In the final days of 1936, about 50 General Motors auto workers stopped their machines at Fisher’s Body Plant No. 2 in Flint, Michigan, and sat down.
The workers, members of the small United Automobile Workers union, founded a year earlier, sought to improve brutal working conditions at powerful General Motors, the world’s largest automaker. They also demanded that GM recognize the union as workers’ bargaining agent in negotiations.
The UAW sit-down strike at GM plants lasted 44 days. It is considered the most significant work stoppage of the 20th century and a turning point in business-labor relations in America. It was a breakthrough for unions and led to a wave of organizing across the country.
Today, the UAW is on strike for the first time against Detroit’s Big Three: General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. The strike comes at a critical time for both a reinvigorated labor movement and an auto industry in transition at the dawn of the electric vehicle era.
The UAW, led by new president Shawn Fain, has updated its tactics. The UAW calls its new strategy a “standing strike,” a reference to the sit-down strike that began 87 years ago, and has launched targeted strikes at some factories.
“Shawn Fain draws on the long history of the union and modernizes the tradition of the UAW,” said Thomas Sugrue, a historian at New York University. “The union builds on an understanding of the past, but reinvention to meet current conditions. »
During the 1930s, UAW workers protested the speed with which they were forced to work on assembly lines, the arbitrary power GM foremen had to hire and fire them, and wages unlivable. GM had disrupted workers’ attempts to form a union through espionage campaigns and the firing of organizers.
Sit-down strikes were increasing in Europe at the time, and UAW workers were inspired by these efforts.
Sit-down strikes were a novel tactic and had several advantages over a traditional strike, which involved workers walking off the job, writes labor journalist Steven Greenhouse in “Beaten, Worked: The Past, Present and Future of American labor.
Police often attacked workers, and replacement workers could easily take their jobs while they protested outside. By sitting out, workers remained inside the factory and near their stations so that the “scabs” could not take over. Management was reluctant to send the police for fear that valuable machinery would be damaged.
The initial strike at Fisher Body Plant #2 quickly spread to other GM plants in various cities, crippling GM operations.
On January 11, 1937, two weeks after the strike began, factory workers clashed with GM security and Flint police after the company cut off heat and electricity and prevented delivery of food to the workers inside. The clashes left dozens injured. Michigan Governor Frank Murphy called in the National Guard and ordered the two sides to negotiate.
Forty-four days later, the two sides reached a compromise in which GM agreed to recognize the UAW as the bargaining agent for workers seeking to join the union.
It was a decisive victory for the union.
“Workers in other mass-production industries,” a union leader told the New York Times, “will take from the auto workers’ struggle the confidence and belief that they, too, can achieve similar rights in their industries. .”
The GM sit-down strike led to an explosion in UAW membership.
Its membership increased from 88,000 in February 1937 to 400,000 in October. In 1941, according to Greenhouse, the group had 649,000 members.
The sit-down strike also sparked unionization and a wave of strikes in other sectors.
“Sitting has replaced baseball as America’s pastime,” Time Magazine declared in 1937.
The UAW’s victory contributed to unionization at Chrysler in 1939 and at Ford in 1941.
Detroit’s union jobs, with rising wages and company-provided benefits, set a standard for other manufacturing jobs and helped form the middle class in the mid-20th century.
“In U.S. history, auto industry jobs have been an important foundation for the emergence of the middle class,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University.
But non-union foreign and domestic competition has damaged the U.S. auto industry and eroded UAW jobs and benefits in recent years.
Unions across America also declined, peaking in 1945 at 33.4 percent of the workforce. Last year, 10.1% of workers were unionized.
The current UAW leadership, led by President Fain, seeks to recapture the energy of the sit-down strike against GM in the 1930s.
The UAW called its targeted strike of three factories a “standing strike,” which it called a strategic “new approach” to walking off the job.
“The standing strike is our generation’s response to the movement that built our union, the sit-down strikes of 1937,” the UAW said in a statement. “Then as now, our industry is changing rapidly and workers are being left behind. »
Negotiations between the UAW and Detroit’s Big Three will have a long-term impact on both the auto industry and manufacturing jobs, McCartin said.
“The question here is whether manufacturing jobs, as they grow, will function as middle-class jobs. »