Money  /  Antecedent

The Autoworker Strikes That Changed America

The first UAW strike was in the 1930s. Over the next century, the union amassed significant power while demanding higher wages, better benefits and protections.

Here’s a look at the effect of previous autoworker strikes.

The Ford Hunger March, 1932

After the Great Depression, average wages of Michigan autoworkers dropped by nearly 50 percent between 1929 and 1932, as thousands of other autoworkers lost their jobs. On March 7, 1932, more than 3,000 people led by the Detroit Unemployed Councils marched to the Ford Rouge Plant in Dearborn, wanting jobs, relief for laid-off workers and improved conditions for current employees.

They were met by police and Ford security, who fired hundreds of rounds at the crowd, killing four protesters and a fifth who later died of injuries sustained that day. The funeral procession for the slain drew an estimated 60,000. The 1932 rally yielded few benefits beyond affecting public opinion, but it paved the way for more demonstrations a few years later.

The Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1936-1937

Sparked by hundreds of deaths in Michigan auto plants, poor working conditions and low wages, GM workers began the “most significant strike in American labor history,” according to the UAW, on Dec. 30, 1936. Rather than walk out, workers sat down at their stations and stopped working.

Forty-four days later, on Feb. 11, 1937, GM announced a $25 million wage increase and recognized the union, one of the first major victories for unionization in American history. Within a year, UAW membership grew from 30,000 to 500,000 as wages grew by as much as 300 percent.

The River Rouge Sit-Down Strike, 1941

On May 26, 1937, UAW organizer Walter Reuther and other union leaders went to Ford’s River Rouge Plant in Michigan to pass out leaflets that read “Unionism, not Fordism,” a reference to mass manufacturing using assembly lines and unskilled labor that Ford pioneered. They clashed with Ford security guards, who began beating them.

Photojournalists captured the violence, including images of Reuther bloodied and bruised, which helped change the tide of public opinion toward the union. But Ford would still not recognize the UAW.

In 1941, after eight Ford workers were fired for joining the union, River Rouge Plant employees went on strike for 10 days in a show of force. In the culmination of the four-year struggle, Ford recognized the union, the last major automaker to do so.

Post-World War II strike, 1945-1946

By 1943, UAW was the country’s largest union. After World War II, when unions had put aside demands to support war efforts, labor saw a revival.

In the 12-month period following the war, more than 5 million workers went on strike. UAW members were part of that movement, with 320,000 GM workers walking out for 113 days near the end of 1945. Their demands: A 30 percent pay increase and a pledge from the automaker not to increase car prices, a radical demand intended to prevent GM managers from offloading the cost of higher wages onto consumers.