The UAW was founded in May 1935 in Detroit, Michigan under the auspices of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) after years of agitation within the labor federation. The AFL had focused on organizing craft unions and avoiding large factories. But a caucus of industrial unions led by John L. Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization within the AFL at its 1935 convention, creating the original CIO. Within one year, the AFL suspended the unions in the CIO, and these formed the rival Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), including the UAW.
The UAW rapidly found success in organizing with the sit-down strike, first in a General Motors Corporation plant in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936, and more famously in the Flint sit-down strike that began on December 29, 1936. That strike ended in February 1937 after Michigan's governor Frank Murphy played the role of mediator, negotiating recognition of the UAW by General Motors. The next month, auto workers at Chrysler won recognition of the UAW as their representative in a sit-down strike.
The UAW's next target was the Ford Motor Company, which had long resisted unionization. Ford manager Harry Bennett used brute force to keep the union out of Ford, and his Ford Service Department was set up as an internal security, intimidation, and espionage unit within the company. It was not reluctant to use violence against union organizers and sympathizers (see The Battle of the Overpass). It took until 1941 for Ford to agree to a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW.
Communists provided many of the organizers and took control of key union locals, especially Local 600 which represented the largest Ford plants. The Communist faction controlled some of the key positions in the union, including the directorship of the Washington office, the research department, and the legal office. Walter Reuther at times cooperated closely with the Communists, but he and his allies formed a distinct faction from the Communists within the UAW.
The UAW discovered that it had to be able to uphold its side of a bargain if it was to be a successful bargaining agency with a corporation, which meant that wildcat strikes and disruptive behavior by union members had to be stopped by the union itself. According to one writer, many UAW members were extreme individualists who did not like being bossed around by company foremen or by union agents. Leaders of the UAW realized that they had to control the shop floor, as Reuther explained in 1939: "We must demonstrate that we are a disciplined, responsible organization; we not only have power, but that we have power under control.".
World War II
The war dramatically changed the nature of the UAW's organizing. The UAW's Executive Board voted to make a "no strike" pledge to ensure that the war effort would not be hindered by strikes (although vehemently opposed by some UAW executives, such as Tom Di Lorenzo: "Our policy is not to win the war at any cost..."), and that pledge was later reaffirmed by the membership.
After the successful organization of the auto industry, the UAW moved towards unionization of other industries. For a time, the UAW even organized workers at bicycle fabrication and assembly plants in Cleveland and Chicago, including AMF, Murray, and later Schwinn Bicycle Co. The AMF and Murray plants later closed and were relocated to other states after increasing competition forced retooling, modernization, and a reduction in per-unit labor costs. In 1980, the Schwinn factory, hard hit by foreign competition and in need of complete modernization, also closed its doors and failed.
The UAW struck GM for 113 days, beginning in November 1945, demanding a greater voice in management. GM would pay higher wages but refused to consider power sharing; the union finally settled with an eighteen-and-a-half-cent wage increase but little more. The UAW went along with GM in return for an ever-increasing packages of wage and benefit hikes through collective bargaining, with no help from the government.
Walter Reuther won the election for president at the UAW's constitutional convention in 1946 and served until his death in an airplane accident in May 1970. Reuther led the union during one of the most prosperous periods for workers in U.S. history. Immediately after the war left-wing elements demanded "30-40": that is, a 30-hour week for 40 hours pay. Reuther rejected 30-40 and decided to concentrate on total annual wages, displaying a new corporatist mentality that accepted management's argument that shorter hours conflicted with wage increases and other job benefits and abandoning the old confrontational syndicalist position that shorter hours drove up wages and protected against unemployment. The UAW delivered contracts for his membership through negotiation. Reuther would pick one of the "Big three" automakers, and if it did not offer concessions, he would strike it and let the other two absorb its sales. Besides high hourly wage rates and paid vacations, in 1950 Reuther negotiated an industry first contract with General Motors known as the Treaty of Detroit (Fortune magazine) becoming known as Reuther's Treaty of Detroit. The UAW negotiated employer-funded pensions at Chrysler, medical insurance at GM, and in 1955 supplementary unemployment benefits at Ford.
Many smaller suppliers followed suit with benefits.
Reuther tried to negotiate lower automobile prices for the consumer with each contract, with limited success. An agreement on profit sharing with American Motors led nowhere, because profits were small at this minor player. The UAW expanded its scope to include workers in other major industries such as the aerospace and agricultural-implement industries.
The UAW disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO on July 1, 1968, after Reuther and AFL-CIO President George Meany could not come to agreement on a wide range of policy issues or reforms to AFL-CIO governance. On July 24, 1968, just days after the UAW disaffiliation, Teamsters General President Frank Fitzsimmons and Reuther formed the Alliance for Labor Action as a new national trade union center to organize unorganized workers and pursue leftist political and social projects. Meany denounced the ALA as a dual union, although Reuther argued it was not. The Alliance's initial program was ambitious. Reuther's death in a plane crash on May 9, 1970, near Black Lake, Michigan, dealt a serious blow to the Alliance, and the group halted operations in July 1971 after the Auto Workers (almost bankrupt from a lengthy strike at General Motors) was unable to continue to fund its operations.
The UAW founded WDET 101.9fm in Detroit, MI in 1948. The station was later sold to Wayne State University for $1 in 1952.
The UAW leadership has been a force in the liberal wing of the Democratic party in the U.S. while its individual members have supported both Democratic and Republican candidates. The UAW leadership has supported the programs of the New Deal Coalition, strongly supported civil rights, and strongly supported Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The UAW became strongly anti-communist after it expelled its Communist leaders in the late 1940s following the Taft–Hartley Act, and supported the Vietnam war and opposed the antiwar Democratic candidates.
According to Williams (2005) the UAW used the rhetoric of civic or liberal nationalism to fight for the rights of blacks and other workers of color between the 1930s and 1970s. At the same time, it used this rhetoric to simultaneously rebuff the demands and limit the organizing efforts of black workers seeking to overcome institutional racial hierarchies in the workplace, housing, and the UAW. The UAW leadership denounced these demands and efforts as antidemocratic and anti-American. Three examples, William argues, show how the UAW use of working class nationalism functioned as a counter subversive tradition within American liberalism: the UAW campaign at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in the late 1930s, the 1942 conflict in Detroit over the black occupancy of the Sojourner Truth housing project, and the responses of the UAW under the conservative leadership of Reuther to the demands of black workers for representation in UAW leadership between the mid-1940s and the 1960s.
Beginning in the early 1970s, changes in the global economy, competition from European and Japanese automobile makers, and management decisions at the U.S. automakers had already started to significantly reduce the profits of the major auto makers and set the stage for the drastic changes. The arrival of Volkswagen, Honda and other imports threatened the industry area. When German and Japanese companies opened plants in the USA, they headed to the South and operated without unions.
The situation for the automotive industry and UAW members heightened with the 1973 oil embargo. Rising fuel prices caused the U.S. auto makers to lose market share to foreign manufacturers who placed more emphasis on fuel efficiency. This started years of layoffs and wage reductions, and the UAW found itself in the position of giving up many of the benefits it had won for workers over the decades. By the early 1980s, auto producing states, especially in the Midwestern United States and Canada, had been impacted economically from losses in jobs and income. This peaked with the near-bankruptcy of Chrysler in 1979. In 1985 the union's Canadian division disaffiliated from the UAW over a dispute regarding negotiation tactics and formed the Canadian Auto Workers as an independent union. Specifically the Canadian division claimed they were being used to pressure the companies for extra benefits, which went mostly to the American members.
The UAW has seen a loss of membership since the 1970s. Membership topped 1.5 million in 1979, falling to 540,000 in 2006. With the late-2000s recession and automotive industry crisis of 2008–10, GM and Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 reorganization. Membership fell to 390,000 active members in 2010, with more than 600,000 retired members covered by pension and medical care plans.
UAW-GM Center for Human Resources
UAW has been credited for aiding in the auto industry rebound in the 21st century and blamed for seeking generous benefit packages in the past which in part led to the automotive industry crisis of 2008-2009. UAW workers receiving generous benefit packages when compared with those working at non-union Japanese auto assembly plants in the U.S., had been cited as a primary reason for the cost differential before the 2009 restructuring. In a November 23, 2008, New York Times editorial, Andrew Ross Sorkin claimed that the average UAW worker was paid $70 per hour, including health and pension costs, while Toyota workers in the US receive $10 to $20 less. The UAW asserts that most of this labor cost disparity comes from legacy pension and healthcare benefits to retired members, of which the Japanese automakers have none.
The Big Three already sold their cars for about $2,500 less than equivalent cars from Japanese companies, analysts at the International Motor Vehicle Program say. According to the 2007 GM Annual Report, typical autoworkers earn a base wage of approximately $28 per hour. Following the 2007 National Agreement, the base starting wage was lowered to about $15 per hour. A second-tier wage of $14.50 an hour, which applies only to newly hired workers, is lower than the average wage in non-union auto companies in the Deep South.
One of the benefits negotiated by the United Auto Workers was the former jobs bank program, under which laid-off members once received 95 percent of their take-home pay and benefits. More than 12,000 UAW members were paid this benefit in 2005. In December 2008, the UAW agreed to suspend the program as a concession to help U.S. automakers during the auto industry crisis.
UAW Leadership granted concessions to its unions in order to win labor peace, a benefit not calculated by the UAW's many critics. The UAW has claimed that the primary cause of the automotive sector's weakness was substantially more expensive fuel costs linked to the 2003-2008 oil crisis which caused customers to turn away from large sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks, the main market of the American "Big Three" (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler). In 2008, the situation became critical because the global financial crisis and the related credit crunch significantly impaired the ability of consumers to purchase automobiles. The Big Three also based their respective market strategies on fuel-inefficient SUVs, and suffered from lower quality perception (vis-a-vis automobiles manufactured by Japanese or European car makers). Accordingly, the Big Three directed vehicle development focused on light trucks (which had better profit margins) in order to offset the considerably higher labor costs, falling considerably behind in the sedan market segments to Japanese and European automakers.
The UAW has tried to expand membership by organizing the employees outside of the Big Three. In 2010, Bob King hired Richard Bensinger to organize Japanese, Korean, and German transplant factories in the United States.
In a representational election following a majority of the workers signing cards asking for UAW representation, in February, 2014 workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tennessee plant narrowly voted down the union 712 to 626. However, the UAW organized a "community union" Local 42, which was voluntary and does not collect dues. After the close vote against the UAW, Volkswagen announced a new policy allowing groups representing at least 15% of the workforce to participate in meetings, with higher access tiers for groups representing 30% and 45% of employees. This prompted anti-UAW workers who opposed the first vote to form a rival union, the American Council of Employees. In December, 2014 the UAW was certified as representing more than 45% of employees.
The union continues to engage in Michigan state politics. President King was a vocal opponent of the right-to-work legislation that passed over the objection of organized labor in December 2012. The UAW also remains a major player in the state Democratic Party.