Just as in the sit-down strike of the 1930s, the United Auto Workers is preparing to join other unions and activists in more non-violent protests against what UAW president Bob King described on Friday as a framework of right-wing policies that have hurt the middle class.
King told a crowd of more than 500 at the 75th anniversary of the union’s first contract with General Motors that more direct action similar to the Flint sit-down strike of 1937 is needed today to challenge corporate power and prevailing economic wisdom that demands wage cuts for working Americans and smaller tax bills for the wealthy.
The union faces many of the same challenges it faced back in the 1930s, King said.
“They’re trying to shred the social contract,” King told a standing-room -only crowd of union members and retirees at a union hall in Flint.
“We don’t spend too much. This is still a rich country. The problem is we’ve lost our moral compass,” said King.
He noted that the demands of the wealthy one percent have distorted the American priorities. The right-wing framework used to run the country over the past 30 years has left workers struggling to hang on to a middle class standard of living, King said.
“In Michigan, we started taxing pensions, while giving a tax break to businesses,” he said. “I know a lot of people who could collect a pension but are afraid to retire.”
King also said college students today face tuition bills that will leave them in debt for years to come even if they are lucky enough to find a job, paying a living wage.
The rising cost of tuition has made it especially difficult for working class students to afford college at all, he said.
“The injustice we’re seeing in this society is overwhelming,” added King, who said he believed the time has come to use direct action just as in the 1930.
“It will take us being willing to face arrest. It will take us being willing to be part of marches and demonstrations,” he said.
King, however, didn’t name any specific campaigns the UAW planned to support, which should get under way this coming spring.
King spoke after the crowd had watched a 15-minute film prepared by Sascha Reuther, the grandson of Roy Reuther, a principal organizer of the 1936-1937 sit-down strike at a key General Motors plant in Flint.
Norwood Jewell, the UAW regional director in Flint, said the success of the sit-down 75 years ago, which ended on February 11, 1937 changed history.
“It’s the reason we have a middle class all across this country. For that we will be forever grateful,” said Jewell as he saluted a half dozen strikers and members of the “Emergency Brigade,” which was made up of women who stepped around police lines, to keep strikers supplied with food and water after the seizure of the plant.
All of the survivors of the confrontation, which led to the union’s first contract with GM, are now in their 90s.
John Hunt, the son of one the original strikers, said his father told him years later the most frightening part of the sit-down strike was when a detachment of heavily armed Michigan National Guard showed up outside the plant following a violent clash with police.
The National Guardsmen, on orders from then Michigan’s Democratic Governor Frank Murphy, separated the two sides, effectively preventing Flint police from making another bid to clear the plant of the strikers.
“They didn’t know what was going to happen then,” Hunt said.
King noted if Murphy had ordered the National Guardsmen to clear the plant as GM’s top management had demanded, the union would probably have lost the strike.
“That’s why political action is so important today,” he said, urging the crowd to give to the union’s political action funds.