The United Auto Workers (UAW), headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, officially the United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union, is one of the largest labor unions in North America, The UAW has approximately 640,000 active members and over 500,000 retired members in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico organized into approximately 800 local unions. The UAW currently has 3,100 contracts with some 2,000 employers in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.
The UAW was founded in May 1935 in Detroit, Michigan under the auspices of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) after years of agitation within the AFL for organizing unions within major industries. The AFL had focused on organizing small craft unions since its founding in 1881 by Samuel Gompers, but at its 1935 convention, a caucus of industrial unions led by John L. Lewis formed the Committee for Industrial Organization, the original CIO, within the AFL. Within one year, the AFL suspended the unions in the CIO, and these, including the UAW, formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The UAW was one of the first major unions that was willing to organize African-American workers, which increased its ability to garner enough support to win recognition through election — despite the racial prejudice of many workers. The UAW rapidly found success in organizing with the sit-down strike — first in a General Motors plant in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936, and more famously in the Flint sit-down strike that began on December 30, 1936. That strike ended in February 1937 after Michigan's governor Frank Murphy played the role of mediator, negotiating recognition of the UAW by General Motors. The next month, auto workers at Chrysler won recognition of the UAW as their representative in a sit-down strike.
The UAW's next target was the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford had promised that "The UAW would organize Ford over my dead body." Ford selected Harry Bennett to keep the union out of the company, and the Ford Service Department was set up as an internal security, intimidation, and espionage unit within the company, and quickly gained a reputation of using violence against union organizers and sympathizers (see The Battle of the Overpass). It took until 1941 for Ford to agree to a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW. By the end of the year, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically changed the nature of the UAW's organizing.
The UAW's Executive Board voted to make a "no strike" pledge to ensure that the war effort would not be hindered by strikes, and that pledge was later reaffirmed by the membership.
After the war, Walter Reuther won the race to be president of the UAW, and served for almost 25 years — from 1946 until his death in a small airplane accident in 1970 — leading the union during one of the most prosperous periods for workers in U.S. history. In the 1960s, the UAW used its strategy of negotiating a contract with one major auto maker and applying it to others to secure a number of new benefits for auto workers, including fully paid hospitalization and sick leave benefits at General Motors and profit sharing in American Motors. The UAW also grew to include workers in other major industries such as the aerospace and agricultural-implement industries.
During this time, UAW members became one of the best paid groups of industrial workers in the country — many buying second homes in the country, boats, and earning enough to move to the suburbs and send their children to college. However, by the end of this period, changes in the global economy and competition from European and Japanese automobile makers had already started to significantly reduce the profits of the major auto makers and set the stage for the drastic changes in the 1970s.
The situation for the automotive industry and UAW members worsened dramatically with the 1973 oil embargo. This started years of layoffs and wage reductions, and the UAW found itself in the position of giving up many of the benefits it had won for workers over the decades. By the early 1980s, the state of Michigan had been devastated economically by the losses in jobs and income within the state's largest industry. This peaked with the near-bankruptcy of Chrysler in 1979. Cities such as Flint, Lansing, and to a lesser extent Detroit began to lose population and businesses (as was dramatically shown in Michael Moore's movie Roger & Me.)
In 1985 the UAW's Canadian division broke off from the union over a dispute regarding negotiation tactics and formed the Canadian Auto Workers as an independent union.
In the 1990s, the UAW began to focus on new areas of organizing both geographically — in places like Puerto Rico — and in terms of occupations, with new initiatives among university staff, freelance writers (through the subsidiary National Writers Union) and employees of non-profit organizations. And, since the 1980s the UAW is also taking on the organization of academic student employees (aka "ASEs") — typically Teaching Assistants, Research Assistants, Graders, Tutors — under the slogan "Uniting Academic Workers". As of 2004, the UAW represents more ASEs than any other Union in the United States. Universities with UAW ASE representation include the University of California, California State University, University of Massachusetts, University of Washington, and New York University.
- Auto industry
- Canadian Auto Workers
- Congress of Industrial Organizations
- Final Offer - A documentary film that shows the 1984 contract negotiations, that would result in the union split of the Canadian arm of the UAW. It also shows how the UAW was willing to sign a better deal with General Motors then their Canadian counterparts.
- Metro Detroit
- Victor G. Reuther
- Walter Reuther
- Christman, Henry M. ed. Walter P. Reuther: Selected Papers (1961)
- Barnard, John. American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970. Wayne State U. Press, 2004. 607 pp.
- Boyle, Kevin. The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 (1995)
- Goode, Bill. Infighting in the UAW: The 1946 Election and the Ascendancy of Walter Reuther (1994)
- Kornhauser, Arthur et al. When Labor Votes: A Study of Auto Workers (1956)
- Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (1995)
- Lichtenstein, Nelson and Stephen Meyer, eds. On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work (1989)
- Tillman, Ray M. "Reform Movement in the Teamsters and United Auto Workers" in Michael S. Cummings and Ray Tillman eds. The Transformation of U.S. Unions: Voices, Visions, and Strategies from the Grassroots.(1999)
- Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935-1955 (1995)
- The UAW home page
- History of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW)
- The Great Flint Sitdown Strike
- Samuel Gompers Papers Project: A Documentary History of Trade and Labor Unions in the US and Canada
- UAW News
- UAW Articles
- Muncie Labor Archives - Ball State University Archives and Special Collections Research Center - External link