8000 East Jefferson
The UAW's commitment to improve the lives of working men and women extends beyond our borders to encompass people around the globe.
The UAW (International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America) remains one of the most influential labor union in the United States, although its power has waned since its peak in the 1970s. The union now has about 700,000 active members belonging to more than 950 local unions, as well as over 500,000 retired members. The Detroit, Michigan-based organization negotiates contracts for its members and also offers them education and training programs. Over the course of its history, the UAW has won a number of contract concessions now taken for granted, such as employer-paid health insurance and cost-of-living allowances. In more recent years, however, as economic conditions have changed, the UAW has devoted much of it energy fighting a rearguard action to hold onto the gains achieved in previous decades, while learning how to adapt to life in a global economy. Long allied with the Democratic party, the UAW has always been a politically active organization, not just relating to economic issues but social issues as well, such as civil rights legislation, the Fair Housing act, Medicare and Medicaid legislation, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act.
Rise of the Auto Industry in the Early 1900s
When the automobile industry began to establish itself in the early years of the 20th century, it relied mostly on craftsmen: cabinetmakers, upholsterers, molders, foundrymen, and others skilled in the metal and woodworking trades. Even as late as 1910, three out of every four autoworkers were skilled. However, as demand for cars increased, automakers were hard pressed to find skilled workers, resulting in escalating wages. In response, the manufacturers turned to labor-saving machinery that could be operated by semi-skilled or unskilled workers, who would accept lower wages than skilled employees. It was because of its location on the Great Lakes and accessibility by rail and road that Detroit became a magnet for automakers and workers alike. The city's skilled workers had long been members of strong craft unions, but automakers fought hard to make Detroit an open shop city, where unions had a difficult time taking root and collective bargaining was rare. Automation in car manufacturing reached a new level in 1913 when the Ford Motor Company introduced the continuously moving assembly line. As a result, an increasing number of autoworkers simply tended machines and could be trained to do their job within a week, sometimes in mere hours. By the mid-1920s, 85 percent of autoworkers were unskilled and easily replaced. Younger workers, many earning probationary rates, were preferred, since the assembly line could be speeded up as needed and what was now valued was strength and stamina not skill. Led by Henry Ford, automakers paid their workers more than other manufacturers, but this was mitigated by seasonal layoffs, so that during the 1920s autoworkers earned only slightly higher incomes than manual workers. Moreover, many were victimized by unscrupulous foremen, who had the power to hire and fire, resulting in a building resentment among workers that was to fuel militancy during the 1930s.
AFL Forms Autoworkers Union in the Mid-1930s
There were occasional attempts to form unions in the auto industry but they failed, solidifying Detroit's reputation as the "graveyard of organizers." The American Federation of Labor (AFL) tried twice during the 1920s to unionize autoworkers along craft lines rather than as a industrial union. The auto industry thrived in the late 1920s, but after the 1929 stock crash ushered in the Great Depression of the 1930s, demand for new cars plummeted leading to mass layoffs and creating fertile ground for labor unrest. A number of strikes broke out in Detroit in 1933, achieving little, but in June of that year the new Roosevelt administration passed the National Recovery Act, which included a provision that guaranteed workers the right to organize and bargain collectively, leading to increased efforts to organize autoworkers. The AFL continued to take a craft union approach to the auto industry, although unskilled production workers clearly had no trade. The AFL began signing up workers but it was not until August 1935 that it formed the United Automobile Workers union under its auspices. The organization was poorly led and ineffective, but that would change with the rising influence of one of its members, Walter Phillip Reuther, who would build and lead the UAW for decades and rise to the highest ranks in the labor movement.
Reuther was born in Wheeling, West Virginia, in 1906, the son of a German-born brewery-wagon driver who was a staunch trade unionist and Socialist. A high school dropout, Reuther, along with his brothers Roy and Victor, moved to Detroit in 1927, took a job at the Ford plant and became a supervising die maker. During the early 1930s, he became more of an activist, joining the Auto Workers Union, formed years earlier by the AFL and taken over by Communists in 1925 as part of their effort to organize Detroit. Reuther was laid off at Ford--in his mind, at least, because of his union activities--then in 1933 traveled to the Soviet Union, where he and Victor worked in the Gorki auto works, which needed workers experienced with the Ford equipment it had acquired. Reuther returned to the United States at a pivotal time in the labor movement: in 1935 Congress passed the Wagner Act which stated that if a majority of employees at a company voted to be represented by a union, then it became the bargaining agent for all. Although it would be another two years before the United States Supreme Court confirmed the Wagner Acts' constitutionality, labor organizers were given a shot in the arm. Later in 1935, Reuther attended the AFL convention in Atlantic City, where the organization remained conflicted over the industrial union issue. Reuther returned to New York, and despite having no job he procured a union card and in early 1936 became a member of small UAW Local 86, soon becoming its president. In April, he was a delegate at the UAW convention, where not only would the organization elect its first president, it would essentially declare its independence from the AFL. Reuther quickly established himself in the union and was elected to the general executive board.
As the president of the amalgamated Local 174, covering all of Detroit's west side, Reuther, aided by his brothers, began launching strikes against parts factories and assembly plants. Although he was not a major factor in the 1937 sit-down strike at Flint, Michigan, resulting in General Motors recognizing the UAW, his brothers were involved, and the Reuther name benefited from the victory and solidified his reputation. Of more importance to the building of his image was the "Battle of the Overpass" that took place on May 26, 1937. In front of the Ford River Rouge plant, Reuther and other UAW organizers, who had permits to distribute leaflets, were surrounded and severely beaten by a group of 40 Ford hirelings. A Detroit News photographer won a Pulitzer Prize for the pictures he took of the encounter, and the image of the bloodied Reuther only served to elevate his status. Although the UAW failed to organize Ford on this attempt, with the help of the surrounding controversy it succeeded in swelling its membership ranks to about 300,000 by the end of 1937.
However, even as the UAW was taking on the auto industry, it had to contend with internal conflict over who was going to control the union. In 1938, an uneasy coalition fell apart, resulting in a split, with UAW president Homer Martin a year later taking a splinter group into the AFL, leaving the rest of the union under the auspices of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). R.J. Thomas was installed as president, and he quickly appointed Reuther director of the General Motors Department, essentially a paper organization at the time.
Reuther took on GM at a weak point, concentrating on its tool and die makers, building on the successful strikes of more militant shops to build a walkout against all of GM's tool and die makers. Unable to retool for 1940 models, the company had no choice but to recognize the UAW as the bargaining agent for GM's tool and die makers, the first in a series of dominoes that were to fall. Next, GM production workers were brought into the fold, leading to other industry victories, with Ford finally capitulating in 1941. It was also during this period that the UAW began organizing aircraft workers, competing against the AFL's machinist union. Later, in the 1950s, the Farm Equipment Workers union would be brought into the fold, resulting in the present-day combination and the union's official name: The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America.
At the same time that he was becoming the automakers chief antagonist, Reuther was solidifying his power in the UAW. Finally, in 1946, he defeated Thomas in a tight election, then over the course of the next year gained control of the other national offices. He purged the organization of all opposition and entrenched himself in power, no doubt making enemies along the way. In April 1948, he survived an assassination attempt, suffering a shotgun wound that crippled his right arm. The crime was never solved.
Despite his sympathy with socialism, Reuther quit the Socialist Party in 1939, then in the 1940s became a leading member of the anti-Communist Left, purging Communists from the ranks of the UAW as well as the CIO. He supported Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, but it was not until Harry Truman's victory in 1948 that he finally embraced the Democratic party as labor's only viable champion in government. He and the UAW became a force in Democratic politics, leading to the union's pivotal role in electing John F. Kennedy to the presidency in 1960s and influencing civil rights and welfare legislation during Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" initiative.
Post-World War II Victories
Pre-eminent among his abilities as a labor leader was Reuther's keen aptitude for collective bargaining. He developed the concept of "Pattern Bargaining," targeting one of the "Big Three" automakers for a strike and relying on the zeal of its competitors to take advantage of the situation to drive the company to the bargaining table. Once a deal was struck, it established a pattern and the other automakers fell in line. As a result, the UAW won a string of significant victories, resulting in higher wages and improved benefits. In 1948, a settlement with GM established the concept of an annual wage increase tied to a cost-of-living adjustment. A deal with Chrysler in 1950 brought with it employer-funded pensions, and in that same year medical insurance was granted by GM.
In addition to his role at the UAW, Reuther became president of the CIO in 1952 and was instrumental in finding common ground with the AFL, leading to the 1955 merger that resulted in the AFL-CIO. But the more progressive Reuther and conservative AFL-CIO president George Meany would eventually fall out during the 1960s. Reuther became disenchanted with the war in Vietnam, while Meany maintained loyal to the administration. Moreover, Reuther believed the labor movement was failing to stay current and not connecting with new reform moments, such as peace, minority rights, and the environment. The rupture between the two men culminated in 1968 when the UAW left the AFL-CIO, but no other unions followed its lead. The UAW would not return to the AFL-CIO until 1981.
Reuther and his wife were killed in a plane crash in 1970. He left his successor, Leonard Woodcock, in charge of one of America's strongest labor unions (along with the United Steelworkers of America). Woodcock remained loyal to Reuther's vision during the seven years he headed the UAW, and during his tenure the union reached its high water mark in a number of ways. Its last national strike, against Ford, took place in 1976, and membership peaked in 1979 around 1.5 million. Woodcock was replaced in 1977 by Douglas A. Fraser, considered the last of the 1930s firebrands that established the UAW. In addition to his challenges as a union leader, Fraser had to contend with issues beyond the control of the automakers. Earlier in the decade, the OPEC oil cartel rocked the United States economy with price increases. A second round of increases was launched in 1978, leading to a greater demand on the part of auto buyers for Japanese imports and a significant drop-off in the sale of U.S.-made cars. The UAW joined forces with the Big Three to fend off the Japanese threat and offered wage concessions to improve competitiveness. Fraser even took a set on Chrysler's board of directors, ostensibly to serve as a watchdog, but when Chrysler cut employment by 57,000, closing ten plants, the UAW was complicit in the decisions, and the locals had no choice but to capitulate. The UAW was not alone in experiencing a decline in power. The steel industry and its workers were devastated by cheap steel imported or produced by the new domestic mini-mills. Arguably, the recession of 1981 to 1982 brought a close to the golden era of the U.S. labor movement. After President Ronald Reagan hired replacement air traffic controllers, all unions became hard pressed to keep the gains they had made during the previous decades, let alone attempt to secure better terms from employers.
Fraser, who retired, was replaced as the UAW's president in 1983 by Owen F. Bieber, more an administrator than a visionary. He maintained that because the Big Three were rebounding, the union would no longer agree to givebacks. He was also committed to organizing the Japanese auto plants cropping up in the Southeast, but these efforts ended in failure. In addition, under his watch the Canadian section of the union, angry over concessions made to the Big Three, seceded from the UAW in 1985. As a result of the split, automakers would now be able to threaten the union with moving jobs to Canada, where labor costs were cheaper. Many U.S. members were also displeased with their leadership's non-adversarial approach, resulting in the rise of a dissident faction under the New Directions banner. Nevertheless, Bieber retained his post until his retirement in 1995. He was replaced by a more truculent president, Stephen P. Yokich, a third generation UAW member, who first "walked" a picket line at the age of 22 months in a stroller pushed by his mother, a GM worker. In 1989, he was put in charge of relations with GM and was successful in launching strikes against parts-making and car assembly plants that resulted in GM meeting the union's demands. At the same time, he proved to automakers that behind the scenes he was willing to cooperate to help employers become more efficient and thus more competitive. One of his greatest challenges was in the auto-parts sector, where the union had experienced its greatest loss of membership in recent years. During the late 1970s, close to 70 percent of auto parts workers were UAW members, but that number had fallen to less than 25 percent. The independent auto-parts makers paid well below UAW scale, putting Big Three operations at a competitive disadvantage. In order to maintain wages and benefits with the Big Three, Yokich had to organize the suppliers, lest the Big Three simply opt to outsource the supply of auto parts. Under Yokich, the UAW also looked to restore some of its clout in the labor movement by merging with the International Association of Machinists and the United Steelworkers. The idea was floated in 1995 but in 1999 the Machinists dropped out and the merger with the Steelworkers, scheduled to occur in 2000, petered out as well.
Yokich enjoyed some success launching sudden local strikes, but again it was on ground determined by the automakers, as the union fought to hang onto earlier gains and stem the erosion of its membership. Although it enjoyed a bump in membership in 1999, the first increase in a decade, the ranks continued to thin. Moreover, younger members were less active in the union. Unlike previous generations that were determined to hold onto a good-paying job for life, new blue collar workers shared a similar attitude of many white collar workers, who periodically changed jobs to advance their careers. The new generation of autoworkers all but assumed that high-paying jobs would eventually go overseas and took steps, or at least expected, to eventually move into a new career.
Following Yokich's retirement in 2002, Ronald A. Gettelfinger was elected the UAW's president. Not only did he have to contend with outsourcing and technological efficiencies that eliminated jobs, but he was also confronted with the UAW's continued inability to organize foreign-operated auto plants. Gettelfinger soon proved, however, that he was a worthy adversary for automakers. Like Reuther before him, he zeroed in on a weakness, in this case automaker's increasing dependence on just-in-time ordering of parts. He launched sudden two-day strikes against factories that made interior parts for some of General Motors and Chrysler's most popular vehicles. The workers lost little in the way of income, while the automakers were forced to shut down production on bestselling SUVs Chevy Trailblazer and Jeep Liberty. The automakers then applied pressure on their suppliers to come to terms with the UAW. The master plan was to reunionize the parts sector. At the same time, Gettelfinger proved willing to adapt to changing times and eschew traditional bargaining techniques. In 2003, rather than singling out one of the Big Three in an attempt at pattern bargaining, he worked out an agreement with all three automakers simultaneously. This move was indicative that both management and labor were feeling competitive pressures. From the union's point of view, a quick and peaceful settlement might give it a better chance at finally organizing the U.S. operations of foreign auto makers.
The effort to revitalize the UAW was complicated by the George W. Bush administration, and the Republican-majority National Labor Relations Board was far from sympathetic to its cause, especially after the UAW backed Senator John Kerry during the 2004 presidential election. The union's difficult situation was highlighted in 2004 by the adoption of cost-cutting measures, which included the cutting of its work force at headquarters and in regional offices by 15 percent, to be achieved by attrition. Although still a force not to be taken lightly in the U.S. auto industry, the UAW faced a challenging future succeeding in a global economy. For years the union had talked about operating transnationally, and now more than ever it appeared that the UAW would have to find a way to take its place on the world stage or face the prospect of receding into irrelevance.