INTERVIEW: FEBRUARY 28, 1980
INTERVIEWER: KENNETH B. WEST
INTERVIEWEE: ORVEL SIMMONS
SIMMONS: During the war I was in the skilled trades on the shapler.
WEST: Was that dangerous work?
SIMMONS: Oh, it was dangerous for getting cut. Oh, man, they had a damn job over there in Plant 8. Today they got guards and protection more and everything. But, you know, people rush in there at a fast rate of speed. And they were scrapin' themselves up on things stickin' out and everything. And they had a job that they called it ...oh, it's this rocker arm pillar, where your rocker arms are on your car, on your valves, comin' up and down. There's a cover, you know, on top of your motor there. And that was really a dangerous line. There was guys there that would get their fingers cut off on that line. It was just that short head and you'd stick them in there and that press comin' down. And somehow you would stick it in there.
WEST: And you didn't have adequate safety devices.
SIMMONS: No, you had no guards or anything at all. Now you put that piece in there, although they probably don't even use their hands now. It's all automation. But those puttin' that piece in there, see, and you were workin' at a high rate of speed, tryin' to keep up. You're puttin' it in and hittin' that and puttin' it in and hittin' it to trip it so the press come down. And you couldn't get your fingers out fast enough sometimes. Today they got all kinds of safety guards that you can't get your hand under there.
WEST: Now were you working steady during the Depression?
SIMMONS: Oh no, during the Depression I was laid off five times.
WEST: What did you do when you were laid off during those times?
SIMMONS: I had what they call a savings plan. And they had me all pumped up that you can buy stock in General Motors. Well, I guess it was a good idea if a person could have held on to it. But I would buy this. You could have this money held out of your pay, see. But, hell, by the time I would get three or four hundred dollars ahead I'd get laid off. And what they would do...at that time they kind of operated like a company, like I hear about in these steel mill towns. General Motors owned a bunch of houses here or something.
WEST: Yes, up in the Civic Park area.
SIMONS: Yeah, and a lot of these workers bought them homes. Well, when they got ready to lay off, the guy was payin' on that home, see. They wouldn't lay him off. They would let him stay in and make his payments. They had no seniority really. And they operated as they damned pleased. Well, I'd always get laid off, for one thing 'cause I was single. I could see their viewpoints at that. I didn't have a family and I sure didn't have no General Motors home. But durin' that time, what brought me back all the time...I might have went somewheres else. I don't know if I would have done any better. A lot of people were in a heap of bad shape in that depression. But all of 'em didn't stick it out. But my mother and father went broke. They took everything my father had. You know he used to go to the bank and borrow money to farm.
WEST: Was that in Missouri or did they come up here?
SIMMONS: Yeah. And when they sold him out in the Depression, they took all his farmin' equipment and everything. He just went out of business. He didn't have nothin'. Well that's all the old man knows. So I was tryin' to help my parents. I was tryin' to...well, when I was workin' I was sendin' them some money, see, so that might have been one reason why I put up with it. 'Cause a lot of people did quit. They didn't stay. Man, they come and they went.
WEST: Did you stay in town then, or did you go out of town to get work?
SIMMONS: Oh, I did the best I can. Sometimes I would go back South. I went back South and worked on the river. And I worked in those mills and gas stations and whatever you could find to do to make a dollar.
WEST: Would they write to you then when employment picked up in Flint again to come back or how did you find out?
SIMMONS: Well, the word did get around, see.
WEST: Word got around that they were hiring.
SIMMONS: No, they didn't call you back. You always had to come back and re-hire in. Like now you would say that you're laid off. Well, you wasn't fired, but you was done. Now if you say that you're laid off, well, they call you back when the shop starts up. But you don't have to re-hire in every time.
WEST: But you could get back in. You didn't have any...
SIMMONS: Well, yeah, they had your record. And if you was a good worker and this and that, they would take you back in. It might be a while. You didn't just come right back up here and go to work, but you come back when they was hirin' and you'd think you could get back in.
WEST: Did you have a car during that time?
SIMMONS: Yes, I had a car, but I lost the blame car right at that strike. That's what caught me there. That was another gamble. I owed a hundred and twenty-nine dollars on a car and lost it. And that just shows you how much money you could save. You make a hundred twenty-nine dollars now in one day. And I couldn't even come up with a hundred and twenty-nine dollars. I couldn't make the payments.
WEST: That was during the strike?
SIMMONS: Yeah, I wasn't makin' the payments. They just come and took my car.
WEST: What were conditions like in the plant then where you were working?
SIMMONS: Well, it was just likely to kill you. By god, it was just like slavery with that damn foreman. I don't know. The only thing I can see about this, Mr. West, is up at the top that's all they knew. I can't figure it in my mind why those people would be that cruel and be such difference in 'em now. Now they're not like that at all now, you know. But it seems to me that up in New York or where they're runnin' this automobile business from, that they didn't know really what went on down in the damn shop. And of course this supervision, all he knowed is they're givin' him hell to produce, produce, produce. And he don't want to be down on that line workin' so it just come on down the line from the superintendent down to the general foreman, down to the foreman and you get it, you get it, you get it. And each one of them guys, by god, he's liable to wind up and be back down on that damn line hisself and so he's passin' it right on down to the bottom. And there is just the worker and he is just gettin' it. I hate their guts! Now I don't feel that way about 'em now. But actually I hated their damn guts.
WEST: At the time you didn't have a good foreman. Who was your foreman in particular? Was he pretty...?
SIMMONS: We had an old guy they called Pancreum. Yeah, he stands out with me. And I remember he was a former boss of south Plant 8.
WEST: Was this about the time of the strike?
SIMMONS: Yeah, just before. He had a cauliflower ear or something. I can remember him. He used to jump up and he'd holler, "Bring 'em on, bring 'em on." I'll tell you, it was just like what you've seen in these chain gangs and prisoners. They just about operated thataway.
WEST: How did a person get to be a foreman then? Were they promoted off the line?
SIMMONS: Yeah, they come up mostly. Nowadays they are hiring, you know, out of colleges and places more so. But most of 'em come from right off the line. And a lot of the guys that was my foremens in latter years, they stuck it out. I worked right with 'em. And I know there was a guy named Baker. Well, there were several of them. Well, I knew a guy he made general foreman. They come up and I worked right with 'em right in the same booth. Maybe it wasn't so hard for big people as it was for a small guy. That is thinkin' from my own viewpoint.
WEST: Oh, it was physical size that counted.
SIMMONS: Of course, some of them jobs that they do, boy, it was a son of a gun. I can remember they used to take those fenders and they used to put a warp in 'em around the edges. It was a big fender. They would put that in that blame machine. I couldn't have done it because I wasn't tall enough. And the fender, it's up in the air and when they put that warp on, they're bringin' that around. And they're goin' under that fender, back up like that, one after another. I guess they got on to it but I couldn't have done it. I couldn't have held that fender up there that way.
WEST: Now, were you expected to do anything for the foreman in order to hold your job? I've heard of that.
SIMMONS: Oh, hell, yes. A lot of guys got their jobs... Well, there was a guy run the poolroom down on the corner. I didn't know about that, but I found out about it later. They gave him twenty-five dollars and he would split with the employment manager and they'd come out and called your name. See, that's how they got their job. It used to be where Plant 9 is there on Kearsley Street at the end there. That's before they built Plant 9. That's where the employment was back in '29, up in there. I can't remember exactly what year they did build Plant 9, but I think it was almost the last plant that was built. But the employment office was there. And that's where they'd gang up and line up. If you've seen pictures you know about this hirin' on the docks in New York. Well, the assembly was like that. You just went down there. And as you say, the guys that they had to work on it paid off. They called his name and if they needed some extra ones, why, they'd call 'em. One time I got in there. They called for a metal finisher. Well, I needed the job bad. Hell, I didn't even know what metal finishin' was. I told the man, "Hey." I remember that. I was a little ole bitty guy and we were packed in there. The guys just picked me up and passed me over the heads until I was up at the front of it. And I went in and hired in. And I don't know, this foreman said to me, "You a metal finisher?" I guess he thought I was young. It's kind of a trade. It takes you a while to learn it. I said, "No, I ain't no metal man but I'm keepin' up my mother and brother," and I said, "by god, I need the job." He said, "Go on in and they'll tell you. They'll put you some place." He could have said that they don't need you. But they could always replace you. Like I'm tellin' you, they were quittin' or they was firin' somebody every day. So there was just a big turnover all the time.
WEST: Why did guys quit? Just because they couldn't...?
SIMMONS: Oh, they would quit, I guess, just because they figured they didn't want to work like that, I guess. And a lot of those small-town people, in my opinion, of course, we had 'em go back. I know a number of people that went back and they didn't stay here. They went down where they come from. They just didn't want to live in the cities or something, I guess.
WEST: Did you know any people in Flint from Malden, Missouri? I've heard that a lot of people from Malden came up.
SIMMONS: Yeah, they came from Campbell, Malden, Kennett, all around. No, I mighta knowed some but...
WEST: Did people from Missouri and Arkansas live together in a particular section of town then?
SIMMONS: Yeah, those people were small-town people, you know. And they were neighborly and they all knew one another. Now where I roomed and boarded, there was six of us.
WEST: Where was that?
SIMMONS: Right down here on Twelfth Street, I believe. There was an old lady and her husband worked in the shop. And she took boarders in to help out on the side, you know.
WEST: Was it dirty on the job and hot?
SIMMONS: Oh god, yes. See, you didn't have any things that picked the dust and stuff out of the air. Nowadays they use like a buffin' machine. Well, you've got a pipe that runs up from that buffin' machine and goes out through the ceiling. You know, there's a fan up there that pulls that stuff up. Here we didn't have nothin'. Here you had a buffin' wheel. I don't know whether you know what a buffin' wheel is or not. It's like a rod goin' on in a cloth. Well, you buff in there and all that dirt and them fine parts of steel that's comin' off of that part, it's just flyin' there in the air. That was the way it was before the strike. Now that's all there is to it.
WEST: You were talking about the conditions, the buffing of the metal and that.
SIMMONS: Yeah, you might say until the union come in there, they didn't care one way or the other. Of course, you didn't have these laws like nowadays that they gotta do somethin'. You had no such laws.
WEST: Now we have come to the union. Was there any union activity in Missouri?
SIMMONS: I didn't know what a union was. When I first come here, I thought they were Communist. Just like they thought we were. When we come down we were a bunch of Communists. Hell, I wouldn't have known what a Communist was if I'd a met him in the street.
WEST: Well, you came up then in '29 and there wasn't a union in the autoworkers at that time.
SIMMONS: No, not at that time.
WEST: But when did you first hear of union talk from the workers?
SIMMONS: Well, they come in and we still all kind of graduated together. I had moved over to another place and I was stayin' with some people. There was about three or four of us boardin' there with this man and his wife. And they worked in what they called "Little Fisher" at that time.
WEST: Fisher 2, would that be?
SIMMONS: Yeah, that's over on Chevrolet Avenue. And that's where they had the Bull's Run and this fightin' and all this and that. You know, the talk was goin' around and we gonna get a union started. 'Cause I guess it was really bad over there. I never worked in there, so I don't know. Well, I guess it must have been the A F of L come in here.
WEST: Yeah, they came in about '33, '34.
SIMMONS: Yeah, and we all got in it. I paid my dues. Yeah, I'm all set to do somethin' about this proposition.
WEST: So you didn't know about unions, but you weren't afraid of the idea.
SIMMONS: I never even had been to a meeting. I mean I just joined. I paid my dues. But all at once that folded up, and there went your dues. I don't know whether it was a company bunch, that the company come in bawled out or what the hell. It just went flooey, see.
WEST: Well, they had some strikes down at Toledo, didn't they?
SIMMONS: Yeah, they might have down there. But I know it killed enthusiasm here. You know, people here were fooled. Here they got the money and they didn't do a cotton-pickin' thing. And then the company set up what's called a work council. Well, that is some guy off the line. He's gonna represent you and take your story up there to the higher supervision. And it wasn't no good, because they didn't settle anything at all. They might hear your story, but that was the end of it. Nothin' was done about it. It might have slowed some of them foremens down or somethin'. Some of them guys, shit. They were sleepin' with them...the foremen on supervision, sleepin' with worker's wives and different things. There was things goin' on, but it wasn't right.
WEST: Did you know any of the men who were in this company union then?
SIMMONS: Yes, but it's been so long. Oh, he's dead. Barnett, one of the guy's name was Barnett. But he died quite a while ago. He was a company man. He did this, you know. Supposed to be a representative between the workers and the company. It don't make no damn difference. When it was all over they were the guys that were actin' as company goons. So they got a little bit better break by doing this thing, see. They were the guys that the company used that had the clubs when they did pull the damn strike against the rest of the workers.
WEST: So the A F of L folds up.
SIMMONS: And then that comes. And then that's one reason that I wasn't even in the union. There's guys know more about this than what I do. 'Cause they had got it started see, again in the CIO. I mean, John L. Lewis in the CIO. 'Cause I didn't go in the union until the day that they struck!
WEST: Oh, I see. Did you know that there was activity going on?
SIMMONS: Well, you would hear rumors. But I had just been transferred from nights to days. I always worked nights, and these guys on days don't know me. Hell, you'll be liable to be talkin' to some stool pigeon. And if they found out that you belonged to the union, you was fired! So they don't tell you. They don't really know.
WEST: So nobody talked to you.
SIMMONS: Nobody talked, see. The reason I joined the union, the day that I joined the union, I was comin' by Plant 9 and there's where they pulled the fake deal, you know. They made 'em think that they were gonna take over Plant 9. What they really was gonna do is take over the motor division. That was Plant 4. 'Cause they know if you can't build a motor, you ain't buildin' nothin'. So they started a fight in Plant 9, and me and my ex father-in-law, we came by there.
WEST: You were still working at Chevy 4 then?
SIMMONS: Yeah, I was comin' out. I come out of 6 and I come up there because I would always come up there on Kearsley Street to catch your bus, you know, to go home to where you lived. And they were at it. They were fightin' in there.
WEST: It would have been later in the afternoon.
SIMMONS: Yeah, it was around three, four o'clock. I can't remember just what time it was. I don't know whether I was workin' ten hours or what. But as we come by there, this here what they called "The Womens' Brigade"...that was the scrappers' wives that formed a group. They were marchin' up and down and they were fightin' in Plant 9. I could see guys comin' out. You know they had been half whammed over the head. They said (of course, you don't know about rumor), but they said the company had shot off tear gas in there. And these women were knockin' these windows out all along that plant see, so air could get in there. So my father-in-law said to me he said, "What do you think about joinin' the union, Orvel?" I said, "Hell, let's go." I said, "Them guys in there are just like me. If they're beatin' them on the head, they'd be beatin' me over the head." So we went on up and joined the union that day.
WEST: Where did you go, to the Pengelly?
SIMMONS: Yeah, they had the Pengelly Building downtown. But you could go up there on Kearsley Street. And they had some little ole small buildin'. I forget where it was but the union, I guess, had it rented. And that's where we signed up. We just went up and signed up. And you didn't pay the money right then. As I remember, you just signed up and you would be a union member. They would take anybody in order to get somebody to help 'em. Of course, you gotta pay this money later. I can't remember whether I paid anything. I just signed my name and I'm joinin' the union. But as you say, the official place was the Pengelly Building downtown.
WEST: Now that takeover at Chevy 4 and the battle outside of Chevy 9, that, I understood, took place about a month after the men had been sittin' down in Fisher 1, and I think in Fisher 2 as well.
WEST: In that period through January (this battle took place February first) that period through January from the beginning of the strike, were you thinkin' about joining a union then?
SIMMONS: If I'd have knowed where to join. Nobody was sayin' anything. Hell, I would have joined the union.
WEST: Nobody talked to you about joining. Did you hear the news about that and the Battle of Running Bulls?
SIMMONS: Oh yeah, I knew about the scrappin' and everything. And I thought, well, it was just another deal like we got into with the A F of L, you know. If you're thinking about organizing and they start digging and find out who you are and the company got your name, then you've lost your job, see. I was hopin' somethin' would be done, but I'm in fact scared, in a way too, because I got this pressure of this family on me, my mother and father. Hell, if I hadn't had nobody but myself, I would have said, "Oh hell, I can make it." But you got that fear, and there's a lot of people that had the same thing, the same way, you know, with families and things.
WEST: It interests me that you joined after you saw what happened at Chevy 9.
SIMMONS: Well, the trouble with me, I'm always the underdog, always have been.
WEST: Right. Were there many in Chevy 10 in your plant that joined then, do you know?
SIMMONS: Not a lot. I'm tellin' you the honest truth. I don't know the figures. Those unions or the company, they ain't gonna let the figures out. I don't believe there was five hundred people in that whole damn outfit down there that belonged to the union. But you can take five hundred people who are organized and make ten thousand do what you want 'em to do. That's what they done.
WEST: Chevy 10 never did go down. They never did strike.
SIMMONS: No they weren't...well, after they got 4 they weren't carin'. See 4's what was the hold. And after then you got what was called a vigilante group, these people around town. And of course, they got this old store and the business people thinkin' that this damn bunch of Communists is tryin' to take over the country. That's always the story. They'll tell that down South right today. They can have a strike down there and say, "It's a bunch of them damn Communists." Well, you do probably have a few Communists in there. In their way...now I don't believe in Communism...but they got a dedicated people. I mean they believe in something and they will go out there and they will scrap.
WEST: Did you know Travis and some of those people?
SIMMONS: Bob Travis, yeah, I knew him. I knowed Mortimer.
WEST: Oh you did? When did you meet Mortimer?
SIMMONS: Well, he was the first, you know. Originally they talked about the Reuthers. The Reuthers weren't the first people. I mean, they weren't a part of...they were organizers. Now Roy Reuther would come in here. He was an organizer. But they weren't really up at the top, you might say 'til after they had the fight and all this and that. You know they had the guy they called Homer Martin was the original.
SIMMONS: President of the international. But then they split power at that time. They had two groups fightin' among the unions. And then the Reuthers beat him out. And Mortimer, he gets elected. But I am pretty sure that, well, after they beat Homer Martin out, R. J. Thomas was the first president of the international. And then it was Reuther. And Reuther run it from then on.
WEST: But as you say, the earliest organizers in Flint before the strike were Mortimer. Mortimer came in, I guess, in the summer of '36 and Travis too. Did you meet them, then?
SIMMONS: I met 'em down at the Pengelly Building. I didn't know 'em then, no. As I kept tellin' you, see, I didn't belong to this union.
WEST: You did drop down to the Pengelly and were curious and met these people.
SIMMONS: Oh yeah. See before then they were probably meeting in small groups or in people's homes where they could get ten or fifteen and holdin' their meetings like that.
WEST: Yeah, I understand they were. Well, you weren't approached to get in then?
SIMMONS: I wasn't approached at that time, no.
WEST: Would you have gone if you had been?
SIMMONS: Well, I don't know. That's a lot of years ago. If I'd knew then what I know now; if your foresight was like your hindsight...
WEST: If you had joined, and it was found out...
SIMMONS: Well, the trouble with me, Mr. West, was the difference. See now, you take a lot of these people that was workin' in the shop. They come from the coal minin' countries and different places. They knew something about unions. I come from a small town and there never was no such thing as a union. In fact, there never would be but one little old small factory there. And the rest of the work around there would be farmin'. So I'm not a big city boy. I'm not what you call hep to a lot of things. In all those towns like what they tell you...Malden, Campbell and places like that...those were small towns down in Missouri, and Piggott, Arkansas and different ones.
WEST: Did Chevy 10 close down after the take over at Chevy 4? They took over the motor division. I wondered if that didn't affect other plants, too. Did you...?
SIMMONS: Oh yeah, we were down. See you're gettin' into this big deal. Then Murphy called in this National Guard. They would have had a bunch of killing down there if it hadn't been for the governor, this Murphy. They killed a bus driver right in Chicago right after that where they had a strike down in the steel mill. I think it was Gary, Indiana they killed about twenty-one people there. I don't think there was anybody killed durin' our strike. There was a guy shot and I guess maybe a few of 'em hurt, you know, bein' clubbed around. But I don't think there was anybody killed that I know of at all. We lost a boy later. There was a guy we called Sammy Waters. They killed him down at that Durant Hotel. He was tryin' to organize 'em down there. And him and some cook got into it and the cook stuck a knife into him and he passed away. The law officials and this and that knew but there was nothin' ever done about that cook killin' Sammy Waters. I don't even know whether he was arrested.
WEST: You think that was over the union?
SIMMONS: Yeah, he was arguin'. He was tryin' to organize 'em.
WEST: And the cook was non-union. You were out of work then, for a while?
SIMMONS: Oh yeah. I can't remember how long that strike went on. I know one strike and I can't remember whether that was the first one or later. Damn, we was out a hundred and three days.
WEST: No, this strike, I guess finished after forty-four days. It was finished by February the eleventh.
SIMMONS: But actually all we got was the right to join the unions, to wear our buttons.
WEST: I was gonna ask you then how things were right after the strike? Did you notice a difference?
SIMMONS: There wasn't a hell of a lot of difference but we got over this fear. And, see, we'd work on them the same as they worked on us. They wouldn't bargain, so we'd pull slow-downs.
WEST: At Chevy 10, you had wildcats?
SIMMONS: We had our crews and we could pull these slow-downs.
WEST: A slow-down? Now that isn't the same as a wildcat, is it?
SIMMONS: No, on a slow-down you're working. See, today these conveyors and everything... machines... you don't even hardly come in contact with the other guy. You may be workin' as far as the length of this house from the other guy. That's why they get so bored. They can't talk. But back in them days you carried it apiece. When I'm through with my job on the fender, I would pick it up and I'd carry it about as far as from here to that refrigerator in there. Then the next guy's gonna do the next operation. But we could exchange words. You know, out of the side of your mouth like they do in prison. If you wanted to, you could talk some. But then when they would fire one of our guys or if he was to bargain on somethin', well we'd slow down. I mean, I'd drag my feet gettin' that piece down to that guy and he'd stall around gettin' the piece into the press so that everything was slowed down to a crawl.
WEST: What did the foreman do then?
SIMMONS: Oh, he would just pull his hair and he'd come, "You're gonna be fired!" And one time he was gonna fire me. I can remember all the guys...and that's when we would have had a wildcat strike. And everybody just, "Hold on there," see. And they just laid down whatever they were doin'. Well, he knowed what was gonna happen if he fired me. They'd have walked out. And they did. There was a lot of that happened. If we ain't got any sense, the management ain't either. I mean, we just had chaos, you might say there. I would say it was about a year that that went on. And then they kind of woke up that nobody was gettin' anywhere. If management will bargain, why then we'll go ahead and work. You know, do what you're supposed to and produce somethin'. We were quackin' at one another. They begin to get wise and we begin to get wise, too. Why some guy started a rumor down there they had a black. You were out on a wildcat strike. You didn't even know what the hell you were out. You were just OUT! But you lose money. So you really don't want that, you know. You want to get things stabilized. And you've always got fools in the plant. They'd go after people and they would burn down a plant or they'd wreck a plant. Well, to me that never made no sense because after all, that's where you make your livin'. When you get your trouble over with, you want a place to go back to work. You don't want the place burnt down or somethin'. But you got the type of people that would do that among large groups of people.
WEST: But management was sort of slow to recognize that they had...
SIMMONS: They never figured they was gonna have to. They kept thinkin' that they'd beat the unions out. And if it hadn't been for Roosevelt and you know they set up the National Labor Board and all those things, they probably would have.
WEST: Did the foremen adjust easy or did some of them have to be actually removed? They couldn't adjust to the new circumstances? I am wondering what changes you might have observed in the behavior and the attitude of foremen towards you?
SIMMONS: Well, Mr. West, they're just like any group of people. There is some people that glory in brow-beatin' other people and havin' the power over 'em. I don't care what group of people there are. They can be workers or anybody else. If you give 'em enough power they abuse it. But the majority of those foremen were just...they had been workers theirselves. Actually they didn't want to be that way, but it was fear that was drivin' them to do those things. So they turned out to be pretty good guys. I know in latter years, like one of the superintendents, I never met a nicer guy in my life! He was just a good guy. And there were a lot of them foremens were good people. But the circumstances, changes made them that way. Made 'em more like a human being.
WEST: Now to pick up another...oh, the steward system. Did you have experience with the steward system?
SIMMONS: Well, what they call stewards was what we call committeemen. He's the guy that represents the rest of the workers.
WEST: I see. How many did he represent, a steward?
SIMMONS: Oh, in the department. What you would call a department, he would represent that department. I was a committeeman myself for a lot of years.
WEST: Oh, you were? What sort of grievances did you have to take up most frequently? Can you think what they might have been?
SIMMONS: Well, in the early part, it was more the pressure. They hadn't got over that push, push, push speed-up propositions. People were workin' much harder than they wanted to work. Now I don't know how they work today. But today the machine does the work in the place of the worker. So you might say there wouldn't be hardly any speed-up in there for the worker, because the machine's handlin' it. And he's settin' there pushin' the button and this and that. He's not doin' much of the labor.
WEST: Was there still discrimination against union men after the strike? Was that a problem, because you didn't have a closed shop for a while?
SIMMONS: Oh yeah. There ain't no union guy gettin' no better job if there was any way they could give it to some guy we would call a scab...a guy that didn't belong even if he was not as fast as we were in his work.
WEST: After the strike was finished of course, the union was out to recruit as many people as they could to strengthen their hold. But you had some, as you say, scabs...guys who weren't members of the union. How did you bring 'em along. Did most of 'em join willingly after that?
SIMMONS: Well, you would talk to 'em and tried to explain to 'em. They knowed what the condition was. It was the fear. And if nothing else, why I've seen guys get hit. I know we had one fellow, he belonged to the Seventh-Day Adventists. And they don't believe in the unions. But what was so funny, he wouldn't join the union. But you know their Saturday is supposed to be their Sunday or something. He put out the story he couldn't join on account of his religious beliefs. But he'd come then and work on Saturday because we had to work on Saturdays. He didn't let that stand in the way of his religious beliefs. I remember at the time of the strike we couldn't do too much to him there in the shop. But they was gonna throw him in the river. Five or six of them grabbed him there on Stevenson Street. I didn't get in on that. I guess I'm a little bit soft-hearted. I do my stuff on the spur of the moment. But to plan somethin' to do to someone... I hate to see anything done like that to anybody. But they was actually gonna throw the guy in the river. And he never did join the union. He quit.
WEST: He quit rather than join. Well, you mentioned too, during the strike the Flint Alliance it was called, I guess, the back-to-work movement.
SIMMONS: Oh yeah, that's all these business people, you know. In a way I guess maybe it's true. Like the guy said one time, "What is good for General Motors is good for the country." Well, maybe it is. Everything used to revolve around the automobile shop. Well, that's their viewpoint. It wouldn't amount to a damn what the automobile plants did. Oh, these business people were afraid they'd move out, see. They don't care about that worker down there. They want that factory here so that worker can make some money and can spend it in their business. Now that's the way it was. They were lookin' after a number one.
WEST: But I understand there were some workers that were involved too. George Boysen, I guess, was from Buick. And he was the head of the group of workers. I just wondered really if you experienced any pressure from some guys who said, "Look, let's see if we can't tame this walk-out, end this strike?"
SIMMONS: They didn't let them Southerners go down there. Not to be pickin' on a Southerner. But they always congregated right down on the corner, see, around that shop where they work. I guess the Polacks, the Polish, do the same thing. Like the ones in Hamtramck, they sat out where their work is, see. And there's where most of your Southerners lived in that section of town. We didn't live on the North End or any place like that. We lived there. And I don't guess, if those Southerners got together they probably might have set the buildin' on fire and burned the damn place down or somethin'. They didn't mess with that business. What I'm tryin' to say is if Murphy hadn't called out the National Guard... See they got all the police force on their side. Old Tom Wolcott, I remember that old son of a gun. He was the sheriff. And they would have killed some people. But, see, when Murphy called the National Guard in, they was just in between 'em. The workers in the plant, they can't get out at anybody and the police force can't get at them.
WEST: You mentioned some Polish people in Hamtramck in that example. Were there many Poles and Hungarians in there not working?
SIMMONS: They probably were. But each group kind of congregates hisself.
WEST: Were there any blacks in Chevy?
SIMMONS: No. If they was in at all, they worked as, you know, the janitor, cleanin' out toilets and things like that.
WEST: But in the Second World War and after the strike there were more.
SIMMONS: Oh yeah, well, see the unions they believe in equality of everybody having the same breaks. They were the ones that really pushed this a lot. And of course, then the government they come out for it too, you know.
WEST: Was it difficult for some to guys to adjust to workin' next to blacks on the line? Was that a problem?
SIMMONS: I never did think so much about it. Maybe it was as difficult havin' a Southerner, you know, to have a supervision bein' black over 'em. You had that feeling back down in there. I guess it shows, 'cause I was talkin' to a girl the other day. She was Jewish. Anyway, we were talking. And even after all these years and she said, "You prejudiced?" I said, "I'm not prejudiced against the Jews." And then I thought, now, well, what the hell's the difference? If I'm gonna be prejudiced, I just might as well be prejudiced against the Jews as be prejudiced against the blacks. But you are as you was raised, you might say. I don't have nothin' against black people. But even today, see, the black people are up in the North End, and we're more down in this end. But I worked with 'em and got along with 'em. I didn't have any problems.
WEST: Was there any Klan activity in Flint?
SIMMONS: Not that I know of.
WEST: During the thirties? I've heard that there were in the twenties. Maybe that was before you came up here that the Klan was pretty strong.
SIMMONS: I remember hearin' somethin' but that's so long ago. You know, we're goin' back there fifty years. There was something happened about a silver bullet or somethin'.
WEST: Oh, Black Legion.
SIMMONS: Oh, that was the Black Legion. Now that's the only thing that I can remember about it. I don't know anything about it at all. But I think there was some group like that did get started up here or something. But it died out. It didn't last very long. I don't think the Klan can operate very well where the union is strong, because they don't believe in that.
WEST: No, they tended to be opposed to unions.
SIMMONS: Well, I mean the union is opposed to anything like that. We believed in everybody havin' the same break, you know. Like I say, like the union today, they fight for a colored guy to get the same pay as a white guy. Why shouldn't he when he's doin' the same damn type of work?
WEST: Now the period after the strike. You mentioned the strike at the Durant Hotel that took place in the summer of '37. As I read it, just through the newspapers, there was a pretty hectic time in Flint, generally after the strike. Because the union thought, after they had settled with General Motors, that they could make Flint a hundred percent union town and they were organizing elsewhere. Do you remember any of that?
SIMMONS: Now that's what I say now. After this Durant Hotel incident...you're bringin' up somethin' that's true.. I guess they were just tryin' to organize anything that they could get into. Because we're automobile workers. We're not supposed to be down organizin' the hotel employees. But Sammy Waters was a worker in the shop. Now I don't know how he got in or whether he got a job as an organizer under the CIO. He must have to be down there tryin' to organize those hotel employees.
WEST: Well, the way I understand it, the UAW was the first strong union in Flint as a result of their victory against GM. And they saw themselves as sort of, you might say, the catalyst, the promoter that could get organization going in other areas.
SIMMONS: But, see, who set the CIO up? Now see, John L. Lewis has pulled out of the A F of L or something. That's when they set the CIO up. John L. Lewis was the head of this. So you're out to build this industrial type of unionism. Those that had been skilled trade had all been A F of L. So they were gonna organize anything they could get ahold of there. I went to Saginaw when they organized Consumer Power. Well, Consumer Power don't mean anything to me. But they're another bunch of workers. We was over helpin' them.
WEST: Oh, you were helping the Consumers Power. Now there was a strike, wasn't there?
SIMMONS: Yeah, they had a strike over there. And they had these strikes down to Pontiac and I went down there. We had what we called...after that we set up...this guy that led this strike out of Plant 6 was a guy named Ed Cronk. He was the guy that brought the people from the sheet metal over into Plant 4, 'cause they was gonna get this group in there to hold plant four, see. Well, we set up what we called the Flyin' Squadron that was dedicated people. I mean people that would go when we could go. So we used that. Like down at Pontiac, they had a strike down there. Well, it looked pretty good for them boys, when they look out there this group of thirty, forty people. And here come a group down from Flint, a couple hundred people on their picket line, see. And they used them that way. I was there. We served out there to Fisher while their sit-down strike was goin' on. We served out there, too. We filled in; we went to different places.
WEST: Were you at Fisher in Flint?
SIMMONS: Yeah, they called this Fisher. Well, it was Fisher 1. I don't put the 1 on there. What's called "Little Fisher" is Fisher 2.
WEST: So you were out on the Flying Squad?
SIMMONS: Yeah, what we called the Flying Squadron.
WEST: Led by Ed Cronk. That was before the end of the strike.
WEST: How did that work? Did Cronk and others notify you when you were needed?
SIMMONS: Yeah, they would. It's just like what's goin' on out here right now. All right, if a bunch of people going through that picket line... We did that in Owosso at Redmond's over there. See, Redmond's moved out of Flint. It made small motors. They moved to Owosso to get away from bein' unionized. But then those people struck over there and we went over to help 'em.
WEST: When was that?
SIMMONS: I can't remember just when it was but that was four or five years after the main strike.
WEST: How would it be organized? You would meet at a certain place and then go by car or...?
SIMMON: Sure, they knew us. They had our phone numbers. It was just like belongin' to a bowling league or this and that. And they'd call you and you'd go. You didn't get paid for it. You just sacrificed. But you were out to build a union. And we traveled out to help 'em build a union. I'm not gettin' paid a damn thing as far as that goes.
WEST: But you were out at Owosso and...
SIMMONS: I didn't spend a whole lot of time over there. But I went over one day. I went over one day to give 'em a morale boost, you might say, being' on the line, bein' there.
WEST: It could be kind of a dangerous sort of thing.
SIMMONS: Oh yes. You could get your head beat in. Some of them got theirs beat in.
WEST: Ed Cronk. You knew him then.
SIMMONS: Yeah, he's dead now.
WEST: What sort of fellow was he?
SIMMONS: Oh, he was just an ordinary worker. There were several here. I was just pickin' this paper up and I was lookin' at some of these the other day. I wrote down something here to recall things from my memory. And I see they left out a name here where they're talkin' about their former presidents. Now there's Kermit Johnson. I knew Kermit. Bob Travis and Bud Simons.
WEST: What did you know about Kermit?
SIMMONS: Well, now, I'll tell you what they said about Kermit. I don't give a damn what's said. They still say it about some of these people right now. They said it a lot about Larry Jones, Lawrence Jones. They tried to say that Kermit was a Communist. But a lot of people tells me that they're Socialists. His background was Socialist. But I know one thing that people can depend on. When you were in somethin' like that, you don't want to be sold down the river. I mean you feel like this, that if somethin' comes up, this guy is gonna stand by me. If I have to wham somebody over the head or we get in a fight, you want some guy that's gonna be there fightin' with you. And them's the kind of guys that will fight with you. Well, a lot of guys won't. Now I knew Charles Haller, Al Keeler, Ed Cronk, Kermit Johnson, Roy Davison, Carl Bibber, Gilbert Rose, Tom Kelly.
WEST: You know Gib Rose?
WEST: Is he still alive?
SIMMONS: Yeah, he's still alive, they tell me.
WEST: One of my colleagues talked to him.
SIMMONS: He did. Well, he could give you a lot of dope, because Gib was around, and Gib was rough and tough. Cecil McNeese, he's dead. I see where they give all these here presidents here, but there's one president they left out, and I don't know why. He did some time in a prison. I guess that's why they left him out. What the hell was his name? It wasn't Jack Tomlin, no.
WEST: Henry Jack, did you know him?
SIMMONS: Yeah, not to say I'd be thick with him, but around him. They worked in different plants from me, see. I would know, like what I'm tellin' you about. But, hell, Ed Cronk, well, hell, I worked with him in Plant 6, and Carl Bibber, I worked with him, and Cecil McNeese, I worked with him, and I worked for Bill Freeman in Plant 8.
WEST: Are some of those people alive that we could talk to?
SIMMONS: Now I got a guy here the other day, I called him up. Now here's a boy you might talk to and he'll give you an altogether different story. It's Grant Ricks. I'll give you his phone number and you can call him. It's 234-5973.
WEST: Grant Ricks, very good.
SIMMONS: What's so different about Grant. What got him disgusted, he went with the Homer Martin gang. It was when we split.
WEST: I was gonna ask you about that, that split. We'll get back to that later.
SIMMONS: See, I went with the Walter Reuther bunch, you might say. Or at that time, the R. J. Thomas bunch. And Grant, he went with the Homer Martin gang, but we beat 'em out, see.
WEST: You had an election, I guess.
SIMMONS: Yeah, we finally had an election on it. You might say we was fightin' between ourselves to a certain extent. 'Cause he was tellin' me and I didn't know that. He was mad about it and he remembers that. He said, "They beat the hell out of me, Simmons." I talked to him on the phone and I said, "Who?" And he said, "Five of your guys." "Well," I said, "Grant, that's water over the bridge." Now that was years and years ago, but he still remembers about that. I guess maybe you would.
WEST: What did you think of Homer Martin as president?
SIMMONS: I know, Homer was supposed to have been an ex-preacher. He might have been an all-right guy. They put this story out. How do I know? I'm workin' down in the shop and they put this story out that he sold out for fifty thousand dollars to stay in with Ford, you know. I don't know whether it's so or not. But the only thing that I know, Walter Reuther, as far as I'm concerned, Walter Reuther and John L. Lewis was two of the only labor leaders that I really knew.
WEST: Did you see John L. Lewis?
SIMMONS: Oh yeah, John L. Lewis used to come in and make speeches down there at the IMA. He could really speak. Walter Reuther was good, too.
WEST: What were the issues then, as you saw 'em, between the A F of L and the CIO? Between the Martin group and the other group, the CIO?
SIMMONS: Who in the hell wants a damn... This A F of L ain't no good. Today, to me, it ain't no damn good. If you're gonna have a shop down, all right, you got your patternmakers, you got your die makers, you got your truck drivers, you got your metal finishers, you got your toolmakers. If you're gonna have every one of them in a different damn group in there and every time one of 'em wants somethin' different he goes around. All right, things was tough back before they struck. They're out of work. They gotta honor that damn strike. They didn't benefit them a damn bit. Now they're out on strike and what they're gonna get, I don't see where it's gonna benefit the Teamsters anything. That's why I don't go for skilled trades union.
WEST: Now one of the issues might have been the break-up of Local 156. My understanding was that after the strike, there was one big local in Flint. And it was the biggest local, supposedly, in the UAW at the time. Later it broke up into plants, local 659, 599 and that. Was that an issue, do you think, keeping one big local in Flint or breaking it up? Do you remember how that came about?
SIMMONS: Well, hey, the issue is who was gonna get the job at the top. That was the main issue. That's what they all fight for today. Now actually when you send people, delegates down to vote for who is gonna be the international president and this and that. And a lot of them guys don't vote for what they think the membership votes. They vote for what's this gonna do for me. Can I get a better job or this and that out of it? It's human nature, you know, and politics. But to me, to end up with that unionism, that's what I was for. If I would have been a skilled tradesman, I might have looked at it different. See, in later years the die makers tried to pull a strike down there. They pulled a strike. Hell, we made 'em quit because we were gonna win there, 'cause we don't believe in that.
WEST: During the sit-down strike, did the auto people get help from the A F of L people in Flint? There was a Flint Federation of Labor.
SIMMONS: The only help that I know we got was the help from John L. Lewis and the coal miners. That's where the help come from. I can't prove it but I heard that the coal miners put up a million dollars to start this CIO. See, they were the backbone of the industrial type of unionism. And they were the ones that started. I don't know how much they put up, but I hear that they put up a million dollars. And then they went out and started organizing. And they hit it pretty good when they hit the automobile workers, because they got a big group of people. Course that's before even the steel workers were organized or anything.
WEST: Yeah, the victory over General Motors did in fact set the stage for a lot of people.
SIMMONS: That was the take-off, you might say, that created the type of union they have today.
WEST: Did you mention that you were active after the strike in the Flying Squadron and going out to Owosso and that? Did you get involved at all in local politics, trying to change the political atmosphere?
SIMMON: I never really craved to go up any higher. I think they run me one time for something, a delegate or something. But you would have what you call your caucuses, you know when it come around election time. And you always had two or three groups in a local, each on tryin' to elect a president and tryin' to run the union.
WEST: Right. I was really thinking more in terms of the UAW making its influence felt on Flint city politics, recalling a city commissioner, maybe trying to get rid of Police Chief Wills, for example. Or trying to defeat the Prosecuting Attorney Joseph and people who they thought were not very sympathetic to their cause.
SIMMONS: Oh yeah, I used to run around with what you'd call a...I don't know if his name would do you any good or not. His name's "Whitey" Muir. His name's Virgil Muir. He lives in Indiana now. He was quite active but Burton Township seemed to have been your active group of people. Seemed like to me what it was that the poorer class or something, they built in Burton Township. You can go out there and you can see them little, small houses and this and that. And they're politically minded. They know what was goin' on out there. And I know Steve Dodge. Steve Dodge was the Chief of Police of Burton Township. Well, hell, he worked right over in the Buick.
WEST: Is he still alive?
SIMMONS: Yeah, but I don't know. Last I heard Steve was in Florida. But there were some efforts, I know, made to get rid of some of the people that they didn't want.
SIMMONS: Oh yeah, we got rid of Tom Wolcott rather quick. See, we had elections. They nailed old Tom because, hell, he was leading that force that was tryin' to get them guys out of that plant and come to knock 'em on the head and everything else. That wound up Tom Wolcott's political career.
WEST: Well, I want to thank you very much for your help. Can you think of anything else that you want to mention that I haven't touched on here?
SIMMONS: Well, I don't know. You'd get maybe paid for three or four hours due to breakdown and things like that. I told you about the slow-down. See I've tried to tell you, 'cause a lot of times these guys will build theirself up and tell you a lot of stuff that ain't even so. I've had guys tell me what all they did in the union. Well, hell, I never even seen 'em around the damn union hall during the strike. I know they weren't there. But like these wildcat factory slow-downs. I don't know whether other people mentioned them to you. But we did pull 'em. They fought us and we fought them after we read the statement on them.
WEST: Foremen and supervisors?
SIMMONS: Yeah, we fought the company. Now I'd try Genora Dollinger. Do you know Genora Dollinger? Did I ever tell you about her?
WEST: Yeah, she was Kermit Johnson's wife. I was gonna mention her.
SIMMONS: All right, now. To me everybody said Genora's a Communist and this and that after they beat the hell out of her comin' home from Detroit. I don't know who done it to her. But I know that Kermit, her and Kermit separated. Then see, she's a Dollinger. She married a guy named Dollinger. He was actually a Communist. But, as far as I'm concerned, Genora has paid her share. She was out there on the picket line night and day. She pulled her own weight. But they're the kind that when it's over with... After all, we don't believe in Communism, the majority don't, I guess. I don't believe in Communism. The only way I could believe in Communism... I could see the idea like I told a guy today. "Hell, I don't believe in Communism in the United States. But if I had to live like some of them people in some of them other countries..."