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Public Relief in the Sit-Down Strike: 1937

Relief in the Sit-down Strike

An Editorial in The Survey, March, 1937

Editor’s Note: The 1937 “sit-down strike” was organized by the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, which wanted General Motors (GM)–then the world’s largest automaker–to recognize it as the sole bargaining authority for employees at the company’s factories. The fledgling UAW, which was founded in 1935, also demanded improved working conditions and job security for GM’s employees.  Many Americans sympathized with the strikers, and President Franklin Roosevelt was involved with negotiations to end the conflict.

The strike lasted 44 days, and ended with GM agreeing to grant the UAW bargaining rights and start negotiations on a variety of issues related to improving job conditions for auto workers. The strike represented a major victory for the UAW. Soon after, workers at Chrysler went on strike and ultimately won the right to be represented by the UAW as well.

A SHARP reminder that “emergency” is the middle name of public relief agencies came home to the Genesee County, Mich. Welfare Relief Commission last month with the “sit-down strike” in Flint of the United Automobile Workers. An increase in the relief load from about 2500 families to more than 7800 within five weeks, a community strained and tense under the conditions of the strike, and the conflict between strikers and non-strikers, put relief workers through an acid test of strength and spirit.

When the strike broke in late December the question of relief to the strikers was an immediate issue loaded with potential controversy. “If you give relief the strike will never be over.” “We are all taxpayers and we object to our money helping these ungrateful people,” were typical protests. A strong public sympathy for non-strikers, “thrown out of work through no fault of their own,” was evident.

Then a new thought seemed to sweep the community. It was hinted that the situation for the community and for non-strikers undoubtedly would be much worse if there were no relief; there were whispers of possible violence if relief were withheld, of public sympathy swinging over toward the strikers if they had to solicit funds for subsistence.

The County Emergency Welfare Relief Commission settled the question with dispatch. On the agenda was “Attitude Toward Strikers,” and the commission’s answer was: “The matter is settled. We can’t know who are strikers—our business is relief.” Other problems crowded to the fore, and the strike-ridden town accepted the assumption that relief workers, like doctors who care for those hurt in riots, are professionals whose one job is to give relief where it is needed.

In the relief offices, applicants packed the waiting rooms. Strikers wearing union buttons jostled non-strikers, “but always in good humor,” said Ella Lee Cowgill, field representative of the state relief commission in a letter to The Survey. Of the staff’s attitude she said:

We forget to look at buttons, in our desire to get to the bottom of the relief need…. The organization has been so nearly neutral that workers have no idea of the proportion of strikers and non-strikers who receive relief.

From the day the strike was called, Flint relief workers looked for critical times ahead. They knew that many of the families affected had had a working member for only a few months, often after long stretches of unemployment. They knew also that the much talked of bonuses and high wages had been eaten up by old debts, and that only a few pay days ago, many who now were strikers had celebrated their first “real” Christmas in five or six years. Though most of Santa Claus’ selections would be called necessities, inevitably they had cut into any possible savings.

In the first days of hope for an early strike settlement, it seemed that the regular staff of the relief organization might be able to “absorb” the extra load. But as soon as the first peace parley failed the scene took on a different color. On that day, the office swarmed with applicants for relief; many could not be taken care of at all; facilities were inadequate; feelings were tense.

BUT relief agency executives and staff have had long apprenticeship to quick change and the great god emergency. That day of somber news was the first and the last that saw applicants turned away without attention. By the following morning a new system was functioning which sifted applicants at their point of first contact with the relief office, so that each day everyone received some sort of attention. Executives made quick estimates and appealed to the state relief commission for the trained and seasoned workers needed for sweeping expansion. Flint itself could not supply the necessary workers though pressure was put on the relief officials to take on local people identified with one side or another of the controversy. In so tense a situation, having workers come in from outside had definite advantages.

Applications and intake surged up in waves, hitting but never swamping one department after another. On January 5, with a normal case load, the Genesee County relief office received twenty-nine applications, a fourth of them from factory workers. On January 11, applications numbered eighty-two; and a few days later 247. Then, for hectic days, they increased by daily dozens, until: “On Monday, January 25, we reached 712, what we hope is our peak…. Although the two factions between whom antagonism runs high were crowded together in small quarters,” wrote Miss Cowgill, “the attitude of the applicants, almost without exception, was very good. On Tuesday morning . . . there was some difficulty, but since that time there has been excellent cooperation and understanding. Clients have seemed to realize that we are doing everything in our power to take care of them. Order has been maintained without any officer of the law being present…. Fortunately the organization is housed in a building that is strong, fireproof and functionally adjustable. At no time have applicants had to stand out of doors while waiting. Applicants claiming an acute emergency were given relief to tide them over until the home visitor could reach them. Intake procedures were shortened and speeded up.”

Meantime, behind the busy front doors and swarming reception rooms, new and old staff showed that they could “take it.” “Despite the accelerated situation,” reported a visiting social worker, “there was a striking absence of the lost motion and confusion which usually are transmitted to clients in impatience and bewilderment.”

THE surge of new cases hit the intake department, then the investigating or visiting staff, then the auditors. “Each department draws a long breath and jumps the wave when it comes,” reported Miss Cowgill, watching a “hump” of about two thousand new cases pass through the organization in the first days of the upsurge, “without a letdown in standards or care in verifying necessary data.”

Night work, restricted space, “almost every partition moved in every department,” were inconveniences taken with good nature, enduring cooperation, and ready adjustment to emergent demands. Workers went long hours without food or munched sandwiches at their desks. Presently the WPA was persuaded to suspend its rules temporarily and to set up and run a staff canteen, later taken over by the county office itself. A rest room with cots where momentary relaxation could be snatched was added. The hundred or so workers hastily recruited from over the state “rapidly absorbed new techniques, acquainted themselves with a new city, and in spite of the pressure, met in the tiny canteen to eat and laugh and exchange experiences. They took to the arduous work and long hours without complaint.”

The bill for Genesee County’s unemployment relief, which mounted at the rate of about $10,000 a day during the strike, was met out of the deficiency appropriation made by the legislature to carry the state relief program for the current fiscal year. For the last four years the policy of financing relief in Michigan has been one of joint funding from city, county and state. City and county do their best—which amounted to 24.4 percent of total costs in 1936—and the state takes care of the remainder. The possible need for another deficiency appropriation this year as a result of the strike is still in the realm of future worries.

The attitude of the community in general toward the relief efforts was cooperative. The executive secretary of the Community Fund volunteered three workers from fund agencies and two from his own staff. The newspapers printed statistics, for the most part with small comment. Wholesale and retail merchants, a little uneasy over large credits rolling up, accepted the assurance of the State Emergency Welfare Relief Commission that their bills would be met. About the only conspicuous failure in the community’s general cooperation with the relief staff was on the part of an active battalion of influenza germs. These, it is reported, employed inexcusable obstructionist tactics.

The welfare committee of the United Automobile Workers was in conference with relief administrators from the first. “The committee seemed to find few points for complaints and all seemed to be in good order,” Miss Cowgill observed on one of the first days of the strike. However, in the subsequent days of strain, it was necessary to request of the committee that it should not discuss problems of clients within the building, that its watchers in reception rooms should not suggest changes in visitors’ decisions and that, barring exceptional urgency, decisions on intake be accepted by client and committee. On the question of preference, in the lines of applicants, to families of “men occupying the plants as strikers,” it was decided that no special consideration could go to the “sit-downers” as against others waiting for attention. In general, a fine rapport between the relief organization and the UAW welfare committee was reported. The committee showed willingness to accept established routines and procedures and the relief office to correct mistakes.

The impact of the sensational jump in relief on the community as a whole probably was blunted by familiarity. When seasonal unemployment in automobile factories has been long a commonplace, sensational jumps in relief loads are not exactly surprising. Though this was an extreme case, involving the question, still controversial, of relief to strikers, no particular adverse reaction has been observed. Rather, reports a Survey correspondent, favorable comments have been made on the way the relief agency met the touch-and-go situation.

Miss Cowgill summarizes cogently: “For four years relief in these industrial communities has been like sand dunes: the wind of unemployment blows one way and they are leveled down; the wind of unemployment blows from the other side and they are heaped up. The public is used to rapid changes and adjusts to them.”

“NOW it is over,” says the last installment of Miss Cowgill’s notes and jottings, made as the “hump” was going through the relief office. “The facts emblazoned in the mammoth head lines changed the relief picture over night. On February 10 when the settlement negotiations seemed deadlocked, applications numbered 656. On February 11, when the agreement was signed, they dropped to 275; on February 12 to 175. All the way through the strike, the applications for relief have been an accurate barometer of the publicized success or failure of the negotiations. When the prospect was hopeful, applications dropped off. When it seemed hopeless, they increased.

“What have we learned out of this experience? For one thing—not new to be sure—that social workers can keep their heads and do their jobs under extremely tense and trying conditions. They made blunders of course, some of them amusing. For example, there was the girl from out of town who sallied forth in a bright red tam, quite unaware that this was the insignia of the ‘Emergency Brigade,’ women actively supporting the strikers. When doors were slammed in her face, even when she was all but chased down the street, she did not know what it was all about. Not until she reported to the office and her supervisor saw her hat did she know what had caused the trouble.

“Another thing we have learned is the value of a statewide organization which can throw its strength into a difficult situation, establishing policies, recruiting personnel and shouldering the bulk of the financial responsibility.

“Finally we have learned the value of the conference method. The relief administrators and the welfare committee of the UAW spent long hours in conference, ironing out difficulties and misunderstandings. Not once during the crisis was there a resort to force—never a policeman in the building. We are pretty proud of our social workers.”

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Relief in the Sit-Down Strike. (1937, March). The Survey, 73(3), 69. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=11088.

Source: New Deal Network,  (March 7, 2014).


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