United Auto Workers

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The United Auto Workers (UAW), headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, officially the United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union, is one of the largest labor unions in the U.S. There is a breakoff union in Canada. The UAW has approximately 640,000 active members and over 500,000 retired members organized into approximately 800 local unions. The UAW peaked at 1.53 million members in 1969, but has been shrinking steadily as the unionized automobile industry (GM, Ford, Chrysler) downsizes.


The UAW was founded in May 1935 in Detroit under the auspices of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) after years of agitation within the AFL for organizing unions within major industries. The AFL had focused on organizing craft unions but at its 1935 convention, a caucus of industrial unions led by John L. Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization, the original CIO, within the AFL. Within one year, the AFL suspended the unions in the CIO, and these, including the UAW, formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Communists provided many of the organizers and took control of key union locals, such as Local 600, which represented the largest Ford plants. Richard Frankensteen and Walter Reuther, powerful and rising organizers, cooperated closely with the Communists, but historians disagree whether and to what degree Reuther was a full party member.[1]

The UAW rapidly found success in organizing with the sit-down strike — first in a General Motors plant in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936, and more famously in the Flint sit-down strike that began on December 30, 1936. That strike ended in February 1937 after Michigan's governor Frank Murphy played the role of mediator, negotiating recognition of the UAW by General Motors. The next month, auto workers at Chrysler won recognition of the UAW as their representative in a sit-down strike.

The UAW's next target was the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford had promised that "The UAW would organize Ford over my dead body." Ford selected Harry Bennett to keep the union out of the company, and the Ford Service Department was set up as an internal security, intimidation, and espionage unit within the company, and quickly gained a reputation of using violence against union organizers and sympathizers as at the Battle of the Overpass. It took until 1941 for Ford to agree to a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW. By the end of the year, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically changed the nature of the UAW's organizing.

The UAW's Executive Board voted to make a "no strike" pledge to ensure that the war effort would not be hindered by strikes, and that pledge was later reaffirmed by the membership.

Postwar zenith

After the war, Walter Reuther won the race to be president of the UAW, and served for almost 25 years—from 1946 until his death in a small airplane accident in 1970—leading the union during one of the most prosperous periods for workers in U.S. history. The UAW was a power in the Democratic party nationally, with Reuther its spokesman. It supported the programs of the New Deal Coalition. strongly supported civil rights (it was one of the first unions to welcome black members), and strongly supported Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The UAW became strongly anti-communist after it expelled its Communist leaders in the late 1940s, and supported the Vietnam war and opposed the antiwar Democratic candidates.

Immediately after the war left-wing elements demanded a 30 hour week (for 40 hours pay), (called 30-40).[2] Reuther rejected 30-40 and decided to concentrate on total annual wages, displaying a new corporatist mentality that accepted management's argument that shorter hours conflicted with wage increases and other job benefits and abandoning the old confrontational syndicalist position that shorter hours drove up wages and protected against unemployment.

In the 1960s, the UAW used its strategy of negotiating a contract with one major auto maker and applying it to others to secure a number of new benefits for auto workers, including fully paid hospitalization and sick leave benefits at General Motors and profit sharing in American Motors. The UAW also grew to include workers in other major industries such as the aerospace and agricultural-implement industries.

During this time, UAW members became one of the best paid groups of industrial workers in the country—many buying second homes in the country, boats, and earning enough to move to the suburbs and send their children to college. The UAW negotiated a "job bank" whereby workers who were laid off would go to a location where they did nothing whatever, yet were paid almost their full wages and benefits and had the rights to be the first rehired.

The (UAW) supported liberalized trade during and after World War II more enthusiastically than any other union. UAW officials believed that freer trade would help create a high-wage, high-production, full-employment economy that would benefit not only automobile workers, but American consumers more generally. After the war, the UAW also organized workers in industries that depended on exports: agricultural implement, construction, and aerospace.[3]

Decline after 1973

The situation for the automotive industry and UAW members worsened dramatically with the soaring price of gasoline after 1973 and, especially, the dramatic inroads of Japanese and other imports. This started years of layoffs and wage reductions, and the UAW found itself in the position of giving up many of the benefits it had won for workers over the decades. By the early 1980s, the state of Michigan had been devastated economically by the losses in jobs and income within the state's largest industry. This peaked with the near-bankruptcy of Chrysler in 1979. Cities such as Flint, Lansing, and Detroit began to lose population and businesses. By 1980 the Congress, with support from corporations and the UAW support, had established import quotas for foreign makes. The Japanese, European and Korean car makers thereupon started building modern, non-union factories in the South and other places in the U.S., and continued to gain market share. They were profitable while the unionized Big Three teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

In 1985 the UAW's Canadian division broke off from the union over a dispute regarding negotiation tactics and formed the Canadian Auto Workers as an independent union.<-- /WP -->[4]

Strikes became more and more infrequent, although the threat remained. The protracted 1991-98 labor dispute between Caterpillar Inc. and the UAW ultimately resulted in a decisive union defeat.[5]

The UAW called a nationwide strike against GM in September 2007, the first in 37 years. It lasted only two days and ended with a compromise contract that GM favored. The new contract creates a trust fund financed by GM and run by the union that will administer healthcare benefits for retired GM workers. GM's primary goal was to erase a $25-an-hour differential in labor costs between the unionized automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler) and Japanese-owned companies such as Toyota, which have non-union workers at their U.S. plants. GM's labor costs (including pensions and benefits) averaged $80 an hour—about $160,000 per year per worker—compared to $50 at Toyota. GM, Ford and Chrysler have a combined $90.5 billion in unfunded retiree healthcare obligations; in the new agreement GM will shift about $36 billion of its $50 billion in retiree healthcare obligations into the trust fund. The new contract creates a two-tier wage scale, which would establish a lower pay scale for new workers hired into non-manufacturing jobs, such as janitorial and landscaping positions. In return, the UAW won concessions on job security regarding moving jobs offshore. GM's unionized force has drastically shrunk in recent years, as only 73,000 blue collar union members went on strike.


According to Williams (2005) the UAW used the rhetoric of civic or liberal nationalism to fight for the rights of blacks and other workers of color between the 1930's and 1970's. At the same time, however, it used this rhetoric to simultaneously challenge the demands and limit the organizing efforts of black workers seeking to overcome institutional racial hierarchies in the workplace, housing, and the UAW itself by characterizing these demands and efforts as antidemocratic and anti-American. Three examples show how the UAW use of working class nationalism functioned as a counter-subversive tradition within American liberalism: the UAW campaign at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in the late 1930's, the 1942 conflict in Detroit over the black occupancy of the Sojourner Truth housing project, and the responses of the UAW under the conservative leadership of Walter Reuther to the demands of black workers for representation in UAW leadership between the mid-1940s and the 1960s. See also the Revolutionary Union Movement.

Academic Union

In the 1990s, the UAW began to focus on new areas of organizing both geographically—in places like Puerto Rico—and in terms of occupations, with new initiatives among university staff, freelance writers (through the subsidiary National Writers Union) and employees of non-profit organizations. The UAW took on the organization of graduate students working at American universities as teaching assistants and graders. under the slogan "Uniting Academic Workers." As of 2004, the UAW represents more students than any other union. Universities with UAW ASE representation include the University of California, California State University, University of Massachusetts, University of Washington, and New York University.<-- /WP -->


  1. Victor G. Devinatz, "Reassessing the Historical UAW: Walter Reuther's Affiliation with the Communist Party and Something of its Meaning - a Document of Party Involvement, 1939." Labour 2002 (49): 223-245. Issn: 0700-3862 Fulltext: in History Cooperative
  2. Cutler, (2004)
  3. Esposito, (2004)
  4. Roberts (2003)
  5. Devinatz, (2005)