SIT-DOWN STRIKE 50th ANNIVERSARY MURALS--FLINT, MI
(Lost)

General Description:
“In 1937 our gallant strike electrified and mobilized an entire nation. All of working-class America thrilled to our victory. They knew our fight was their fight. We proved again, as the railroad and coal workers had proved before us, that in union there is strength. We fought against our own intolerable conditions, but our fight was the fight of the entire nation of exploited men and women.”1 

“The General Motors Corporation Sit-Down Strike of 1936-1937 remains probably the most significant historical event which has taken place in Flint. Its success, in making the United Auto Workers the bargaining agent for the employees of General Motors Corporation, has been discussed in numerous studies of the labor wars of the 1930s and inspired several books on the strike itself. Sidney Fine's Sit-Down (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969) resulted from a detailed analysis of archival sources and interviews, and Henry Kraus's The Many and the Few (1947) was an insider's account of one of the chief labor activists involved in the strike.”2 

“On  Dec. 30, 1936, management in the Fisher II factory in Flint, MI tried to fire three UAW members. Fellow and sister workers stopped work and occupied the factory. ...Several hours later, on the afternoon of Dec. 30, workers at the Standard Cotton Products Co. a supplier for GM, sat down. Then around 10 p.m. that night, workers at the big Fisher I factory in Flint took over their plant. ...Thus began the first great auto strike… .”3

“The autoworkers were striking to win recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW) as the only bargaining agent for GM's workers; they also wanted to make the company stop sending work to non-union plants and to establish a fair minimum wage scale, a grievance system and a set of procedures that would help protect assembly-line workers from injury. In all, the strike lasted 44 days.

The Flint sit-down strike was not spontaneous; UAW leaders, inspired by similar strikes across Europe, had been planning it for months. The strike actually began at smaller plants: Fisher Body in Atlanta on November 16, GM in Kansas City on December 16 and a Fisher stamping plant in Cleveland on December 28. The Flint plant was the biggest coup…: it contained one of just two sets of body dies that GM used to stamp out almost every one of its 1937 cars. By seizing control of the Flint plant, autoworkers could shut down the company almost entirely. ...on the evening of December 30, the Flint Plant's night shift simply stopped working. They locked themselves in and sat down.”4

GM obtained an injunction against the strike in January, which the union ignored. The judge who granted the injunction had a significant investment in GM. After several pitched battles between the strikers and police, “GM obtained a second injunction against the strike on February 1, 1937. The union not only ignored [this] order, but spread the strike to Chevrolet Plant #4. ...That development forced GM to bargain with the union. ...The two parties finally reached agreement on February 11, 1937 on a one-page agreement that recognized the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for GM's employees who were members of the union for the next six months. As short as this agreement was, it gave the UAW instant legitimacy. The UAW capitalized on that opportunity, signing up 100,000 GM employees and building the union's strength through grievance strikes at GM plants throughout the country.”5 

In 1987 the artist, Johan Sellenraad, created an under-glazed, painted ceramic tile mural in Flint, Michigan, which he considered "a major public art piece...for the city and the UAW,  commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 'Sit-Down Strike' that unionized the auto workers. [...The memorial] included four handmade ceramic tile murals produced at Pewabic Pottery in Detroit, set in a concrete structure based on the auto factories.”6 

The mural/friezes portrayed "...special strike events, and statements by union leaders and union songs. Seating [...was] by concrete casts of 1936 Chevy seats found in a field and on the sly at Buick City, a huge plant, since closed. ...you [could] sit on a Chevy seat and read or sing the frieze and see the strike take place inside and out. On the apron[, below the tiles,] bronze car hinges were mounted replicating the [strikers’] ammunition used with rubber inner tubes as sling shots to keep the company [strikebreakers/scabs] and [city] cops out.”7 

"Sellenraad's monument...combine[d] photographic evidence, a local ceramic tradition, and union-manufactured goods. It mark[ed] the entrance to the historic Carriage Town neighborhood where the auto industry had its roots... . [...Although the] Sit-Down Strike Memorial refers to a single event in history[,...] by giving voice to labor, it goes beyond traditional memorialization. And by integrating text and graphic techniques, it provide[d] an extraordinarily rich and complex interpretation of events."8

In a 1988 interview with the Grosse Pointe (MI) News Marieke Sellenraad Allen, Johan’s sister and a member of the Pewabic Society Board of Directors, stated that “UAW retirees who...commissioned the work had to conceptualize what they wanted, but Johan would have to make it work his way. You cannot dictate to an artist[,...but you] must have continuous interplay. ...Fortunately,...the retirees...liked him and they loved his ideas. ...the whole concept of having Michigan people work on it--the pottery, the tile installers, the people of Flint, and especially the autoworkers--[was] a great one.”9

Materials Used/Technical Information (size, manufacturer, etc.):

The 50th Anniversary Sit-Down Strike Memorial consisted of four tile murals, each approximately 12 feet wide by 8 feet high, set in concrete frames on concrete "aprons"  along the Flint River, near the entrance to the Carriage Town Historic District. The murals were designed and painted on 12" x 12" x 1" bisque tiles by the artist, Johan Sellenraad.6 The tiles were made and bisque-fired by ceramic artist J.T. Abernathy of Ann Arbor, Michigan. After they were painted with under-glazes, they were clear-coated and fired at the Pewabic Pottery in Detroit and shipped to Flint, where they were installed by a local tile setter.10


Sellenraad wrote that he "...did research and hired a recommended local architect to do up the specs based on my design. I made a model and life-size paintings which I carted around the Union halls for approval. I worked with Pewabic Pottery which had done really nice architectural tile work in Detroit in the 1920s that still looks good (similar freeze & thaw weather as Flint). [J.T. Abernathy, a ceramic artist] in Ann Arbor was sub contracted to make the tiles, most of which were fantastic, 1" x 1' x 1'. We did kiln tests and [...Pewabic] found a building across Jefferson [Avenue] where I could do each mural on the bisque fired tile[s,…] after which they were carefully moved across the street to the large kilns. By Labor Day we had three out [of] four murals in place. There was an unveiling with...speeches by the Governor, Mayor and Union leaders including Victor Reuther, and a parade."7


Johan’s sister, Marieke Allen, recalled that “People we’ve met seem to really study it, to relate to it. And the UAW was so excited over it. They considered Johan a hero for having come through so well. ...The monument is styled like an open book, capable of being read on both sides. [One panel features…] a view of the sit-down strike from the inside looking out,  one from the outside looking in, and [the other two depict…] 1950s and 1980s era assembly plants.”


Marieke also remembered the difficult but rewarding process of making the murals. “By spring of 1987, Pewabic...had leased an old firehouse building across [...Jefferson] and told Sellenraad to set up shop there. …[Pewabic staff] member Diane Kulisek, who had been working on the People Mover project, developed the special colors...Sellenraad needed. [One problem was that] Johan...is a painter and used to knowing what color he wanted and just reaching for it. Now, he had to stop and wait to see how the test tiles matched up. ...The work began after the testing was completed in June. [...A small group then] worked seven days a week under tremendous pressure to finish enough tiles for at least two panels to be erected in time for the Labor Day [1987] dedication.”


“The calligraphy [on the tiles] was painstaking[--another problem]. Instead of the one stroke it normally takes, I [Marieke] had to go over each letter three or four times after doing the layout in pencil. There were 88 tiles of text and then the headlines, timelines and donor names to finish. Then everything had to be fired.


“The tiles were so big they cracked all the time during the firing. ...we had to slow the firing because of the cracking, but that meant that production was slowed. Soon we began to have the technique down to where each firing would take five days. ...It worked, but even then the tiles would shrink from their planned 11 ¼ inches. ...We had three panels up by Labor Day and put the fourth up later.”9


In 2008 another memorial--another “first of its kind”--was unveiled in San Francisco. It is similar to the Sit-Down Strike Memorial in that it commemorated an event that is still vilified by some in this country--the fight by Americans in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade against the fascist onslaught in Spain in 1936-1939; those who fought were never honored by this country; and it has a similar “look” to it as the Flint Memorial. It uses translucent onyx “tiles” to show “The faces of some of the 3,000 or so men and women who broke American isolationism to volunteer in the 1936-39 Spanish war… . ...Americans who risked their lives for the values at stake were never recognized in their home country. ...The only acknowledgment most brigade members received after their return to the United States were the 1950s investigations for participation in leftist organizations… ."11 It shows the people, their deeds and their words just as did the first Sit-Down Strike Memorial.


Abraham Lincoln Brigade Memorial, San Francisco, California. (Photo courtesy of Michael Padwee)
"Spain has been etched in the hearts of our generation... and carried around like a terrible wound.  Spain gave us our first taste of defeat, and because of her we discovered with an enduring shock that one can be right and still be defeated, that sheer force can trample the human spirit underfoot, and that there are times when courage goes unrewarded." (Albert Camus)



Year Created:

1986/87


Year Installed:

1987


Does Installation Still Exist?

No


If Not, What Happened?

The tile setters failed to include weepholes near the bottoms of the murals. Water seeped into the concrete, behind the tiles. Sellenraad describes what happened: “[...The Sit-Down Memorial] was [in] an outside location and unfortunately the concrete let in water behind the tiles forcing the glaze to disintegrate."6 “The site is across the Flint River from the U. of MI, Flint. It was a favorite site with the Union, [but] for tiles it had lots of moisture..., weather extremes from arctic cold and sudden frosts and summer heat." The first year there was no problem, but the second year “water came through the concrete and built up between the tiles… . The tile installers...forgot to put in weepholes in the lower corners of the silicone caulk. I was called in from NYC...when the glaze started flaking. Opening the corners by punching holes with a screwdriver released buckets of water. [But,] it was the beginning of the end. ...Now it is gone, replaced by a bronze statue.”7 Within five years the murals were destroyed.


Additional Information, Websites, Citations:

1Genora Johnson Dollinger, “Where Did the Labor Movement Go Wrong? Lessons from the Flint Sit-Down in 1937”, The Searchlight, February 10, 1987; http://www.sjvgreens.org/archive04/sitdown_lessons.shtml

2http://www.umflint.edu/library/archives/labor.htm

3Taken from "The Story of The Searchlight" by Ronda Hauben, Flint, 1987; http://history.eserver.org/flint-sit-down.txt

6Email from Johan Sellenraad to Michael Padwee dated 13 Feb. 2013, titled “Clark St subway murals”

7Email from Johan Sellenraad to Michael Padwee dated 17 Feb 2013, titled “Flint Mon AB87 UAW & City of Flint commission for ‘Sit=Down Strike Monument’”

8Ronald Lee Fleming*, “The Changing Place of Interpretation in American Public Space”, p. 2; http://places.designobserver.com/media/pdf/The_Changing_P_643.pdf.

*Mr. Fleming, the founder and president of the Townscape Institute, “Created the design parameters [...for] a ceramic tile monument on the riverfront depicting significant scenes from a major labor victory. [...Fleming] developed the concept of combining literary quotations, cast cement auto seats, and cast bronze auto hinges as part of a holistic design and animation strategy for the site adjacent to the Carrigetown Historic District which serves as amphitheater and entry marker to the historic district.”; http://www.townscape.org/RLFCV.pdf.

9Peggy O’Connor Andrzejczyk, “Pointer of Interest: Marieke Sellenraad Allen”, Grosse Pointe News, Vol. 49, No. 22, June 2, 1988, pp. 1A, 11A

10Sandy Koukoulas, Public Relations representative of the Pewabic Pottery and Hanne Fuglsang Nielsen, Pewabic archivist, said their records indicate that Sellenraad painted 12" x 12" tiles made and bisque-fired by ceramic artist J.T. Abernathy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then brought the tiles to Pewabic to be clear-coated and fired. The tiles were not produced by Pewabic, just fired in their kilns. The installation of the murals by Michigan tile setters turned out to be faulty, and the tiles disintegrated after about five years. (Emails from Sandy Koukoulas and Hanne Fuglsang Nielsen to Michael Padwee dated 15 Feb. 2013)

11http://links.sfgate.com/nation/article/WAR-HEROES-LATE-HONOR-3286297.php#page-1

I would also like to thank Mr. Paul Gifford, Senior Associate Librarian, Genesee Historical Collections Center, Frances Willson Thompson Library, University of Michigan-Flint for searching for photos of the murals in their Labor History Project archives.

To access a downloadable article about this memorial, go to: https://tileresearcharticles.omeka.net/items/show/33. Scroll down the page to "Files" and click on the pdf file.

Submitted by and Year:

Submitted by Michael Padwee with the help of the artist, Johan Sellenraad, and Sandy Koukoulas and Hanne Fuglsand Nielsen of the Pewabic Pottery. Submitted in February 2013.



Mural #1 (Photos courtesy of Pewabic Pottery unless otherwise noted)


Mural #3


Detail, LR corner of Mural #1


Note the brass hinges on the apron under Mural #2 
and the Flint River and small waterfall in the background.
(Photo courtesy of Johan Sellenraad)






Mural #2


Mural #4

Detail, LL corner of Mural #2



Detail, LR corner of Mural #2