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The Impact of the Auto Workers’ Strike 87 Years Ago on America


Sep 17, 2023

In the final days of 1936, approximately 50 General Motors auto workers staged a sit-down strike at Fisher Body Plant No. 2 in Flint, Michigan. These workers, who were members of the United Auto Workers union, were seeking better working conditions and recognition of the union as their bargaining agent. Lasting for 44 days, this strike became the most significant work stoppage of the 20th century and marked a turning point in the relationship between American businesses and workers. It also ignited a wave of worker organizing across the country.

This strike gave birth to the United Auto Workers union, which is currently engaged in a strike against Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Led by President Sean Fein, the UAW has adopted a new strategy called “stand-up strikes,” inspired by the sit-down strikes of the past. These strikes target specific factories and aim to modernize the union’s traditions to meet the challenges of the electric vehicle era.

In the 1930s, UAW workers faced harsh working conditions on GM assembly lines, including dangerous speeds and low wages. They were also subjected to the arbitrary power of GM foremen. Sit-in strikes, influenced by similar actions in Europe, emerged as a novel tactic that offered advantages over traditional strikes. Workers could remain inside the factory, protected from police attacks and replacement workers.

The initial strike at Fisher Body Plant No. 2 quickly spread to other GM plants, causing significant disruption to the company’s operations. It resulted in clashes between workers, security guards, and police, leading to injuries and escalating tensions. Michigan Governor Frank Murphy called in the National Guard and ordered negotiations between both sides. After 44 days, an agreement was reached in which GM recognized the UAW as a bargaining agent for unionizing workers, marking a landmark victory for the union.

The sit-down strikes of GM workers led to a surge in UAW membership and sparked unionization efforts in other industries. The rise of union employment in the auto industry, with its high wages and benefits, played a crucial role in the formation of the mid-20th century middle class. However, in recent years, the U.S. auto industry has faced challenges from non-union competition, leading to job losses and decreased benefits for UAW members.

The current UAW leadership, led by Chairman Fein, is seeking to recapture the energy and success of the sit-down strikes in the 1930s. They have called the current strike a “stand-up strike” and view it as a strategic approach to address the rapid changes in the industry that have left workers behind. The outcome of the negotiations between the UAW and Detroit’s Big Three automakers will have far-reaching implications for the auto industry and manufacturing jobs as a whole, determining whether they can continue to provide middle-class opportunities.

By Editor

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