As the UAW strike against General Motors Co. nears a second week, the issues in dispute are similar to those that sparked strikes in the past: health care, wages and the company’s commitment to invest in U.S. facilities.
The conflicts stretch all the way back to Dec. 30, 1936, when GM employees — led by UAW Local 174 President Walter Reuther — stopped production at plants in Flint, Michigan, and Cleveland. They were protesting low wages and conditions that included 12- to 14-hour shifts, six days a week, often in oppressive heat on fast-moving assembly lines. But instead of walking out, they sat down in the factories, and there they stayed for 44 days.
In the ensuing eight decades, there would be dozens of contract negotiations, concessions on both sides and strikes — including the current one that’s sent 46,000 GM workers to the picket lines for the first time in 12 years. Here’s a look back at some of the actions that set precedents in the past.
1937: On Feb. 11, 1937, the sit-down strikes end as GM becomes the first of Detroit’s Big Three automakers to recognize the UAW as the representative of its manufacturing employees. The first contract provides higher wages and improved conditions in the plants. Chrysler also recognizes the UAW after a sit-down strike at its Detroit plants.
May 1937: Trying to organize workers at Ford Motor Co., Reuther and other UAW supporters pass out leaflets on a pedestrian bridge leading to the company’s River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Ford security men attack and beat them in a confrontation that becomes known as the Battle of the Overpass. Pictures of the attack by a Detroit News photographer, who smuggles them past the security guards, help spur support for the union, but Henry Ford balks at recognition.
April 1941: A strike at the River Rouge plant halts operations for 10 days. Henry Ford's wife, Clara, helps persuade him to negotiate with the UAW, and the first contract is signed in June.
1945-46: Reuther, now a UAW vice president and head of the GM Department, wants a 30% pay increase to help workers in the aftermath of World War II. He also wants GM to implement the raise without increasing vehicle prices. The company says no, so Reuther demands that it “open its books” to show it can afford both. GM refuses again and offers the equivalent of a 10% raise, with higher prices. The union rejects the offer and on Nov. 21, 1945, begins what will be a 113-day national strike. President Harry Truman appoints a board to make recommendations based on postwar wage-price policy; the panel says GM can boost pay by 19.5 cents an hour, or about 17.5%, without raising prices.
Ultimately, the company and union agree on an 18.5 cent-a-hour increase. While this is well below Reuther’s 30 percent, the negotiations are “extraordinarily significant,” says Harley Shaiken, currently a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley, because Reuther puts GM on the defensive and “captures the imagination of the public,” setting the stage for more favorable contracts in 1948 and 1950.
1946: UAW members elect Reuther to be the fourth president of the union.
1948-50: In 1948, GM agrees to increase wages, with future adjustments based on changes in the government’s consumer price index and in national productivity — a deal the New York Times says may set a “pattern for the industry.” A year later, Ford becomes the first U.S. automaker to negotiate a pension plan with the UAW as part of a 30-month contract: $100 a month for each eligible worker. Ford agrees to pay the cost and to administer the plan jointly with the union. Chrysler agrees to the $100 benefit during contract talks but refuses to pay for it until after a strike in 1950 that lasts about 100 days.
The Chrysler agreement covers three years; GM and the UAW will later negotiate a five-year pact that includes a pension plan, along with new and improved medical and other benefits. The provisions in what will be known as the Treaty of Detroit do set the tone for industry contracts for the next 30 years.
1970: Reuther dies in an airplane crash on May 9, and Leonard Woodcock becomes the fifth UAW president. In September, he leads a strike against GM that lasts for 67 days, stopping production across the automaker’s facilities. The final contract includes higher wages, a plan that allows workers to retire with a pension after 30 years and payment of drug and Medicare costs for retirees.
1977: Douglas Fraser becomes the last of the UAW's founding fathers to serve as president.
1979: UAW membership begins to decline after peaking at around 1.5 million in the 1970s.
1979-81: Fraser leads negotiations with Chrysler on wage and benefit concessions that — along with loan guarantees from the U.S. government and help from lenders, dealers and suppliers — allow the automaker to avert bankruptcy, “We went to the membership for ratification three times in 13 months, and each contract was worse than the previous one,’’ Fraser said in a 2001 BusinessWeek interview. “We really didn't know if [Chrysler] was going to survive.”
Ford and GM also will ask for concessions in the 1980s, as Japanese auto companies take an increasing share of U.S. car sales and the UAW’s focus in contract negotiations shifts to job security. Meanwhile, the UAW organizes a new Volkswagen assembly plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania, that produces small cars. (Slowing sales will cause Volkswagen to close the factory in 1988.)
1982: Honda Motor Co. opens the first Japanese-owned auto plant in the U.S. to build Accord cars. The UAW reaches an agreement with management that the company will remain neutral on a possible unionization vote at the Marysville, Ohio, factory.
1983: Owen Bieber becomes the seventh UAW president and seeks more labor-management cooperation with the Big Three.