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Genora Johnson Dollinger
"Genora (Johnson) Dollinger came from a prosperous background, as a young woman she became one of the organizers of not only the Sit-Down Strike, but the all-female paramilitary force known as the Emergency Brigade.
Genora was born in April of 1913 and came from an upper-middle-class old Flint background. Her father, Raymond C. Albro, was related to some of the earliest settlers of Flint, including the Carpenters after whom Carpenter Road is named and the Jarvis family who’s street namesake has been reduced to a short job near 12th and Fenton Road. There even was a street named Albro Circle in Flint at one time. He was a photographer for forty years in Flint at his shop Albro’s Photo Shop located at 104 S. Saginaw St. as well as a landlord who built apartment buildings and rented
houses. Her mother, Lora, was from the Three Rivers area of South Michigan which is why Genora was born at her mother’s family’s house in Kalamazoo but raised in Flint.
She attended a private school but left her senior year to marry a GM line worker named Kermit Johnson. Genora was first exposed to labor rights through an odd job she had picked up assisting a pediatrician they lived next door to on Detroit Street.
Genora was working in activism before the Sit-Down strike [of 1937]. She organized a Youth League of High School children who would pass out newspapers and pamphlets. These were crucial tools of communication because, as one Sit-Downer put it, “They [General Motors] controlled the Flint Newspaper, the radio, everything. People don’t remember what it’s like to live in a company town anymore.” Genora also bemoans how little press they received in the Flint Journal and emphasizes how much organizing was done through word of mouth and underground publications.
The Brutal Summer of 1936. Something had to be done and soon. The brutal summer of 1936 saw men passing out on the line and being ejected from the building or just left on the floor for others to work around, while the temperature in the factory soared to over 100 degrees. Foreman would stand by timing line work, demanding that they move faster or be replaced by the dozens of jobless milling around the yard waiting for someone to be fired. The heat, the threat of loss of livelihood, and the incessant pace were blamed for more than one man going mad and attacking his foreman. Workers were forbidden to speak to one another during lunch breaks in case they should organize. If machines broke down you were required to spend the day in the sweltering shop while they were being repaired, but you were only paid for the time that the machines were running. The heat in the factory was brutal but nothing like in the
paint curing rooms where mostly black workers literally baked, their backs blistered by the furnaces.
'Women were affected by this more than the men. You know, the men could get out. They could get drunk. They could talk about a few things and cuss and swear. Women had a gnawing fear during this period. They didn't know what this terrible, terrible force was that was preventing their husbands from providing a living. And why some of the husbands were getting beaten up and getting in trouble and all they could think of was stay out of trouble; stay out of trouble, you know. And of course I was talking all this time. Talking to people, "We've got to do something.'
- Genora Johnson
The fightback started in late December of 1936. As every good Flintstone knows the striking workers of Fisher Plant #1 halted production and occupied the building. The strike was actually planned to begin in 1937, when Governor Frank Murphy who was known to be sympathetic to unions, was going to start his administration but events at a factory in Cleveland forced the organizers to move sooner.
While men occupied the building, women did what they could from outside. Genora organized the Women’s Auxiliary before the Emergency Brigade. The Women’s Auxiliary was dedicated to supporting the strikers inside the factories with food and supporting the families of strikers and other factory workers put out of work by the strike. The Women’s Auxiliary did everything from delivering groceries and meals to caring for the children of the men and women working the strike to passing out alternative worker’s newspapers and trying to convince some suspicious wives to support the Sit-Downers. General Motors had spread the word that the Women’s Auxiliary was made up of “entertainers” bought and paid for by powerful communist entities. To battle this smear campaign Genora sent older Women’s Auxiliary members and kept the Youth League at home.
The Emergency Brigade was born out of necessity on the night of January 11, 1937 - The Battle of the Running Bulls. Flint Police and General Motors goons were attempting to smoke the Sit-Downers out with tear gas. When members of the Women’s Auxiliary attempted to open the gate to deliver food the police and enforcers surged forward and a melee followed in the street. Women from the Auxiliary were caught in between the two forces. Genora rolled up in the “sound car” - a car with a PA system mounted on the top used by organizers for speeches, songs, and announcements - in the middle of all this with Victor Reuther at her side.
They were a true force with which to be reckoned. The men in the factory were dedicated to nonviolence, but the women who stood between the Sit-Downers and the lines of police and spectators were discretely armed. A force that varied between 50 in the beginning and 350 women at its height, armed with clubs, planks of wood, pipes, socks filled with soap, and even horsewhips hidden beneath long winter coats. They held the line, putting their bodies in the way of violence for the cause and standing out in their uniform of red berets and red arm bands.
Genora’s story doesn’t end with the eventual success of the 44 day long Sit-Down Strike. She became the organizer and secretary of UAW Local 12, WPA and Unemployed Union, UAW-CIO before being run out of Flint. After being blacklisted and unable to find work, she moved to Detroit and ended up at The Briggs Manufacturing Company where she became Chief Steward of UAW Local 212, an all-women’s department in the company’s main plant. It was in Detroit where she was beaten badly with a lead pipe in her own bed. It was later revealed by Senator Estes Kefauver’s Investigating Committee that the Mafia, hired by corporate leaders, was responsible for this and other beatings of UAW officials and the shooting of UAW President Walter Reuther and his brother, Genora Johnson’s friend and Battle of the Running Bulls witness, Victor Reuther. Throughout her life she remained committed to fighting injustice wherever she saw it - fighting for civil rights and civil liberties, opposition to the Vietnam War. Never one to hide her political leaning no matter how much of a target it made her, she ran for a seat in the Michigan State Senate as a Socialist in 1952. She never stopped marching, writing, and protesting in support of the working class."
Originally contributed to the Genesee County Historical Society by Colleen A. Marquis.