The Flint Sit-down Strike

The passing of the Wagner Act was not an instant success for unions. Many employers refused to honor the act, figuring the Supreme Court would eventually rule it unconstitutional. Workers still had to fight for their right to unionize. The United Auto Workers wanted General Motors to recognize them and agree to collective bargaining on a national level. GM refused. The workers in Flint, Michigan entered the local plant in late 1937 and staged a sit-down strike. They lived in the plant for a month and a half, with supporters bringing them food and keeping GM officials and the police out. The police fired tear gas and guns into the plant, but the workers held out until GM finally agreed to recognize the UAW.

Types of Strikes

Union members sometimes try lesser degrees of workplace disruptions before they resort to an all-out strike:

  • Sick-out (or sick-in) - All, or a significant number of union members call in sick on the same day. They haven't broken any rules, because they just use sick leave that was allotted to them. However, the sudden loss of so many employees all on one day can show the employer just what it would be like if they really went on strike.
  • Slow-down - All the union employees continue coming to work on time, and they continue to perform their jobs, but they do them more slowly. This might mean that they start doing everything "by the book," following every guideline and performing every safety check to the point that their work slows down. The resulting drop in production hurts the employer, but again, the employees aren't actually breaking any rules. This is sometimes called a partial strike.
  • Sit-down strike - Employees show up to their place of employment, but they refuse to work. They also refuse to leave, which makes it very difficult for anyone to defy the union and take the workers' places.

An important element of most successful strikes is the sympathy strike. If one union has more power than a single worker, then several unions banded together are very powerful indeed. In a sympathy strike, other unions in the same industry, or employed by the same company, will strike at the same time, putting even more pressure on the employer to resolve the original strike. For example, the failure of the 1980s air traffic controllers' strike was due in part to the union's failure to set up sympathy strikes. The pilots, baggage handlers and flight attendant unions didn't engage in sympathy strikes [[ref].

A general strike is one in which all or most workers in an entire region or country go on strike together, regardless of union affiliation. These strikes are usually intended to create political pressure on the ruling government, rather than on any one employer. In 2005, France was severely disrupted by a nationwide general strike in protest of planned changes to working hours and workers' benefits [ref].