A Sit-Down Striker Reflects on “White Shirt Day”

by Snarky Anderson, used with permission

Did you know that February 11 was White Shirt Day? And do you know its significance in Michigan history?

White Shirt Day was first celebrated on February 11, 1948, as a way of honoring the men and women who participated in the 1936-37 sit-down strike at Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint.

The strike began on December 30, 1936, when the night shift stopped the company from loading dies and shipping them to places where the labor movement wasn’t as strong. The fledgling UAW, led by a young organizer by the name of Walter Reuther, urged the workers to sit down inside the plant and lock themselves in to keep GM from outsourcing their jobs. There’s a good account of the sit-in and the events that led up to it in the Detroit News Michigan history archive.

The strike lasted 44 days. GM tried to force the strikers out by cutting off heat inside the plant and later, by going to court to declare the sit-in illegal. At one point police tried to stop the delivery of food, which triggered a riot in which strikers and their sympathizers drove them off. Governor Frank Murphy responded by mobilizing 4,000 National Guardsmen, but did not use them to remove the strikers.

Finally, President Roosevelt asked GM to meet with the union once more. The result was a bargaining agreement with the union covering Fisher Body No. 1, as well as 16 other plants that were idled by sit-down strikes. Among other things, the agreement made the UAW the sole bargaining agent of the autoworkers.

But why do workers wear a white shirt to mark this anniversary? According to the UAW, it’s intended to send a message to management that “blue collar” workers had earned the right to the same respect as their management counterparts. Today all over the Flint area, workers are wearing white shirts.

In the current issue of Solidarity, the UAW’s publication for members and their families, 91-year-old Arthur Lowell, who was one of the Flint sit-down strikers, reflected on the strike and what White Shirt Day means to him.

When the strike began, Lowell was 18 years old and working at GM?s Chevrolet Plant 4, literally “down in the hole.” Today, Arthur’s son Alan, a UAW Local 651 retiree, planned to mark the occasion by taking his father to UAW Region 1C?s White Shirt Day celebration.

A postscript. The Detroit News account of the strike concludes with the following words, which are guaranteed to make Republicans howl at the moon:

The outcome much later in time proved that both the union and the company could coexist and indeed prosper beyond anyone’s expectations. Those who made the cars could finally afford to buy them, pouring profits back to the stockholders. Spreading the wealth caused more to be created. The pension and wages won by the workers raised the standard of living for the whole country.

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