United Automobile Workers of America

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United Automobile Workers of America

United States 1935


During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the U.S. automobile industry experienced labor relations troubles with its workers. In the midst of these struggles, the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers of America was formed. It eventually evolved into one of the most powerful unions in labor history: the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW).

Officially designated today as the United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, the UAW was formed in 1935 as a part of the Committee for Industrial Organization (hereafter called the "Committee") within the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The UAW soon became disenchanted with the lack of interest shown by AFL leadership with respect to organizing workers in the mass-production industries, especially the automobile industry. As part of the dissolution of the Committee from the AFL, the UAW and other discouraged industrial unions separated from the AFL in 1936. They eventually reunited under the auspices of the Committee, which by then was known by the more familiar title of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Growing out of an initial discontent with its inability to represent automobile workers, the UAW eventually became a dominant force as one of the largest labor unions in North America.


  • 1920: League of Nations, based in Geneva, holds its first meetings.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1930: Naval disarmament treaty signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
  • 1933: Newly inaugurated U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt launches the first phase of his New Deal to put depression-era America back to work.
  • 1935: Germany annexes the Saar region after a plebiscite. In defiance of Versailles, the Nazis reintroduce compulsory military service. The Allies do nothing, and many western intellectuals maintain that it is only proper for Germany to retake its own territory and begin building up its army again.
  • 1935: Italians invade Ethiopia, and the response by the League of Nations—which imposes sanctions but otherwise fails to act—reveals the impotence of that organization.
  • 1935: Second phase of New Deal begins with the introduction of social security, farm assistance, and housing and tax reform.
  • 1938: The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act establishes a minimum wage.
  • 1940: Hitler's troops sweep through Western Europe, annexing Norway and Denmark in April, and in May the Low Countries and France. At the same time, Stalin—who in this year arranges the murder of Trotsky in Mexico—takes advantage of the situation to add the Baltic republics (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) to the Soviet empire, where they will remain for more than half a century.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.
  • 1950: North Korean troops pour into South Korea, starting the Korean War. Initially the communists make impressive gains, but in September the U.S. Marines land at Inchon and liberate Seoul. China responds by sending in its troops.

Event and Its Context

The Parent AFL

The AFL was established as a labor union in 1886 with Samuel Gompers elected as the founding president. It began with 25 national craft unions (each composed of members of a single occupation such as carpenters or electricians) and a total of about 140,000 members. By 1900 the AFL had about one million members. The AFL was almost exclusively organized according to worker skills or occupations. These traditional craft jurisdictions were popular during the early years of unionization, but as companies began to mass-produce goods, semi-skilled and unskilled workers greatly increased in number, and the industrial jurisdictions began to gain popularity. The inability of the AFL to change with a changing environment caused it enormous internal problems, as was clearly the case with its relationship to the automobile industry.

In 1920 a semi-industrial union called the United Automobile, Aircraft, and Vehicle Workers, with about 45,000 members and affiliated with the AFL, began to develop alongside the burgeoning automobile industry. However, in 1921 the union was expelled from the AFL for unrestricted industrial unionism (that is, not organizing along craft lines). James O'Connell, president of the Metal Trades Department within the AFL, again raised this sensitive issue of industrial organizing in 1925 when he asked the question as to the possibility of organizing workers in the automobile industry. At this time the automobile industry, part of the mass-production sector, was one of the largest industries in the United States, with over half a million unorganized (that is, nonunion) workers.

Industrial Versus Craft

O'Connell stated that the "automobile industry [was] so highly and scientifically specialized as to produce a jumble of jurisdictional claims and disputes that would be almost impossible" to unravel. Hotly debated arguments within the AFL divided the members along jurisdictional lines: how would the highly mechanized, repetitive operations performed by the workers in the automobile industry be divided?

Some factions wanted the AFL divided along industrial lines (where all the workers in a particular industry would belong to one union), others wanted the workers organized into federal labor unions (and later further divided into appropriate international unions), while still others wanted the workers (especially the small groups of skilled workers such as machinists, painters, and upholstery workers) divided by skills (as in a craft union). Not much was accomplished at this time, other than the continuing rift that was developing between the majority craft unions and the minority industrial unions of the AFL.

In 1927 AFL president William Green appointed Paul K. Smith as the director to lead the Automobile Organizing Campaign in order to organize workers in the automobile industry into local unions directly affiliated with the AFL. However, Smith found resistance due to the general indifference of the automobile workers (who were more concerned with increasing unemployment) and due to the hostility of the industry leaders (who did not want union workers). In June 1933 not a single union of automobile workers was affiliated with the AFL, and the efforts to organize the automobile workers were shelved. The automobile workers were said to feel hopeless about the overbearing bureaucracy within the AFL.

Favorable Actions Geared Toward Automobiles

In the early 1930s, as the depression continued throughout the United States, the U.S. National Recovery Administration submitted a code of fair competition to the automobile industry. It basically stated that employers were to bargain collectively with chosen representatives of their employees and that discrimination against their employees would not be tolerated on the grounds of union affiliation. As a result, the automobile workers began to look more favorably towards the AFL. The AFL begrudgingly granted the right of local automobile unions to form a national body. Thus, at the 1934 AFL convention, a resolution was granted to admit automobile workers.

By June 1934 the number of automobile workers' unions within the AFL had reached 106. At about that same time, delegates from the local unions met in Detroit, Michigan, and formed the National Council of Automobile Workers' Unions, while the federal government established the Automobile Labor Board in order to conduct collective bargaining between automobile employers and employees. During this convention, the Executive Council of the AFL reported that a local union was now established in every major automobile plant in the United States.

Founding of the United Automobile Workers

During the first quarter of 1935, the AFL decided to grant a national charter to automobile workers. The International Union, United Automobile Workers (UAW), held its founding convention on 26 August 1935 in Detroit. With deep divisions from members of the fledgling union as to whom to elect as president, AFL president William Green ultimately appointed Francis J. Dillon—who was the automobile organizer for the AFL—as the first president of the UAW. Edward Hall was appointed as secretary-treasurer, and Homer Martin, vice president. The workers protested the appointments, wanting to elect their own leaders. Green gave them a choice—Dillon or nothing—and they reluctantly chose Dillon.

At first, organizing efforts in the automobile industry were slow and the tiny UAW had very little influence. But the rank-and-file members, with little help from Green and Dillon, organized at a dramatic pace. In 1935 the UAW represented no more than 20,000 automobile workers out of a total automobile-industry workforce of around 445,000 workers. However, the UAW was gaining momentum due to the discontent and unrest (caused by the depression) among the automobile workers.

The AFL grew rapidly in the last half of the 1930s as union organization was encouraged and protected by President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation. The New Deal improved opportunities for trade union growth, but it also raised the issue of whether the AFL should organize by occupation (skilled craftsmen) or by industry (semiskilled and unskilled industrial workers).

Twenty-one resolutions concerning various activities of industrial unions were submitted to the AFL convention from 7 to 19 October 1935 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. John L. Lewis, president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA); Charles P. Howard, president of the International Typographical Union; and David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, stated at the convention that it was the obligation of the AFL to organize the unorganized workers in the industrial field. They criticized the AFL for not meeting the "present-day needs" of its members. The minority report, for those favoring the industrial workers, stated, "The fact that after fifty-five years of activity and effort we have enrolled under the banner of the A. F. of L. approximately 3,5,000,000 of members of the 39,000,000 of organizable workers is a condition that speaks for itself. . . . Industrial organization is the only solution." Lewis continued the attack on the AFL by reporting on the dismal organizing record of the AFL for the past year. Fisticuffs even broke out between various leaders over the volatile issue of the industrial workers.

Committee for Industrial Organization

On 9 November 1935 Lewis, Howard, Dubinsky, and Sidney Hillman (president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers) led the formation of the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL. This action was in response to years of frustration at not being able to properly organize industrial workers within the AFL. With seven founding unions, the Committee's purpose was to organize workers rapidly, notably workers in mass production industries. A majority of the unions within the AFL challenged the Committee's efforts to organize these previously nonunionized, unskilled workers into existing or new industrial unions. For the next year, bickering within the AFL over the actions of the Committee continued.

On 27 April 1936 in South Bend, Indiana, the UAW held its second convention. In its first year, UAW membership had increased 50 percent to 30,000. At the convention, Dillon relinquished his job when Homer Martin was elected president by a unanimous vote. Young, enthusiastic leaders emerged during this time including Richard T. Frankensteen, Robert C. Travis, and the three Reuther brothers—Walter, Roy, and Victor. Although the UAW was wary of hurting its relationship with the AFL, on 2 July 1936 the UAW formalized its belief in industrial unionism by affiliating with the Committee, while still a member of the AFL.

On 23 November 1936 the national AFL convention was held in Tampa, Florida. Fights once again broke out between leaders of the craft and industrial unions. The old craft faction that had earlier agreed to organize the mass-production industries into industrial unions now went back on its commitment. During this time, the Executive Council of the AFL agreed to immediately dissolve the Committee after its members perceived continued Committee activities as a challenge to the supremacy of the AFL. The members of the Committee challenged the statement, stating that they had no intentions of interfering with or obstructing the ordinary functions of the AFL. Lewis also emphasized the good results that the Committee had achieved with respect to organizing the unskilled and semiskilled workers. During ensuing discussions, Lewis stated that the Committee wished to remain a member of the AFL but insisted that it continue to be allowed to organize the mass-production industries.

Despite these efforts, the AFL suspended the ten unions affiliated with the Committee: the United Mine Workers of America; Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America; International Union, Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers; International Ladies' Garment Workers Union; United Textile Workers of America; Federation of Flat Glass Workers; Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers; International Union, United Automobile Workers; Oil Field, Gas Well, and Refinery Workers of America; and United Rubber Workers of America.

Amidst all of the trouble brewing between the Committee and the AFL, the UAW was still a small, struggling organization just barely organizing automobile workers. However, at the end of 1936 the UAW called a strike against the General Motors Corporation (GM) in Flint, Michigan. The strike began as a small walkout of 7,000 workers at the Cleveland, Ohio, Fisher body plant but quickly spread to the other plants in Detroit and Flint (both in Michigan) and subsequently to all the GM plants in Indiana, Ohio, Georgia, and Missouri. The strike was finally ended in February 1937 with the assistance of Michigan governor Frank Murphy and UMWA president (and Committee member) Lewis. In all, 140,000 workers went out on strike out of a total force of 150,000 workers. With such widespread grievances from its employees, GM recognized the UAW as the union representing its workers. Further strike action and union organizing actions throughout the year eventually allowed the UAW to be accepted as the industry's recognized bargaining agent. The GM strike is generally considered as one of the most important employer-employee conflicts of the 1930s, and it heightened the status of the UAW considerably. At the end of 1937, the expanded UAW contained 375,000 members.

With such organizational victories, the executive officers of the Committee authorized that certificates of affiliation be issued to national, international, state, regional, and city central bodies and local groups that joined its organization. This action showed the AFL that the Committee was functioning as a rival. By December 1937 negotiations between the Committee and the AFL had collapsed.

In 1938 the AFL leadership, during its Denver, Colorado, convention, expelled the unions that formed the Committee, revoking the charters of all Committee affiliates. As a direct result, Lewis led the expelled unions, including the UAW, out of the AFL and formally established a new federation: the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The purpose of the newly established CIO, with Lewis as president, was to encourage and promote the organization of the unorganized workers in mass-production industries and other similar industries. The CIO rapidly developed into a full competitor with the AFL, and the UAW increased its union-building clout in the automobile industry.


By the twenty-first century the UAW was an internationally known union that represented a diverse group of workers in almost all sectors of the economy. It represented workplaces ranging from international corporations, small manufacturers, and state and local governments to universities and colleges, hospitals, and non-profit organizations. By 2003 the UAW had over 710,000 active members and over 500,000 retired members. It was affiliated with the reunited American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and was organized into more than 950 local unions in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.

As one of the largest unions in North America, the UAW has been at the forefront of collective bargaining, winning such benefits as worker pensions, a cost-of-living wage escalator clause, an unemployment benefit providing a laid-off member with nearly 90 percent of income for one year, and a health security program. The UAW was the first union to successfully bargain for an employer-paid health insurance plan for industrial workers.

In addition to the UAW's bargaining success, it has always consisted of leaders who fought for economic and social rights for its members. The UAW has been actively involved in promoting civil rights legislation and developing affirmative action programs. The UAW has been influential in forming national politics and has played an important role in passing such important legislation as Medicare and Medicaid, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, and the Civil Rights Restoration Act.

Key Players

Dillon, Francis J. (1887-?): Dillon completed a pattern-maker apprenticeship that resulted in employment at a number of pattern shops in Ohio and Indiana. He later served as a business agent and a member of the general executive board for the Pattern Makers League in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Cleveland, Ohio. Dillon served as an automotive organizer in Flint and Detroit, Michigan, for the American Federation of Labor (AFL). He was the first president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW), serving from August 1935 to April 1936, and subsequently served as its national representative and organizer.

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Gompers was an American labor leader who was the founding president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1886 and remained its president (except in 1895) until his death in 1924.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): Lewis helped to organize industrial workers of the United States through the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s, and later helped to create some of the country's leading labor unions, including the United Steelworkers of America, United Automobile Workers, and the Communication Workers of America. He was president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960.

Martin, Warren Homer (1902-?): Martin was the second president of the UAW (from 1936 to 1939). He was a former minister, having graduated from William Jewell College in Missouri.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; American Federation of Labor; Committee for Industrial Organization; Congress of Industrial Organizations; Ford-UAW Contract; Ford-UAW SUB Agreement; GM Recognizes UAW; GM-UAW Landmark Contracts.



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Automotive News (1948 Almanac issue), 7 June 1948, p. 74.

Fine, Sidney. "President Roosevelt and the Automobile Code." Mississippi Valley Historical Review (June 1958).

—William Arthur Atkins

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