about wearing a mask to protect your nose and mouth, he would have called you a sissy.”
That sweltering summer, a labor organizer appears in Flint. Wyndham Mortimer, an autoworker from Cleveland and a member of the Communist Party USA, is the first vice president of the newly formed United Auto Workers of America (UAWA; later known as the UAW), which has recently broken away from the American Federation of Labor. At its first convention, held that April and May in South Bend, Indiana, the delegates agree that the only way to build the union’s membership is to organize General Motors, the nation’s number-one automaker. They want a strike between Christmas and New Year’s. From a GM tool-and-die maker, they learn that two Fisher Body plants contain the dies that stamp out the body parts for all GM vehicles. (The Fisher Body Company was a carriage maker that shifted to building bodies for the automobile industry and was absorbed by General Motors in 1919.) Fisher One, in Flint, produces components for Buicks, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs, and Cadillacs. Fisher Body, in Cleveland, produces components for Chevrolets. The Cleveland plant is already well organized, so Mortimer is dispatched to Flint, to persuade the workers there that joining the union and going on strike will end their misery.
About the Author
Edward McClelland is a journalist, a historian, and an author born and raised in Lansing, Michigan. His work has been published in numerous places, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Chicago Reader, and on Salon and Slate. He is the author of several books, including Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President, Nothin’ but Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America’s Industrial Heartland, and How to Speak Midwestern. Connect with him online at edwardmcclelland.com and @TedMcClelland on Twitter.