United Auto Workers

United Auto Workers
United Auto Workers

Officially, the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) is called the United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union. It is one of North America's largest unions, with 950 locals in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico and 700,000 members. It was founded in Detroit, Michigan, in May 1935 as an American Federation of Labor (AFL) union.

In 1935 the crafts-oriented American Federation of Labor succumbed to years of demands that it be more aggressive in organizing by industry, not by trade. A caucus of industrial unions under the leadership of John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers formed the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Within a year the AFL suspended the CIO unions, leading them to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The UAW was one of the first to organize black workers. Black and white UAW members staged the Flint sit-down strike that began on December 30, 1936, and ended in February 1937 after Michigan governor Frank Murphy mediated and won GM recognition of the UAW. In March Chrysler workers sat down and won recognition of the UAW.

Next to organize was Ford Motor Company, where Henry Ford had vowed that the UAW would organize his workers over his dead body. Harry Bennett got the job of repulsing the union. He set up the Ford Service Department to provide internal security, espionage, and intimidation of union organizers and sympathizers. The UAW fought Bennett and Ford until 1941, when Ford finally accepted collective bargaining with the UAW.

In December 1941, after Pearl Harbor, the UAW executive board enacted a no-strike pledge, and the membership later affirmed the pledge.

After nearly a decade of political infighting between conservatives and progressives in the UAW, the social democrat Walter Reuther became president and held the position for nearly 25 years. His presidency coincided with the peak years of U.S. unionism.

Walter Reuther led the UAW as part of the liberal democratic alliance that brought significant improvement to millions of Americans in fulfillment of the promise of the United States. Reuther sought to establish labor as the equal of management and government. He fought to give UAW workers a say over working conditions. Reuther also made the UAW a bureaucratically efficient organization.

He surrendered political independence and became a stalwart backer of Lyndon B. Johnson and liberal causes. His dreams fell short as the Democrats split over the Vietnam War and domestic issues and proved unable to complete the promises of the Great Society.

After Reuther died in 1970, the UAW had a series of presidents, none of whom matched his success or tenure. They included Leonard Woodcock, Douglas Fraser, Owen Bieber, Stephen Yokich, and Ron Gettelfinger.