April 27, 2006

Today In Automotive History

1936 UAW gets independence

The UAW, or United Automobile, Aerospace, and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, gained autonomy from the AFL, becoming the first democratic, independent labor union concerned with the rights of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. The AFL was seen as America's most powerful labor organization, but it was essentially an institution concerned with guaranteeing the rights of skilled workers. As such, it fought for salary stratification on the basis of skill. The AFL's skilled laborers cared little for the plight of the many thousands of unskilled workers who worked in Detroits automotive industry. Organized labor in general had been made possible through legislation resulting form the New Deal. In 1935, Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act--also called the Wagner Act after New York Senator Robert Wagner--which guaranteed the rights of laborers to bargain collectively with their employers and which created the National Labor Relations Board to act as a quasi-judicial tribunal that could argue its decisions in federal court. These rights, however, were impossible to implement for unskilled laborers as large company's continued to discriminate heavily against union sympathizers on the grounds that they were Communists. Nevertheless, the constitutional guarantee of rights was a crucial step which emboldened the AFL to expand its activities. The AFL's craft structure provided no means by which unskilled laborers could obtain bargaining leverage with their employers. UAW members campaigned for autonomy from the overbearing and exclusionary AFL, a right they were provisionally granted in August of 1935. The AFL allowed the autoworkers a national union charter. Unfortunately, AFL President William Green caved in to the demands of national craft union leaders, and the charter he granted the UAW did not even allow the autoworkers to elect their own leaders. Disgruntled auto unionists, angered at the election of an AFL loyalist who knew little about cars, convened in South Bend, Indiana on this day in 1936 and voted to cast off their AFL affiliation. The newly independent UAW instead affiliated itself with the CIO. Considered a renegade institution by the AFL, John Lewis' CIO had been created to foster organization of industrial workers in mass-production industries. The UAW was officially free and democratically controlled, but the strain caused by their difficult birth had left them with only 30,000 loyal members. Their greatest challenge was yet to come in increasing its membership and organizing to the degree that it could exert force as a collective bargaining entity. Under the lead of Wyndham Mortimer, a Cleveland auto worker who was considered a Communist agitator, the UAW began to organize a drive in Flint, Michigan aimed at securing rights for General Motors' (GM) workers. On New Year's Eve of 1936, the famed sit-down strike at GM's Fisher Body Plant became the center stage for all unskilled labor struggles. GM moved to legally block the strike and evict the workers from its facilities; but unlike strikes of the previous era, the state government under the direction of Governor Frank Murphy protected the rights of the workers to bargain collectively. The governor's attention may have been accountable to concurrent Senate hearings on the abusive tactics used by GM on its laborers. The workers invoked the Wagner Act, and GM was forced to settle with the UAW, recognizing the union and signing a contract. The event was the first victory by unskilled laborers in America's largest industry.

Posted by Quality Weenie at April 27, 2006 07:05 AM | TrackBack