Early Days of the UAW: The Kelsey-Hayes Sit-Down Strike

12.08.2010

By Jim Ward, UAW Local 78 retiree

The month of December is a time of holiday for many of us, but it's also a critical month long ago for the UAW. I'm going to take you back to December in 1936, mainly so younger members of the UAW can see the benefits they receive didn't come easy.

EARLY YEARS

The year was 1936. On the streets of Detroit a bedraggled army of unemployed men and women marched from plant gate to plant gate in desperate search for work. In a scene that would be repeated a half century later, grown men were standing on street corners holding handmade signs begging for work. Those lucky enough to have jobs were forced to work under conditions designed to break their spirit. Wages were very low and constantly falling lower.

Earlier that year, a toolmaker named Walter Reuther was fired from Ford Motor Co. for his radical politics. Just back from a tour of Europe and Russia with his younger brother Victor that fall, they returned to the management-labor tinder box in Detroit in December hoping to turn the tiny UAW into a force that could not be ignored by auto industry titans.

LOCAL 174 vs. KELSEY-HAYES

Realizing the workers' strength in numbers, the Reuther brothers and other organizers urged the individual, weak unions on Detroit's west side to pool their resources, which would later lead to the formation of UAW Local 174. Walter Reuther, then all of 29 years old, became the first president of Local 174 with 78 members.

Their first target that December in 1936 was Kelsey-Hayes Wheel which produced wheels and brake drums, mostly for Ford. Kelsey was chosen for two reasons: It had a core of staunch union activists, and it had a relatively small work force of roughly 5,000 employees. The fledging local stood a better chance of organizing Kelsey-Hayes than the massive Ford Rouge Complex.

Organizers decided to concentrate on Department 49 at the McGraw Avenue plant because it had the highest number of union members. It also housed the hub and break drum section, a cauldron of worker discontent. The foreman enjoyed riding roughshod over poorly-paid workers who were hired in at only 37.5 cents an hour. Women were paid only 22.5 cents an hour for the same job. The section was ripe for organizing.

Victor Reuther, Merlin Bishop and George Edwards (who later became a federal judge) secured jobs in the department. With union organizers in place all they needed was an incident to spark a strike. They found it when they learned that a young woman fainted from demands of production line speed-up. Luckily, the woman was a union supporter and readily agreed to help.

STRIKE! WE'VE HAD ENOUGH!

Since they planned a sit-in, they set up picket shifts and formed a committee to feed the strikers and their families. Aware that company spies infiltrated most union gatherings, the organizers kept the date and time of the protest a closely guarded secret. At the agreed upon moment – 20 minutes before the end of the first shift – the young woman fainted. But this time, when she fell to the floor she launched the beginning of the UAW as we know it. In his book, The Brothers Reuther, Victor Reuther recalled what happened next ."I ran and pulled the main switch and shouted, 'Strike! We've had enough of this speed-up!' The call for a strike action spread through our whole department, and soon we had an enormous gathering around us."

When the plant manager saw how determined the workers were, he cancelled the second shift and agreed to hold a formal negotiating session the next morning with union representatives from the plant on McGraw and the one on Military. Jubilant over their success, the strikers went home to await new developments. On that one day Local 174 signed up hundreds of new members who were awed by the union's ability to confront management. In typical form, the Kelsey-Hayes management team began to stall. For days supervisors tried to cripple the organizing drive by bribing workers to support the company union rather than Local174.

SIT-DOWN STRIKE BEGINS AND HISTORY IS MADE

That following Monday, the union called a general, sit-down strike in both plants to protest Kelsey-Hayes's refusal to bargain fairly. Some 500 men and women remained inside the plants while workers from across Detroit rallied outside and blocked the entrances. The pickets and protesters thwarted company attempts to move the equipment out of the plant, and more than a thousand workers rushed to join the bold, little union local. Whenever it was rumored that the company was readying a physical assault on the strikers, union brothers and sisters converged on the site to protect them. In one example, company managers slipped dozens of professional strikebreakers inside the plant but several thousand union members quickly surrounded the plant and began yelling "Throw the scabs out!" The scabs soon left the building. Officials said if the protesters entered the building legally as employees, they had the right to remain there.

Kelsey-Hayes came under increasing pressure from its major customer Ford, which was running low on parts. Executives from both companies held an emergency meeting at Ford headquarters. Harry Bennett, the notorious union buster for Henry Ford, warned if  the strike was not settled, Ford would go elsewhere for supplies. That ultimatum forced Kelsey-Hayes to enter serious bargaining with Local 174.

VICTORY

On Christmas Eve, Local 174 reached a settlement that included an across-the-board wage of 75 cents an hour, a shop steward system, a UAW-elected shop committee and a seniority system that governed the layoff and recall system. Union negotiators also secured a 20-percent reduction in the speed of the production line.

Afterward, the sit-down strikers marched in the street to the cheers of thousands who congratulated them on their victory. Victor Reuther wrote, "Everyone sensed that a new era had begun for auto workers." Within 10 short days Local 174 increased its membership from 78 to 3,000.

After the Kelsey-Hayes Wheel triumph the phone at the west side local rang day and night with strikers at other locations asking for help: "Send us some soup and sandwiches; we're sitting down on strike!" was a typical request.

 Hours after the settlement, Victor Reuther and Merlin Bishop left for Flint where they played key roles in the momentous GM sit-down strike. The 44-day protest Dec. 30, 1936 through Feb. 11, 1937, thrust the UAW into the national spotlight. But it was the successful 10-day Kelsey-Hayes strike that paved the way for success in Flint. Local 174 grew at a rapid pace after 1936. Sit-down "fever" spread through dozens of small plants and several large ones. By Christmas 1937, membership at the tiny local that dared to take on giants of industry stood at 35,000 and Kelsey-Hayes Wheel Company was forever known as the place where workers ushered in the birth of the UAW.

I have been trying for a couple years to get a historical marker placed at the site of the old Kelsey-Hayes Plant at McGraw and Livernois in Detroit to honor those early sit-down strikers from 1936. I didn't know how difficult it would be. I have contacted the president of the Detroit City Council, the Detroit Historical Society, a labor historian in Virginia and many others, all to no avail. I won't give up, though. I will continue my efforts so that what those men and women did in 1936 is not buried in the rubble of Kelsey-Hayes as they tear it down.