For 44 days, GM workers fought the corporation by initiating a sit-down strike, centered in Flint, Mich., to create an environment within General Motors where a union could exist. From December 30, 1936, to February 11, 1937, workers battled a company with immense political power, brawled with police, and seized control of a key plant that effectively shutdown GM's entire operation, forcing the company's submission.
At the time, General Motors employed 55-percent of all U.S. autoworkers. While its top executives lived handsomely, the average worker took home just $900 per year; in 1935, the government declared that the average family of four needed $1,600 a year to live reasonably. More than low incomes, employees on the assembly lines were grossly overworked; wives later revealed stories of their husband's extreme dizziness, inability to walk up the stairs after a day's work, and general distress.
Finally, with the pressure for mass organization mounting, the United Auto Workers (UAW) initiated sit-down strikes in a few small GM plants, beginning on November 16, 1936. But things became serious when its attention turned to the Fisher Body Plant Number One, in Flint, Mich. There, GM housed one of its two body dies needed to stamp out practically every car the company made. This was the decisive move that would effectively close General Motors indefinitely.
On the evening of December, 30, 1936, the Flint Plant's night shift ceased work. They locked themselves inside and fought court orders demanding evacuation, GM turning off the heat, and police throwing tear gas into the building while workers responded by smashing the windows to air the structure. Police marched at the "trespassers" repeatedly, while workers fought back aggressively. In total, 16 workers and 11 policemen were injured. Eventually, on January 11, law enforcement retreated.
With the UAW strengthening and gaining power, along with Michigan Governor Frank Murphy enlisting the National Guard to defend the workers, the strike was extended to Fisher Plant Number Two. The UAW then won control of the Chevrolet No. 4 engine factory, all but eliminating the company's ability to produce vehicles. General Motors, with its back against the wall, admitted defeat.
On February 11, 1937, the UAW and GM reached an agreement, allowing the union to represent GM's workers. This lead to, amongst other things, a five-percent increase in salaries. With the union's newfound credibility, its membership grew quickly. By World War II, it had over 500,000 members, negotiating higher wages and pensions. But after 1970, when the UAW failed to unionize auto plants built by foreign-based automakers in the South, its membership went into steady decline. The UAW now maintains around 390,000 active members and more than 600,000 retired members.
In recent years, the UAW has been credited for aiding in the auto industry's rebound. However, it was also blamed by some for seeking generous benefit packages in the past which, in part, led to the crisis of 2008. The New York Times reported that the average UAW worker in 2008 made $70 dollars per hour, including health and pension costs, while workers at Toyota's U.S. plants earned $10 to $20 less. The union still remains a key player in the Michigan state Democratic party.
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