INTERVIEW: MARCH 26, 1980
INTERVIEWER: KENNETH WEST
INTERVIEWEE: IRVING KING
WEST: You were talking about a prevailing attitude.
KING: Well, one was fear. The General Motors in this town and I guess everywhere, their authority was absolute. I mean, you had no recourse to any...if you disagreed with anything on your job, out! And so that you knew that you could count on that. And so even when the strike was finally pulled, there was only about one man in four, or maybe less, that thought General Motors could be beaten. I mean they were so absolute at the time. What brought me into it was I made up my mind this job is no good anyway. So if I lose it, I haven't lost anything.
WEST: What job was it that you were working at particularly?
KING: At the time that that was pulled, I was working on what they called a center pillar line. And they had the old wood frame body. And I was nailing the metal, the steel around on to the wood liner.
WEST: So there was still a lot of wood then, in the cars in '36.
KING: Now wait a minute. I'm gettin' ahead. No, the wood had gone out the year before. I was still on the pillar line but at that time they had a steel liner and I was welding, spot welding, you know. It wasn't a skilled trades job. It was one of these stitch welders that welded the inner to the outer of the center pillar. And it was piecework.
WEST: But the job had changed just recently, then, had it?
KING: Yeah, it had changed the year before. I think '35 was the last model run, out of the wood pillar. And '36 they came in with the steel.
WEST: Now this wood pillar, just what is that in the car? Can you describe that?
KING: Well, it goes between the two doors, the back and the front door, the post on a four-door sedan. And you would flange the metal over the wood with an air hammer like this. And the fellows behind us did. When they flanged it down, then there was little nail holes and you drove nails to nail that into the wood.
WEST: Into the wood, that was the way it was before. Now when things changed to all metal, that meant a completely different sort of job.
KING: Yeah. Then it went to the entire steel body. The old wood mill was done away with. And that wood mill stood where the stamping unit now is, right here on Hemphill Road. That was a lumberyard. The lumberyard had been done away with that year of the strike. But that was the first year it had been done away with. And you could tell the old wood mill men because they all had two or three fingers missing.
WEST: Now did a lot of the men from the wood mill simply transfer into...?
KING: Yeah, they were moved, the most part moved into the plant on other jobs, because that made almost as much work with the steel. And things were picking up. I mean, it had been in the heart of the Depression. Like '34, I worked five and a half months. In '35 I worked seven months. Thirty-six I had work nine months. So it was...
WEST: So you were getting more and more work.
KING: But then '38 the bottom fell out and I only worked four months.
WEST: Then you were in a recession again. But the changeover then from wood to steel did not mean much what you might call technological unemployment.
KING: No, no.
WEST: The people were absorbed pretty well.
KING: They were.
WEST: But the job must have changed. I am wondering whether there wasn't quite an adjustment that people had to make on the line from moving from wood to steel.
KING: Some did. One thing, if wood was damaged badly it couldn't be repaired. It had to be replaced. Metal you could straighten it, you could weld it, you know. But once you damage wood or splinter it, it's scrap. And that was one of the General Motors big things when they went to the metal. There was less salvage scrap, you know. It did make a difference.
WEST: It did, but your job must have changed then from using a hammer to using a welding torch.
KING: Yeah, yeah.
WEST: Could you make that adjustment pretty easily?
KING: If they told you to do anything, you figured you could do it. If anybody else could do it, I can do it, you know. That was the old attitude.
WEST: Did anyone tell you how to do it, show you how to do it?
KING: Oh, yeah.
WEST: They did give you some instruction.
KING: Once over lightly bit, you know.
WEST: I'm wondering about that, because some of the people I've talked to had jobs that were dangerous.
KING: They did.
WEST: And they complained that very often the foremen didn't alert them to the dangers on the job, didn't tell 'em how they might do it so as not to get hurt.
KING: Oh, as a matter of fact, they avoided tellin' 'em that it was dangerous deliberately. They used to have on the presses...of course I worked in that stamping unit in the sub-assembly most of the time. The presses, instead of having hand buttons for safety, you know, so you couldn't get your hands into a die when the press rolled over, you had to have both hands on those buttons or it wouldn't roll. And like four men worked on a press. All eight buttons had to be down or the press wouldn't roll. That came later. They used to have foot pedals and you would grab a panel and pull it out of the press like some of those roofs or the quarter panels that are big. And a man on each side would grab that panel and turn it over. And as soon as he pulled it from the press his foot was on the pedal for the next panel. And okay, if there was some hesitation, then he'd reach back for the next panel just as the press was comin' down, and he's liable to get his hands in there. And that had happened and happened. And I can remember, it was a year after the strike. That was one of the big moves they made. Some of the fellows took a steel gondola and went around in that press room and gathered up all of the foot pedals, pulled 'em out of their sockets and threw 'em in the metal trash.
WEST: The men did that?
WEST: For the union?
KING: Well, they did it spontaneously. They were union members but there wasn't any...that was just talked over amongst themselves and they just went ahead and did it.
WEST: How did the management react to that, then?
KING: Oh, they objected to high heaven. But there you are. What are you gonna do?
WEST: Well, you pulled the foot pedals out. How did the machinery operate then?
KING: Well, all you had to do was change to the hand buttons.
WEST: So the technology was available then to do it.
KING: Yeah. They were slower and General Motors didn't want anything slower.
WEST: They wanted the foot pedals rather than the buttons.
KING: Yeah, because the man could be doing a double operation at that time.
WEST: Was it the union that pushed, do you think, for the buttons rather than the foot pedals then?
KING: Well, the men were against it from...that worked on there...for years, as long as they'd had it. But they never had the strength to demand anything, you know.
WEST: Did you have a works council in the period before the union came around?
KING: Oh, they'd have meetings and company men would get up. And they were just pushing company policy. That is, the more you can turn out, the better your wages are gonna be, the more secure your job is. There was nothing other than that, you know.
WEST: I'm interested in the way the foot pedal operated, though. You didn't have the same control over the mechanism then, over the presses.
KING: Well no, your hands were free, then. And when your hands are free, if you work hour on hour on hour on a job, your mind wanders, you know, on a production job like that. And you get to turnin' panels over one after another for hours and then you expect that next panel and it's not there. Or maybe the man who was feeding the steel into it is delayed and the press is comin' down late. And you reach in for that panel and you lost a hand. And the company nowadays is very safety-minded. For instance, a man works...later on I went to work die work. And when you have to climb in one of those presses inside of the die, they would shut it off, they'd unplug the power, they put safety blocks on all four corners. You never had any of that.
WEST: No. Is it fair to say that it was the union that made the company safety conscious?
KING: To a degree. They pushed it. The company did give in to that far easier than they did in many other things. One thing, they never at that time...you could never demand any type of job. You went where they put you. That is, you couldn't make any demand outside of seniority. And of course, until the strike you had no seniority. So you didn't make any.
WEST: Was the work pretty fast, the speed-up?
KING: Oh, you had to go almost on a jog. When I had to go get materials, you would figure it a dogtrot. And with piecework, now like that pillar job, at the time the strike was pulled it was rated seventy-nine cents an hour. But it was piecework and you had to get so many jobs to get seventy-nine cents. But you had a base rate of sixty cents. So that if you fell below that, the machine breaks down or something, you would still get sixty cents. But if you'd turn in enough to make more than seventy-nine cents an hour, they'd cut the price of the job.
WEST: I see. So in effect you couldn't make more much than seventy-nine cents.
KING: Could not go over seventy-nine cents an hour and you knew better, because if you turned it in one day, the job price would be cut. Then you'd have to turn in that many.
WEST: Were you working with teams then?
KING: Oh yes. In a sub-assembly you had a group. I think that pillar job had about sixteen, eighteen men on it. There was a lot more hand labor then than there is now. You know there was less automation and more men.
WEST: You got to know those men pretty well then, didn't you?
KING: Oh yes. And you knew who you could believe, you knew who you could count on to back you up, who was fit, afraid and who was not. It's just like some kid you go to school with. You know if he's a hard-nosed kid or not, you know.
WEST: Right. Did some of them try to push the job faster than others? I'm wondering if you were paid by the piece there might be some boys who would figure they'd push it.
KING: There was always people, we called 'em "hungry", that thought by producing more that they were gonna advance. And we knew who they were. And after the union got in, we made life miserable for those people. A lot of 'em got rode right out of there, you know.
WEST: How was that? How could you work it?
KING: Well, they'd tip over his dinner pail and let his lunch drop on the floor. Or they'd get in his way everything he'd try to do. His stock was always out of line where he couldn't handle things. They'd make his life so disagreeable. Or he would call for a relief man and the relief man would put him off (when he had to go to the toilet) for an extra half hour.
WEST: Was there any of that before the union?
KING: Yes, but it had to be kept quiet because once the company found out, you would be blacklisted. In any kind of a layoff you would be the first one to go. And you knew it, so you had to hide anything like that that you did.
WEST: I see. Did some of those pushers become foremen then? Is that what they were pushing to do?
KING: Yeah, and they were counting on that. And the company counted on it. As a matter of fact, the company had plants. When they were tryin' to organize that, we knew that they were gathering information. But you knew the nature of the people that you worked with pretty much. And you suspicioned certain people. There were some that were above suspicion.
WEST: How could you? That interests me. I've heard it from others, too, that you could spot who the spies were.
KING: You knew the guy's disposition.
WEST: That intrigues me, how you managed to catch on to that.
KING: You work with a man day in and day out, year in and year out, you get to know his nature. And a guy, for instance, that will lie about one thing, will lie about another. And you know that. And after a certain time you knew this guy is an honest, straightforward guy tryin' to make a livin'. You knew this guy will do anything in his power to advance himself.
WEST: What you're suggesting, then, is that a lot of the so-called spies were not Pinkerton men or detectives hired by the company.
KING: No, no.
WEST: They were stoolies within the workers.
KING: Oh, some of 'em had relatives on supervision and so forth like that. And they were...but there were certain people you instinctively distrusted.
WEST: Did the company, do you think, hire people and pay them specifically to...?
KING: They could have but I never knew of it.
WEST: You never knew that. You were never approached then, to act as a spy?
KING: No, but I was told...I remember this happened early the first year I worked there. I got behind on a job. I had too much work; I couldn't do it. And I was just workin', my arms goin' like windmills. And I had only been there a few days.
WEST: That was on presses were you working then or the pillar, the center pillars?
KING: I was workin' on the body line that first year. And this foreman come up to me and he says, "Either you're caught up by noon or you're all done." And I had a file in my hand and I threw that damn thing as far as I could throw it. I said, "We ain't waitin' 'til noon, you son of a bitch," and I started after him! And I was twenty years old then and I thought I could whip Joe Lewis, you know. "No, no, no, I'll get you some help. I'll get you some help."
WEST: Oh he backed down then?
WEST: They didn't fire you.
KING: And from that time on, I never had that much fear of those people.
WEST: That's interesting. I would have expected under those conditions you would have been fired and someone else... Why do you think he didn't?
KING: Well, he knew that he was askin' too much, and that I was probably givin' him more already than anybody he could put on it. But if he could squeeze out more, he'd get it.
WEST: I see. But when you raised a fuss, he was quick to...
KING: Well, I thought, well, I don't want this job this way, you know.
WEST: When was that? What year was that?
KING: That was 1934. But I knew it happened to other men. There was a man...at that time they used to have a little vent, an air vent in front of the windshield that you could open, that you could reach down and open on your car. And there was a steel liner nailed in there over wood. And this man used to put that in there and he had to nail it down in a channel. And it was a difficult job. He was an older man, probably fifty. But he couldn't keep up the job. They just laid him off and put on a young fellow. And they would do that. Well, the guy had a family. I knew him. He was an awful nice guy. He was doin' a normal man's work or maybe more. But they knew somebody could do it faster. And all those things would build up in you, you know.
WEST: Not only what happened to you but what you would see happen.
KING: You knew that someday this is me.
WEST: It was harder, then, on the older men wasn't it, then?
KING: Oh yeah, because they had no recourse to any grievance procedure or anything. A superintendent's word was absolute. Well, even a foreman. Now, by nature those men weren't all that way 'cause there was good ones. But even the good ones had to hide it.
WEST: What was your own relationship, generally with your foreman? You mentioned this one run-in that you had. Was that typical?
KING: I had some of 'em that turned out to be good friends later on. But for the most part, in the early days, I despised 'em.
WEST: You said, "them" indicating you had a succession of foremen.
KING: Well, yes, you'd be on a different job maybe, oh for instance you'd come in in the morning. "And this job isn't running today; you're goin' over here." And you'd be under a different foreman. And then, for instance, "This job is out of stock, so you go on quarter panels."
WEST: You were moving around then, quite a lot.
KING: Yeah, but in the department I was in, when you got on the main assembly line, you didn't have that, because the line always run and there was always the same jobs there. But the third year I worked there I went to work in this sub assembly. That's what they called the stamping unit, the press room and metal shop. The metal shop was sub assembly for the press room. I worked back and forth between the two.
WEST: Now did the coming of the union and the strike make any difference in changing, in men changing around? Or was it more likely you would have specific jobs to do?
KING: Well it did. Not right away, but within a year, maybe a year and a half. They had seniority in your group, whatever your classification was. For instance a machine operator, he would stay a machine operator. He didn't have to go to pushing stock on hand trucks. Or he didn't have to sweep or things like that. A press operator had seniority as a press operator. And then there was helpers. And there would be one operator on the press and the big presses had three helpers. And his wage was higher and he had a little security on that job.
WEST: Now when you were being changed from job to jobs, these jobs presumably varied in pay. How did they change that?
KING: Yeah, a little bit, but very little bit. But for instance, some jobs on piecework, the term they used was "you can make hourly". Like the jobs, some paid eighty-nine cents an hour. It was rated at that. Some of 'em you couldn't possibly reach their figure. Some of 'em you could. That was what made the big difference when you went from job to job. If you got on one that you could, what you called make out or make your money. Because now for instance ten cents an hour difference, when you're makin' seventy-nine cents, was a lot of money.
WEST: Sure and you knew there were some jobs where you could make that difference and others that you could not.
KING: Yeah, and some that you could not. You couldn't even make what you called your day rate, which was sixty cents an hour.
WEST: Was there pressure to equalize those conditions somewhat so that everybody could make their rates?
KING: The company used to try to grade 'em. They wanted you to keep the job fast enough so that you could just barely reach it. And they had time study on that. And they had that figured pretty close.
WEST: It wouldn't do you much good to devise ways of cuttin' corners on the job, either, would it, to use your imagination?
KING: When you reached your point, yes, they did. They made things easier for themselves. But you reached a point, like I say, where you turned in more than that job was rated. But another thing, they would watch you and if you had idle time or if they could tell you were stalling (and they could tell it) they would raise the price of the job. So you were caught in a cross fire there.
WEST: Right. Were the men expected to do things, favors for the foreman, in order to keep on his good side?
KING: I never run into that because most of 'em knew I disliked 'em and they wouldn't... I was labeled a "troublemaker" early.
WEST: Yeah. Can I ask you then, when you came into there, hired in?
KING: I hadn't been there a week when I tangled with that foreman the first time.
WEST: That's the incident you mentioned?
KING: Yeah, and I think I was labeled from then on.
WEST: You hired in to Fisher Body then, was it in 1934?
KING: In January the eighteenth, 1934. And I lied my age to get in.
WEST: How old were you then?
KING: I was twenty and they wouldn't hire anyone under twenty-one. And I looked older than that. I knew if I told 'em I was twenty-one I'd have to prove it. So I told 'em I was twenty-three and they never questioned it. And when the Social Security Law passed and they had to deduct, I went down to the employment office and straightened it out.
WEST: That was a bit afterwards.
KING: Yeah, that was.
WEST: How young were some of the guys there? I know some of the older ones. But would they hire 'em...what was the age at which they hired?
KING: Pretty near everybody they hired new were young, twenty-one, twenty-two or twenty-three years old.
WEST: I wonder, eighteen, would they take 'em?
KING: No, they hired no one under twenty-one. That was the adult age at that time, you know. And so I don't know if they considered themselves liable for hiring young people like that or what.
WEST: Which would mean they wouldn't really hire many right out of high school, then?
KING: No, you had to be twenty-one. That's why I had to lie about my age to get in.
WEST: I see. Well, that's interesting. Were you born in Flint?
KING: No, I was born in Chesaning? Do you know where that is?
WEST: Oh, Chesaning, Michigan. You were born in the state.
KING: Well, I grew up over around Owosso. The way I ended up in Flint, I got a job at the old Southern Michigan Transportation Company in Owosso. And then they transferred me to Flint, the Flint branch.
WEST: So you were working on the railroad?
KING: I was working here for the Southern Michigan at twenty-two and a half cents an hour drivin' trucks. But when I hired in to Fisher Body, I hired in at fifty-five cents an hour.
WEST: So that was way more than double.
KING: So that was double, more than double. And so you were watchin' for those shop jobs, you know.
WEST: How did it come to your attention that there was an opening? Or were they just hiring?
KING: There was a line of men in front of that employment office every day. They'd hire a few. They would take their choice, you know. And I was coming in from Detroit with a load of freight for the Southern Michigan. And I got up in front of that employment office comin' down Saginaw Street. There was no expressways then, you know. And I saw the line was short 'cause I used to come in there pretty near every morning with that truck. So I parked the thing double, right on Saginaw Street, walked across the street and got in line. And when I got up to the window, the guy said, "What can you do?" I says, "I'm a metal finisher," 'cause I had seen him hire a metal finisher ahead of me. I didn't know what a metal finisher did. And "Where did you metal finish?" And I said, "Briggs Body in Detroit. It was a damn lie. But you couldn't get a job unless you lied. And he wrote me right up.
WEST: You didn't have to prove then that you could do that job.
KING: Well, he wanted my birth certificate. It just happened that the courthouse in Saginaw, a few years before, had burned down. I was born in Saginaw County and the birth records were destroyed. I explained that to him. He knew it to be true.
WEST: But I mean as far as demonstrating that you could do the job as metal finisher.
KING: No, as a matter of fact, there was one guy who the first morning I went in there, for instance, a man was scared to show you a job because he didn't want you to learn his job because he was in jeopardy then. They put me to work opposite a man. I was supposed to metal finish the back fender. By metal finish, I mean take the flaws out of the metal. I knew nothin' about it. I did know and was acquainted with a man in the tool crib. And they told me, "Go check out your tools." And I went to the crib and told this fellow, when I saw who he was, "Give me everything a metal finisher needs." And he give me a tool tray with files and emery cloth and so forth in it. I didn't even know how to use it, but I went back, and I was watchin' those guys on the line, what they were doin', and I tried it. And I had worked about fifteen minutes tryin' to imitate the guy across from me. And the foreman walked up and says, "You never metal finished in your life, did you?" I said, "No." I'm caught. He says, "Come on, check in those tools and come with me." And I checked the tools back in and he took me down and put me on a job with a spray gun, spraying rubber dough over the wood frame of the body as they come out of the wood mill. And so I got another job. So he wasn't too bad a fellow. That went on even when we were regimented. You know that any production job was so monotonous, and you had no relief men. You did things just to antagonize some guy and then he would try to get back at you. And that went on constant. And if it hadn't have gone on, your hours in there would have been unbearable, you know.
WEST: Can you give an example of that kind of thing?
KING: Well, for instance, you'd put a panel in the machine, do your operation, hand it to the next man. And he gets so he gets them all day like that. But then you'd turn one end for end and hand it to him wrong end to. And he would usually drop it on his foot, and oh, little things like that. There was another man (this was one of the funniest ones I ever witnessed) in there that had an easy job. He had to drill two holes in the cowl as it come out of what we called the horseshoe welder. He just put a little template on it, drilled two holes and waited for the next one. And the rest of us had more work than that. His electric drill had a cord that run under the repairman's bench and plugged into the wall. But it had an extension and a joint on it. And this old repairman reached down and unplugged his extension. The man next to him, his motor quit, you know. But he was young and he was built just like a Greek god. And he'd flex his muscles and in front of those old guys that didn't go over so good, you know. And he'd do pushups in his spare time. When his motor quit, the guy next to him says, "It got too hot. You blow in those air holes and it'll cool off and it'll go." So he blows and he blows and he blows and he blows and just as the next panel was ready to drop off the line, his motor started. By that time he's behind. He works like hell to catch up. Just at the time he got caught up, it quit again. So he starts blowin' again. And they kept him blowin' in there for an hour and a half on that damn thing. And you know, if they'd pick a guy that was a little bit odd ball, they would ride him unmercifully and that sort of thing. It went on forever. Or they'd take your dinner pail. And where the lock latches were, one of those fellows with a torch solder would put a drop of solder in under that latch so you couldn't open it. And you'd grab your lunch and nothin'! You'd have to find some heat, melt the lead off to get your lunch.
WEST: Well that's interesting. You came in then in 1934, hired in. Was there union at that time in '34?
KING: They had a strike that spring with the old American Federation of Labor And when the strike was over they fired everybody that had anything to do with organizing it. I went back to work for a nickel less an hour than I went out.
WEST: Now that strike of '34 interests me. Were you involved in that strike?
KING: No, I walked out and didn't come back in to work while the strike went on. But I had no real part in it. And I had signed up in that union. And that was the old American Federation of Labor.
WEST: I see, it was a federal labor union then, a local plant-wide.
KING: Well, I never really got too familiar. The only thing I knew was what the man they called the steward was near me in our area that signed me up in it and talked me into it. They had a union hall downtown where they held meetings at the old Pengelly Building. And I never really went to their meetings.
WEST: But you did sign in to the union.
KING: I did sign in and I paid 'em a dollar.
WEST: What were the grievances behind that strike in '34? What were the men after?
KING: Well, really the same grievances that they had later on. But it made a lot of men distrust any union after that, because the men who had signed 'em up in the union all got fired.
WEST: Well, there had been an earlier strike, hadn't there, as far back as 1930?
KING: There might have been, but I wasn't around.
WEST: Who were the people? What departments was it that took the lead in that strike in '34, do you remember? Were there certain jobs that...?
KING: Well, I can remember that I worked in the body shop in '34, and they were some of the ringleaders in there. That was what they called the "body in white," the steel as it's being assembled. And I can't even remember the man's name who signed me up. But he was fired and I never saw him again.
WEST: Was there a man named Maddock involved?
KING: There was a Jim Maddock who was a foreman in there, but I knew him later. I mean, I don't know if he's a...
WEST: Do you know any of the leaders? Can you remember the names of any of those leaders?
KING: Not in the early ones. I knew the leaders in the sit-down.
WEST: Right. But in the '34 strike?
KING: No, no.
WEST: But you say the failure then, of '34, and the leaders were laid off.
KING: Yeah, it was a complete bust, and it made men distrust the union, because if you got involved, these boys were fired, we'll be fired. When I finally...they had quite a time talkin' me into signin' up in the United Auto Workers.
WEST: I see. Did you let your membership lapse in the A F of L then after strike?
KING: Yeah, I never rejoined it. And the reason I signed up, the man who was trying to sign me up, I knew him and I liked him.
WEST: Who was that?
KING: Bob Robinson. And later he was the chief steward in the metal shop. He was a union man right from the core but I knew what he told you, you could believe.
WEST: What did he tell you then? How did he try to convince you that this was gonna be any different than the old...?
KING: Well, because he says, "Our leadership is honest and I can tell you who they are. And you're gonna like them. If you don't like 'em, then throw 'em out," and so forth. And he says, "My job is on the line. If you want to run for steward against me, you're welcome to it."
WEST: Who were those leaders then that he described to you. Do you remember? Bud Simons?
KING: Well, some of the ring leaders... Charlie Lewis was a gas welder and he was one. A fellow by the name of Bert Harris, who turned out to be not so good, later on, was one. He turned company. The Aldred brothers, they were paint shop men.
WEST: I've talked to some of the paint shop, Jimmy Spohn.
KING: The Spohn brothers, there was three of 'em. Ralph was the one I knew the best. I can't think of the other two names.
WEST: Jimmy was one, James.
KING: But there was three of 'em. And there was the Sutter brothers, Francis and Linus Sutter. They were both, and they were paint men. And the Aldreds, Jerry Aldred, as a matter of fact, was chairman of the strike committee. There was Phil Wise. He was another body shop man and a gas welder. And at that time he run a little hotel on the side out to Lake Fenton. And I never saw him after the strike was over. But he was the sheriff of the plant, that is, to keep order. They called his men the "goon squad" because they were to go wherever trouble was.
WEST: That was during the strike itself.
KING: I was on the goon squad.
WEST: Oh you were! I want to get into that, too. But I'm interested in the leadership right now. Did you know Bud Simons?
KING: Yeah, very well.
WEST: What sort of a man was Simons?
KING: Surly, sort of. He was a little bit...we thought him a little pinko, a little red, but he could not be overwhelmed by the company. He was hard-nosed and he was stubborn.
WEST: Walt Moore, Joe Devitt, did you know any of those?
KING: That one is not familiar.
WEST: But the leadership you're describing, the paint department, the body shop, you are describing certain groups of men that seem to have been particularly militant.
KING: Well, see these certain groups I knew better than others. Now that plant, if you visualize it, employed five thousand men, and you didn't know 'em all, not by any chance. But you did get to know, you know...of course, the ones I was thrown in with. This Phil Wise I knew because I was under him on that goon squad and he was the boss of it.
WEST: Yes, right. I want to get into that but taking things in order you joined the CIO, the UAW then. When was that?
KING: Well I joined back in...I think I had paid three months dues before the strike.
WEST: I see, so that would have put you in about September or so, October.
KING: Yeah, along in the fall.
WEST: Did you attend any union meetings then?
WEST: Where were those meetings?
KING: In the old Pengelly Building. I think it was the corner of Third and Harrison. And that building has since been torn down.
WEST: You didn't meet in any private homes then or basements or that?
KING: I never did.
WEST: We heard that some did.
KING: I understand that some of the fellows that were in before me did. But by the time that I got in it, I'll tell you who was doin' a lot to organize it was a fellow by the name of Bob Travis.
WEST: Yeah, right. I wanted to ask you about him. You knew Bob Travis then?
KING: Yes, well, I knew him at the time. I haven't seen him since the strike was over. He's dead now, I think.
WEST: Just recently died.
KING: He was, I thought, a good man, a very good man.
WEST: Did you know Wyndham Mortimer at all?
KING: I met him as he passed through. As a matter of fact, the night of the...well, we called it the Battle of Bull Run at the Chevrolet. The Reuther brothers had been there. And they expected the police were gonna come from there to Fisher 1. And the Reuthers had left Fisher 2 and joined us at Fisher 1 to help out. And their eyes had been tear-gassed and they were in bad shape. And Mortimer was with those fellows. Bob Travis was with 'em. All three Reuther brothers and I was at the gate on that goon squad when they came in there. And I thought, my god, if these guys are in that shape what kind of shape are we gonna be in when this thing is over?
WEST: But the police never did come?
KING: No, we expected 'em, all night. As a matter of fact that plant filled up with men, some of 'em we didn't even know, that night.
WEST: They came into the plant then?
KING: Yeah, and some of 'em were from Ohio, some of 'em were Buick men. They were figurin' on a fight with the police. And I think that they had a nose count of over two thousand. It was the highest number of people that I ever saw in there. And I remember when I went to go to bed that night, we had a bed made up of three auto cushions with a floor mat over it. And there was a man come up and says, "Care if I join you?" He wanted to lay down beside me. I didn't know him. I didn't care.
WEST: Right, you were in pretty good shape then. But the numbers did get down pretty low at times didn't they, in the plant?
KING: Oh, after it dragged on, I remember I was in there one night that there was thirty-six men I think. Out of five thousand, that's not many.
WEST: Didn't you fear that the police might choose to come at that time?
KING: Well, it so happened that the National Guard was out there then. And once they got in, the police were out. But we thought that if any kind of a raid whatever takes place now, there was nothing you can do but walk out.
WEST: Morale must have got pretty low.
KING: It was. Oh, those poor guys, they had no home life. I wasn't that religious to it. I had a girlfriend and I would slip out. Of course I had a lot of buddies around the gate that would let me out. I'd go home, change clothes, have a date, spend the night at home, have a bath to clean up, come back in the next day. But I always come back.
WEST: Where were you living then, at the time?
KING: At the time we lived on Cornelia Street, just off of Saginaw Street.
WEST: You weren't married then. You were single.
KING: I was single but I was goin' with what is now my wife.
WEST: But you were living with your parents then.
KING: As a matter of fact, the morning the strike was called I was on days. The strike was called on the second shift. I didn't even know that it was gonna take place.
WEST: You had no premonition then?
KING: Well, we knew eventually there was gonna be but it was hurried. The company got wise to how well organized they were getting to be. And they were tryin' to move a bunch of dies out of Fisher 1 to other plants. For instance, Fisher 1 could tie up everything. We run parts for Cadillac, Olds, Pontiac. And if they tied up Chevrolet and Fisher 1, you had General Motors stopped. If they could get those dies out to other plants...and what had happened, the men got wise that they were movin' the dies, and they called a meeting across the street at lunch hour and said, "We gotta shut it down now before they can get those dies outta there." And especially the die setters had to refuse to work, the men who were pullin' the dies. And they went back in and set down. I had gone home the night before from work and I come back the next morning. I had been delivered a new car the day before, a new Chevrolet. I drove it to work for the first time. And when I got out, here's men leanin' out the window and millin' all over the yard. I parked my car and got out to find out what was goin' on. I handed my dinner pail in the window to those fellows who had been there all night. Went home to explain to my folks why my brother didn't come home last night.
WEST: Oh, he was in the plant then?
KING: He was in the plant. He had been on the second shift. And I hadn't seen him that morning. I knew he was in there somewhere. I went home and got some more food, got some different clothes and come back out and joined 'em.
WEST: You went into the plant then.
KING: I climbed in through the window.
WEST: You climbed in through the window. Did they have things so organized then? Did you have to show any identification? People were coming and going there, I guess.
KING: Yeah. They wanted to know who you were, what department you were from, and what your job was, you know and so forth. But there was somebody in there that knew you, anyway. You know you couldn't come in unless you could be identified by somebody. And not only that, they had a pretty good idea what kind of a person you were too.
WEST: Your mother and father, they were both living then at the time?
WEST: What was your dad doing?
KING: My dad was an ice cream maker at the old Harding Dairy. And he supported us all the way, although unions were a new thing.
WEST: I was gonna ask about that. You didn't have any flak from the family then?
KING: None. As a matter of fact, somebody hit my dad in the eye over a local argument at the corner tavern. And Dad was past fifty years old then. But talk come up about the set-downers and some guy says, "Those sons of bitches." And my dad said, "My sons aren't sons of bitches," and shoved him back in his seat. And he popped my dad in the eye.
WEST: So there was some tension then, in the community.
KING: Well, neighborhoods. See, now a lot of Buick men said we were keeping them from work. And they got no compensation and they didn't like it.
WEST: That interests me, why it was that Fisher Body and Chevy were organized. Buick never did go out, though I gather there were some people there.
KING: Well, the union knew that they could tie up Buick at any time by tyin' up Fisher Body. And so they put all their efforts in the Fisher, I think. That was what I assumed.
WEST: So it was strategy then. I wondered whether the men, the nature of the men in the Buick, would have made it less susceptible to unions then maybe.
KING: If you look at it, if you tied up Fisher 2, stopped Chevrolet production, tie up Fisher 1, stop Buick, Olds, Pontiac and Cadillac by stoppin' those two. Well, they needed to shut down the Chevrolet Plant 4. And they did. But once that was accomplished, they had General Motors shut completely. I never realized how thoroughly they had done it until later, how tight it was. The AC, all they were building then was replacement parts. They had no work, you know. No new car production. So we shut down everything.
WEST: Now you were appointed, were you, to this job with the goon squad, as you called it, in the plant?
KING: Yeah, you registered. Well, the first three days I worked in the kitchen.
WEST: Were you assigned there? Someone tell you that that's where you're gonna work?
KING: Yeah, he said, "We need so many men, you, you, you and you." The strike committee did that. This man took charge of the kitchen, this man took charge of who went in and out and so forth, what you brought in. They didn't want any liquor in there. That was one thing.
WEST: But you did have plenty of food?
KING: Yeah, such as it was. That was why finally I wasn't in on the strike. I had an ulcer that erupted so bad that I had to go home to my mother's cookin'. And I ended up having my stomach cut out.
WEST: Oh gosh. What was wrong with the...?
WEST: With the food there, I mean?
KING: Well, for instance the first three days all we had was pork and beans and bread. And it came in, boiled beans with salt pork in it, in ten-gallon milk cans. And I was behind the counter in the cafeteria with a soup scoop bailin' beans out for guys. And that was just what they got: plain, boiled beans.
WEST: What did you have for breakfast then?
KING: Bread and beans for the first three days. But later on they had coffee, they had cereals, milk.
WEST: Eggs and bacon?
KING: No, we didn't have that. Things that could be prepared and brought in. We didn't cook there. Some of the women were cookin' in the back of that union hall. I never knew who those women were.
WEST: Did you know where the food was coming from?
KING: No, we thought it was coming from the international union out of that dollar dues we paid. That was what I kind of gathered.
WEST: I gather some of it came from donations.
KING: Yeah, I found that out later. I didn't know it then.
WEST: So you worked in the kitchen then for three days and then you went...?
KING: Then they put me on the goon squad.
WEST: Why did they change you then?
KING: I was young and I could run.
WEST: You were young and you could run.
KING: And I don't think they thought I was doin' much good in the kitchen, either. Well, what they had, they didn't have enough men to surround that whole plant to defend it in case there was a raid. And this goon squad was set up. Now the papers labeled us "the goon squad."
WEST: What were you really called?
KING: The "sheriff's department."
WEST: Who was the "sheriff," then, did you say?
KING: Phil Wise.
WEST: How many deputies were there in his whole group?
KING: Oh, probably about forty when it first started. And our job was that we had guards placed here and there near the gates outdoors. And if there was anything that looked like trouble developing or any signs of police, more than one police cruiser gathering, this guy would signal and the goon squad had to go to that point to defend.
WEST: How would he signal?
KING: Just a wave of his arm or a flashlight at night.
WEST: They were stationed outside of the doors then?
KING: Yeah, and they changed that man. For instance, in the wintertime or, like, for instance, in the summer a guy could go out there and set all night, as it begin to get warm. But that was in the middle of the winter. And so they'd send a fresh man out about every half hour. Changed that guard and let the other guy come in. And I never was on that guard.
WEST: You were just available for duty if anything...
KING: And, oh, we made a half a dozen runs that were for nothing. You know, they'd get all keyed up. I remember we went out to that railroad crossing on Atherton Road there, back of Fisher Body. They had two police cruisers come up there and they was just settin' there watchin' the pickets. And we went out there on a dead run. And they laughed at us and drove away.
WEST: How were you armed then? Or did you have clubs or anything? Did you make weapons?
KING: Well, what we had was called truck stakes. They used to have trucks, hand trucks, that they shoved stuff around inside the plant. And there were stakes on all four corners. These stakes would pull out and they were about two by two inches. And there was piles of those stakes inside there.
WEST: Oh yes, there would be plenty of those.
KING: And they were about three and a half feet long and about two by two. They made a pretty good club.
WEST: I'll bet. Things must have got pretty boring inside there.
WEST: How did you keep yourself amused?
KING: Well, one thing the guys got to weavin' blackjacks. They made blackjacks outta lead from what was in there from the body shop. And they had upholstering, leather upholstering that they covered the lead with leather. And some of those blackjacks are works of art. I had one at one time. And I know I sold it for two bucks. I'm sorry I didn't keep it.
WEST: Yeah, it would have been nice.
KING: We used to have a show every night, and that was just anybody that could play a guitar or sing. They had one fellow in there with a bullwhip. He used to put on an act. But after you saw their show and the same show tomorrow night and the same show the next night, it got to be pretty old.
WEST: Right. Did you have newspapers in the plant then?
KING: Brought in newspapers and, as a matter of fact, when I'd go out and go home I'd come back in with three or four books and loan them to the fellows I knew, you know.
WEST: Did you have a radio?
KING: There was a radio down there in the kitchen. But I never spent any time listening to it. Usually card games went on and on and on. And they played poker with washers for chips and three washers for a penny. And I mean, so you couldn't lose more than a nickel if you played all night, you know. But nobody had more than that.
WEST: Right. Some people we've talked to described the kangaroo court that you had.
KING: Yeah, that was mostly a joke.
WEST: Like horseplay, you mean?
KING: Yeah. They'd accuse a guy of something and then they'd give testimony against him. Then they'd have a guy appointed to defend him and it was just a big laugh.
WEST: Were there any serious violations of rules then, in the plant? Any one try to...as you say, liquor...?
KING: No, the only one that I knew of...like I started to tell about that guy that wanted to lay down with me. He sat down and I says, "You aren't a local boy, are you? You aren't from Fisher 1, are you?" I knew I hadn't seen him before. "No," he says, "I'm from Toledo." And I forget where he said he worked. And he says, "Do you expect police in tonight?" I said, "Yes, it wouldn't surprise me." He says, "You got a gun?" And I said, "No." He says, "I brought two. I got a .38 and a .32." He said, "I'll loan you the .32."
WEST: Now that wasn't permitted either was it, according to the rules?
KING: No, and even our own strike committee didn't want that, because we knew that you would probably have an army against you if you were armed.
WEST: Right. Did others have guns, too, do you know?
KING: That's the only one that I ever knew about.
WEST: You saw it then?
KING: I didn't see it. I just says, "No, thanks."
WEST: Were there a lot of outsiders then, men from Toledo?
KING: Yeah, that night.
WEST: They had to identify themselves, didn't they, somehow, as members?
KING: Well, see, Reuther was there, Bob Travis was there, Mortimer was there, Roy Reuther and Victor Reuther were there. And they were okayin' these guys that night. And our own. For instance, my brother used to work at the door in and out and where they could come in and out the window. And he wasn't even on that window that night.
WEST: I see. Were there reporters that came in from other places?
KING: I never saw 'em.
WEST: I understand there were. They came from all over the country sometimes.
KING: They could have. I never saw them. Nobody ever talked to me.
WEST: Any damage done to machinery?
KING: Not machinery. Once they narrowed the thing down, they come out of the area where the machinery was because that wasn't comfortable. You lived there day and night, you know. And that was grease, oil. They went in the area where cut and sew, upholstering, where you had comfortable seats to set in. It was clean and there was some damage to auto cushions 'cause guys slept on 'em for a couple of months and they were worthless afterwards. And they cut up a lot of leather upholstery makin' blackjacks and things like that. But as far as destroying machinery, I never even saw...
WEST: No deliberate efforts out of maliciousness, then?
KING: No, there wasn't even a window broken, to my knowledge.
WEST: Right. Now there was the outbreak at Chevrolet 9 and then the taking of Chevrolet 4. That comes later in February, February the first, I think it was. Did any men from Fisher 1 go down to lend a hand to help?
KING: No, as a matter of fact, we wanted all the help we could get there, because we thought they had just raided Fisher 2 first and were comin' to Fisher 1 next. We was sure they'd be there the same night. We were almost positive we were gonna be raided. But that's when the Reuthers came in with their eyes so...
WEST: I was wondering...that was the Chevy 4 and Chevy 9. Earlier there was the Battle of Running Bulls. There was those two episodes. What about that? That came earlier, I guess, January the eleventh or so. Did you get any help?
KING: Yeah. Well, we had the same defensive set-up that they did. For instance, we had taken door hinges and we put 'em in nail kegs and we had carried 'em up on the roof.
KING: We had these acid fire. I don't know if they ever used any of them at Fisher 2 or not. We never used it.
WEST: You had acid?
KING: They were a type of acid. They weren't the old foam fire extinguisher. But I understand that they could have blinded a man. And we had some of them on the roof.
WEST: And you had fire hoses.
KING: And the fire hoses they all had available. But they never run 'em out. You know, they knew who they were. At first the company was gonna shut the water pressure off. But their insurance company wouldn't stand for it.
WEST: I understand that. Well, the strike is over then. February the eleventh, I guess the strike finishes. What was the mood then, of the men in the plant?
KING: Well, you had men probably say they come crawlin' out of the woodwork. Men who had been afraid to even scratch their butt on company time, saw that the company could be beaten. And then they were roosters, you know. We saw a lot of men that had been too scared to even partake in the set-down strike were just in there makin' demands to beat hell. I mean, you know, it was kind of funny in a way. They also knew the men who had won the strike, the men who had taken part in it. Every officer elected in the union almost, was a guy who had been in the set-down strike, 'cause they knew who they were.
WEST: Right. But the union then did get a lot of new members, of course, after the strike.
KING: Oh, everybody, everybody signed up.
WEST: But there must have been some that were reluctant.
KING: There was a few.
WEST: How did you get them?
KING: I had one old fellow...'cause I was a steward right away.
WEST: Oh, you were a steward right away. How did you come to be a steward then? Were you elected, appointed or how was that?
KING: By the group. Each group of men...like there was, I think, twenty-two men in our group...had their own steward elected because...
WEST: What group was that, what job was that?
KING: That was back on the old pillar line, the center pillar. Then the chief steward was this Bob Robinson who had signed me up.
WEST: I see. So you were a steward.
KING: Yeah, and when something...you represented these twenty-two men. But you went with your case to the chief steward. You talked only to your own foreman. If you went higher than your foreman, the chief steward had to do it. So if there was a dispute arose and you couldn't settle it with your foreman, you went to the chief steward with your complaint. And he took it higher. That was before we had committeemen situated.
WEST: Right. Now you represented then about twenty-two men. Was that less or more than most of the stewards would have?
KING: About the same. I think they all got about alike.
WEST: You got to be pretty close then, to the twenty-two guys. There were so few that you could keep on top of it.
KING: Oh yeah, you knew 'em all. They were great fellows.
WEST: What sort of grievances did you take up then with the foremen?
KING: Mostly with speed. It had to do with speed. And then there was a constant battle over down time. If a machine would break down and a man was on piece work, he's tryin' to make seventy-nine cents an hour. And if his machine broke down he couldn't get it. So they would give you, say, a tenth of an hour down time if it was down six minutes. Okay, that one tenth of an hour you got, didn't count against your hours worked. That was a bonus, you know. Okay, but you had to be down six minutes or they wouldn't give you any. Well, okay you would be down nine minutes. The guys would want two tenths. They wouldn't give it to 'em. Argument.
WEST: They didn't give you anything did they, before the strike then?
KING: No, nothing.
WEST: How did you get that? Was that in the bargaining or the negotiating with company to get that down time?
KING: Well, that was got between the men in the front office. We had down time before that. But we had no way of bargaining if we didn't get enough, you know. They'd give you what down time they thought was fair, not what you thought was fair. And we couldn't bargain over it. But afterwards we could! And that was one of your big arguments. And then they would try to run the job a man short, one man less. And that always started a fight.
WEST: They'd lay a man off then?
KING: Sometimes. Sometimes a fellow would be just absent. So they would try to get by with one less man. Sometimes you would have just as soon done it. But you know if they were on that job today with twenty-one men, he'll never be back. And you knew that.
WEST: Was there any trouble with discrimination in firing, that is, attempts on the part of management to fire union men?
KING: Yeah. I remember a fellow, Lewie Strickland, was fired. And they set down. That was only about three or four days. He was one of the chief stewards out of another department. And they took him in the office and the word got out in the plant that he was fired. I guess he was still in the office. And they sent a delegation to the office to put Strickland back on the line or the plant goes down. You got five minutes. Well they said he was out of the plant. So they set down. Well, I guess he had been out of the plant 'cause they went out and tried to find him so they could get the plant runnin' again. But the word had spread through that plant almost like a radio broadcast if something would happen. If they fired a steward, they would set down. And that happened in different areas of the plant. Men that got fired that I didn't even know about. But I think there was three times within the first month that we set down.
WEST: It took a while to get things...
KING: Yeah, these superintendents, for instance, saw their power eroded. They weren't used to it. They had nobody dare challenge their authority ever before that. They couldn't digest it. Okay, the men had a new sense of power. They had never knew it was there before. And they overdid it. I mean, they reacted suddenly and quickly. They didn't know anything about grievance procedures or anything. And like I said before, fellows that had been too timid for anything were oh just troublemakers from the word go.
WEST: Were some of the strikes then, do you think, and some of the stoppages frivolous, you know?
KING: Yeah. One thing, the word would get around through the grapevine "so and so got fired." Maybe he wasn't but the word had gone through the plant, and by the time it reached you, you got an entirely different story. And you were willing...oh, they ain't gonna get away with anything now, you know.
WEST: It must have been kind of hard, though, on the union too, to try to keep the men in line.
KING: It was. You had men like that Robinson would try to keep fellows reasonable. And it was difficult because they didn't understand it.
WEST: And of course, if you were a steward that was elected by the men, you had to work with them.
KING: You worked with your chief steward as a rule. And you had meetings with those fellows. And the fellows that knew more about it than you did, would explain how to handle situations to you. And that's where that Travis was awful good.
WEST: Oh, Travis. How did he involve himself then, in this situation?
KING: First he was an organizer. But every union meeting we had, and especially they'd have meetings of stewards and the chief stewards, and he would be there. He would counsel you on how to handle situations. And he was very good at it.
WEST: Did he try to get you to cool it, as it were, to get the men to...?
KING: In a way. There were certain things that... Don't stand for this, don't stand for that.
WEST: What would those things have been? Do you remember what things they were you were strict on?
KING: Well, one of the things was laying off anybody out of seniority, in line with seniority. If you're gonna lay off anyone, he had to be the newest man or he don't go. And that was number one. Once you had that, you had a big thing. Then after that foot button deal come on, there was no more foot buttons anywhere in the plant.
WEST: Safety, in other words, was the important thing.
KING: Yeah, they weren't allowed. And then they got to the relief man. And once you got a relief man, don't ever let 'em take him away.
WEST: Now before the strike, you had relief men. But did you hire more then?
KING: Very seldom. We didn't have relief men. I even worked on the body line. When you had to go to the toilet, you had to expect to work your way up the line far enough so that you get to the toilet, get back. By that time your job would be behind and catch it and catch it up.
WEST: You had to time yourself so that you could work ahead.
KING: Oh yeah, you just run to the toilet and run back.
WEST: But then you did get relief men. How many relief men would you have then for a shift? I wonder how that worked.
KING: Well, later on I got to be a relief man myself and at one time I was relievin' twenty-one men.
WEST: So your job would just be to be there.
KING: Let each man go to the toilet. And he would call for a relief man.
WEST: Right. Now as steward, you were processing grievances. You did that on the company time. Was there an agreement to pay you so much?
KING: Yeah, and they had to put a man on your job when you were on union activities.
WEST: I see. Was there a limit to how much time you could be involved in that union activity?
KING: At first it was an hour a day that they would allow you. And then after they got the committeeman system, (I was also a committeeman) then it was two hours a day.
WEST: Now when did that...that interests me... Well, go on then, the two hours a day you were working. You had two hours. You were a committeeman then. When did that system come in?
KING: Right after the split, when the union, when part of it went American Federation of Labor and part of it went United Auto Workers. They had the R. J. Thomas faction and the old A F of L faction. And myself, I had had my taste of A F of L in '34, so I wanted no part of that. But there were men that were friends of mine that wanted it to go A F of L.
WEST: Yeah, apparently Aldred and some of the paint shop.
KING: Yeah, Aldred did. There was another fellow, Arless Freeman, would have been a good union man, but he went A F of L, and it caused a lot of friction amongst old friends.
WEST: Bert Harris, now you mentioned him as a good union man and then you say he turned company. Can you elaborate on that at all?
KING: Now I might be doing the man an injustice, but I don't think so. He was a big fat guy. He was a toggle press operator, and a toggle press operator was rated twenty cents an hour higher than a crank press operator, thirty-cents an hour higher than a helper. He was a chief steward in the department. And they had done away with piecework in every area but the press room. But he would not negotiate it because the job he was on was piecework. It was gettin' him a dollar and ten cents an hour and he would have only got a dollar.
WEST: So Bert Harris, then, was running a toggle machine and he wouldn't accept straight time.
KING: Well, no, he wanted...and so we were a year later than all of the rest of the plant in doing away with piecework because of Bert Harris.
WEST: Did that cause some friction?
KING: It caused some friction and it caused Bert Harris to get kicked out of his job. I remember a fellow by the name of Charlie Green got that job after Bert Harris. And Charlie Green was such a scrapper. I mean, any kind of a fight, an argument, fistfight, whatever. You name it; he liked it. He enjoyed it. He was one of the best union men that I ever knew. And all at once when the war broke out, they makes Charlie Green a foreman at the tank plant. Charlie Green ended up General Production Superintendent of Willow Run. Well, they put him on supervision to get him off their backs. But he turned out to be one smart cookie and they knew it.
WEST: What happened to Bert Harris, then, after he left the job?
KING: Oh, he was still there. He worked there for years. And later, I think, he quit and went to sellin' real estate. But a lot of us didn't like Bert Harris. I was one of 'em. There was a lot of factionalism in there. And you had people in the plant, jealousy part of it, I think. The committeeman's job, for instance when I got that, if they worked ten men overtime (I was raisin' a family), they had to work the committeeman. So he got extra time, extra hours. That meant extra money. There was a lot of fellows wanted that. And they were a little jealous of your job and they were running against you, you know, as a committeeman for their own. And they had support, you know, backers.
WEST: Right. Now as a committeeman you represented more men than you did as a steward.
KING: Oh yeah. There was over three hundred men I represented. But then, she had quieted down. You had not near as much of it. And for instance, all of your committee calls used to be to the same foreman. A man would call for a committeeman and there was some foremen in there that never had trouble with their men. The same ones, over and over and over again.
WEST: You would have to deal with them.
WEST: As a committeeman representing three hundred men, it would seem that you weren't as close to the men. You couldn't be as close to the men on the job as a steward.
KING: No, you didn't even know all of 'em.
WEST: Which did you prefer of those two systems? And I'm wondering why the one gave way to the other?
KING: Well, it's hard to say because we had a better contract after the... Each contract was better than the one prior to it. But we had a better contract after we had the committeeman system. I think I would have liked the old steward system the best because the representative was closer to his people and understood his job, you know. I mean, for instance, any man that had trouble, I worked close enough to him that I knew what his trouble was. And I knew if it was reasonable or not. And the committeeman would go call a man off his job, talk to him and get his version of what went on and would represent him. But sometimes he didn't thoroughly understand that job as well as he did with that small group, you know.
WEST: Right. Was it easier to get an action on a grievance, do you think, under the steward system than under the committee system?
KING: No, no, it was tough, because you had to drive everything right down their neck in those days.
WEST: It took a while for the foremen, then, to adjust.
KING: Yeah, to bend to anything. And most of us were in such a shape that we couldn't afford to lose time from work. I mean, you know, times were tough and we had been through a long strike. You didn't want to go without wages. You couldn't afford to. Not only that, there was even some of us single like me didn't have a family waitin'. I could have gone without a paycheck. But I'm working right next to a man with three or four children who can't go without a paycheck. And what kind of an SOB would I be if I shut him down, you know?
WEST: It was a tough job, I can imagine, being in that situation.
KING: Yeah. You had to try to strike a balance. And of course, we all made mistakes. There was one man. I'll never forget him. I worked with him at one time on that nailing job. Then he disappeared and I never saw him again 'til after the war was over. When I come back to the tank plant after the war, he's my foreman. And anyway I was elected committeeman and he's my foreman and I used to work with him. And, as a result, I had to tangle with him every little while. He made general foreman. Then he made superintendent. Then he was made...and when he got to be superintendent I was dawdlin' with him every day over something. And you'd think he'd hate me. But I finally got into skilled trades, moved out into tool and die. I'm no longer part of the union, only a member. I dropped all that. Here he was a general production superintendent. And he would stick his head in my welding booth and make some smart remark when he'd come into work in the morning. And he was a friend of mine 'til the day he died. And you wouldn't think he would be.
WEST: Well, of course, he had come up hadn't he, from the ranks?
KING: Yeah, and not only that, even negotiating with him. If he told me something, I could believe him. I knew I could. Some of 'em you couldn't. But he knew I knew I could believe him.
WEST: So you had a good rapport there.
KING: Yeah. And we'd have some bitter arguments. And I'd lose some and win some. But when that was all over, it was forgotten.
WEST: You mentioned that you took the CIO's side in the controversy with the A F of L. What was that fight all about, as you look back on it? What were the essential issues involved?
KING: Well really, the issues were in Detroit. There was a lot of reds working in the union, I understand. It was on the United Auto Workers' side, I believe. But the old Green faction of the A F of L, it was in Detroit. Different leadership wanted the job. That was the whole size of it.
WEST: Did you know Homer Martin at all or form a judgment of him?
KING: I've seen him, but never personally knew him, no. Homer Martin went A F of L. R. J. Thomas went United Auto Workers. And I kind of watched the Reuthers and more or less followed them.
WEST: Right. What interests me, though, is that in the period after the strike, around the summer or the fall of 1937, Travis and a lot of that leadership that was in Flint at the time of the strike, is eased out. Roy Reuther moves out, Travis... They're transferred, apparently, by the actions of the workers.
KING: Yeah, but we used to see those guys. Now they went on to other fields. They were organizers, professional organizers. But Reuther was back. I mean he always kind of figured those two Fisher Bodies as his little pets, you know. And he come back. I know he was at a lot of our just local meetings. And he called me by name when he would meet me, Walter did.
WEST: Did you get to know Roy and Victor much, because they were more important, I understand, during the strike in a way than Walter was during the strike?
KING: Yes, they were. Well, the only thing I knew about those two, I played poker with 'em for those washers all one night, but oh, they were kind of odd fellows. They weren't too awful friendly, except for the only thing you could ever get 'em to talk about was organization and union. I mean, like if you and I lived in the neighborhood and we visited, even though we did the same job, we would talk about goin' fishing or hunting or something. But you couldn't get either Victor or Walter, or Victor or Roy Reuther to talk out about anything but organization and union. That was the only thing they thought of.
WEST: Speaking of that, after the strike, there were efforts to make Flint, as I understand it, a hundred-percent union town. That was the talk. You had your base in the auto industry, but there were efforts to organize other areas in Flint. And from what I can gather from the newspapers, there were strikes at the Durant Hotel to organize restaurant workers and everybody. Do you remember any of that?
KING: Oh everybody was trying to organize. Where my dad was at the Arctic Dairy, I know my brother got fired from the Arctic. He was a milkman and he got fired for tryin' to organize. He was a route foreman and he says to all the fellows under him, "All right, you bastards, sign up." Some of them went back and told the company about it and they fired him. And he never did get back.
WEST: That was your brother, did you say? Well, was that the one that had been in the shop?
KING: No, he was a different one. He peddled milk at the Arctic Dairy. He was my oldest brother. He finished up (he's dead now) as plant protection chief on the second shift for Chevrolet on Van Slyke. And he was a lieutenant colonel in the army.
WEST: Now did your father get in the union then?
KING: Yes, and as a matter of fact my dad was in the Dairy Workers Union. That came long after we were in there. But the union people, they would come to my dad. And my dad was a mathematic genius, almost. You wouldn't believe that from an ice cream maker, but he was. They would come to him to figure out if the company raised the milk price so much a quart and it was because they raised the farmer so much a gallon. What increase did they give the farmer compared to what they took for profit, as compared to what the men should get working for them? My dad later, after they quit makin' ice cream in Flint, he went to work in the office and he used to check in drivers. He could take...the man would check in his money and he could take his list of four figures like that on a pencil and total 'em, and go down like that and write the answer across the bottom. It didn't rub off.
WEST: Well, do you remember anything else about that post-union, post sit-down strike activity?
KING: All at once it seemed to get respectable, but it hadn't been. The first Sunday I come out of Fisher 1, I went home on Saturday night, had a date with my girlfriend. I went to mass the following morning at St. Michael's and heard the priest get up and condemn us for confiscating other people's property and so forth and that we were a radical, Communist group.
WEST: What church was that?
KING: St. Michael's. The priest was Father Kenny. The following week he had to come back and retract it. The bishop got on him.
WEST: The bishop got on him. Do you think that he had heard from some of the people?
KING: We heard that. At least I heard his apology.
WEST: That was interesting. Presumably you were Catholic. Then there were several Catholics in the plant.
KING: Oh sure, those Southerners. As a matter of fact, a guy campaigned against me for committeeman and his theme was that the Catholics were runnin' our local. You got King, Barley, Whaley, Finnan, and Yorko. Well, really, Yorko was Catholic, Finnan was Catholic, and I was and Whaley was. You could tell by the names, just about. But this Malott and Morley were painted with the same brush, and they weren't. They were our buddies. Of course, we were in a clannish group, you know. But nobody else got any representation in there but the Catholics. And that was when I had him beat when I run for committeeman.
WEST: Was it effective that kind of...?
KING: Sometimes. There was a lot of ignorance in there.
WEST: Oh yeah, I can imagine. Now that opens up another question, the whole attitude of the Ku Klux Klan and that, because there was a group in Genesee County. I know in the twenties they were pretty strong, and the Klan would be anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, anti-black. Did you ever run into any of that?
KING: Well, it was veiled, because everybody knew pretty near who I was and that I was a Catholic. They knew I had a lot of friends. I had one fellow one time come up to me that I was working with when Kennedy was tryin' to run for president. That was years later. He says, "I don't know why anybody would vote for him. They know we couldn't stand to have a Catholic president." I just thought "What the hell."
WEST: But did you run into the Klan? Did you know of its activities?
WEST: Or a group known as the Black Legion, which was strong at the time?
KING: No, none. Well, see, up until World War II, we didn't have a black man in Fisher Body.
WEST: Oh, you didn't.
KING: There was one man who used to clean the hospital that was a colored fellow. He was kind of a mop john in there. And he was the only one. The Fisher brothers were anti-black.
WEST: They were? It was management then, that you think was keeping the blacks out?
KING: Yeah, they hired who they wanted to, and there was no black man ever in there. When they went to the tank plant, there was black men workin' there. But at Fisher 1, well, when we come back after the war, then they were taking blacks in.
WEST: Did you have any difficulty on the job then, with some of the whites not wanting to work next to blacks?
KING: ...he was an old guy, you know. And he was just hand labor. I was an arc welder. And he was just grinding out flaws in the tanks. And they put a black man on one side and him on the other. And he refused to work with him. And they said that he had to and he quit. And I know that was the best job he ever had in his life. But it was ignorance, you know.
WEST: Right. Now you mentioned some Southerners. There were a lot of Southerners, weren't there, at the time of the strike?
KING: Yes, and there was a lot of those. Most of the men that were leaders were not Southerners, because their whole attitude was a little more timid, a little more apt to bow to authority than what a Michigan-grown man was.
WEST: They weren't as easy to organize then?
KING: No. They were a little shy of fighting the hand that feeds 'em. And I think that because Michigan people, natives, were more like that was because of the farm background. They were an independent bunch. I remember my dad tellin' about he knew a man that they brought from Belgium to start a sugar factory in Owosso because he knew sugar. And his name was Cohen. My dad asked him once, "Well, how do you like it here compared to Belgium?" And he says, "Oh, you know, in old country you takem off hat, 'Mr. Cohen, Mr. Cohen, Mr. Cohen.' In this country, take off coat, 'Fight, you son of a bitch!'"
WEST: It was different attitudes.
KING: So that attitude was there. I always thought it was. Later on, as the union showed its power, those men with Southern background were as good as union men as you'd find in the world. Some of 'em were the very best!
WEST: Right. Were there Poles and Hungarians and others in the shops, people from Eastern Europe and European backgrounds?
KING: Oh, I mean, there was nobody in there that couldn't speak English. But I have worked with men with accents, you know, European accents.
WEST: Were they good union people?
KING: Mostly were, and some of the best. If you had old country Scotsmen or old country Englishmen that had come out of those mines in Wales. And they were the best! You could not push 'em. And when you elected one of them to a committee job, he'd give you everything he had!
WEST: There are several other aspects. The attempt to organize other auto plants after the strike, 'cause GM had settled. But Ford was still not signed. And I understand that there were troubles in Pontiac.
KING: There was.
WEST: And Studebaker in Indiana and all over. Were you ever involved in attempts to organize them?
KING: No, I never left Fisher 1 or was involved in anything outside of Fisher 1. I never run for any office higher than committeeman. I run for a delegate to the convention once and got beat.
WEST: Did you get involved in any of the...we were talking earlier about the A F of L/CIO fights. Were you involved in any squabbles there?
KING: Arguments inside of the plant. As a matter of fact, there was people who had been my friends for years, that had no damn use for me, and me for them, you know. I think they were traitors.
WEST: There was bitterness then, real bitterness.
KING: Yeah, there was.
WEST: Did it take a long time for that bitterness to die?
KING: Some of 'em, it never did die out. When I left the plant on a disability, that Arless Freeman was one of the leaders for the old A F of L. And he was still in there when I retired. And he had been isolated for all those years because those men, hundreds of 'em, never had any use for him. But he had seniority. And no, once you were labeled like that, that hung with you. And it was too bad, because some of those men had been...you know, laid groundwork for that union. The Aldreds had.
WEST: Yeah. Some of them quit, didn't they, the plants afterwards and left?
KING: Yeah, some of 'em did. Aldred went to work for A F of L International, but he would have probably got crowded out anyway. The Aldreds and the Sutters and Spohns were all friends. And the Spohn brothers all went United Auto Workers, and that alienated them from the Aldreds. And they had been friends right from the early days of the set-down. So that was too bad, you know, because they were both sincere. There was guys in there that I knew. For instance, one fellow's name, we knew him by nothing but "Dirty Joe." But he was as hard-nosed a union man as I ever knew. I never did know the guy's name, 'cause he was just "Dirty Joe." And they called him that because his language was so filthy. And there was different ones. I remember a fellow by the name of Koshaba. He was one of the final guys that never missed a day in the set-down strike and was killed in the Pacific during World War II. Carl Koshaba, he grew a beard and wouldn't shave it until (beards weren't popular thenz) the strike was over. And he had forty-four days' growth of beard when he come out of there.
WEST: In the period of the strike, now, did you have any run-ins with people who belonged to what was called the Flint Alliance? It was a back-to-work movement, I guess.
KING: Yeah. Well, arguments, neighborhood arguments. And as a matter of fact, one day... Do you know who Father Sheridan is?
WEST: No, no.
KING: Well, he's the head of the Catholic Social Services here in Flint, but, at that time, he was a young assistant pastor at St. Michael's. And I lived just right near St. Mike's, down on Cornelia Street. I had gone home to take a bath, change clothes, go to a barbershop. Went into the barbershop and the man was cuttin' my hair and in comes Father Sheridan for a haircut. And he recognized me, of course. And he says, "You're one of those mixed up out there on that South End." I said, "Yeah." He wondered what I thought we was gonna gain by that and so forth. And he started runnin' it down. And I got in a real heated argument with him. And I'm mad. The barber finished my haircut and was shaking as I gets up out of the chair. I says, "I can't understand you. You're supposed to represent poor people and believe like you do." He says, "I don't. I just wanted to see how convinced you were." And he had me all worked up.
WEST: So he was not as hostile then, to the strike, as you thought.
KING: No, and then he laughed like he thought it was as funny as hell.
WEST: He's still alive then, so we could perhaps talk to him.
KING: Oh, he's a smart cookie, always was.
WEST: Well, that's interesting. Was the attitude of the clergy then, the hierarchy of the church...?
KING: Divided. As far as I knew. Like I heard that old Father Kenny----he was an Irish-born, an Irish immigrant priest----and I don't think that he was just too well informed, you know. But Father Sheridan was a man of a different stripe.
WEST: Did you know any of the other Catholic clergymen in town, then?
KING: I knew Father Olk. Yeah, he's pastor of St. Agnes for years. And at that time he was also an assistant at St. Michael's.
WEST: Is he still alive?
KING: Yeah, he's retired.
WEST: Father Olk.
KING: O-L-K, Olk.
WEST: Was he sympathetic?
KING: He was pretty quiet about it. As a matter of fact, I was so involved I didn't see those men that much during the strike. But they never condemned any of us afterwards, you know.
WEST: No, no. There was a group, I guess this was afterwards, perhaps, called the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists. Did you ever hear of that?
KING: I heard about it but I never got involved with it.
WEST: And actually during the strike there was a woman who was involved in publishing a paper known as The Catholic Worker. It was apparently very sympathetic, too.
KING: I remember it.
WEST: Dorothy Day was her name. And I had heard that she made a visit, in fact, to the plants during the strike, very brief. And I wondered if you had encountered her? She's still alive and a very old woman now.
KING: The only woman that I knew involved in the strike was, and you see her name in our union paper yet, old Mary Nightingale. And she worked in that kitchen over there preparin' food across the road for the whole damn strike. And later when the strike was over, she was in the cut and sew, where women work mostly. And she was the bellwether of all those women. She could keep 'em in line. She represented 'em and she's just been one hell of a character over the years.
WEST: Well, this has been very interesting. One other aspect that we touched on earlier. There was a lot of talk at the time of the strike that leadership was a bunch of reds, you know, Communists. What did you think of that charge?
KING: I had pegged certain men as Communists. Once you were exposed as a Communist, you were voted out of any office that you held.
WEST: Is that right?
KING: Yes. There was always some question about Bud Simons. I always wondered about Bill Genske. Have you ever heard that name?
WEST: Yes, I have.
KING: I always thought Bill thought a little bit red. I never was sure.
WEST: How would you feel that way? What evidence would you have that a man was red?
KING: Well, I read an article one time in an old Collier's Magazine about a fellow that had been an underground FBI man in the Communist Party, and later exposed, you know, and turned in. And he wrote an article on how to identify a Communist. And once you read that article, if you could hear a man in our local union, you could spot him in a minute because of his line. One favorite practice was to go to a union meeting on a Sunday afternoon, get up and ask for the floor and talk until everybody went home but his majority, and then they would vote through what articles he wanted.
WEST: Did that happen then?
KING: Yeah, it happened here. And once I found out and others found out that that was one of their tactics, these guys were literally thrown out of the union hall. And I mean bodily. I can remember two friends of mine, this Arless Freeman that I mentioned, and a fellow by the name of McDowell. They used to have Communist meetings down on the corner of Eighth Street and Saginaw.
WEST: Oh, were they Communists then?
KING: No, those men were not, but they went to that meeting to see who was there. So they could identify anybody that they knew. Because McDowell was an Irish Catholic. Freeman was, I don't think, anything. But some of the guys recognized McDowell the minute he walked in and they beat the hell out of him and threw him out.
WEST; The Communists did?
WEST: But the party was above ground then.
KING: Yeah. Well, I picked up a paper when I was inside the plant, the Proletarian News.
WEST: Was this before or after the strike?
KING: That was during the strike. I found that in the plant.
WEST: Do you know who brought that?
KING: I don't know how it got there or who brought it in, but they were there.
WEST: They were there.
KING: Yeah, and we knew it.
WEST: Were they good union people at the time?
KING: Well, really some of 'em were kind of the hubs of the union, you know. The men with no fear of consequence, but the ones who got identified, once they were identified as reds, this membership here wouldn't stand for it.
WEST: When was that they began to purge? Was that right after the strike?
KING: Right after the strike, yeah.
WEST: Was the A F of L/CIO split somewhat on that line?
KING: We never knew about any red workings in there. There might have been. I always figured that R. J. Thomas was a little red. Walter Reuther was an admitted Socialist but not Communist.
WEST: There was a difference between socialism and communism.
KING: Quite a marked difference, yes.
WEST; Did you know any of the others. Let's see who I am trying to think of who were associated with...?
KING: Later he was president of the local. He is retired now.
WEST: John Yorko.
KING: John Yorko, yeah. And he was really one of the instigators of this "thirty and out." But some of those men lived a life of union activity. He was one. Bill Genske was one. Larry Finnan, who was my neighbor, was president of our local and worked for the International for years. Later he was just fired as the Burton Township Treasurer. You probably saw that in the paper.
KING: But he was an old buddy of mine.
WEST: Some of these men are still alive. We could still talk to them.
KING: Oh yeah, Finnan was in that set-down strike. Well, like I say, they were young men like me. And we weren't the leaders. We were rabid, kind of carefree age, you know, that we figured we couldn't get hurt that bad anyway. A lot of those men had a lot more to lose than we did with families and so forth and jobs on the line.
WEST: Can you form a generalization about those who did sit in the plants? Were most of them older men with families or were most of them young?
KING: Most of 'em were younger except with a few exceptions. For instance, the Sutters were young married men. The Spohns were young married men. And I've seen their wives come out and bring 'em a change of clothes and hand 'em in the window.
WEST: They never did go home, then?
KING: Most of the time they didn't go home. I would go home about once a week. I would go out and join my brothers and we'd go north huntin' snowshoe jackrabbits for a weekend. And then come back and Monday morning come back in the plant again, but I never let it interfere with my fun too much.
WEST: I see. Now the woman I was thinking about was Genora Johnson. Her husband was the man who worked in Fisher 2, I think, Kermit Johnson.
KING: I remember a man by the name of Johnson.
WEST: Well, that was a fairly common name.
KING: He had a finger missing on one hand. I can't think of his first name.
WEST: Well, you have been very helpful. I have appreciated talking with you. Can you think of other things we haven't touched on here?
KING: Well, only that it took years for the animosity between supervisors and workers to subside. But it gradually had, until today if you were in there, you could walk up to a foreman and say, "This isn't workin' right. Can you make it work better?" And he would try. And in those days, "If you can't run that damn thing, we got somebody that can." You know, that attitude is not there anymore.
WEST: Presumably in the long run it was better for the foreman, too, to have settled relationships.
KING: It was. I heard a man say...and I knew him before that...who was a superintendent at Chrysler. And I got to arguing union with an old uncle. And he set there listening to it. This uncle of mine was terribly anti-union and he says, after he debated, thought he had had me goin' about my...he turned around and he said, "Bert, what do you think?" "Oh," he said, "Gene, he's right." He says, "Now I deal with one man. I don't have to deal with eight hundred."
WEST: It makes a difference.
KING: And so here the superintendent even thought that way. He was a Chrysler superintendent. He said, "No, Gene, he's right."
WEST: Well that's interesting.