The United Autoworkers Union – a History

By Ben Torok

The UAW is a trade union that represents workers in the Automotive, Agricultural, and Aerospace industries.  Established in May of 1935, the union played an essential role in the obtainment of workers rights in the auto industry, and was a remarkably influential factor of the industrial union movement.  Its original purpose was to create a representative in dealing with auto manufacturers and those in managerial positions, as well as create an American social democracy where every worker is granted equal treatment and opportunities.  Ideological, political, ethnic, and racial issues, both inside the union and in society, contributed to the ambitious goals set by the United Auto Workers to establish a culture of equality.[1]


Multiple factors led to the rise of the UAW.  The working conditions of unskilled auto workers was the main concern, and the capricious power given to foremen was a repetitive complaint.  Foremen were in control of hirings, firings, and even bathroom breaks.  Workers also wanted job security when it came to layoffs and firings, having them be determined by seniority as opposed to the erratic whims of foremen.  Along with this, workers wanted to have input in the speed of their particular jobs.  After troubling market conditions in the Great Depression, workers were demanded that higher quotas be met, and the speed of production was increased on assembly lines.[2] Leading up to the formation of the UAW, and continuing for decades, union membership was generally opposed by most employers, as it gave them less control over their employees.  Workers who were suspected of engaging in union activity were  fired or bullied by foremen.  Managers would often hire spies within the company to report on employee activities.[3]

The United Automobile Workers organized its first convention in Detroit in May of 1935 under sponsorship of the American Federation of Labor.  While the UAW had a vision of a union that included all skilled and unskilled automobile workers, the AFL was opposed to the idea of having to manage the masses of unskilled workers, which mainly at the time consisted of immigrants from Europe and Canada.[4]  A probationary charter was granted by Federation President William Green to establish the United Automobile Workers of America, the first international union under the AFL.    The president of the union, Francis Dillon, was appointed by Green, as the UAWA (as it was called at the time) was not yet an autonomous organization.

In fact, until the National Labor Relations Act was signed and passed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt on July 5, 1935, the UAW had little, if any, freedom to collectively bargain or act as a union.  Little time passed before Dillon, having no experience in the manufacturing of automobiles, was the cause of rebellion by the workers, and in April, 1936 in South Bend, Indiana, another UAW convention was held which resulted in the removal of Francis Dillon as president and the union being a self-governing affiliate of the AFL.  With this, union officials decide to join other industrial unions in the Committee of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which ultimately led to the UAW’s banishment from the AFL, as well as the other unions affiliated with the CIO.  The Committee of Industrial Organizations was formed right alongside the UAW by a group of radical labor leaders by the names of John L. Lewis (United Mine Workers), David Dubinski (International Ladies’ Garments Workers), and Sidney Hillman (Amalgamated Clothing Workers).  Since the committee consisted of unions in the AFL, The CIO was still in its auspices.  Soon after the joining of the UAW to the committee, the CIO and all of the unions within it were suspended from the Federation in August of 1936, and then later expelled in May of 1938.  As a result, six months later at a convention in Pittsburgh, the Congress of Industrial Unions was created, declaring itself a permanent independent federation and a rival of the AFL. [5]  This new federation consisted of 32 international unions and 9 organized committees.[6] 

The Big Three

The sit-down strikes that occurred between 1936-1937 at the General Motors Corporation was the decisive event in auto organizing.  The UAW, having demanded recognition from the major auto companies under the provision of the Wagner Act, with concessions not being made, introduced the sit-down strike, which was a form of protest by workers in which they would take unauthorized possession of the workplace by “sitting down” at their stations.[7] The main purpose of this form of strike was that it blocked employers from being able to replace the workers.  The Sit-downs were actually one of the union’s biggest recruitment devices, as it demonstrated its strength and power.  Even many workers who were originally opposed to unionization were moved to join eventually.  An article published on March 22,1937 in the Muncie Evening Press out of Muncie, Indiana describes this rise in membership after the sit-down strikes.  “Attempts to organize the auto industry under A.F. of L. leadership from 1933 to 1935 had dwindled away until some said the UAW had only 2,000 members in detroit six months ago.  That it should have today in the same area around 100,000 is tremendously important.  Kelsey Hayes Wheel had six months ago only 40 UAW members.  Today the union claims 5,000.”[8]

The first of a series of strikes on the world’s largest automaker started on December 30 1936 at GM’s Fisher Body Plant Number 2.  Feeling beaten down from poor working conditions and cruel treatment from supervisors, about 50 workers from the plant sat down on the job.  Soonafter, Fisher Body Plant Number 1 followed, and production between the two companies ceased.  Almost two weeks after the strike began, on January 11, 1937, police tried to remove the strikers by tear gas and intimidating them with guns, but the workers remained determined.  This created a chain reaction effect, in which plants in other cities in Michigan and Ohio were engaging in these strikes.  Eventually reaching a key engine plant in Flint, the union was able to cripple General Motors in a time when demand for new models was great.  On February 11, 1937, GM finally yielded and recognized the union.  John Revitte, a professor of Labor Relations at Michigan State University, says, “By taking on GM and taking them on in the core city of Flint, it had this tremendous impact.  The UAW was now this serious significant union that could beat the big boys.”  Michigan Governor at the time, Frank Murphy, ultimately was the mediator of the strikes, and helped the UAW gain recognition, as he sent in National Guard troops to keep the peace between strikers and police.[9]

While the one-page agreement signed by GM was the first major win for the Union, the UAW’s greatest victory emerged with the contract signed with Ford Motor Company in 1941, since this company had most staunchly opposed unionization.[10]  During the preceding years, Ford continued to violate the National Labor Relations Act by intimidating and firing thousands of workers annually for suspected union activity, some of which resulted in physical violence.  In 1937, security personnel from Ford company conducted a violent beating on 4 different UAW officials, one of which being future UAW president Walter Reuther, outside of the River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan as they were trying to hand out leaflets.  This incident became known as the Battle of the Overpass.[11]  In the aftermath, having been tried and found guilty of violating the Wagner Act, Ford Motor Company was ordered by the National Labor Relations Board to stop interfering with the union’s attempt to organize.[12]

World War Two

In the years leading up the second world war, the UAW was in poor standing.  Auto production plummeted by 50% between 1937 and 1938, going from 4 million to 2 million.  Along with this, by mid 1938, dues-paying membership stood at about 90,000 members, compared to the 200,000 members in September of 1936.[13]  Long before the attack on pearl harbor, wartime production had begun to strengthen the U.S economy.  It created practically full employment and “allowed the UAW to reassert itself as the sole bargaining agent for autoworkers.”[14]At the beginning of the war, the UAW was the world’s largest union, representing elements of working class militancy.  This combination of the worlds largest wartime industry and possibly the nation’s most militant union was “potentially explosive.”[15]  After the United States entered the Second World War after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, job opportunities for African Americans and women tremendously rose.  With many of the men being shipped overseas to fight in the war, positions opened up in plants all over the country.  More employees were needed in the auto plants to meet the needs of increasing wartime production.  At first, while machine work was traditionally defined as men’s work (especially white men’s work), women were allowed to perform light machine work, and African American’s were assigned to the hardest and dirtiest jobs in the paint shops and the foundries.[16]

While the increased jobs for African Americans and women was an accomplishment during wartime, a major technological issue arose in the conversion from civilian production to military production and then back again.  It was difficult for workers to adapt to the changes and created problems in relearning day-to-day routines.  Along with this, the presence of women in the industry created different problems for managers and supervisors in the “densely masculine shop culture.”  Women often complained of sexual harassment and sexism in the workplace.  Tensions rose between African Americans and white men in the shops, as the appearance of black men doing a so-called “white man’s job” was the cause of many hate strikes in the industry.[17]

Strong patriotism was shown within the UAW from the thousands of men serving in the armed forces to the production workers turning out material.  After a unanimous decision by the AFL Executive Council, and the following day a plea by President Roosevelt, a no-strike pledge was signed by twenty three labor industry representatives, which aimed to “prevent the interruption of production by labor disputes during the period of the war.”[18]  However, in return, the union received the automatic check off of union dues, where union dues are automatically deducted from employees’ paychecks, as well as a “maintenance of membership” clause, in which employees must maintain their membership to the union until he/she’s contract expires.[19]


While the postwar era was an era of prosperity and steady economic growth, many Americans feared another Depression period.  Inflation and the great strikes that followed the war only contributed to this fear.[20]  President of the UAW Local 174, as well as Director of UAW’s General Motors Department, Walter Reuther, launched a nationwide strike on GM in late 1945, just months after the surrendering of Japan, ending World War Two.  Reuther’s 113 day strike demanded a 30% wage increase in compensation for wartime inflation, as well as 40 hours of work at 48 hours of pay.  He was very staunch with his demands, and also challenged GM not to raise their prices of automobiles, and requested evidence from financial records if they claimed they could not afford to do so.  The photograph below depicts members of UAW Local 216 in Southgate, California engaging in a picket in support of the 30% wage increase.  While the UAW’s attempt was persistent and fought with determination, the strike was ultimately unsuccessful, with the General Motors Corporation only settling with a 17.5% increase in workers’ wages.[21]


While GM denied this substantial wage increase, Corporate did however offer an Annual Improvement Factor as well as a Cost Of Living Allowance, which allowed workers’ income to increase based on their productivity, while at the same time not being affected by inflation.  Ford Motor Company and Chrysler soon offered these benefits to their employees as well.[22]

Reuther Leadership         

Few people made as large an impact on American industry as Walter Reuther.  During his 25 years as UAW president, his contributions led to improved working conditions and benefit packages for his employees.  Strong influences from his family during his childhood inspired his work, and gave him his socialist outlook and trade union mentality.  His father, Valentine Reuther, was a union organizer, as well as a brewery worker who worked out of Wheeling, West Virginia, where Walter was born.  When he was 16, he got a job a job as an tool and die maker’s apprentice, but was soon fired for attempting to organize a union.  When he was about 20 years old, in 1927, he moved to Detroit and got a job at Ford Motor Company River Rouge Plant as a mechanic as he attended classes Detroit City College, which is now known as Wayne State University.[23]  He also organized soup kitchens and socialist advocacy groups during the Great Depression era and in 1932 supported Socialist candidate Norman Thomas’s presidential campaign.

Later in 1933, after being fired by Ford for engaging in union activities, Walter and his younger brother victor traveled to Europe for two years to “study life.”  They spent most of their time in the Soviet Union where Walter worked in an American built auto plant.[24]  He was particularly fascinated by the Soviet-style economic planning.  After returning to Detroit in 1935, He married a physical education teacher named May Wolf and found work at General Motors.  Later that year, after having been elected as president of UAW Local 174, Reuther organized the Flint Sit-down Strike on GM, which was one of the greatest and most successful strikes in American history, causing one of the largest corporations in the country to recognize the union.  In 1939, Reuther was named Director of UAW’s General Motors Department, and within only a few years becoming the Vice President of the union.  After the post World War Two strike of 1946, had won substantial benefits and pay raises for auto workers.[25]  This same year, Reuther was elected president of the UAW, and then also went on to be elected president of the CIO, after Philip Murphy died in 1952.  The photo below shows He served as president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations until the merging of the CIO and AFL in 1955.[26]

Walter Reuther, President of the United Autoworkers Union. Photo credit: UAW Walter Reuther Collection

Eventually, in 1968, the UAW disaffiliated itself with the AFL-CIO, due to long term political differences and personal rivalries between Reuther and AFL-CIO president George Meany.  Early in the year of 1969, the UAW created an agreement with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America to create the Alliance for Labor Action.  The purpose of this alliance was get support from unorganized workers, liberals, and students, and essentially address the issues that George Meany was not willing to.  However, the Alliance was rather short lived, only lasting until 1972 due to Walter Reuther’s death in a plane crash on May 9, 1970.[27]

One of the greater accomplishments of Walter Reuther can be shown through the 1950 Treaty of Detroit.  The treaty was a five-year contract signed between the UAW and the Big Three automakers, GM, Chrysler, and Ford, that represented a pivotal moment in the offering of full medical benefits to auto workers.  To achieve his goal, Reuther came up with a strategy called pattern bargaining, where the UAW would pick one of the Big Three to strike, and would let the other two absorb its sales until concessions were met.  In this case, in 1949, Ford was the union’s first target.  Ford eventually settled after a 104-day strike, with GM and Chrysler quickly doing the same.  In what became known as the Treaty of Detroit, all autoworkers at all three major corporations would receive full pensions and full medical care.[28]

Foreign Competition

Before 1973, European automakers were only deemed a minor nuisance, as imports, which were nearly all from Europe and Japan, only made up 1 percent of the U.S. car market in 1955.[29]By 1959, this number rose all the way up to 10%, and competition from Japanese and European companies even further intensified between 1973 and 1979.  With the Oil Embargo of 1973 causing the prices of petroleum based fuel to increase, people were starting to put their money towards more fuel-efficient automobiles, like the ones being produced European and Japanese countries.[30]  Along with this, these foreign companies competed directly with the Big Three automakers for sales in the internationally, as well as in the U.S.  As companies like Volkswagen, Toyota, and Honda started to increase their share in the United States’ auto market, they began to open up factories all over the U.S, mainly in states that had right-to-work laws, which restricted employers from forcing employees to unionize before they’re hired.  These plants were consciously placed in these states, in hopes that UAW influence would be weaker due to lower numbers of union membership in the factories. [31]

UAW Local 216 Members on Strike, Southgate California, 1945.

While employees in these foreign factories were often paid less than employees at GM, Ford, or Chrysler, production costs were much lower, therefore allowing the companies to sell the cars for substantially cheaper than the American made automobile.  As the U.S. auto industry began to lose profits, not only due to competition with foreign automakers, but also continuing to pay high wages and offer retirement benefits, companies responded with laying off workers and greatly reducing production.  The union was forced to give up many of the benefits and freedoms that it had so long fought for.  UAW membership from the early 1970’s to the 21st century has continued to gradually decline.[32]

Present Day

While the UAW is far less prosperous than it was during the 1900’s, attempts to increase the number of union members was still evident.  In the wake of the twenty first century, the UAW sought to combat its decline in membership by expanding beyond the Big Three.  Workers in the aerospace industry as well as agricultural manufacturing were finally being organized.  The union also tried to organize workers in states with right-to-work laws, but were highly unsuccessful, with most foreign factories voting against unionization.[33]

Without the contributions made by the UAW and its outstanding leadership during the twentieth century, unions would not exist as they do today.  Benefits and pensions may not be available to industrial workers and collective bargaining might not be a right that workers have.  Overall, the UAW’s contribution to the organization of industrial workers is currently evident in the twenty first century.


[1] John Barnard. American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther years, 1935-1970. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004).

[2] Daniel J. Clark, United Automobile Workers (UAW), American History, last modified 2014, Accessed  November 20, 2017.

[3] United Auto Workers, Gale Encyclopedia of U.S Economic History, edited by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Research in Context (Accessed November 17, 2017).

[4] Daniel J. Clark, United Automobile Workers (UAW), American History, last modified 2014,

[5] John Barnard. American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther years, 1935-1970.

[6] Trade Unions in the United States. Issues and Controversies in American History. Infobase Learning. Accessed November 26, 2017

[7] Sitdown strike, Wikipedia Accessed November 10, 2017.

[8]Willis Thornton. “Control of Labor After Sit-Down Surge Is Union’s Big Problem in Detroit Area”, Muncie Evening Press, March 27, 1937, Page 14, Column 2.

[9] Amy Wilson. Standing tall by sitting down: How upstart UAW won recognition at GM; Flint sit-down strike in 1936 began new era in worker-company relations. Automotive News, September 15, 2008. Academic OneFile (accessed November 17, 2017).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Daniel J. Clark. United Automobile Workers (UAW). Encyclopedia of American Business History. Facts On File, 2005. Accessed November 20, 2017. Ford strike.

[12] Staff, Ford signs first contract with autoworkers’ union., 2009. Accessed November 20, 2017.

[13] Daniel J. Clark. “United Automobile Workers (UAW).” Encyclopedia of American Business History. Facts On File, 2005. Accessed November 28, 2017. World War.


[15] Ed Jennings, “Wildcat! The Wartime strike wave in the auto industry”, Libcom Library. December 22, 2009. Accessed on November 27, 2017.

[16] Steven Meyer. “The Degradation of Work Revisited: Workers and Technology in the American Auto Industry, 1900-2000”. Automobile in American Life and Society. Accessed November 27, 2017.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Martin Glaberman. Wartime Strikes: The Struggle Against the No-Strike Pledge In the UAW During World War II. (Detroit, Michigan: Bewick/Ed, 1980).

[19] Daniel J. Clark.. “United Automobile Workers (UAW).” Encyclopedia of American Business History. Facts On File, 2005. Accessed November 28, 2017. World War.

[20] “The Postwar Strike Wave of 1945-46,” accessed December 2, 2017.

[21] Clark, Daniel J. “United Automobile Workers (UAW).” Encyclopedia of American Business History. Facts On File, 2005. Accessed December 2, 2017. UAW.


[23] Charles. W. Carey., and Ian C. Friedman. “Reuther, Walter.” American Inventors, Entrepreneurs, and Business Visionaries, Revised Edition. Facts On File, 2010. Accessed December 3, 2017. Reuther.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Neil A. Hamilton. “Reuther, Walter.” American Social Leaders and Activists, Second Edition. Facts On File, 2017. Accessed December 4, 2017. reuther.

[26] Neil A. Hamilton. “Reuther, Walter.” American Social Leaders and Activists, Second Edition. Facts On File, 2017. Accessed December 4, 2017. reuther.

[27] Emily Straus. “Alliance for Labor Action.” In St. James Encyclopedia of Labor History Worldwide, edited by Neil Schlager, 37-40. Vol. 1. Detroit: St. James Press, 2004. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed December 4, 2017).

[28] William LeFevre, “The Treaty of Detroit” Accessed December 4 2017.

[29] James M. Rubenstein. “Automotive Industry.” Encyclopedia of American Business History. Facts On File, 2005. Accessed December 4, 2017. oil embargo.

[30] Clark, Daniel J. “United Automobile Workers (UAW).” Encyclopedia of American Business History. Facts On File, 2005. Accessed December 4, 2017. european.

[31] “United Auto Workers (UAW).” In Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, 2nd ed., edited by Thomas Riggs, 1367-1369. Vol. 3. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale, 2015. Gale Virtual Reference Library (accessed December 4, 2017).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.