COLUMBUS — It’s Labor Day, time to hang out the American flag and pay homage to a sand-colored, weather-beaten brick that occupies a prominent place in our family room.

There’s a connection between the flag and the brick, a poignant one on this day set aside to honor working men and women.

The connection is especially significant in Akron, my hometown of Flint, Mich., and other cities where workers in the 20th century organized and fought to form unions.

The flag represents the American system that provided the opportunities, sometimes reluctantly, for establishing unions. Members bargained for higher wages, benefits such as health care and safer working conditions. The positive effects rippled across the country, even to workplaces with no union representation.

I inherited the brick from my mother Josephine, who died in 1993, and my father Clark, who died in 2000.

A metal placard attached to the front of the brick tells where it came from: “Historic Fisher #1 Home of the Great U.A.W. Sitdown Strike of 1937”

“Fisher #1” was General Motors’ Fisher Body Plant 1 in Flint, site of the famous sit-down strike that actually started at the end of 1936 and spread to other plants before ending 44 days later on Feb. 11, 1937, with a victory that helped establish the United Auto Workers as the workers’ voice in dealing with General Motors.

Memorial bricks became available after most of the plant was demolished in the late 1980s.

My dad worked at Fisher #1. While not a “sit-downer” inside the plant, he supported the effort and benefited from it. His father and his three brothers all worked at Fisher #1 at various times. My mother’s father worked at a General Motors’ Chevrolet plant in Flint.

Our family had a special connection to the sit-down strike through two workers referred to by the New York Times as the “famous Perkins brothers” in a 1986 story commemorating the 50th anniversary of the shutdown.

The firing of Bill and Frank Perkins by General Motors in November 1936 for resisting the speed of the assembly line and the factory’s piecework system angered workers and helped precipitate the strike a month later, the New York Times reported.

They were both good friends of my father. Bill was the best man at my parents’ wedding in 1938, a year after the strike when workers felt more optimistic about their futures.

Bill recalled that when the company called him and his brother back to work he was in a bar across the street from the plant enjoying a beer or two.

While the strike in Flint gained national attention, there was an earlier strike in Akron in 1935 at Goodyear that forced the company to make concessions to the workers and the United Rubber Workers union.

Both strikes benefited from a political climate increasingly friendlier to workers as part of Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The federal Wagner Act, enacted in 1935, gave workers the right to organize unions and bargain collectively with their employers.

It was a long way, however, from the White House and the halls of Congress, to cities like Akron and Flint. General Motors, Goodyear and other companies often had strong support from community and political leaders.

In both Akron and Flint, however, the ultimate support the companies thought they had with authorities didn’t materialize.

In Akron, former Mayor C. Nelson Sparks took a leading role in denouncing the strikers as “radicals and communists.” He organized a “Law and Order League” and promised to lead armed citizens against the strike.

This brought a rebuke from John S. Knight of the Beacon Journal. The paper ran a front-page editorial headlined “No Room for Vigilantes” and declared that Sparks’ effort was “an invitation to rioting and violence.”

If company leaders thought they could count on local law enforcement to end the strike, they were disappointed.

Sheriff James Flowers, a Republican, declined to help break up the strike. He said that if he tried “East Market Street (where Goodyear was located) will run red with blood.”

The strikers in Flint ultimately benefited from the same kind of hands-off treatment. Local police battled with the strikers, and National Guard troops were sent to Flint. However, Democratic Gov. Frank Murphy declined to use the troops to force the strikers to leave the plants.

“I’m not going down in history as ‘Bloody Murphy,’” he said, according to one account.

More than 80 years after the sit-down strikes, automation, foreign trade and other factors have contributed to organized labor’s decline. Once one in three American workers belonged to a union; in 2018, it was slightly more than one in 10.

The American flag and the Fisher #1 brick, however, provide a timely reminder of what unions achieved, not just for their members but for the country.

 

Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He can be reached at hershey_william@hotmail.com.