Child of the Sit-Downs
The Revolutionary Life of Genora Dollinger
Publication Year: 2008
ForeWord Magazine 2008 Silver Award Winner for Excellence in Biography!
A biography of a prominent labor reformer and early feminist
Strikes affect entire communities, and in the end they need the communities’ support to succeed. This was exemplified in the legendary 1937 sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, when strikers occupied the GM plants. The striking workers needed food; they also needed information and advance warning on what management might be up to. The Women’s Emergency Brigade, formed during the Flint strike, proved indispensable to the union effort more than once. Genora Johnson Dollinger helped create the Women’s Emergency Brigade and became one of the strike’s leaders. She and her followers waded into the fray against the Flint police, the Pinkertons, and local officials sympathetic to GM, helping to achieve victory for the United Auto Workers and generating the first contract ever signed between GM and the UAW.
Genora Dollinger became a steward at various plants in Detroit, where she moved after being blacklisted in Flint. She and her second husband, Sol Dollinger, were brutally beaten in their home, apparently because of their union support, though nothing was ever definitively proven. From the 1960s on, Genora Dollinger worked closely with the NAACP, ACLU, and the women’s movement, becoming a link between the labor movement of the late twentieth century and the feminist movement.
This biography of one of the first female labor activists is an important addition to the history of twentieth-century reform movements.
Published by: The Kent State University Press
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Many people helped me to research and write this biography of Genora Dollinger, and I must express my appreciation to them. First, at the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Reuther Library at Wayne State University in Detroit, Walter Lefevre, Patrice Merritt, Margaret Raucher, and Mary J. Wallace were helpful. Paul Gifford of the University of Michigan, Flint; William Glenn, Stony Brook University; Julie ...
Preface: Genora and Luther
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Writing about the relatively unknown nineteenth-century politician Felix Grundy, historian Joseph H. Parks says, “The stories of the lives of the so-called great men of the nation have been told and re-told, but little has been done toward giving due credit to those who made them great.” Leaders do not “spontaneously spring into national prominence.
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Genora Johnson Dollinger gained fame in 1937 when she formed the Women’s Emergency Brigade (WEB) to fight the police, Pinkertons, and other authorities in the sit-down strike against General Motors (GM) in Flint, Michigan. The WEB, or EB as it came to be called, was not intended to be another auxiliary responsible for making sandwiches and coffee for the strikers. Armed with clubs, stove pokers, ...
1. Genesis of a Revolutionary
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Genora Johnson and colleagues could cite numerous precedents of women’s participation in the context of labor union activities in the 1937 sit-down strikes. In strikes of 1828 and 1834, women in a textile mill in Dover, New Hampshire, won higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to organize. Following the New Hampshire example, women textile workers in Lowell, Massachusetts, won important ...
2. Genora and Friends—Standing By Their Men
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The stock market crash of October 29, 1929, “Black Tuesday,” heralded dark days ahead for the 1930s and social and political influences on American life that lasted for the rest of the century.1 Unemployment grew to a steady 25 percent, with some cities like Cleveland and Toledo suffering more than twice that amount. Entire families from coast to ...
3. The Lure of Trotskyism
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The union victory intensified Genora and her colleagues’ philosophies concerning the roles of huge corporations and big government in American life. Why should it even be necessary for groups of determined workers to have to take on the giant companies to obtain labor equality? Beneath the naïveté of the question lay longtime concerns among social reformers about human nature itself. Was competition ...
4. Genora’s Wars
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The sit-downs of 1937, World War II, and their immediate aftermath marked the beginnings of the modern women’s rights movement in the United States. These events fused feminist activism with progress in unionism, and Genora Dollinger played a role in the merging of these two movements. Feminist progress was made by women activists of the late 1930s who were UAW members (and this list included Genora ...
5. Trials and Tragedies
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Genora Dollinger joined postwar critics of certain practices and institutions of American life. Why were blacks in the South and factory workers in the North deprived of compassion and benevolence, by both government and big corporations? Why were so many citizens without health care or even medical insurance? Why did the rich gain political power only because of their wealth, while millions of ordinary ...
6. California Girl
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In 1960 Genora Dollinger celebrated her forty-seventh birthday, still young enough to be vigorous despite continuing health problems but old enough to have gained some wisdom. National and international labor organizations called upon her for advice and counsel. She had become the grande dame of the labor and Socialist movements in the United States. Many organizations—labor, capital, and otherwise— ...
7. “It Makes My Heart Sing”
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The status of education in America worried Genora and other reform-minded people throughout the country. Some Los Angeles schools were graduating students who could not read and write in any language or even do elementary arithmetic. Here was a ready-made crusade, and in only a short time the lady from Michigan was fully involved in it, adding education to her lengthy list of causes. She feared the situation in Los Angles might reflect—in a sort of microcosm—the ...
8. “Tuxedo Unionism”
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United Automobile Workers officials, particularly Larry Jones at Local 659 in Flint, wanted “historical status” for GM plants numbers one, two, and especially four, as the actions there gave the 1937 victory to the union. State and national approvals arrived in early 1980, and Genora received an invitation to participate in the gala events marking the occasion, the highlight of which would be the unveiling of bronze ...
9. An Assessment
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Genora Albro Johnson Dollinger’s life can be considered revolutionary on many levels. Her early family life did not point the way later on for “radical” Trotskyism: she taught Sunday school in a Methodist church and availed herself of all the trappings of a middle-class family. Carl Johnson, her father-in-law, had more ideological influence on her life than her own father, Raymond Albro, and showed her the way of Socialism.
Appendix: A Chronology of Genora Dollinger’s Life
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Page Count: 256
Illustrations: (To view these images, please refer to print version)
Publication Year: 2008