During the Great Depression, roughly 1 out of 4 Americans looking for work couldn't find any. But for those willing to move to places like Flint, Mich., work was available. Hopping on trains in the South, the unemployed could get jobs at General Motors the day they arrived.
But Olen Ham, of Grand Blanc Township, says safety standards at the plants were almost nonexistent.
"Each plant had their problems with management," he says. "Management did not want to listen at all to the workers."
Ham, 94, is the last GM worker from Flint healthy enough to speak. In 1936, he got a job at the Buick Foundry. It made molds for clutch plates and brake drums. Ham's hourly wage: "52 cents. And women, of course, were paid 46 cents for doing the same job."
Foundry work was considered the worst assignment. African-Americans and newly hired whites were stuck there. Ham worked just inches from red-hot iron. Burns and other injuries were routine.
"I worked in an area where there was a big merry-go-round, about a 30-foot circle," Ham says. "And they had all these pots for molds. And the iron poured into them. It was hot. It was dirty. And every once in a while somebody would disappear. If that molten iron gets spilled or they fall down from the heat or something, they'd never find him. It's impossible. Twenty-two hundred degrees — you'd vanish in a moment."
Workers were concerned about safety conditions and started to realize they had strength in numbers. So on Dec. 30, 1936, the men locked themselves inside three of the Flint factories.
The more than 3,000 striking workers halted production there, and GM lost millions of dollars. Ham spent much of his time patrolling factory grounds.
"We made sure that management and the foremen and the goons were out," he says.
Days turned to weeks. January snow fell and GM turned off the heat. Strikers slept on seats that would have been bolted into cars by then. Days were harsh and strikers had no way to cook. Their wives delivered meals if they could evade the Flint police.
"It was getting where the police were beating up the women with clubs [as they brought] the food to the windows," Ham says.
On Jan. 11, police tried to dislodge the strikers with guns, firebombs and tear gas. Strikers fought back with fire hoses and used slingshots to launch door hinges. Wives smashed factory windows so men inside could breathe fresh air.
After 44 days, General Motors gave in and collective bargaining began with the United Auto Workers. Ham's pay doubled to $1 an hour. He told fellow workers: "You're all equal now. The blacks and whites and laborers. We can all work [for] equal pay, equal conditions. You wear a white shirt same as anybody else. And your voice is gonna be heard. And it was."
Women's voices would be heard, too. For the first time women earned the same amount as men.
After the strike ended in February, GM made another documentary. This one portrayed thousands of smiling workers marching into factories in Flint and other cities, and GM executives handing out checks to workers.
By 1938, membership in the United Auto Workers union had grown from 30,000 members to more than half a million. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.