Occupy Detroit: A Look at 90 Years of Auto Strikes

on Sep28
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Walkouts and sit-ins by the United Automobile Workers over the decades helped secure contracts that lifted members into the middle class.

In 1936, General Motors was the world’s largest automaker and the U.A.W. was a newly organized force. After trying to organize plants piecemeal, the union decided on a campaign that would force G.M. to bargain with it. Workers began an occupation of the factory in Flint, Mich., involving 2,000 workers. The 44-day struggle led to the unionization of the company.

Among the Big Three Detroit automakers, Ford was the last holdout in resisting the union. Workers’ demonstrations there had been violently suppressed in the 1930s. In the spring of 1941, when eight workers were fired for joining the union, the work force at the giant River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Mich., walked out in a wildcat action. After 10 days, Henry Ford, the company founder, agreed to recognize the U.A.W.

During World War II, unions put off their demands in the interest of national unity. As civilian production resumed, pent-up labor pressures produced a wave of labor unrest, including a 113-day nationwide strike by G.M. workers. The settlement — including improvements in wages, health benefits and pensions — was considered a landmark achievement.

By 1970, autoworkers were being lifted into the middle class as U.A.W. membership and clout reached their zenith. More than 300,000 union members walked out at General Motors in a strike that lasted 67 days and shook the nation’s economy. In addition to better wages and inflation protection, workers won improved pensions and the right to retire after 30 years.

After decades in which the industry was buffeted by oil crises and a boom in sales of foreign brands, the U.A.W. faced a different landscape and diminished ranks. G.M. was recording big losses in 2007 when 73,000 workers walked out for more than two days. The ultimate contract allowed G.M. and the other automakers to get health care liabilities off their books and create a tiered wage scale in which newer hires could be paid substantially less than veterans.

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