BOOK REVIEW: Midnight in Vehicle City

This review was written for the New York Labor History Association. You can find the original post here.

The 1936–37 autoworker strike in Flint, Michigan was a defining moment in U.S. history, the consequences of which extended far beyond the factory walls. In occupying that space for a few brief months, UAW strikers strategically and, at great risk to themselves and their families, sat down and stayed put. Their courageous resolve brought General Motors, the world’s preeminent auto maker and one of the world’s largest corporations, to its knees (and to the bargaining table), spearheading the creation of the postwar American middle-class.

Midnight in Vehicle City: General Motors, Flint, and the Strike that Created the Middle Class, a new book by Edward McClelland released in February 2021, tells the intimate story of the strike at a level of detail that is both satisfying for diehard labor historians and accessible for newcomers to the subject. For most readers interested in the genre, the condensed history of the singular event, at about 200 pages, provides context sufficient enough to illustrate the gravity of the historical movement while offering a rudimentary glimpse into the abundance of factors it took on a personal, strategic, and tactical level to make the influential sit-down strike successful.

That McClelland manages to express the rich history of the sit-down strike in a novel-like way made for light reading I genuinely looked forward to. The chapters are spaced out logically, providing a timeline and backstory for the strike, while centering on several central figures in the strike’s successful outcome and the dynamics at play behind-the-scenes in a very easy-to-grasp manner: the lead-up, the strike itself, the complex web of relationships and risks strikers had to balance in order to have their demands met at the bargaining table.

The story’s evolving cast of characters can, at times, be difficult to keep track of — an issue I mitigated with a notebook detailing, in brief, each person’s connection to the strike and/or the wider Flint community. I think the shifting cast of characters and focus is, of course, necessary to make McClelland’s succinct points logically and chronologically, so this is less of an issue with the writing so much as it is a reminder of the breadth of people from different races, stations, and situations in life that it takes to make a movement successful.

He also considers the local, state, and national political factors at play in the decision to strike. At the local level, in Flint, GM thugs and their friends in local police departments were adamantly opposed to the strike and used force often in an attempt to break it. At the state level, New Dealer Frank Murphy had just been elected Michigan’s governor and, the UAW felt, owed a debt to the labor movement for propelling him to victory. And at the national level, Roosevelt had just signed the Wagner Act in 1935, promoting governmental support for unions, but remained skeptical of the sit-down strike as a tactic.

The gamble paid off, of course, and in the epilogue of the book, McClelland explains, in brief, the implications of the strike on a longer timeline: a few bright decades when organized labor created a massive middle-class, the likes of which the world had never seen before. The epilogue serves as a nice roundup to contextualize what the strike meant, but for those looking into the sit-down strike as a tactic, or GM after the 1940s, you’ll probably want to read another book. As a singular piece of history, however — the author’s well-executed goal — it does a fantastic job at setting the scene and explaining the ins-and-outs of the strike itself, largely from the perspective of those who participated in it.

Ultimately, McClelland’s book is a wonderfully concise and appropriately detailed short history of a singular monumental event and its many implications, and would serve as a worthy starting point for anyone looking for a refresher or primer on the subject. The tidbits of information the author scatters throughout — simplifying how General Motors works, what it takes to build a car, the extent of red-baiting used to break the strike, and the nitty-gritty details of what life was actually like for strikers in GM’s Fisher One plant — were rich enough to keep me engaged and detailed enough to contextualize what the strike meant for those who chose to stand up and sit down.

Reviewed by Kyle Friend, a communication strategist at the Office and Professional Employees International Union in New York and a member of the NYLHA board. In 2018, he graduated from Cornell University’s ILR School and co-authored an award-winning paper on outsourcing in the Trump era with Dr. Kate Bronfenbrenner. He represented Cornell in the 2018 Marshall Scholarship competition and worked under the late Dr. Lois Gray to study the barriers faced and progress won by women in the NYC construction industry as a Harry Van Arsdale Graduate Research Fellow. Before working in labor, he was a local news journalist covering housing, labor, local politics, and development for the Ithaca Voice, in Ithaca, N.Y.

Unionist, N.Y. Labor History Association Board Member, and former journalist with the Ithaca Voice.