United Automobile Workers (UAW)

views updated


The United Automobile Workers of America (UAW) was the largest and most politically important trade union that emerged out of the labor insurgency of the 1930s. Between the spring of 1933 and the summer of 1935 an episodic series of plant specific strikes demonstrated that automobile workers sought some form of collective organization. Under sponsorship of the American Federation of Labor, the UAW held its first convention in 1935. But the union's real founding took place the next year when it elected its own officers and linked together key local unions at Studebaker and Bendix in South Bend, Toledo Auto-Lite, White Motor in Cleveland, Chrysler in Detroit, and a skilled-trades group centered in the same city. The UAW was an industrial union, seeking to represent all workers in a single factory or firm. It therefore affiliated with the new Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO).

After a dramatic, six-week sit-down strike that shut down the heart of General Motors production in Flint, Michigan, the UAW won union recognition at GM, then the nation's largest corporation. This February 1937 victory paved the way for U.S. Steel's equally important recognition of the CIO's Steel Workers Organizing Committee in March. In addition, the GM victory inaugurated a wave of strikes in Detroit and other Midwestern cities. Autoworkers occupied Chrysler's huge production complex at Dodge Main and briefly shut down scores of auto industry supplier plants in March and April 1937. When Detroit police began to arrest pickets and sit-downers, the UAW stanched the tactic by putting more than 100,000 workers in Cadillac Square. But the sharp recession that began in the fall of 1937 put an end to this initial burst of shopfloor militancy. It would therefore take almost four difficult years to organize the Ford Motor Company, an intransigent union foe. By 1943 the UAW had organized more than a million workers in the auto, aircraft, and agricultural equipment industries. It would remain the nation's largest union for the next two decades.

The UAW was a uniquely democratic and militant union for three reasons. First, under conditions of mass production, supervisors and unionists fought bitterly and continuously over the pace of production, the distribution of work, and the extent to which seniority would govern job security. An alert, aggressive cadre of shop stewards and committeemen enforced the contract and contested managerial authority, especially at companies like Studebaker, Packard, Briggs, Chrysler, and Ford, after it was finally organized in 1941. Second, the UAW enrolled hundreds of thousands of Poles, Hungarians, Slavs, Italians, African Americans, and white Appalachian migrants for whom unionism represented a doorway to an engaged sense of American citizenship. At Ford's gigantic River Rouge complex, for example, the foundry building became a cockpit of racial militancy for thousands of black workers and the incubator for a generation of Michigan civil rights leaders. Finally, the founders and officers of the UAW were a notably factional and ideological cohort, among which Socialists, Communists, Catholic corporatists, and Roosevelt liberals fought for power and office.

Homer Martin, who served as union president from 1936 until 1939, was a former Protestant minister whose maladroit leadership nearly wrecked the union after the 1937–1938 recession gave managers the upper hand. Although once a socialist, Martin mistrusted shop militancy and the urban, ethnic radicals who now formed the union cadre. He was opposed by a fractious coalition that briefly united a "right-wing" Socialist-Catholic grouping led by Walter Reuther with a Communist-backed caucus that looked to Secretary-Treasurer George Addes and Vice-President Richard Frankensteen for leadership. Martin was eliminated in early 1939, but to avoid another factional bloodbath, CIO officials imposed Chrysler unionist R. J. Thomas as the new UAW president. He straddled a complex set of internal union rivalries for six tumultuous years until Reuther won the UAW presidency in 1946 and his anti-Communist caucus, which nevertheless embodied the radicalism of many shop militants and progressive unionists, took full control of the UAW the next year. Reuther served as president until 1970, when he died in an airplane crash.

During the late 1930s and 1940s the UAW established the template that defined much of modern U.S. unionism. In bargaining with the big three auto corporations, the union raised and equalized wages between plants, regions, and occupations. It established a grievance arbitration system that limited the foreman's right to hire, fire, and discipline, and it won for its members a wide array of health and pension "fringe benefits" when it became clear that the unions and their liberal allies could not expand the U.S. welfare state. The real income of automobile workers more than doubled between 1937 and 1973.

Politically, the UAW was a liberal presence in national Democratic politics and in those states, such as Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Illinois, New York, Iowa, California, and Indiana, where it had a large membership. In 1937 the UAW sought to put a labor slate in Detroit's city hall, and until 1948 many in the UAW leadership had supported formation of a labor-based third party. But after Harry Truman's unexpected reelection, the UAW sought a liberal "realignment" of the Democrats. The union pushed for aggressive Keynesian fiscal policies to lower unemployment, it fought for an expanded welfare state, and favored détente with the Soviets.



Babson, Steve. Building the Union: Skilled Workers and Anglo-Gaelic Immigrants in the Rise of the UAW. 1991.

Halpern, Martin. UAW Politics in the Cold War Era. 1988.

Jefferys, Steve. Management and Managed: Fifty Years of Crisis at Chrysler. 1986.

Keeran, Roger. The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions. 1980.

Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. 1995.

Nelson Lichtenstein

About this article

United Automobile Workers (UAW)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article