The Fisher Body Occupation of 1936

By MIKE ALEWITZ

On Dec. 28,1936, workers at the Cleveland, Ohio, Fisher Body (General Motors) factory went on strike and proceeded to occupy the plant. Demands included a shortened workday to three seven-hour shifts and double-time pay for holidays. This would spread work around, create jobs, prevent layoffs, and strengthen the union.

United Auto Workers (UAW) officials were planning to stage strikes after the first of the year, but the workers were not waiting—the action in Cleveland also precipitated the famous Flint sit-down days later. What followed was a nationwide wave of thousands of sit-downs, strikes and job actions that led to the organization of industrial unions and the empowerment of millions of workers. The strike wave once again demonstrated: Unions don’t organize workers—workers organize unions!

Over the years, conservative bureaucrats transformed the militant, fighting UAW into a conservative, business-union job trust. Recent revelations of the lavish lifestyle of UAW officials is a shameful betrayal of those that built the union. The victories begun in the 1930s transformed life for U.S. workers. Renewed struggle can transform it again.

(My mother worked at Fisher Body in Wilmington, Del., in the late 1950s. Today it’s closed. The facility is planned for a retail distribution site staffed with low-wage workers).

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This image is of a sit-down strike at the Fisher Body plant in Buffalo. During that 1936 sit-down strike, workers formed an orchestra to serenade the picketers massed outside the factory. After they won, the musicians transformed into a marching band that led a victory parade throughout the city.

Image: Buffalo UAW Sit-Down Strike. From a series of portable murals on the History of Region 9 of the United Auto Workers (suppressed and never exhibited). By Mike Alewitz / 7’ x 10’ / 1992.