The United Automobile Workers (UAW) is currently on strike against Detroit’s Big Three automakers—General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis—for the first time in its history, marking a critical moment for both the re-energized labor movement and the evolving auto industry. This strike comes as the industry transitions into the era of electric vehicles. Led by UAW President Shawn Fain, the union has adopted a new strategy called the “stand up strike,” drawing inspiration from the historic sit-down strike that took place at General Motors plants in 1936.
The sit-down strike of 1936, which lasted 44 days, was a significant turning point in labor relations in America. It gave birth to the UAW and led to a wave of labor organizing across the country. Workers at General Motors sought to improve brutal working conditions and demanded recognition of the union as their bargaining agent. This groundbreaking strike inspired UAW workers to fight against intense speed on assembly lines, arbitrary power wielded by GM foremen, and unlivable wages.
Sit-down strikes were innovative tactics that provided several advantages over traditional strikes. By remaining inside the factory and near their stations, workers prevented replacement workers from taking over and picketing became unnecessary. Additionally, management was reluctant to send in police out of fear of damage to valuable machinery. This strategy allowed the strike to quickly spread to other GM plants, crippling the company’s operations.
After 44 days, a compromise was reached, and GM agreed to recognize the UAW as the bargaining agent for workers who wished to join the union. This victory for the UAW resulted in a surge in membership from 88,000 to 400,000 by October 1937. The sit-down strike also inspired unionization efforts and strikes in other industries, contributing to the growth of the labor movement.
Now, the UAW under Shawn Fain’s leadership is resurrecting the spirit of the historic strike with a modern twist. By launching targeted strikes at selected plants, the UAW aims to apply the lessons learned from the past to address current challenges in the auto industry. This new strategy signifies a continued fight for workers’ rights and fair treatment.
The UAW’s historical victories and the legacy of the sit-down strike have played a crucial role in establishing unionization and setting standards for wages and benefits in Detroit’s manufacturing industry. It has helped shape the formation of the middle class and the labor movement’s strength in the mid-20th century.
– “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor” by Steven Greenhouse.
– New York Times.