General Motors’ Shotgun Wedding with the United Auto Workers

In a previous post, I described how General Motors entered some self-defeating relationships with the United Auto Workers. To understand this complex relationship, it is useful to know how it began.

In the 1930s, there was a movement to unionize American manufacturing. Aiming to unionize the automobile industry, the United Auto Workers started organizing strikes at key GM facilities. The strikes began in Flint, Michigan, on December 30, 1936. UAW supporters occupied the Fisher Body No. 1 and No. 2 plants, which on a daily basis manufactured 1,400 car bodies for GM’s Buick brand and 450 bodies for GM’s Chevrolet brand respectively. Strikers occupied the factory, shutting down the two facilities and barricading the doors in preparation against attempts by law enforcement to forcibly remove them. These occupations prevented thousands of autoworkers, many of whom were not sympathetic to unionization, from going to work.

In January, the UAW hit other GM facilities, organizing strikes in GM plants in Detroit, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Missouri, and Canada. By the end of January, fifty GM plants with more than 125,000 employees were offline, some directly due to occupations and others indirectly due to occupation-induced shortages of vital auto parts. GM’s weekly output plunged from 50,000 cars in December 1936 to 125 in the first week of February 1937.

GM President Alfred Sloan reached out to both Michigan Governor Frank Murphy, as well as the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, to remove the occupiers from his property. However, neither administration was willing to help. Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor, instead encouraged Sloan to come to Washington, D.C. to “negotiate” with the representatives of the union thugs who had barricaded themselves inside his factories.

Corporate officials and local Flint law enforcement attempted to remove some of the occupiers with tear gas, but the UAW was ready to wage war. They assaulted the police officers with auto parts, glass bottles, rocks, and blasts of icy water from plant fire hoses.

Seeing that government officials would not help him recover his property, Sloan reluctantly made the following concessions: (1) that the UAW is the exclusive bargaining representative for its own members in the plants on strike, (2) that GM will not discriminate against UAW members, and (3) that all strikers be able to resume their jobs without penalty. Thus began the concessions that would soon lead to a UAW monopoly on representing GM’s autoworkers. The occupations were over by February 11, 1937.

Now, it is also relevant to know that labor laws that have existed since the 1930s require that a business must recognize and negotiate with its union representatives. I will discuss one of these laws in a future post. For General Motors, these laws added insult to injury, requiring that the company henceforth deal with the organization that seized its factories and derailed its production.