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.
Seventy 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Backed by 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.
The 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.
Gov. Murphy 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 UAW.
Taking 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 slowdowns.
The Flint 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.
In fact, 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 declined.
Although 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.