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Sit-down makes GM sit up and take notice

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Gazette Staff
December 22, 2008
— The moment of truth and courage: 1 p.m. Jan. 5, 1937.

“Finally at 1 o’clock, my partner (was) Coley Simmons, and I told him to go up and throw the switch on the line, and I said: ‘Don’t let anybody stop ya.’


“So he went up and pulled the switch on the line, and I went down along the line and told the fellas, ‘This is it’.”


“And some of ‘em got right out and joined us, and some of ’em stayed on the cars working. Then we went up and down the line and told them working either come with us or get out. And some of ’em got scared and run, and they did go out and come back in later.”


John Wesley “Wes” Van Horn, president of United Auto Workers Local 95 at the General Motors Fisher Body plant in Janesville from 1935 to 1938, described the most important movement in Janesville labor history—the start of the 1937 sit-down strike—in an oral history taped in 1976.


The tapes are part of the collection in the Hedberg Public Library’s Janesville Room. Carrying inflections and nuances long heard in Janesville, the voices on the tapes are of the militant unionists who helped form the UAW but since passed away. Excerpts from the oral histories also are included in another source for this story, “50th Anniversary—UAW,” by Local 95 members Howard Milbrandt, Richard Costerisan and John O’Meara.


The sit-down strike in Janesville followed by eight days the massive sit-down strike by 7,000 workers at a Fisher Body factory in Cleveland, Ohio, and by six days, the takeover of two Fisher pants in Flint, Mich., by 5,000 workers.


The sit-down was a new and illegal tactic—it violated the employer’s property rights—but it worked. Rather than walk a picket line—dangerous because of violence from the company goons and possible arrest by police and regularly ineffective because of replacement by scab workers—workers took over the factories to stop production.


Rank-and-file workers actually led the sit-downs in Cleveland and Flint because of horrible working conditions, and UAW leaders, seeking recognition to organize all automotive operations, followed their members, according to “The American Century” by Harold Evans.


The strike in Janesville was over local issues but was sanctioned by the parent UAW, which chartered its first local here, Federal Labor Union 19059, in March 1934.


On his taped interview, Lou Adkins recalled the local’s origins:


“We just had a meeting up here to Lein’s filling station (then at the northeast corner of Milton and Mount Zion avenues) one night…and we decided we was gonna have a union. …


“We were all poorer than church mice, and we had to take up a collection among the eight of us that were there in order to send a telegram to (UAW leader) Bill Green to send an organizer in.”


Adkins remembered Waldo Luchsinger, John Getzinger and Strauss “Tampa” Ellis as being at the meeting. Others who were regular or frequent participants were Art Thompson, Paul Swenson Jr., Goldie Vick, Russ Johnson, Larry Kinservick, Earnest Tyrolt, Elton Cutts, Carl Nelson, Dick Halford, Alex Kettle and Bill Longfeld.


“We didn’t know if we had the power to pull off a sit-down strike because we only had 100 dues-paying members out of a possible 1,000 people,” Van Horn said of the Fisher plant.


But working conditions had become unbearable for the total 2,700 production workers, the other 1,700 laboring in the Chevy plant.


“Before we got a union contract in 1937, it was a workhouse,” Adkins said. “It was just close to a chain gang. …We were tied down to the line, and we just couldn’t get away. There was no chance for relief.”


Workers were paid on a piecework basis for which only the company knew the formula. Workers were making 80 cents an hour before the strike, Adkins estimated, and local managers kept speeding up the line—to 70 vehicles an hour.


“There was no limit to what they’d have a guy do,” he said. “If one guy could have built the whole car, they’d have him do it.”


“Local management was shystering (not building to specifications) and fooling the public and fooling the corporation,” Adkins said. “They were working for a bonus and doing things as cheap as they could. Trying to make ’em with as few people as they could.”


No seniority or true grievance procedure protected workers.


After layoffs, which were erratic because of GM management and frequent and often long because of the Depression, supervisors regularly hired relatives and drinking buddies ahead of laid-off workers.


If a worker didn’t measure up to a foreman’s expectations, the boss would scream and holler at the man.


“They’d say they got a 100 guys out in the bullpen waiting to take your job. That was the threat all the time,” Adkins said.


One foreman’s self-avowed expectation of a fair day’s work was “load (the worker) until he fell down and then take just a little bit off,” Eugene Osmond said.


The two locals—one for Fisher employees and the other for Chevrolet workers—held a mass meeting and listened to a UAW organizer from Racine, Van Horn said.


“We talked about strike, and we were more less skeptical (because of low membership), even some of the officers,” he recalled. “Now the company had been expectin’ us to do this right along, and they were watching us very closely.”


Rather than let word of the strike’s timing leak out, Van Horn; Elmer Yenney, president of Local 121 in the Chevy plant; and the vice presidents kept it to themselves.


“We figured the people were all hepped up, we’d pull it right the next day,” Van Horn said. “And we’d pull it at 1 o’clock because at 1 o’clock we’d all be working, the line’d be running, and the bosses all’d be in eatin’ dinner.”


Of eight or 10 men in his plant booth, only he and one other fellow walked out, Don Dooley said.


“What we did was walk up and down the lines like a demonstration, trying to convince everybody else to quit working,” Dooley said. “There was an awful lot of commotion and excitement, a lot of turmoil, too. …The manager (Dennis Hurley) was out there trying to talk to Van Horn: ‘Get these people back to work.’”


Van Horn said, “You’re gonna recognize the union before this is over.”


“It wasn’t planned at all. If it was, most of us didn’t know what the plans were. What we knew was we were gonna stay in the plant ’til it was settled. … A lot of (other workers) were scared. They thought this is the end of our jobs.


“And I gotta be honest and say I thought it was, too. This was it: Either it was gonna be better, or I was out of a job.


“And I’m sure that some who followed wasn’t entirely sold on the union but thought we might as well go with ‘em. …


“I was concerned. I had a family. But I also knew I had to decide which way I was going and stay that way. There was no turning back. Once I laid down my tool and quit my job, there was no turning back.”


Most GM workers and most Janesville residents—including strikers’ families—did not originally support the strike.


“Most of the people in Janesville felt you should be glad you had a job because the plant had been shut down for over a year (1932-33),” said Ralph Hilkin, who later helped organize the local firefighters union. “It was a real hardship on the community. I don’t think there were too many people who realized the torture that you went through throughout the day to keep up to the line. … ”


“Unless you had an understanding wife, she wouldn’t be in favor of a strike because, after all, we were just getting back on our feet and now you want to go on strike. I think this was the feeling in families and throughout the community.”


Osmond recalled: “A small percentage of the people sat in and shut the plant down. Between 300 and 400 of us shut the plant down. Of 240 people in our area…there were three of us that stayed in.”


One of the sit-downers who earned the admiration of his comrades was Mel Jordan, Osmond said.


“He crawled out the fence to check on his sick child. He found out the child was not as sick as he thought, and he crawled back in.”


Union leaders were relieved that management did not know how low their membership was. As soon as the sit-down began, the Loyal GM Alliance, denounced soundly as a “company union,” sprang up here, and the majority of other workers eventually either joined the Alliance or signed its back-to-work petitions.


“The Alliance came in right during the sit-down strike,” said Dooley, who had not heard of the group before the strike. “It probably started forming the day of the sit-down because all during the (six-week strike) period, Alliance buttons started appearing. …”


“No doubt there was a certain amount of belligerency involved in by some people because there was hard feelings between those who were striking and those who were staying on the job. There were a lot of slurs made back and forth, maybe some threats. No doubt, we were mad. We were belligerent. If we hadn’t been, we wouldn’t be to the point we were.”


Workers pushed and shoved each other, and at least one gate guard had tacks thrown in his face. Alliance members were given pipes and iron bars, Osmond recalled, and he was confronted by two club-brandishing men, whom he ignored. But physical violence was rare here.


Rock County Sheriff James Croake, respected as being fair by UAW members, deputized foremen and supervisors at GM’s insistence, but he told them they could only protect property and forbade them guns.


Denied entry to the cafeteria and its chairs, union members rushed the room and kicked in the doors.


Food and cigarettes were tossed over walls and smuggled through holes in fences, and Adkins pushed aside Chevy plant manager Frank Fitzpatrick when he tried to block Adkins from re-entering the plant with boxes of sandwiches.


Of the Alliance, Osmond said: “Their goal was to get the plant back to work before we got an agreement. They were as militant in reverse as we were in progress. They were as adamant to get it started again as we were to shut it down. That’s why we sometimes had to go out and do nose-benders: Punch somebody in the nose.”


At an Alliance meeting of 200 to 250 people, “we went in and took the meeting over and told ’em we’d sign ’em up into the union. Only six or seven went home; the rest joined the union. It was not as much intimidation as persuasion,” Osmond said. “We told ’em what they could expect from both sides.”


The sit-downers shared a strong feeling of brotherhood, Osmond said.


“It was ‘How ya doing? I got an extra sandwich; do you need it?’ It wasn’t a case of let Joe do it or let Jim do it. It was: Let’s get down there and do it,” he said.


“It was never asked who should lay on the track so the train couldn’t move along (with incoming parts). Somebody just got down on the track and laid there—‘til we got smart enough. One of the railroad guys told us: ‘You guys are foolish for doing that. Just get a log or get some piece of material there. We won’t run over it, and we won’t take it off.”


The sit-downers were prepared for a long haul. The sit-down strikes in Cleveland and Flint were already days old.


But the sit-down part of the strike in Janesville lasted only a little longer than nine hours because City Manager Henry Traxler proved to be an impartial mediator who persuaded the unionists to give up the plants and management not to produce any vehicles or ship any products until a national settlement was reached. Part of the deal was inspection of the plants by a neutral committee.


At 10:15 p.m, the strikers left the plant.


“We had a snake dance right up Milwaukee Street in Janesville,” Van Horn recalled. “We practically took over the town. Nobody tried to stop us. We had no interference, not even from the law or anybody else. They just left us alone and let us have our party.”


The real celebration came with the national agreement signed Feb. 11 that recognized the UAW and got a nickel-an-hour raise for workers.


But that was not before the “Battle of the Running Bulls” in Flint on Jan. 11. Deputies and police officers, known as “bulls,” stormed one of the plants with teargas and clubs. Sit-downers repelled them with fire hoses and volleys of heavy car hinges. The cops opened fire, wounding 14 strikers, but determined strikers again forced them to run.


The Alliance met its end in Janesville on “Button Day,” Feb. 26, 1937. The rival groups had been wearing buttons proclaiming their allegiances and had been jeering each other in the plants. Violence erupted in the plants that Friday and spilled over to the community, forcing Croake to close taverns in and near Janesville over the weekend.


“Dinner pails were flying. Fists were flying,” Osmond said. “People were having Alliance buttons taken off. There was one kid; I don’t recall his name. He wasn’t very big, but he got his share of the buttons. He got more than anyone else; he was the champ. He worked some people over to get ‘em, but it was the end of the Alliance as an effective group.”


“That violence was necessary. Some good things—people have to get hurt to get ’em done in a democracy.”


This story first appeared in “Century of Stories,” published by The Janesville Gazette in 2000.

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