Review: The Flint Sit-Down Strike

One of the first major labor conflicts following the passage of the Wagner Act of 1935, the 1936-1937 Flint sit-down strike holds an important place in the American labor history. A group of faculty and students at the University of Michigan-Flint, led by political scientist Neil Leighton preserved many precious details of the strike in a series of oral histories from 1978 to 1984. Michael Van Dyke and David Bailey of Michigan State’s MATRIX partnered with the University of Michigan-Flint in 2001 to digitize and present the interviews on the Internet as one of MATRIX’s Historical Voices audio galleries, creating The Flint Sit-Down Strike.

While the project does serve as an archive for some Leighton’s oral histories, The Flint Sit-Down Strike audio gallery does more than simply post audio clips to a website. The project has edited, arranged, and added context to more than one hundred audio clips from fifty-one people, in the process making several scholarly arguments. In hoping to preserve and present the oral histories of the Flint sit-down strike, the project argues the strike is an important moment in American history and the general public should have greater awareness of this event. The curated galleries and accompanying narratives also present a more traditional historical argument that the Flint strikers used the Wagner Act and the new tactic of a sit down strike to improve working conditions at the General Motors facilities. Calling the strike “a classic case of David versus Goliath,” the project takes a sympathetic stance towards the strikers, who form the majority of the oral histories.

The backbone of The Flint Sit-Down Strike‘s argument is its collection of oral histories which are edited, organized, and contextualized. Occupying much of the main page’s focus, and signaling to the user importance, the chronological audio essays, Organization, Strike, and Aftermath, couch topically organized audio clips within text narrative. Each audio essay focuses on the oral histories as the main medium for the story, as it should, providing only a paragraph as context to each series of audio clips. While these essays are individually well designed for user consumption, the navigation lacks an easy way to move from one essay to the next. The user must return to the homepage or click on the Help section to move to another audio essay or one of the other interactive resources.

The Flint Sit-Down Strike has three “interactive” presentations of audio clips, an audio timeline, slideshow, and strike map. The audio timeline consists of a handful of clips selected to mark the strike’s major events. Since the audio essays are already chronologically organized, the timeline is the least useful of the three interactive presentations. The slideshow presents some pictures from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University with voice-over narration of basic information, like short descriptions of main actors in the labor conflict. Though informative, the slideshow is not interactive as the only choice the user has is which slideshow to view. The strike map’s spatial organization of audio clips nicely utilizes the visual elements of the digital medium. The zoomable map has building descriptions and relevant audio clips available by clicking on the map, privileging the user’s discretion, avoiding the clear linearity of the timeline and slideshow, and making the strike map the most interactive of the three features.

Regardless of how the audio clips are accessed, they are very useful to high school and university students and members of the general public, audiences to which the project’s creators explicitly hoped to appeal. The project’s clear and concise audio essays provide a good overview of the strike, its causes, and its meaning for those unfamiliar with labor history. In addition to a solid narrative, the project serves as an accessible archive of quality primary sources, which could easily comprise part of a student project. The full list of audio clips and searchable transcriptions is especially useful for students, though the complete list is not prominently displayed within the navigation. The project also lists resources for more information, such as Sidney Fine’s Sit-Down: The General Motors Strike of 1936-1937 for those interested in learning more about the strike.

Although a useful resource, The Flint Sit-Down Strike has some major sustainability issues. In order to access the audio clips, audio timeline, and slideshow, any visitor to the project has to download Real Player to her or his computer. The ability to simply click play and listen or view to the project’s content is not a reality for the majority of the project’s potential users. Without a compelling interest to continue downloading Real Player or reading the transcripts, many casual visitors will likely go elsewhere rather quickly. Given the project’s reliance on a specific media format and company, the future of this quality project seems much less stable than other projects. Though The Flint Sit-Down Strike‘s transcriptions and textual narratives are still useful if the media does not function properly, the uncertainty of future accessibility places three of the four purposes outlined by the project’s developers, adding the “personal touch” of actual historical actors’ voices, providing “several levels of interactivity,” and presenting the oral histories in a “relatively permanent and easily accessible” form, in serious jeopardy. The project can achieve its fourth purpose, educating students and members of the public about the strike, without its media clips. However, The Flint Sit-Down Strike is much more persuasive with its media working.

The Flint Sit-Down Strike skillfully collects, presents, and narrates the history of the 1936-1937 strike of at the General Motors factory in Flint through the voices of workers who participated in this important historical moment. Provided the media remains accessible, the audio gallery will continue to serve as a valuable resource for both students and members of the public.

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