Dec. 30, 1936: The Women’s Auxiliary took their rolling pins to the front lines of the Flint sit-down strike.

Workers' wives supported strikers, from first aid

(WOMENSENEWS)–The 44-day sit-in by auto workers at the General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., in late 1936 was the "burning heart" of the growing labor movement, journalist Mary Heaton Vorse wrote in the New Republic.

On Dec. 30, night shift workers at the automaker that had already fired half its work force, cut wages and speeded up work loads while posting a $284 million profit locked themselves into the plant. The sit-in was precipitated by GM’s discharge of workers who were trying to bring a representative union to the auto industry.

By Jan. 4, 1937, another shift joined the strike and the Flint plant was forced to close. On Jan. 11, police tried to stop food delivery to the buildings and the company turned off the heat inside. It wasn’t until Feb. 11 that the United Auto Workers emerged with a contract guaranteeing minimum wages, job security and a recognized union.

Fanning the "burning heart" of the strike was a cadre of women Vorse called "Ma and the girls–striker’s wives and mothers. Normally homebodies." On the second night of the sit-down, New Year’s Eve, they sprang into action after some other workers’ wives tried to get their men to leave the building and come home.

Glenora Johnson, whose husband was inside, realized the other women needed to be educated about the importance of supporting the strike and that became the first task of the women she recruited.

The Women’s Auxiliary set up a first aid station, a day care center and a feeding operation that on some days delivered three meals a day to a crowd of strikers that numbered, at times, 2,000 men.

The women walked the picket lines, distributed literature and offered public speaking classes to women who faced questions from press or public. And they organized entertainments for the men inside, ranging from shows put on by workers’ children to a play, "Strike Marches On," written by Vorse, novelist Josephine Herbst and Dorothy Kraus, wife of the editor of the workers’ newspaper.

When the struggle grew violent, Johnson and others formed a more militant group they called the Women’s Emergency Brigade or, sometimes, the Red Berets. Wielding rolling pins, mops and brooms, they surrounded men on the picket line, forming human shields against police with weapons drawn. The police retreated. When tear gas was hurled at the men in the GM buildings, the women, swinging clubs, smashed windows to let it escape.

The victory at Flint was, historians believe, the most important in the labor movement, but it also had an impact on women everywhere. For the rest of the century, when workers organized and struck, even in all-male industries, women knew that the struggle was theirs, too, and reached for their brooms.

Louise Bernikow is the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travelsto campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called "The Shoulders WeStand On: Women as Agents of Change." She can be reached at

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