Witnesses and Warriors: The Flint Sitdown Strike of 1936-37 1998-1999

Portrait of Nellie Besson Simons



Eighty years ago, Congress passed The National Labor Relations Act making it illegal for an employer to discriminate against workers who organized for the purpose of collective bargaining. Without the protection of the Wagner Act, the Flint Sit-Down Strike, which began in 1936, may not have succeeded. Prior to the success of the strike, workers had no voice in changing the deplorable conditions in the plants—long hours, foul air, unbearable heat, body-wrenching assembly line speedups, dangerous machinery, unfair piecework pay and abusive bosses. Nellie Simons, a lieutenant in the newly formed Women’s Emergency Brigade, along with Genora Johnson and other women, took on a significant role in the strike. Toward the end of the strike, this group of women held back police and vigilantes from stopping a plant takeover until a larger group of strike supporters could arrive.  This last act crippled production and forced an end to the 44-day strike and led to the recognition of the union, making a significant gain for workers in all industries.

At Mott Community College in Flint, MI, a group of us developed a project meeting with surviving sitdowners and the people around them who helped the cause. We recorded their stories; I photographed them; and eventually we enlisted the help of artists to make portraits of those we spoke to. Below are some of pages from the book that resulted from this experience. An exhibition was held at the Greater Flint Arts Council Gallery in 1999.

At the time I took this photograph of J.D. Dotson he was the oldest living member of the UAW.

I also made this portrait bust of Ruben Burks, Secretary/Treasurer of the United Auto Worker Union.