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During the last days of 1936, about 50 General Motors autoworkers shut down their machines and sat down at the Fisher Body Plant No. 2 in Flint, Michigan.
Members of the small United Automobile Workers union, founded a year earlier, the workers sought to improve brutal working conditions at the powerful General Motors, the world’s largest manufacturer. They also demanded GM recognize the union as the workers’ bargaining agent in negotiations.
The UAW strike at GM plants lasted 44 days. It is considered the most significant work stoppage of the 20th century and a turning point in relations between companies and workers in America. This was a major success for the unions and led to a wave of labor organizing across the country.
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A GM plant in Flint, Michigan on January 1, 1937. The 44-day strike gave birth to the United Auto Workers union.
Now, the UAW is on strike for the first time against Detroit’s Big Three companies – General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. The strike comes at a critical moment for both the revitalized labor movement and the auto industry as the electric vehicle era begins.
Under the leadership of upstart President Shawn Fenn, the UAW has updated its strategy. The UAW is calling its new strategy the “Stand Up Strike,” a reference to the sit-down strikes that began 87 years ago, and has launched targeted strikes at selected plants.
“Sean Fenn is drawing from the union’s long history and modernizing the UAW tradition,” said New York University historian Thomas Sugrue. “The union is relying on an understanding of the past, but making a reinvention to respond to current circumstances.”
During the 1930s, UAW workers were protesting the rapid pace at which they were forced to work on assembly lines, the arbitrary power given to GM foremen to hire and fire them, and the unsustainable wages Salary was given. GM had disrupted workers’ efforts to unionize through spying campaigns and the firing of organizers.
At the time, sit-in strikes were spreading in Europe and UAW workers were inspired by those efforts.
Labor journalist Steven Greenhouse wrote in “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor” that the sit-down strike was a new strategy and had several advantages over a traditional strike, including allowing workers to walk off the job. Was.
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On February 10, 1937, strikers at General Motors’ Chevrolet auto plant in Flint ended the day on strike.
Police often attacked workers, and replacement workers could easily take their jobs when they picketed outside. By squatting down, workers stayed inside the factory and near their stations so that “scabs” could not take over. The management was hesitant in sending the police for fear of damaging the valuable machines.
The initial strike at Fisher Body Plant No. 2 quickly spread to other GM plants in various cities, disrupting GM operations.
On January 11, 1937, two weeks into the strike, plant workers clashed with GM security and Flint police after the company turned off heat and electricity and prevented workers from serving food inside. Dozens of people were injured in the clash. Michigan Governor Frank Murphy called out the National Guard and ordered the two sides to negotiate.
Forty-four days later, the two sides reached an agreement in which GM agreed to recognize the UAW as the bargaining agent for workers who wanted to join the union.
This was a historic victory for the Union.
A march of strikers’ wives following a riot between strikers and policemen in Flint, February 1, 1937.
One union leader told The New York Times, “Workers in other basic mass production industries will gain confidence and conviction from the auto workers’ struggle that they too can win equal rights in their industries.”
GM strike causes explosion in UAW membership.
Its membership increased from 88,000 in February 1937 to 400,000 by October. According to Greenhouse, by 1941 its membership had grown to 649,000.
The sit-down strike also inspired a wave of unionization and strikes in other industries.
Time magazine said in 1937, “Sitting has replaced baseball as America’s pastime.”
UAW victories helped lead to unionization at Chrysler in 1939 and Ford in 1941.
Detroit’s unionized jobs, with rising wages and company-provided benefits, set a standard for other manufacturing jobs and helped form the middle class during the mid-20th century.
“Auto industry jobs have been an important foundation of the emergence of the middle class throughout American history,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University.
But non-unionized foreign and domestic competition has weakened the American auto industry and eroded UAW jobs and benefits in recent years.
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UAW members staged a sit-in outside the Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan on Friday.
Unions also declined across America, reaching 33.4% of the workforce in 1945. Last year, 10.1% of employees belonged to unions.
The current UAW leadership, led by President Fenn, is trying to recapture energy from the sit-ins against GM during the 1930s.
The UAW dubbed its targeted strike at three plants a “stand up strike”, which it called a strategic “new approach” to walkouts.
“The Stand Up Strike is our generation’s response to the movement that built our union, the sit-down strikes of 1937,” the UAW said in a statement. “Then, as now, our industry is changing rapidly and workers are being left behind.”
McCartin said negotiations between the UAW and Detroit’s Big Three will have a long-term impact on both the auto industry and manufacturing jobs.
“The question here is whether manufacturing jobs, as they grow, will serve as middle-class jobs.”