Each year on Feb. 11, just before Valentine’s Day, they have unique holiday in Flint, Michigan.
It’s called “White Shirt Day,” and it marks the day in 1937 when workers ended the strike against the General Motors that elevated the power of the United Auto Workers union in the U.S. auto industry. After the strike ended, hourly workers wore white shirts on Feb. 11 to show that blue-collar workers should enjoy the same level of respect that they’re white-collared counterparts received.
Edward McClelland, an author who specializes in books on the Midwest, wrote a new history of the Flint strike, “Midnight in Vehicle City.” It captures the strike and the era in which it occurred in a sharp, straightforward style. He offers a brief history of GM’s role in Flint’s development during the first third of the 20th Century when, believe it or not, Flint was the fastest growing industrial city in America.
In addition, McClelland notes, citing an account from earlier in the century, notes companies based in Flint, including General Motors, were having a hard time finding workers.
Midnight in Vehicle City notes, even as the Great Depression sent unemployment soaring elsewhere in the U.S., GM had more than 68,000 workers in Flint, often working in substandard conditions of which they could do little about. But by 1936, American workers, particularly in the Midwest, adopted tactic that was deployed across Europe, the sit-down strike.
Sit-down strikes hit GM
The book recounts a wave of sit-down strikes hit GM and its suppliers like Bendix. However, before the showdown in Flint, GM succeeded in beating back a nine-week strike at a plant in Toledo, Ohio by moving 1,500 jobs to a plant in Saginaw, Michigan. However, a strike began in December 1936 at a key Fisher Body plant in Cleveland, Ohio.
The workers in Flint, many of them barely in their 20s, followed suit shortly after, McClelland notes.
The UAW contingent had solid leadership, among them Bob Travis, a union organizer and ringleader of the earlier strike in Toledo. Also in the mix were Roy and Victor Reuther, the young brothers of Walter Reuther, who was engaged in another pitched labor battle in Detroit at the same time. Victor, the youngest of three Reuther brothers, was given a hero’s welcome whenever he visited even half a century later when he was on the outs with the union’s established leadership.
Union victory lifted workers to middle class
Ultimately, the union men persevered in 1936-37 with support from the fledging UAW, the CIO and Michigan Governor Frank Murphy, who sent the National Guard to preserve the peace after a pitched battle with local police. One of the National Guard units was led by a grand nephew of General George Armstrong Custer.
Even though the company controlled the police, the local courts and public opinion in Flint at the time, the UAW prevailed, signing a contract recognizing the union that became something akin to the Magna Carta of the
modern American labor movement and the foundation document of what McClelland describes as the American “blue-collar middle class.”
By 1938, a year after the victory in Flint, the union’s membership grew from 30,000 to 500,000, according to UAW historians.
Flint enduring difficult times
But as McClelland notes in an epilogue the security of union contracts gradually eroded in the 1980s and 1990s. GM’s employment in Flint peaked at 80,000 in 1980. Today GM employs 6,800 at its factories in Flint, which has lost population and has become something of byword for urban Rust Belt decay.
But to White Shirt day, with its symbolism that blue-collar workers are just as important as management, goes on. The UAW Regional Office says the event will be held virtually on this year without the annual communal meal of bean soup in union halls around the city.