University of Michigan-Flint
Frances Willson Thompson Library
Genesee Historical Collections Center
University of Michigan-Flint Labor History Project
INTERVIEW July 1978
INTERVIEWER: John DeYonker
INTERVIEWEE: Fred Ahearn
DEYONKER: This is an interview between Mr. Fred Ahearn, who was a sit-down striker at Fisher 2 in '36 and '37 and myself, John DeYonker. Mr. Ahearn, what was your age at the time of the strike?
AHEARN: About 28.
DEYONKER: How long had you worked at Fisher 2 prior to the strike?
AHEARN: Three years. Two years and then three years, because, see, I hired in on March 29, 1934. I was 24 years old when I hired...not quite 24, because August was my birthday. Let's say 24.
DEYONKER: Had you had any previous employment with GM?
AHEARN: No, I had not.
DEYONKER: Okay. What was your job classification?
AHEARN: Assembler, general. My job was installing trunk boards. This job consisted of three, well, there were two boards that went in that had shims that you put on first, a rubber shim. And then you had this piece of metal that run horizontally and you would fasten these into the body of the car itself by spinning a washer on a bolt and driving the bolt into this hole that was pre-drilled in there. After you got them into position then you put pieces of tape across the top of each one of them. You had three other boards. One was a large board that fit just into about the center of each of these upright pieces. Then you had two small ones that fit into the curvature of this trunk and fit very tight, that you put on each side. You would place them into position and you drilled sixteen holes, eight on each side, an inch and a half, and you had thirty-two that went across the top. And those were three-quarter-inch drills. Then you had two little clips that fastened these small boards to this large one and they took a quarter of an inch groove. This job, all of this job, had to be done in just three minutes. We had three men and we were doing sixty jobs per hour. Now this was all piecework. There were four men doing the complete job. We had one man that made up the two pieces that went into there, that put the metal pieces on and fastened them on and three men installed it. So we split the seventy-five cents between four men.
DEYONKER: Seventy-five cents.
AHEARN: Seventy-five cents was the day rate of that job. You had four men doing the complete operation. You got seventy-five cents for a complete job per hour for a complete job. So you would split the seventy-five between the four people. Wasn't a hell of a lot of money, was it?
DEYONKER: So you were making approximately twenty cents an hour if you were doing all your jobs?
AHEARN: Approximately, yes.
DEYONKER: While you were working at Fisher 2, prior to the strike, did you know of any incidents of supervisors requiring their employees after hours, to do work on their homes and cottages without pay to keep their job?
AHEARN: Yes, yes, I had heard of it. I was not personally involved, myself, but I knew others that were. Not only that, but there were men that came up from some of the southern states that went over on what they called "Chevrolet Corners." There was a beer garden that was there. And they would pay from fifty to seventy-five dollars in order to be given a job in Chevrolet. Now this was happening and there is proof of it. Now by proof I mean the men that did it have gone on record.
DEYONKER: Did the company sanction that?
AHEARN: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. In fact, they went all through the South advertising for men to come up here. And in some instances, now this one I cannot prove, but I've heard in some instances they paid their fare up here. Just prior to the time I hired in at Little Fisher, or Fisher 2, I went over to the employment office at Chevrolet. And that used to be right up there across from the Chevrolet Corners that I'm telling you about was the employment office. You had to go around in back and in the back there were eight-foot fences with barbed wire across the top of it. It was an enclosure. I have stood there from six o'clock in the morning until approximately three o'clock in the afternoon. And perhaps the personnel agent would come out and say "I'll take you, you and maybe you", and that would be it for the day. You did not fill out an application, you know, if you had had any previous experience or anything in order to get a job. No, you were picked and those guys that had paid the fifty bucks were the ones that were bein' picked.
DEYONKER: Were you a UAW member at the time of the strike?
AHEARN: Yes, I was. I had been a member, oh, for about eight months prior to that.
DEYONKER: Had you had a tradition of unionism in your family?
AHEARN: Yes, my father belonged to the sign painters union, A F of L.
DEYONKER: Do you think that had an influence on you joining the UAW?
AHEARN: No, because they were two separate unions. A F of L is a skilled trades and predominately skilled trades union. The UAW, which was the A F of L - CIO at the time were predominantly worker classifications or non-skilled people and skilled trade. They organized both.
DEYONKER: Were either Mortimer or Travis instrumental in you joining the UAW?
AHEARN: Yes, Bob Travis was very instrumental. I met Bob and I knew him personally and I still do. He not only wrote me up in the union but I still have...somewhere around the house, I have receipts signed by Bob.
DEYONKER: Did he play a role in recruiting you?
AHEARN: I would think so to a certain extent. There were other men in the plant that helped recruit me. They came to me and told me about it and through that I joined. Prior to the UAW-CIO coming in there, we belonged to a rump...company union is what it was. But we didn't know at the time. There was a man by the name of Percy McGovern that used to be our spokesman or business agent at the time. And we had four employees that were sold right down the river that went on strike. And I can remember them parading around outside the plant on this strike. And everybody walked over a picket line. Well, that was a very bad experience; but still and all these men were determined to get recognition. They were determined because it had reached the point to where it could no longer be tolerated. That's all; it just couldn't. Conditions got such, you see; it's the company that organized us. We didn't organize ourselves, really. It was the conditions that we had to work under and the pay and everything. I could relate to you that relief was something that was unheard of. You paid for your own coveralls. You bought everything. Once in a while, if you were hurt bad enough, they'd allow you to go to first aid. Your time wasn't your own. They'd call you in. You perhaps, some days, would sit there for a full eight hours. And as long as the line didn't move and you didn't pull a ticket, you didn't get paid. And you were paid every two weeks. And when payday come around, at noon, on your own lunch hour, you had to line up to get your paycheck. I was very fortunate. My name started with "A" and usually they called me first. But if it had been "Z" where the heck would I have been, you know?
DEYONKER: You wouldn't have had a lunch, then.
AHEARN: No, and any time that you would attempt to discuss or to bargain your job with a foreman or a superintendent, they would take you over to the window and say, "Look, you see them guys out there. There's four of 'em waitin' for that job you got. Now get back to work."
DEYONKER: They would actually do that to you?
AHEARN: Absolutely. I've had it happen. I've had it happen.
DEYONKER: Would a machine that broke down get more attention than say a person that was seriously injured on the job?
AHEARN: That's very true that they would. Because they would oil a machine, you know, just like they would the line. They'd oil the machine, they housed it. Then you might as well say they clothed it. None of these things happened to us. I can remember going on welfare and I think you'd get two dollars and sixty-five cents for a week. That's what they allowed you. And when you went down on the line...and it used to be over there where Buick is now...it was Oak Park they called it, near that area over there. That's where the welfare office used to be. Standing in line all day long and then coming up for an interview and being insulted when I came there. One man almost blew it because he reached across the desk and he was gonna slug this guy in the mouth. No one could blame him. The way they treated you, you were treated less than a dog. Look, a man has a little bit of dignity. Sure you can't eat your pride; I know that because I learned it the hard way through this. But, damn it, we all are human. We like to be treated as a human being. We like to be asked to work, but to work with the right to say how much and when. I've gone home so completely exhausted and my hands so swollen that I couldn't get my fingers between each other. And rather than eat my dinner in an evening, I would lie down and go to sleep and get up the next morning and go back at it again, not knowing if I was going to work that day or whether I was going to be laid off. You know, if you follow history back during the time I'm tellin' you about from '34, '35, '36, and parts of '37, not so much then, but prior to that, three months' work was a long time to work for the average guy that worked in the shop. He was laid off the rest of the time, or he was down two, maybe three months for a changeover, unless you were brown-nosing the boss and then you were out doing work around his place, see.
DEYONKER: So would it be possible to say spend a full week at the plant and take home a check of, say, just a few cents, maybe? If they didn't need you, you would have to spend your time there and you wouldn't get paid.
AHEARN: Neal Yaklin, one of our employees, has a check that he drew. I believe it was for...now I'm not positive...but I think for two weeks work, twenty-seven cents. And he has that and it is framed. Now I understand there's another one that's less than that but I do not know the correct amount.
DEYONKER: And he spent two full weeks to get that?
AHEARN: Yes, two full weeks or eighty hours for twenty-five cents.
DEYONKER: Now, after you became a union member, did you have occasion to attend most parties, basement meetings?
AHEARN: Prior to the time of the strike, the sit-down strike itself, our meetings were held in homes and in basements of these homes. The parties, up until this time were given. But most of our parties and most of our organizing and that...perhaps you've heard of the Pengelly Building. This was done after the strike. Some of it a little bit before but not as much as after. Afterwards we met there. During the strike there were certainly parties there. And this is when it become available. Perhaps I would say six months prior to the strike they began organizing in Pengelly Building. And we were still meeting in basements of guys' homes. But we were building up there because we had to put in a complete new floor. I went up there and helped put in that floor up there. It was a hardwood floor and we went up and had to fix it all up in the upstairs part of it and fix it for a kitchen, for a strike kitchen. And get in the stoves and the kettles and the other type stuff that women used during the strike.
DEYONKER: At these secret meetings you held, do you think that at any time a company spy, paid to join the union, attended any of these meetings that you were at?
AHEARN: Yes, definitely. We found out afterwards, yes.
DEYONKER: Do you remember any specific instances of fellow union members prior to the time of the strike that were found out through the use of a spy or some other method by management and they were subject to unusual or discriminatory treatment...any specific instances?
AHEARN: I remember one before...or just before the strike, I believe. Now I want to be sure...it was either just before or just after; I'm not positive which. But we found out one man, and they bodily evicted him. They dunked him in the paint tank. That was dirty water and booted him out of the shop. Years later, after the strike, during the McCarthy scare that swept through Michigan, we had a man that was bodily evicted from our plant. But thank God that he attended a union meeting following this and during that meeting there was a motion made on the floor that until such time as he had had a trial and was declared guilty...now he was accused of being Communist. He denied this. He said he had at one time been Communist and held a card in the Communist party. But he had stopped. He had given up his membership. He had never advocated the overthrow of the United States government by force. And so he was never called to trial. It was found out that the man was innocent. And so he still holds membership in the UAW.
DEYONKER: Do you know any fellow union members prior to the strike whom management discovered they were a member of the union and subsequently they discriminated against that employee?
AHEARN: Only the ones that I mentioned that belonged to the A F of L that were out on picket duty, and had been fired for their actions.
DEYONKER: Did you work for the Amalgamated Local 156 as an organizer in the plant, trying to get workers to join?
AHEARN: To a certain extent, yes.
DEYONKER: Were you successful?
AHEARN: Very, very.
DEYONKER: Mr. Ahearn, when did you first know the strike was going to take place?
AHEARN: Approximately, I would say about four days or almost a week because what happened...and this hasn't been mentioned very often...but General Motors, for one of the first times and the only time, gave us a Christmas bonus, just prior to the strike. We were having trouble in the body shop with two inspectors. This is where the trouble was involved. The inspectors had what we now call a seventy-eight or too much work for a normal operator grievance. We knew this and it was decided at a meeting that if these two inspectors were fired, we were going to shut the plant down. Now the strategy was entirely different than it had ever been tried before. Instead of going out of the plant, we were going to stay in the plant. We were going to stay right there with our jobs. So the following...I'm trying to think...I believe it was a Monday morning...but this following morning we had a prearranged signal with prearranged men that would come running down throughout the lines and shut them down. And different key men would push the buttons and shut the line down. And this is what happened, see. They did. They fired the men. They couldn't keep up. They fired 'em. The men came running down the line hollering, "Shut her down" and we shut it down and stopped working at that time.
DEYONKER: I'm curious. What was your Christmas bonus like? Can you remember approximately what they gave you?
AHEARN: I can't even remember the amount because it was just a token thing and it was the first time it ever happened. You know we used to...we worked there...and I didn't mention this but we worked on a bonus system for a while there. And on this incentive or bonus system, anytime you have a breakdown or anything else, you would always use it up anyway. At the end of the two weeks you wouldn't have anything coming. But we got this Christmas bonus and that was the last time and that was the last the bonus was ever mentioned. Of course, after the strike we went on a straight hourly wage.
DEYONKER: Do you think that that bonus was just an attempt by management to appease workers?
AHEARN: I know it was. They knew they were in for trouble.
DEYONKER: Their token gift wasn't too successful to appease the workers.
DEYONKER: All right, after the two inspectors were fired and your plan was starting to be carried out, the plant was being shut down, were you one of those who went around spreading the word that you were going to shut it down and trying to talk to some of the other workers who weren't union members into staying with you?
AHEARN: I believe so, in my particular area. I would talk to them and tell them, "Look, this is it. We have to stay now. It's all we have." One would look at the other and I don't know perhaps today you would say, "You aren't gonna chicken are you?" But then the word was not used. It was just that, you know, what the hell, either we do it now or I'm gonna leave here. I can't work under these conditions. There was just no way. It will kill you. And it wasn't worth it.
DEYONKER: Now what was the reaction to supervision within the plant when you guys just decided, well, let's shut it down and everything came to a halt?
AHEARN: Disbelief, shock, fright, belligerency, anger...all of them were shown and involved in it. They were threatening to evict us from the plant, threatening to have us blackballed if we did not return to work immediately. This was from superintendents and also foremen. It was a funny thing, but I can't remember seeing the plant manager come up through there, but I did see the superintendent.
DEYONKER: What would be the normal reaction (I know this is generalizing perhaps too much) of a worker when the foreman or say general foreman or superintendent would come up and say, "Get back to work," or get belligerent in trying to coax the men back to work? What would they do?
AHEARN: Ignore them.
DEYONKER: Just sit there?
AHEARN: You had to ignore them because if you became angry you would have been apt to strike one of them, and we didn't want that happening.
DEYONKER: Now, I believe your plant was down forty-four days.
AHEARN: That's right.
DEYONKER: Out of those forty-four days, how many days would you say you stayed in the plant?
AHEARN: About forty-two, forty-one and a half. I went home one evening prior to the time that the National Guard came in or prior to the time that we had the battle with the police. My wife and child were being evicted from the home that we had rented and they got word to me that they were gonna move 'em out on the street. In fact, they had already started to move some of the furniture out on the street when I got there.
DEYONKER: How did they get the word to you?
AHEARN: One of my neighbors. One of my neighbors rushed in and got into the plant with word to us. We were allowed to have people coming in. We didn't have people coming in but messages coming in and out of the plant and food, too. It come up, a lot of it through picnic baskets and stuff like that through ropes, see. And this is prior to the time that we had the trouble with the police. So I went home on that half day and then I stayed there until such time I saw that there was going to be no more trouble. We had an arrangement that we had a welfare fund more or less and a strike fund. And a lot of this money came from the coal miners, from John L. Lewis' coal miners, that we had during that time. So then I went back and I stayed the rest of the time until we come out successful.
DEYONKER: Then you managed to talk your landlord into letting you stay until the strike was over?
AHEARN: Yes, yes. It was his father-in-law that was the one that was tryin' to raise hell. It wasn't my landlord himself. My landlord himself was a pretty decent guy and he was backing the strike. He was one of the people that were backing us workers because he himself afterwards became unionized. He was a barber.
DEYONKER: Did you know of many instances of say small independent merchants and businessmen aiding, say the families of the strikers through this time? I imagine it would have been terribly tough.
AHEARN: Yes, there was a tremendous amount of merchants that...of course, knowing that it was a General Motors town, they were afraid to be named, or they did not want recognition, most of them. Now Gus, the guy that run the restaurant on the corner right down there, he didn't care one way or the other. He backed us, sent food to us. After the strike we held meetings in an extra room he had there and he give us all the assistance he possibly could, money wise and food wise. Farmers, a lot of those farmers around brought all the different foods, you know, like potatoes and things of this sort, that they got into the strike headquarters where the women's auxiliary could prepare the stuff and bring it to us.
DEYONKER: They just donated this?
DEYONKER: Do you recall the name of that restaurant owned by Gus?
AHEARN: I think it was Gus's Cafe.
DEYONKER: Gus's Cafe.
AHEARN: As near as I know that was the name of it. I'm not positive.
DEYONKER: You don't remember Gus's last name?
AHEARN: No, I tried to think of it. My wife worked for him, my wife now. She worked for him for a while and she couldn't remember his name either. It was a Greek last name and it is hard to remember, you know.
DEYONKER: How did you eat, well primarily, say before the battle? Did...through picnic baskets mainly, brought up by ropes?
AHEARN: Yeah, that way and food that was sent into the plant. It would come right in through the front door. Plant protection was still in the building and they'd allow it to come in. But only one person at a time. You know, we would meet 'em at the door and then they'd let it in and take it on into our kitchen or upstairs into the dining room up there. The dining room upstairs was clear in the back and they would bring some of it up there. We shared and shared alike with most of the stuff.
DEYONKER: I'm going to break for some quick biographical information here. Where were you born, Mr. Ahearn?
AHEARN: In Michigan, Wexford.
DEYONKER: Can you recall the address you lived at, at the time of the strike?
AHEARN: Yeah, on Remington, just off Fenton Road. I believe about in the nine hundred and fifteen block or something like that, on Remington.
DEYONKER: Do you know if that old place is still standing?
AHEARN: Yes, it is.
DEYONKER: It is.
AHEARN: Yes, it's a small house that sets back there. I rented it furnished.
DEYONKER: Did you own a car at the time of the strike?
DEYONKER: Would you say that most of the guys you worked with owned their cars?
AHEARN: No, because the reason I say that, is there were five of us that were riding together in that area, that were riding together back and forth. Four of us were paying the one man that had the car. We paid him by the week.
DEYONKER: Do you think that that was the usual way that most people managed to get to work?
AHEARN: Either that or by streetcar or bus.
DEYONKER: At the time immediately before the strike there was a bus strike in Flint, I believe. How did those people who relied on the buses to get to work get to work?
AHEARN: The best way they could. Getting to work is a worker's problem. It's not management's. And you had to make arrangements with someone that had a car or a lot of 'em took cabs, took taxicabs until such time that they could get a car, you know, a ride.
DEYONKER: It must have been really tough for your wife and your little boy, at the time of the strike, to make ends meet. You weren't working and they had already been threatened to be evicted. Did you get any pressure at all, say, from your wife? Did she say, "Honey, well, let's stop this and get back to work."
AHEARN: None whatsoever. In fact, she encouraged me.
DEYONKER: How did your family manage to eat without any money?
AHEARN: Mostly from assistance from her own family in town, friends, and welfare, the strike assistance until such time, because you didn't get welfare when you were on strike.
DEYONKER: Did any of your family become ill during the time of the strike?
DEYONKER: And what religion were you at the time?
AHEARN: Not much of anything.
AHEARN: I have always held a deep belief in Jesus and in God. But I just wasn't a practicing Christian.
DEYONKER: Now, when you left the plant and reentered it, how did you go about doing that?
AHEARN: We had a side fire escape that was on the north side of the building and we'd go down that fire escape, over into the corner where there was some lumber piled and climb the fence, this fence they had. And we would be very careful going over across the barbed wire and then down the other side and then sneak out and go down through Chevrolet Avenue and then on to whichever direction we were going. The exit and the access were both the same. We would enter and we would exit out the same way and come to this fire escape and come back in again.
DEYONKER: Was this only done at night?
AHEARN: Yes, mostly. Now I heard a couple of guys say they did it during daytime, but I have no proof of that. That's just hearsay.
DEYONKER: Did plant security ever make any attempts to stop people from leaving or coming back in?
AHEARN: No, they encouraged you to leave. They were not too much pleased about your coming back in. But they would really encourage you and look the other way when you were leaving. You could have walked out the front door for all they cared.
DEYONKER: Did you ever see them attempt to block someone's re-entry into the plant through that fire escape?
AHEARN: Not personally, no.
DEYONKER: Okay, now, you had a highly organized system within the plant while you were sitting down. I guess you had some leaders, you had certain rules and regulations, you had a kangaroo court to deal with any infractions committed against those rules. Could you kind of give me a picture of what that organization was like, how it was constructed and who were the influential people?
AHEARN: There were quite a few influential people. We would call meetings and most of the morning was spent with getting up, having breakfast and then immediately following breakfast we would go out on the roof and exercise. The exercises we were given were calisthenics and sitting up exercises, mostly. And they were done to keep the men from becoming ill. That's one thing would be a good way to do...to just lay around and to keep their spirits up. We would sing and shout and yell and do our exercises and then come back in and we would meet back in the back dining room and we would discuss any problems that we might think would arise. We had previously discussed the fire hose bit of killing tear gas and it should have worked on vomit gas too. We weren't sure, but we had men that thought it would. We had a group of men, one man especially that was picked for a group that would head this brigade, or whatever you called them, that would come down with the fire hoses. Of course, his name was Roscoe Rich. And we had others, leadership in the plant, with different jobs that they were assigned to. Each problem was more or less picked and discussed and the best man that was suited for the operation was the man that was picked. Now Roscoe was a good man for this and he was also one on the heat problem because he was the one that previously had taken care of the heat. He had to go across on the other side to Chevrolet and turn that heat on and then come back over on our side. Our heat all came from the powerhouse at Chevrolet. In fact, they attempted to shut it off one night and so we just opened the windows and they turned it back on again in a hurry.
DEYONKER: Why did they turn it back on?
AHEARN: Well, the cold weather would have frozen their sprinkler system and their insurance would have been lost. They would have canceled their insurance. So they put an end to that one, real fast like. Bruce Manley was quite a leader around there. But the main leader and the one that was the first one that was elected president and the one that handled the eviction notices from the sheriff was a man by the name of Rookie O'Rourke, or Francis O'Rourke. So you see, we had a series of leaders, not just one particular one, but we had one at certain times that took care of certain situations. I was a leader in taking and giving the exercises. Roscoe, he was a leader, Francis was a leader, Bruce Manley was a leader, Red Mundale was a leader. We were blessed with leaders and thank God for that, because we needed them.
DEYONKER: I'm curious. Were there any showers in the plant or any facilities you could use to keep yourselves clean?
AHEARN: Oh yes, yes, yes absolutely, yes. Yes, we had all the facilities we needed for showers, not baths, but showers. Showers and we had towels that would come in and we'd get plenty of soap from home and then we'd get soap from the people that would supply it to us, you know. Really, believe me, without the help and the assistance that we had received from the people outside the plant, we could never have won the strike. No way.
DEYONKER: Did your wives send your rubber duckies down?
AHEARN: Oh yeah.
DEYONKER: Okay, now you mentioned Roscoe Rich was in charge of keeping you guys warm. He knew where the switch was for the heat. Was there a number of occasions when management attempted that tactic to freeze you out?
AHEARN: Oh, no, no, no, no. The one time was enough. We had heard they were gonna try it before. But the one time they tried it and we immediately opened all the windows. And I think the weather was somewhere near zero at the time, or below. They soon turned it on real fast like.
DEYONKER: That was the day of the battle. Is that correct?
AHEARN: I don't believe so, no.
DEYONKER: In this Fine's book, Sit Down, he said the heat was shut off, then.
AHEARN: No, that was after...it was prior to the day of the battle.
DEYONKER: The heat was not shut off on the day of the battle that you can recall?
AHEARN: No, not that I can recall. In fact, I'm not positive, but I would like to get to a couple of guys and talk it over. I believe it happened after the battle.
DEYONKER: After the battle?
AHEARN: Yes, sir.
DEYONKER: After the National Guard troops had been brought in?
AHEARN: I don't know, but it was right near, one way or the other. It was only a day or two, one way or the other. But I'm pretty sure that it wasn't on the day, the complete day. That one I'm not sure of.
DEYONKER: Did you have need to utilize your kangaroo court in the plant at any time?
AHEARN: Not to any great extent. We got into where young men wanted to blow off steam and we had boxing gloves back there and we had a ring and all that stuff set up. And you if you got to that point, why you could go back there and settle your disputes. But no, it just didn't happen. There was no hard feelings, you know, one for the other. In fact, after the battle with the police, there was a close-knit unity of some of the deepest brotherhood that I've ever witnessed between men. And rightfully so, because you had laid your life on the line for one another.
DEYONKER: Do you remember any speeches being given to people in the plant by the leaders you had, say, speaking to you as a whole? They were confronted with this big issue, and they would give a speech about it.
AHEARN: The only speakers that I can remember coming into the plant, and they were not, (only one of them and that was O'Rourke) that would get news and come back in and talk (and as I said they were not leaders in the movement) were news reporters, that I can recall.
DEYONKER: What I've gathered from you is that it wasn't that difficult to maintain the morale of the men in the plant.
AHEARN: No, it wasn't.
DEYONKER: Do you recall the last three days before the end of the strike, being particularly difficult for the guys in the plant?
AHEARN: Yes, yes, it was. Actually it was almost a week that it become very depressing, I think is the word you'd use. We were not only tired, but we hadn't received one bit of news that any progress had been made at all. We knew that there was a vigilantes committee that wanted to come in and shoot us out of the plants. We had got word of it. We knew that the National Guard were there with their machine guns on four sides of us, front, back and both sides. We didn't know at what time they might receive pressure from the governor to evict us. You know, you can only take so much of that before you begin to get a little bit ouchy. And the men still had a feeling for one another, a trust in one another. It wasn't that we were depressed with one another. We were depressed that we didn't seem to be getting anywhere.
DEYONKER: Did many fights and arguments break out?
AHEARN: None that I know of, none.
DEYONKER: Now certainly you knew or probably had heard many rumors that there was a great possibility that someone would try to evict you from the plant by force. What type of defense preparations did you make to deal with such possible attacks?
AHEARN: Prior to the time that the police tried to evict us, none whatsoever. But after the police tried to evict us, anything at all that we could.
DEYONKER: Did you make any particular weapon for yourself?
AHEARN: A blackjack.
DEYONKER: A blackjack. A leather blackjack?
AHEARN: Leather loaded with lead.
DEYONKER: What was the reaction of the men in the plant to the Judge Black Injunction read by Sheriff Wolcott on January 2nd?
AHEARN: I don't think it would take much of an imagination to answer that one. You can do it with a middle index finger.
DEYONKER: Okay. Non-verbal communication.
AHEARN: Non-verbal communication is correct.
DEYONKER: All right. Now on the day of the battle, I believe the union was sending in food daily or approximately around six o'clock p.m.
DEYONKER: Now, on that day, when they attempted to deliver the food at the front gate, plant security would not let it in. What was the reaction of the men when that food wasn't ready?
AHEARN: The reaction was that...as I said we had a leader and the leader told the captain of the plant protection that we would allow them three minutes, and I believe it was three, and did not discuss it farther. He immediately started a countdown. We were lined up waiting.
DEJONKER: Approximately how many were waiting?
AHEARN: I would say about fifteen men, maybe a little more, but not an awful lot more. A lot of our men, at that time, (and you would know this, it's knowledge) were down to Gus's Cafe, down there probably getting a hot dog or something. But anyway, then he started the countdown. At the time that he reached the end of this countdown, prior...I would say oh, maybe five counts before he reached the end, plant protection broke and run to...now we were facing east. It would have been to my immediate left. That's where the women's toilets were. They run and broke through the offices and locked themselves into these toilets. The police outside started charging the front doors. Now the doors, as you come in, you had little aisle ways and there were racks there that held clock cards and the clocks were there, the time cards were there. Then you come into an area that opened up, that was wider, where we stood. We started towards that. We met the police head on, practically.
DEYONKER: Right inside the building?
DEYONKER: They were already in there.
AHEARN: Yes, they were inside because my friend, William T. Connelly caught a tear gas shell about six inches in front of his face when it exploded. So how could they have shot it inside unless they had been standing, at least opening the door coming in towards us? We fell back, grabbed the fire hoses, the men that were supposed to, turned them on full force the other one and literally washed them on their butts right straight across the street backwards. And then we broke out into the street and from there all hell broke lose. Some of them rushed back and grabbed solder bars and wrapped them across their fists and used them. I stood and watched one of the bus drivers that had been in that strike shot right in the stomach. Hans Larson was shot in the leg. I didn't see Hans when he got shot but I knew it when he was out there. I seen Pete Pavlich get it along side of me, and he wound up down in jail. I was fortunate that I didn't get hurt. We went down and they left a car on the bridge and these men literally ripped that car apart with their hands. I had the ashtrays out of that car for years. I had those ashtrays that come out of that police car. Then we fell back and they started shooting rifles from up on top of the hill at us and we fell back inside the plant. We went up on the roofs and were firing hinges off the top of the roof at them.
DEYONKER: Were they shooting at you while you were at the top of the roof?
AHEARN: Yes, absolutely, absolutely they were shooting. There was a series of bullet holes that set in the wall on the south side of the building that they were shooting down at us. This vomit gas and tear gas got quite bad up there and I know I, myself become very ill afterwards and vomited all over the place. I don't know whether it was reaction or what but it's the first time and the only time that I've ever saw what you'd say mob action, and really go out of control. It scared me, it frightened me to death and I never want to see it again.
DEYONKER: Now, when the battle started, approximately fifteen men that went to take the main gate, and you were one of them, you forced the police out into the street.
AHEARN: Right. But prior to that, right at the time those police started for that door, they got stopped with, I would say an additional twelve to fifteen picked pickets that come up from Fleetwood. Now these men were picked. They were all at least six foot, all of them. And they are the ones that literally saved our butts. If they hadn't waded into those police, they'd have drove us out of there. There is no question in my mind that they...they had too much of a jump on us.
DEY0NKER: About how many other men were inside the plant at the time?
AHEARN: I refuse to answer that question.
DEYONKER: Okay. So before the people who were inside the plant could do anything it was the pickets from Fleetwood and the guys that, you were one of them, approximately fifteen who held the police off until you could make some preparations to defend the plant.
AHEARN: Not only that, but it seemed like...and how it happened, I don't know. Word of mouth sometimes seems faster than telegraph. In no time at all, the men that were up to Gus's Cafe were there. They heard it. They heard shots. They knew somethin'...they knew all hell had broke loose. And they were there. There were people from all over town come in there. And I believe that night there must have been close to around between three to five thousand people on that street an hour after this had happened. And in less time than that there were quite a few people there. I'd say five to seven hundred. They got there fast. We had what they call flying squads. And as soon as they got word of this, they were there, as fast as cars would bring them there.
DEYONKER: Did the ranks in the plants swell, too, after the time of the battle?
DEYONKER: And from the period after the battle until the end of the strike, were the numbers in the plant considerably larger than they were, say before that time?
AHEARN: You would have to be more specific in order for me to answer that question because the number of the people in the plant fluctuated up and down. The night of the strike, or the night of the battle entirely, there were not too many people in that plant. Immediately following, there quite a few people. But then as the National Guard come in...'til the time, I think you had one or two days until the time that they froze everything in there and then everybody stayed. But just prior to that, a few more left. But we had more...I don't think we had any more than we did when we first went down, no.
DEYONKER: Who made the decision to taking the gate after the food wasn't allowed in? Was it kind of a mutual thing among the men or did somebody make the decision that we're gonna take the gate and that's it?
AHEARN: I believe it was Roscoe Rich that made the decision, verbally. But we knew this, that if he made it, we were stuck with it, meaning that there was no way that we wouldn't back him. And especially with this plant protection man saying that. When he said, "We'll give you three minutes," that's exactly what we meant. We all meant it. He spoke for the group.
DEYONKER: Do you recall any specific actions that you performed during the battle?
AHEARN: Yeah, as I said, I got the ashtrays out of that car and I peeled the cop. But he was using a nightstick on a friend, and he got hit from one side and then he got hit from another, and they carried him away. I don't know, I guess his jaw got fractured, I heard afterwards. Not too much other than throwing and watching them and assisting people and coming back up on the roof, yes. It seems almost like a nightmare when you review it. It is something that unless...and I think each man, if you had the opportunity to talk to him, will tell you the same thing. It was a part of something that you did because you had to. And you'd never want to do it again, if you had a choice, you know. Who wants to fight law that is supposed to uphold everything that you stand for? And who wants to battle somebody or watch their close friends shot over something as asinine as a profit made from a product that you're supposed to go ahead and produce for the benefit of all mankind? Well, no. It's just too bad that things get to the extent that you think that a bunch of human beings will take that much advantage of another. And yet it goes on and it's going on today, in other countries I know.
DEYONKER: Now you mentioned a friend of yours who was a bus driver getting shot.
DEYONKER: What happened? Did he do anything to provoke the police into shooting him?
AHEARN: No more, no less than anyone else. All we wanted was our food and he was trying to assist us in getting it. But the police rushed us. You didn't have a chance. You were attacked. All they were trying to do is protect themselves. Protect themselves from being killed, that's the idea. Yes, when you see a man standing there with a thirty-eight in his hand blasting and shooting a person, especially in the stomach or guts, if you want to call it that, that's what happened.
DEYONKER: Okay, after the battle, that night Francis O'Rourke met with Governor Murphy, I believe, at the Durant Hotel. Shortly thereafter, Governor Murphy ordered the National Guard in. What was the reaction of the men in the plant to the Guard being called in?
AHEARN: We were very happy. Yes, we thought that that was the only thing that saved our lives. In fact, we knew it. We didn't think it. We knew it. We knew it was the only move.
DEYONKER: Did you ever feel that maybe the Guard would be used against you?
AHEARN: Not as long as the governor ordered it. We had an awful lot of faith in Governor Murphy.
DEYONKER: Did the addition of the National Guard change things for the people inside the plant?
AHEARN: Yes, we no longer worried about being shot, too much. We thought, well perhaps, but we thought that they'd come in but they wouldn't shoot us out. And we also had...a lot of them were friends of ours, personal friends. And we couldn't imagine a personal friend of ours taking a bayonet or a rifle and shooting us.
DEYONKER: Did you know any Guardsmen who were also members of the union?
AHEARN: Not specifically, no. I knew some Guardsmen, but they were not from Flint.
DEYONKER: Do you recall any time, after the Guards were called in, you could no longer climb the fence to get out of the plant?
AHEARN: No, no, no. You stayed in the plant, period.
DEYONKER: And what food you got would come through the main gate.
AHEARN: That's true.
DEYONKER: And be brought by the union people.
AHEARN: That's true.
DEYONKER: Do you recall, say any time maybe the National Guardsmen coming up, opening up your coat pockets, showing union buttons, asking you, "Well, do you need anything? Let us get you a pack of cigarettes." or something, because they knew you couldn't leave? Did you ever hear of any instances where the Guards actually would perform favors for the men inside the plant?
AHEARN: Oh yes, yes. In fact, we would trade one thing for another. We would trade union buttons or personal belongings and things for cigarettes and things that they could get for us. Yes, a lot of this went on...an awful lot of it.. We were very friendly with one another. In fact, I think it was through this that our worries stopped. Our worry of being shot out, you know. Not our worry about being evicted, because we thought that perhaps we would. But we knew that they weren't going to come in and kill us, or at least we didn't think so.
DEYONKER: Now, what was the reaction of the men? This is after the Guard was called in, when Judge Gadola issued his injunction trying to evict you from the plant, which was read by Sheriff Wolcott in the presence of National Guard. What was your reaction to that injunction?
AHEARN: My reaction was the same as Francis O'Rourke's. And it's circulating; I think you've seen the picture.
AHEARN: My reaction was a hundred percent the same as his. He could take his injunction and go do with it what he wanted to, but we were going to ignore it. We had waited that long and we didn't care if we waited that much longer.
DEYONKER: Now, after the Guard was called in, do you recall millwrights coming in to help take care of plant maintenance while you guys were in there?
AHEARN: I heard a rumor to that effect but I cannot prove it. That's as far as I can go with that one. I heard it but I do not recall seeing them. But I do recall a rumor to that effect. And whether it was just a rumor or not, I cannot prove.
DEYONKER: All right, now I've heard that among the union members in the plant that there was factionalism, that certain union members would go with some leadership in the UAW and certain members would go with say other leadership in the UAW.
AHEARN: And this was approximately three to four years after the strike. It was not during this time.
DEYONKER: Not during that time?
AHEARN: No, definitely not, no.
AHEARN: I heard this from another person that there was like a group that backed, say Homer Martin and there was another group that was more favorable towards the Reuthers who were a little bit more radical than Martin.
AHEARN: This is true. But prior to that, you see, John L. Lewis was in power, not Homer Martin, see. You're talking about three to four years, later, see. And definitely there was then. And then the faction was the A F of L against the CIO-UAW. And yes, there was a faction in the shop and that split 'em. That split them for a long time.
DEYONKER: Was that a real strong problem, say among the workers?
AHEARN: No, just more or less amongst the leadership in the shop. And I'm talkin' about the leadership of the UAW and the immediate local.
DEYONKER: Now, after the Guard was called in, your liaison between the outside world was Francis O'Rourke.
AHEARN: Yes, him and him alone.
DEYONKER: Now, what kind of information would he bring back to you and well how did you receive word about what was going on in your families? They weren't delivering notes anymore, personally through baskets or anything to that effect.
AHEARN: No, if anything serious had happened, they could get a letter to us from our wives or from our immediate family, also a daily report on the negotiations and how we were progressing or how we were not progressing. If things were at a standstill, what was being done trying to protect us from the sheriff and the city police and the vigilantes' committees that were in town. What help we were getting from other local unions around the country as far as strike assistance. How things were going down in the other plants around town. What rumors were going and all of this would come back to us, and, of course, the newspapers too.
DEYONKER: When he would come in to give you your information, to give his reports, would he address the group as a whole?
AHEARN: Normally, normally. We had a loudspeaker system in the shop and we would holler "everybody back in a certain area." And we would go back there, with the exception of those that were assigned as guards for the day. You notice that I emphasized that.
DEYONKER: Yes, and they would be informed by someone who had listened.
AHEARN: That is correct.
DEYONKER: Did everyone share in responsibilities for being, say, lieutenants on guard at the different doors?
AHEARN: Absolutely, at different times. Each...we tried to assign each person something to do, if it was no more than change records on the victrola that we had there or phonograph or whatever you want to call it.
DEYONKER: Did you play that over the plant loudspeaker system?
AHEARN: Yes, yes we had music going all the time and we had more or less of a...if we knew of a birthday, we congratulated and all these certain things, you know, tryin' to keep the morale of the men up at all times. News-wise and otherwise come over this sound system and this was good. Like I say, each one had more or less of an assignment and they had more or less of a buddy-buddy system in there, too. And this was good.
DEYONKER: Were your guards armed?
DEYONKER: They didn't have blackjacks or anything?
AHEARN: They might have had 'em but they weren't in plain sight, I would say. They weren't flashing anything.
DEYONKER: Now did you have any...I know after the Guard moved in, you did have, say outside entertainers coming in, like maybe they did at Fisher 1. Did you have any entertainers, say, prior to the time the Guards were called in?
AHEARN: The only entertainment that I recall was some of the men in our own plant played guitar and sang and only one time can I remember entertainment coming in. And this was a group of three, I believe, and one of them was a dwarf. And that was the only time that we had entertainment in the shop that I can recall at all.
DEYONKER: Now, did you have any newsmen in the plant?
AHEARN: Yes, we had quite a few news people in the plant. The only honest reporting that I saw, that is that wasn't slanted, was from the New York Times and from, I think it was the Boston Globe, or it was a Boston paper. And the reporters being there made sure that we received one of their editions. How they did it I don't know, but they did.
DEYONKER: Do you recall the names of any of those newsmen?
AHEARN: No, I don't. I remember one was a woman reporter.
DEYONKER: Okay, getting back to the time of the battle, did you know of any company men (I know the police were shooting at you), but did you know of any company men that took part in the battle against you, say, shooting at you or fighting with you?
AHEARN: Not personally, no.
DEYONKER: Did you hear any rumors to that effect?
AHEARN: I had heard some, yes.
DEYONKER: Were you able to witness the battle, the kind of like the diversionary battle, they had at plant nine in order that plant four could be taken over?
AHEARN: Yes, we heard it. We heard it and we could see only parts of it, and what was going on because most of the action was on the far side of the building where we couldn't see at all. But we heard about it and as soon as the plant four had been taken and was successful, a few of the fellows run between the plant and the gate and they yelled. And we yelled back at them. We got out on the roof and, oh boy, we were happy that it happened!
DEYONKER: Did you know beforehand that they were gonna be making an attempt to take that plant?
DEYONKER: Francis O'Rourke had not told you. I'm sure he must have known of organizing efforts, trying to organize and shut down the plant. But you weren't informed?
AHEARN: He might have been, but we were not informed at that time.
DEYONKER: What was the reaction by the Guard when this happened?
AHEARN: I don't know; I couldn't answer that question. You know, I never heard any of the Guard's comment.
DEYONKER: I was just wondering if maybe they played a role because there was quite a bit of fighting going on.
DEYONKER: Were you ever over to Plant 4?
AHEARN: Yes, the night after the battle. The night after our battle with the police I and two other fellows from plant two went into Plant 4 from over the gate, went over the top of the gate. And we talked to some of the fellows there and then come back.
DEYONKER: Do you recall what your discussion was about?
AHEARN: About how things were going, trying to cheer one another up.
DEYONKER: Did they mention anything about what was going on inside their plant?
AHEARN: No, no.
DEYONKER: Did you hear any talk, say, after the strike was over, through conversations with fellow union workers who worked in, say, Plant 4 as to your sit-down in Fisher 2, say, influencing them? Okay, you had a battle with the police and you were under a lot of fire. Did they say anything about maybe you, what your plant was doing, inspiring them to eventually become one of the plants that sit down?
DEYONKER: Okay. Now there has been different books written on the strike in Flint. And in those books they give credit (oh, it will vary from book to book) to, say, different individuals that were involved. For instance, this one book considered Fisher 1 to be the most important plant in Flint to sit down because of the number of workers they had there. If you had to go about giving credit, where would you place that credit?
AHEARN: Well, it wouldn't be Fisher 1 first. It would be Plant 4 first, because definitely at that time Plant 4, in my limited knowledge, was the only plant making motors for Chevrolet in the system, the whole General Motors system. Secondly, I would give credit to our plant, because we're the ones that took on the police. We're the ones that faced the blunt of the attack and took the worst of the crap that they could throw at us. Thirdly, perhaps Fisher 1. Now this may start an argument with a lot of guys. But I will set them down here and tell 'em the same thing. Credit should be given to, and at the time of this battle now I'm reverting back to our own situation, to Kermit Johnson in Plant 4 and the wonderful job he and his men in that plant did. Certainly they took on plant protection right inside the shop. They had a few busted heads, too. I forget the exact number of men but I think it was around thirteen in our plant that got wounded that night and shot and wound up in hospitals and in jail. I haven't heard a one from South End Fisher Body. I would like to give credit to Roy Reuther on the sound car the night that he was out in front of our plant. I would like to give credit to all the men that came up from Fleetwood to pick pickets that stood out in front of our plant. I would like to give credit to Bob, the bus driver that got shot, Hans Larson, that got shot, and the few others I know. And last, but not least, the least man, the one that you very seldom hear any word of at all in that plant that has never been mentioned, and without him we never could have won. Credit goes to all of 'em. It goes to every man that participated in this thing. If you try to select one and say, hey, he did something, perhaps he did a little bit more. But without this one, this whole overall picture could never have been broughten together. It took the combined efforts of every man and woman, because we had help from the women, too, you know. They were up along there in six and nine that were breaking windows and lettin' tear gas out. Yes, it goes to each and every one of them.
DEYONKER: You were the first plant in Flint to go on strike.
DEYONKER: It was approximately a full day before Fisher 1 went.
DEYONKER: This has been very informative, Mr. Ahearn, and I thank you very much. I'm wondering if maybe you know someone that is still around that was a fellow sit-downer or maybe played an important role in the strike in any capacity that you might be able to direct us towards so they could give some assistance to our project?
AHEARN: I don't know whether you would find 'em right in town here. You perhaps would find them the fastest by going to the retirees' party at the union hall. Neal Yaklin should be there and Bobby Redkidder, probably. I don't know. Roscoe, I don't know if Roscoe goes there too much anymore. But a lot of the people that I have mentioned, and some that I haven't, were there. But you won't find too many of them that actually set the forty-four days in that plant that are around any more. Most of 'em are dead and gone.
DEYONKER: Just one more thing that comes to my mind, as far as the leadership went in your plant. You mentioned Bruce Manley, Francis O'Rourke and you have talked about Roscoe Rich and then Red Mundale. Did they each, were they each in charge maybe of a different area, kind of an overseer of a different aspect?
AHEARN: O'Rourke was personally...here's the way it worked. Mundale and Manley were body shop, downstairs people. O'Rourke and myself, and the only active role I played was by giving exercises. Some of the others were the people from paint, polish and trim. Now prior to this time, we didn't even have time enough to say "hello" to each other, rather let alone get acquainted too much, you know. So you took the guys from the area that they knew who this guy was because they had seen him around their area, see. So they were a little bit acquainted with him. The same with the body shop men and that's where these two inspectors were from, down in the body shop.
DEYONKER: Had Francis O'Rourke, Bruce Manley and Red Mundale been very active with the UAW prior to the strike?
AHEARN: There was no such thing prior to the strike, their form of leadership. There was in a way and that was the A F of L - CIO that we were talking about. They had had leadership through the army and navy, et cetera. But sure, we hadn't formed a regular, like a local yet. So how do you have leadership, you know?
DEYONKER: So they were primarily people who had had leadership responsibility in some other capacity prior to this time.
DEYONKER: They knew a little bit what it was like being in charge and some of the things that...
AHEARN: Definitely so.
DEYONKER: Thank you very much.
AHEARN: You're welcome.