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Ertan Tuncer, Paul Peck Humanities Intern 2012
Ellen Terrell, Business Reference Specialist, Science, Technology & Business Division
Gulnar Nagashybayeva, Business Reference Specialist, Science, Technology & Business Division
Created: July 2012
Last Updated: December 30, 2022
Once called "the strike heard round the world,"1 the first major labor dispute in the U.S. auto industry ended after General Motors signed a contract with the United Auto Workers Union on February 11, 1937.
Over time unions have changed conditions for workers. In 1935, the average auto worker took home about $900, while the United States government determined that an annual/month income of $1600 was the minimum on which a family of four could live in that year of 1935. In addition, working conditions were often difficult and unionizing efforts were resisted by companies. For example, General Motors (GM) spent $839,000 on detective work in 1934 alone 2 and used a group called 'The Black Legion' who employed various intimidation tactics against active union members. As a consequence of these policies, union organizers changed tactics and gradually the union gained strength.
1936 would prove pivotal. In July of 1936 there were hundreds of deaths in auto plants in Michigan that were thought to be a result of a heat wave combined with difficult working conditions3. On November 12, 1936, three welders participated in a "quickie sit-down" strike and were fired when they arrived to work the next day. Their firing resulted in a sit-down protest of 700 men on November 13 at the Fisher Body No. 1, until the the three men were rehired later that day. This success "had an electrifying effect on Flint's auto workers," and saw United Automobile Workers union membership growing from approximately 150 to 1500.4 On December 30, 1936, General Motors workers started their sit down strike, which at the time was legal, gaining control of the Body Plant Number One in Flint. On January 1, 1937, workers controlled a second Plant in Flint. Although the strike was gaining power, some of the General Motors' plants were still running - most notably Chevy Plant Number Four, the largest plant owned by GM. But on February 1, 1937, the striking workers took control of this plant.
By remaining inside the plants strikers were protected from both violence and weather as well as from the threat of being replaced with other workers unwilling to go along with the strike. Inside the plants the striking workers were playing board games, organizing concerts, and giving lectures. Outside, union supporters arranged for food to be delivered to the strikers. After 44 days of striking, GM President Alfred P. Sloan announced a $25 million wage increase to workers and recognition of the union.5
This was the first major victory for unionization in America's history and its consequences were dramatic; within two weeks, 87 sit down strikes started in Detroit alone. Packard, Goodyear, and Goodrich announced immediate wage increases. Within a year, membership in United Auto Workers grew from 30,000 to 500,000 and wages for autoworkers increased by as much as 300%. This strike marked the beginning of decade of intense union activity.6
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly listed November 12, 1936 as the first day of the strike. The text was updated on December 30, 2022 to clarify the November 12 strike was a smaller, separate strike than the one that began on December 30, 1936 and lasted 44 days, until February 11, 1937.
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