UAW History

The history of the United Auto Workers is one of the most dramatic and significant of any group of workers. The labor movement in the United States is an integral part of the history of our nation. It has been long neglected by classroom textbooks. Working people need to know the source of their good wages and benefits. Every worker should know the history of their labor union. The following is only a short outline of that history. Since we work for GM, only the history of organizing GM will be a part of this short outline.

The leadership of the UAW knew that if the automobile industry was to be organized, General Motors would have to be organized. On December 28, 1936, workers struck the Cleveland Fisher Body plant, a key plant which supplied the tops for nearly all GM cars. On December 30, 1936, at Flint Fisher Body, GM tried to move important dies to weaker union areas, but the Flint workers went on a sit-down strike. This was the action that triggered the General Motors sit-down strike of 1937. Within a few days, workers from other GM plants all over the country struck. By January 13, 1937, over 112,000 of the company’s 150,000 production workers were on strike.

The UAW made eight demands, one of which was to recognize the UAW as the sole bargaining representative. General Motors refused to consider any of the demands and took their case to court. They obtained an injunction ordering the strikers out of the plants. When it was discovered that the issuing judge owned a large amount of General Motors stock, the writ became unenforceable. Then it was decided to starve out the Flint sit-downers. This effort precipitated a battle between police and women, who had each day for almost a month brought food to their men and were determined that they should not be stopped. The police started shooting tear gas through the windows while the women were passing food to their men. The men inside the plant started to fight back with water from heavy fire hoses and steel hinges. At one point, police were firing point blank into the crowd that included women. Union sympathizers retaliated with stones, lumps of coal, steel hinges, and milk bottles. The strikers held their ground. The wind changed direction and blew the tear gas back into the police and after two hours the police retreated.

This conflict, in which 14 fell from gunshot wounds, was later called The Battle of Bulls Run. After this conflict, each day rumors that Governor Murphy had ordered the troops to clear the plants were circulated. Each day proved the rumors were wrong but the Governor was under much pressure to send in troops. In a telegram to Governor Murphy, the sit-downers told the Governor they had decided to stay in the plant and if this resulted in an attempt to eject them, their deaths would be his responsibility.

Brothers Walter, Roy, and Victor Reuther were all union leaders that helped facilitate these sit-down strikes. Finally, on February 11, 1937, a one-page contract was agreed upon by GM and the UAW.

Without the help of President Roosevelt and the cooperation of Governor Murphy, there would have been more bloodshed and we would not have had a union at General Motors. After General Motors surrendered, the rest of the auto industry was soon to follow.