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Opinion: Handshake symbolizes struggle for worker rights

Gary Jones

It’s hard to think about the cold right now in Michigan. With news about heat waves and soaring heat index ratings, December seems a world away.

But some of us thought about December this week. This past Monday and Tuesday, the Big Three automakers sat down with UAW leadership for the ceremonial handshake — the handshake that historically starts off all contract negotiations. We’ve been negotiating contracts with these groups for over 65 years, and each negotiation starts with this same handshake.

Gary Jones, president of the UAW, left, and Mark Stewart, chief operating officer for Fiat Chrysler in North America, exchanged the ceremonial handshake marking the beginning of contract negotiations Tuesday in Auburn Hills.

Negotiations didn’t always start this way, however, and that’s where we get to December. 

At 8 p.m. on Dec. 30, 1936, it was snowing in Flint when the night shift crew at the Fisher Body plant simply stopped working. They carefully locked the doors and sat down. One worker shouted, “She’s ours!” 

The workers wanted recognition of a union as a bargaining agent. They wanted the company to pay fair wages, set up a grievance system, stop sending work to non-union plants. They wanted some safeguards and procedures to protect themselves from injuries on the jobsite. 

The strike wasn’t spontaneous, it was planned. These workers, and the leadership of the UAW, knew that the only way to get General Motors to listen was to stop production. The only way to get General Motors to take their safety and their well-being seriously was to shut down the company entirely. That’s why the Flint plant was so important — it contained one of just two sets of body dyes that General Motors used to stamp out almost every one of its cars in 1937. 

General Motors argued that the striking workers were trespassing and got a court order demanding their evacuation. Still, the workers remained. 

General Motors turned off the heat in the buildings. Still, the workers remained. 

General Motors used the police to cut off the worker’s food supply. Still, the workers remained. 

The workers remained for 44 days. 

General Motors production went from 50,000 cars in December to just 125 cars in February. 

The National Guard was called in. Gov. Frank Murphy refused to allow the National Guard to break the strike, instead requesting that they protect the workers and keep the peace. President Roosevelt urged General Motors to come to an agreement and end the strike.

And eventually they did. The agreement resulted in the first contract between the UAW and General Motors. It allowed for a 5-percent increase in pay, and the workers were given the freedom to talk to each other during lunch. Most importantly, though, the workers won the right to democratically elect racially diverse union representation.

The first negotiations with Chrysler, after a strike in March of 1937, ended with a handshake. And over the years, with the first contract with Ford in April of 1941, the fights for paid holidays, vacation days, cost-of-living increases — those talks all ended with handshakes, as well. 

We’ve worked together with the Big Three for over 65 years, creating the first employer-paid pension plan at Ford in 1949, with GM and Chrysler following suit the next year.  And in 1961, the UAW achieved one of the first contracts in which an employer paid medical benefits. The UAW fought year after year for the things that most employees now consider routine: a 40-hour work week, paid vacations, safety regulations, the freedom to converse with co-workers during lunchtime. 

When you see those contract negotiations, that ceremonial handshake, remember the almost 2,000 workers on a cold December day in Flint who made a decision to sit down, to stay sitting until they were recognized, to stay sitting through the event that the BBC called “the strike heard ‘round the world.’” 

UAW members carry signs outside GM world headquarters in Detroit.

The talks began with violence, but they ended with a handshake. 

That is what the handshake is about. 

Gary Jones is president of UAW International Union.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Gary Jones, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.