History of Auto Workers in America

The UAW or United Auto Workers is a unionized group of workers within the United States as well as Puerto Rico. It not only consists of automobile workers, as in the early days, but also those in aerospace and agricultural fields. The UAW became integral in obtaining decent working conditions for employees. Moreover, over the years, they continued to fight for additional benefits and job security for the workers. This article examines the overall development of the UAW over the years.

1935 – On August 26, 1935, the United Automobile Workers was officially chartered in Detroit, with Francis Dillon as their appointed president.

1936 – 1937 – During these two years, a series of worker sit-down strikes took place. The first was in Michigan at GM factories. By January, it had started to become violent, so workers and management were ordered by the governor to enter into negotiations. As a direct result of a later strike at the Chevrolet No. 4 plant, GM agreed to sign a contract with the workers.

1937 – 1941 – Over the next few years, unionized workers continued to push for better working conditions, including allowances such as seniority among workers, security measures, overtime pay, and official policies for filing complaints. In 1937 the workers confronted Chrysler, and then in 1941 faced Ford, each time with successful results.

1940s – During the war that broke out in Europe and parts of Southeast Asia, the UAW suspended striking in order to continue churning out war vehicles for the U.S. Armed Forces. Work conditions quickly spiraled downwards and several times the workers went on strike without the agreement or authorization of the UAW. Large numbers of women and other minorities also stepped up to work in the factories. Although they did the same work as men, they were paid far less. When their pay levels were gradually improved, the white workers protested with further strikes. By 1944, the UAW pushed for equal pay levels for female employees, along with child care for working mothers. During this decade, they also negotiated clauses such as pay raises, paid vacation time, and medical insurance and health care for retired workers.

1950s – UAW members returned fromthe war in Europe and immediately made it their mission to regain their earlier negotiated working conditions and privileges. During the mid-fifties, the UAW rallied to demand a guaranteed amount for the workers’ annual wages. They also formed several core groups, such as the UAW Women’s Department and the Public Review Board.

1960s – The sixties brought the Civil Rights movement, but the UAW had already adopted a stance of racial equality. They aimed to reduce discrimination by improving worker housing for minorities and forbidding racial discrimination in hiring and other work decisions. Notably, at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 (featuring the renowned speech by Martin Luther King) the UAW leader, Walter Reuther, was the only white person who spoke to the crowds. During 1965, the Reuther brothers publicly vowed to lend their support to foreign farm workers in California. In 1966, women workers pushed for better female leadership opportunities.

1970s – 1970 was a dark year for the UAW. Walter Reuther was killed during an airplane crash. Leonard Woodcock was chosen as his successor. During his early years, he fought for wage increases for the workers, as well as allowances for the cost of living. Better worker conditions and allowances were carried through to all of the major automobile companies. A 1973 energy crisis resulted in layoffs of 100,000 workers, reaching 300,000 over the next few years. Douglas Fraser was elected as the new UAW leader in 1977. Certain concessions were made regarding employees’ pay so that Chrysler could remain in operation and avoid bankruptcy.

1980s – By the early eighties, nearly a third of UAW members were out of work. To cope with the economic crisis, the UAW negotiated wage freezes for better job security. This decade also witnessed the union’s longest ever strike. During this time, Asian and European manufacturers were opening plants in the southern states. They went to lengths to hire only workers who were not in favor of unions. The Big Three companies were still negotiating with the UAW and made several concessions for limiting layoffs and protecting workers. In 1985, Canadian Autoworkers left the UAW to form their own independent group.

1990s – Even by the early nineties, the UAW was still fighting racism. They lent their support to Nelson Mandela, who spoke to UAW members upon his release. Fair trade deals became the focus of the UAW’s activities in this decade. UAW members engaged in a long strike against Caterpillar after the company made large cuts in pay and health benefits. Student employees also rallied to improve the poor pay levels that they had to tolerate. They successfully negotiated pay increases, health benefits, and tuition aid.


Since the last few decades, membership in the UAW had been steadily dropping. Finally, by 2008, it had reached a low of 500,000 (from an earlier 1.5 million in 1979). In 2003, the UAW negotiated with several companies to agree to bargain through the UAW if the majority of employees had agreed to unionization. Today, many companies have reneged on earlier agreements of health benefits and pension plans. The UAW continues to fight for these benefits and have them reinstated.

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