This post started out innocently enough a couple of days ago as a result of searching online for bargain priced t-shirts for my wardrobe. In the process, I stumbled across the mention of an old labor dispute in Flint, Michigan.
Since the city of Flint has been featured in the news lately, I decided to investigate further. Besides that, the history of organized labor has interested me ever since my brief membership in the United Food and Commercial Workers Union a few decades ago. It was time to check the US Labor Department’s website.
White T-Shirt Day began as White Shirt Day on February 11, 1948. It was the anniversary of the day the Sit-down Strike at General Motors was settled. Union members were to wear white shirts to remind the public that blue collar workers earned the right to the same respect as their white collar counterparts in management. There is also a long-standing tradition that bean soup is eaten for lunch on this day. Bean soup and bread sustained the sit-down strikers during the dispute.
The particular strike began at the Fisher Body Plant #2, in Flint, Michigan on December 30, 1936. Approximately 50 workers on the assembly line protested the transfer of three co-workers who refused to resign their union membership. It was the last straw for those who had to work under hazardous conditions in those days.
Employees complained that the plant operated without any on-job safety measures and regulations. Temperatures inside the plant were freezing in the winter and more than 100 degrees in the summer. Even though overtime work was mandatory, the company did not pay overtime wages. Assembly line workers were not even allowed toilet breaks.
In addition, officials recorded hundreds of deaths in Michigan automobile manufacturing factories. Many of those fatalities happened in July of 1936 as a result of a summer heatwave combined with hazardous working conditions.
Originally, General Motors workers began their legal sit-down strike at Fisher Body Plant #1 in Flint, Michigan. Even though the strike had spread to most GM factories, a few remained under management control. Most noteworthy was the largest Chevrolet Plant #4. Strikers overcame obstacles and took control of the Chevrolet plant on February 1, 1937.
The striking workers stayed inside the factories in order to remain safe from cold weather and management-organized violence outdoors. Workers’ families and union allies delivered food to the strikers. Finally, the company’s president, Alfred P. Sloan agreed to labor’s demands. GM awarded a substantial wage increase and official recognition of the United Auto Workers’ Union.
The successful culmination of the GM strike inspired nearly 90 other sit-down strikes in other transportation related factories in the Detroit, Michigan area. Goodrich, Goodyear and Packard Motor Company almost immediately granted pay increases. Overall, autoworkers’ pay increased up to 300-percent in some instances. 1937 was the beginning of over ten years of focused union activity across the country.
Eventually, White Shirt Day evolved into White T-Shirt Day because everybody owns a white t-shirt but not necessarily a white dress shirt. People who celebrate the observance must wear a white shirt or blouse. That garment must not get dirtier than the boss’s shirt. All work and safety regulations must be obeyed. The consumption of bean soup is optional.
Just as several other holidays and special days, the original meaning of White T-Shirt Day has been lost to the general public. Some retailers use this day for clothing sales and on-line marketing. Some people just enjoy wearing a clean white t-shirt out of comfort.