The 1936–1937 United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against General Motors (GM) was an important turning point in the history of organized labor in the United States. The UAW was founded in 1935 by thousands of union members and activists displeased that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) continued to oppose organizing unskilled laborers and that the auto workers’ division of the AFL had not been permitted to select its own leaders. The UAW was initially a small organization with limited membership and influence. It had experienced slow growth in membership as the result of efforts to organize workers at smaller automotive plants. As a strategy for growth and survival, in 1936 UAW leadership formulated the plan of organizing workers at the largest auto manufacturer in the United States, General Motors, which employed more than one-half of the country's auto workers.
In late 1936, the UAW began initiating strikes at GM plants and Fisher body plants, which produced components for GM, in several locations including Atlanta, Georgia, in November, and Kansas City, Missouri, and Cleveland, Ohio, in December. By late December, workers at GM's Flint, Michigan, plant were considering a strike. The Flint factory contained key body-production capacity for GM's Buick, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac lines and was vital to the company. On December 30, when union leaders learned of GM's plan to relocate dies and other production components from the Flint plant to other facilities in which the presence of organized labor was weaker, they initiated a sit-down strike. Auto workers occupied the factory, denying GM management access to the facility and its equipment.
Upon taking possession of the Flint facility, approximately 1,200 workers set about adapting to their situation. They welded shut possible entry points or erected barricades, often made of unfinished vehicles. Life inside the facility was orderly, with democratically elected committees formed for education, entertainment, food, health and sanitation, information, safety, and security, and each worker was assigned specific tasks and shifts. Rules were established to maintain order, including the prohibition of alcohol and gambling. A court was also formed to meet out punishments for individuals who transgressed these rules. Careful attention was paid to maintenance and cleaning of company-owned property as well as personal cleanliness. While the living conditions inside the factory lacked
many of the creature comforts of home, it was not totally devoid of amenities. Car benches were adapted to become chairs and beds. Running water, food, cigarettes, and recreational outlets, such as concerts and games, were available, and workers could chat with their families and friends through windows and even visit with their children. While the striking workers remained inside, many of their family members, including a well-organized women's auxiliary and other supporters, maintained a picket line outside the entrance to the plant.
Sentiment supporting the auto workers was not universal, and polls at the time indicated that public opinion was divided between GM and the striking workers. Many GM shareholders and those with ties to the company, as well as numerous media outlets and elected officials in company towns such as Flint, denounced the strike and regarded the sit-in as illegal, essentially equivalent to theft of company property. A Michigan state court issued an injunction against the sit-in, which was ignored by the UAW. In Flint, local government officials, the radio station, and the newspaper, The Flint Journal, supported GM. On January 11, 1937, local police attempted to storm the Flint plant and lobbed teargas at workers inside. Strikers used fire hoses and hurled objects to repel attempts by local police to enter. After several hours of struggle, police efforts to forcibly take the facility ceased. In an effort to prevent further violence between strikers and local law enforcement, Michigan National Guard units were deployed to the site by the state's governor.
Following a national UAW conference in Flint, the union presented a list of formal demands to GM in January. The UAW insisted that negotiations apply to all represented GM workers, not just those of the Flint plant. It called for company recognition of the UAW as the bargaining agent of workers, wage increases, a 30-hour work week with overtime pay, rehiring of all employees previously fired for union involvement, layoffs managed by seniority with the company, and a slower and safer assembly line. Initially GM unequivocally rejected all UAW demands, and the company and its supporters denounced the ongoing strike, but by February some of the company's leaders, including Vice President William Knudsen, began to accept that negotiations and the accommodation of collective bargaining and at least some of the auto workers’ demands were necessary to end the costly strike.
President Roosevelt requested that GM negotiate with the workers, and the company eventually complied. An agreement was reached on February 11 in which the UAW was recognized as the bargaining agent of employees who were union members. The company agreed to a 5 percent pay increase for workers, to end discrimination against union members, and to begin negotiations concerning other matters. Through the agreement reached with GM, the UAW became the bargaining agent for more than 100,000 of its workers. Over the next year, the UAW saw its membership expand to more than 500,000 members nationally, making it one of the largest and most powerful labor unions in U.S. history.
See also: American Federation of Labor (AFL) ; Automobile ; Chávez, César E. (1927–1993) ; New Deal ; Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (1882–1945) ; United Auto Workers (UAW)
Baulch, Vivian, and Patricia Zacharias. “The Historic 1936–37 Flint Auto Plant Strikes.” The Detroit News, June 23, 1997.
Shogan, Robert. Backlash: The Killing of the New Deal. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006.