In 1936, some 1,500 members of the United Automobile Workers of America commandeered General Motors’ Fisher Body Plant No. 1 in Flint, Mich., and refused to leave. They wanted GM to recognize the UAW as the employees’ sole bargaining power. Upon learning that GM would not negotiate in this manner, UAW members staged a sit-down strike that lasted until the corporation capitulated in February. For older Michiganians, the event remains a searing memory of the Great Depression.
years later, UAW membership is barely half a million, the lowest since the
1940s, and down from a high of more than 1.5 million in the late 1970s.
Non-union, foreign-owned companies are outperforming the struggling Big Three
both in car sales and in attracting American workers.
introduction of several labor laws during the 1930s provided the fuel for union
expansion and the 1936 Flint strikes. The Norris-LaGuardia Anti-Injunction Act,
signed into law by President Herbert Hoover in 1932, prevented companies from
refusing to hire union workers.
National Industrial Recovery Act followed and stated that "employers shall
comply with the maximum hours of labor, minimum rates of pay, and other
conditions of employment, approved or prescribed by the President." After the
Supreme Court declared the NIRA unconstitutional in 1935, President Franklin
Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, or Wagner Act, which
"explicitly sanction[ed] labor union monopoly" and facilitated legal strikes.
federal law, the UAW took advantage of its privileged status, employing
compulsory unionism and militant tactics to gain concessions from GM. In
December 1936, strikers at Fisher 1 completely halted assembly line production
and refused to work or leave until GM met their demands for, among other things,
a six-hour work day and 30-hour work week, the regulation of machinery by union
plant committees, and the recognition of the UAW as the sole bargaining agent.
GM was faced with a dilemma: It could either succumb to union intimidation,
which would jeopardize the company’s success, or it could remain idle as
employees brought production to a standstill.
situation escalated into violence after strikers took control of Fisher Body
Plant No. 2, utilizing "hoses, cans, hinges, ice balls, and every available
implement" to prevent the local police from protecting GM’s property. Gov. Frank
Murphy would not allow Michigan National Guardsmen to remove the strikers and
instead utilized the Guard to restrain angry citizens and the local police.
also refused to enforce a February court injunction requiring the strikers to
return the plants to GM. Left with no other options, GM reluctantly accepted the
advantage of its victories at Fisher 1 and 2, the UAW staged regular "wildcat"
strikes throughout GM plants. The ensuing chaos and uncertainty regarding "the
new relationship between labor and supervision" caused more than 170 production
strikes had a devastating effect on Michigan. Car production at GM fell from
50,000 in December 1937 to 125 during the first week of February 1938. The
company was forced to discharge a quarter of its employees between November 1937
and January 1938. Because GM was preeminent in Michigan’s automobile industry,
the state’s economy felt the adverse effects of the large-scale cutbacks.
the impact was felt all over the country: Total U.S. car production fell by 50
percent. Alarmed by the consequences of the strikes, workers began to fear
unionization and the number of GM employees who were UAW members drastically
this story is 70 years old, the economic repercussions of government granting
special privileges to unions continue to be felt today. As the Big Three and UAW
look for ways to make themselves once again competitive in the U.S. market, they
may want to rethink an industrial-style collective bargaining model rooted in
the coercive tactics of a distant era.
Christina M. Kohn is a senior economics and history
major at Hillsdale College and a summer 2006 intern at the Mackinac Center for
Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland,
Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that
the author and the Center are properly cited.