There are times in history when the forces of capital and labor are so evenly matched in combat that the actions of a few brave individuals can tip the balance in favor of their class. Genora (Johnson) Dollinger was one of those courageous and clear-sighted people. Her greatness lay in her determination to press forward to win a decisive victory for labor and her deep conviction that such a victory could only be won by the workers themselves.
The struggle to organize the growing American automobile industry began with a strike at a Studebaker plant in 1913. In 1930, workers at Fisher Body in Flint struck and closed their plant for a week. Early in 1933, auto workers struck Briggs Manufacturing Co., the Hudson Motor Car Co. and the Motor Products Co. In 1934 auto workers won a bloody strike at Toledo’s Auto-Lite plant and signed up thousands of new members. But there was still no national union of auto workers, only individual, federally-chartered locals affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Growing impatience with the craft-dominated AFL spurred the formation of the national, industry-based United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) in 1936.
On November 17, 1936, the first auto industry sit-down in U.S. history began at Bendix products in South Bend, Indiana. Workers occupied their plant for a week to win recognition of the UAW. But the spark that led to the unionization of the giant General Motors Corporation, and eventually of the entire auto industry, was ignited on December 30, 1936, when auto workers in Flint Michigan sat down and occupied their plants.
Genora (Johnson) Dollinger was called “the Joan of Arc of Labor” for her role in the Flint sit-down strikes. At the age of 23 she organized the Women’s Auxiliary of the UAW and led its military wing, the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Brigade members armed themselves with clubs to defend sit-downers from GM’s plant police, hired Pinkerton strike-breakers, and the Flint city police who also served the corporation.
Genora was also instrumental in overcoming the opposition of those who initially rejected her husband’s strategy for capturing Chevrolet Plant 4. The successful occupation of Plant 4 marked a decisive turning point in the history of American labor. The largest corporation in the world was forced to sign a contract with an industrial union representing all of its workers. The victory of GM workers led to a wave of industrial organizing during the 1940s that revolutionized relations between capital and labor in the United States.