September 16, 2008 at 1:00 am

UAW's battles shape history

Workers use car seats inside a GM factory in Flint during the 1937 UAW sit-down strike. (The Detroit News)

General Motors and the United Auto Workers have made a fair share of history together during much of the last century.

Just last year, the two sides finally cut into the edge of Japanese competitors by adopting lower wages for new workers and shifting retiree health care costs to a union-run trust.

And as far back as 1937, it was a massive sit-down strike at a GM plant in Flint that helped the UAW finally become recognized as a bargaining unit.

In the seven decades between, the automaker and union have joined, not always harmoniously, to create deals that allowed workers to receive pensions at a younger age, unrestricted cost-of-living adjustments and training or nontraditional work in lieu of layoffs.

"(The 1937 strike) transformed GM, the UAW and much of the economy," said Harley Shaiken, a labor economist at the University of California-Berkeley. "That was a pivotal moment in labor history and equally critical in the formation of the middle class."

In the 1930s, GM was one of the biggest companies in the world. The UAW was little more than a dream. The union wanted to be recognized as the bargaining unit at 17 plants in Flint.

Stymied by GM, the UAW closed the Fisher No. 1 plant with its sit-down strike. Workers withstood assaults by police and company reps, which included tear gas and gunfire.

The 44-day work stoppage hampered sales.

Finally, GM negotiated a national contract, the first in the union's history. Workers received pay raises and the right to talk about union organizing at plant lunchrooms.

At the time, it was considered the biggest victory in union history.

This was history forged in the red-hot pressure of labor negotiations, where livelihoods hung in the balance.

General Motors, the biggest of the Big Three, had always taken a dim view of the union, believing that its wages and benefits prevented U.S. automakers from competing against foreign ones, labor historians said.

The UAW returned the compliment, accusing the company of failing to share its success with the people who made it possible. Historically, the UAW has enjoyed better relationships with Ford and Chrysler.

"The relations with GM were much harsher than with the other two," said Charles Hyde, a history professor at Wayne State University. "There were more confrontations and more strikes."

Those walkouts ranged from huge national strikes to local actions aimed at specific plants. Nationally, for example, a 113-day walkout in 1945 led to a raise of 18 1/2 cents an hour, paid vacations, overtime and other changes. Another national strike, in 1970, was aimed at winning cost-of-living pay hikes and the 30-and-out retirement provision.

In 1984, the UAW struck 25 GM facilities over local issues. And from 1996 to 1998, the UAW held seven local strikes against the automaker.

"The GM-UAW relationship mostly has been of the 'them and us' variety," said David Lewis, a business historian at the University of Michigan.

In the last decade, GM and the UAW began to mend fences. The automaker has opened its books to the union so its financial condition could be gauged. Workers have been more open to changes suggested by their bosses.

Still, in September 2007, thousands of UAW workers walked off the job at 82 GM facilities nationwide.

The two-day strike resulted in a four-year pact that would, among other provisions, shift retiree health care tasks to the union, and allows GM to hire new workers for lower pay under a new two-tier wage system. It was a hard pill to swallow for workers and union officials alike.

Analysts hailed the deal as a landmark and a symbol of a new era in the relationship between GM and its union, as both entities grapple with forces ranging from global competition to rising energy and health care costs.

"This is concessionary bargaining of historic importance," Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., told The Detroit News after the settlement was reached. "The leadership of the UAW understands that there are some pretty dark clouds on the horizon."

UAW and GM

  • February 1937: The UAW organizes at GM after sit-down strikes at plants in Flint, Detroit and across the country. GM commits to negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW.
  • 1939: So-called "strategy strike" at key plants shuts down GM and leads to exclusive UAW bargaining rights, seniority rights and the groundwork for skilled-trades apprenticeship.
  • 1945: A 113-day strike occurs nationwide after GM balks at union request not to pass on to consumers any wage increases. In March 1946, the UAW and GM sign a contract that provides an 18 1/2 cents per hour raise, paid vacations, overtime pay and other changes.
  • 1970: UAW launches a national strike against GM to obtain wage increases and cost-of-living allowance improvements. The UAW also wins 30-and-out provision that allows workers to retire after 30 years of service.
  • 1998: Workers at two GM parts plants in Flint walk out for 54 days, shutting down the company and costing the automaker $2.2 billion. The strike focuses on work rules and GM's plans to eliminate jobs.
  • September 2007: Thousands of UAW workers across the country walk off the job at GM plants in the first nationwide strike during auto contract negotiations since 1976. The strike ends after two days with a landmark contract that includes the establishment of a union-controlled trust fund that will assume responsibility for future retiree health care costs,