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The United Auto Workers (UAW), officially the United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union, is one of the largest and most powerful labor unions in the United States. It is a major force for liberalism in domestic politics, and takes an active role in state and national politics. There is a breakoff union in Canada. The UAW has approximately 600,000 active members and over 500,000 retired members organized into approximately 800 local unions. The UAW peaked at 1.53 million members in 1969, but has been shrinking steadily as the unionized automobile industry, the "Big Three" (General Motors, Ford, Chrysler - renamed Stellantis) downsizes.

One of the most Leftist of all unions, the UAW lost popular with its frequent strikes throughout the 1970s which may have contributed to the landslide defeat of President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Some wonder if its unprecedented simultaneous strike against the Big Three in September 2023 will have the same effect in undermining President Biden's reelection.


In 2007 the UAW agreed to new contracts with the Big Three that created a two-tier wage rate. New workers beginning in 2010 will get much lower salaries than old workers. Average annual wages for production workers at the Big Three were $67,480 in 2007, and $81,940 for skilled workers, which are much higher than wages paid to non-union workers at rival firms in the South, such as Toyota and Honda. The UAW joined with the Big Three in November 2008 to plead for a "bailout" for the industry, warning that GM is on the verge of bankruptcy. Republicans, long the political enemy of the UAW, blocked the bailout, but President George W. Bush authorized loans from the Treasury. In 2009 General Motors and Chrysler went through a fast-track bankruptcy, sweetened by tens of billions in federal aid. The aid was used in large part to fund the pensions and medical care coverage of retired UAW workers.


The UAW was founded in May 1935 in Detroit 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 craft unions 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). Communists provided many of the organizers and took control of key union locals, such as Local 600, which represented the largest Ford plants. Walter Reuther, a rising power, cooperated closely with the Communists, but historians disagree whether he was a full party member.[1]

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 as at 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.

Postwar zenith

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. The UAW was a power in the Democratic party nationally, with Reuther its spokesman. It supported the programs of the New Deal Coalition. strongly supported civil rights (it was one of the first unions to welcome black members), and strongly supported Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The UAW became strongly anti-communist after it expelled its Communist leaders in the late 1940s, and supported the Vietnam war and opposed the antiwar Democratic candidates.

The UAW (and especially Reuther) promoted "Industrial Democracy", meaning a scheme whereby great national economic decisions would be made by new regulatory boards comprising industry, unions, and the government, perhaps with the addition of consumers and farmers. It was a utopian power grab that excited few rank and file members, who instead wanted higher wages and a better retirement deal. The concept of "Industrial Democracy" did not mean internal democracy in the union. The union was controlled by a few hundred local and district leaders, who controlled the locals below them and who in turn elected the top leaders.[2]

Immediately after the war left-wing elements demanded a 30-hour week (for 40 hours pay), (called 30-40).[3] Reuther rejected 30-40 and decided to concentrate on total annual wages, displaying a new corporatist mentality that accepted management's argument that shorter hours conflicted with wage increases and other job benefits and abandoning the old confrontational syndicalist position that shorter hours drove up wages and protected against unemployment.

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. The UAW negotiated a "job bank" whereby workers who were laid off would go to a location where they did nothing whatever, yet were paid almost their full wages and benefits and had the rights to be the first rehired.

The (UAW) supported liberalized trade during and after World War II more enthusiastically than any other union. UAW officials believed that freer trade would help create a high-wage, high-production, full-employment economy that would benefit not only automobile workers, but American consumers more generally. After the war, the UAW also organized workers in industries that depended on exports: agricultural implement, construction, and aerospace.[4]

Decline after 1973

The situation for the automotive industry and UAW members worsened dramatically with the soaring price of gasoline after 1973 and, especially, the dramatic inroads of Japanese and other imports. 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 Detroit began to lose population and businesses. By 1980 the Congress, with support from corporations and the UAW support, had established import quotas for foreign makes. The Japanese, European and Korean car makers thereupon started building modern, non-union factories in the South, and continued to gain market share. They were profitable while the unionized Big Three teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

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.[5]

Strikes became more and more infrequent, although the threat remained. The protracted 1991-98 labor dispute between Caterpillar Inc. and the UAW ultimately resulted in a decisive union defeat.[6]

The UAW called a nationwide strike against GM in September 2007, the first in 37 years. It lasted only two days and ended with a compromise contract that GM favored. The new contract creates a trust fund financed by GM and run by the union that will administer healthcare benefits for retired GM workers. GM's primary goal was to erase a $25-an-hour differential in labor costs between the unionized automakers (GM, Ford and Chrysler) and Japanese-owned companies such as Toyota, which have non-union workers at their U.S. plants. GM's labor costs (including pensions and benefits) averaged $80 an hour—about $160,000 per year per worker—compared to $50 at Toyota. GM, Ford and Chrysler have a combined $90.5 billion in unfunded retiree healthcare obligations; in the new agreement GM will shift about $36 billion of its $50 billion in retiree healthcare obligations into the trust fund. The new contract creates a two-tier wage scale, which would establish a lower pay scale for new workers hired into non-manufacturing jobs, such as janitorial and landscaping positions. In return, the UAW won concessions on job security regarding moving jobs offshore. GM's unionized force has drastically shrunk in recent years, as only 73,000 blue collar union members went on strike.


According to Williams (2005) the UAW used the rhetoric of civic or liberal nationalism to fight for the rights of blacks and other workers of color between the 1930s and 1970s. At the same time, however, it used this rhetoric to simultaneously challenge the demands and limit the organizing efforts of black workers seeking to overcome institutional racial hierarchies in the workplace, housing, and the UAW itself by characterizing these demands and efforts as antidemocratic and anti-American. Three examples show how the UAW use of working class nationalism functioned as a countersubversive tradition within American liberalism: the UAW campaign at the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan, in the late 1930s, the 1942 conflict in Detroit over the black occupancy of the Sojourner Truth housing project, and the responses of the UAW under the conservative leadership of Walter Reuther to the demands of black workers for representation in UAW leadership between the mid-1940s and the 1960s.

Academic 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. The UAW took on the organization of graduate students working at American universities as teaching assistants and graders. under the slogan "Uniting Academic Workers". As of 2004, the UAW represents more students than any other union. Universities with UAW ASE representation include the University of California, California State University, University of Massachusetts, University of Washington, and New York University.


  • Barnard, John. American Vanguard: The United Auto Workers during the Reuther Years, 1935-1970. (2004). 607 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Boyle, Kevin. The UAW and the Heyday of American Liberalism, 1945-1968 (1995) online edition
  • CRS Report for Congress, U.S Automotive Industry: Policy Overview and Recent History (April 25, 2005) online the CRS (Congressional research Service) is a non-partisan research service run by Congress.
  • Cutler, Jonathan. Labor's Time: Shorter Hours, the UAW, and the Struggle for American Unionism. 2004. 236 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Devinatz, Victor G. "A Heroic Defeat: the Caterpillar Labor Dispute and the UAW, 1991-1998." Labor Studies Journal 2005 30(2): 1-18. Issn: 0160-449x Fulltext: Project Muse and Ebsco
  • Dollinger, Sol, and Genora Johnson Dollinger. Not Automatic: Women and the Left in the Forging of the Auto Workers’ Union (2000)
  • Esposito, Mark A. T. "The UAW, American Trade Policy, and the Transformation of the Global Automobile Industry, 1945-1973." PhD dissertation West Virginia U. 2004. 324 pp. DAI 2005 65(12): 4688-A. DA3159333
  • Goode, Bill. Infighting in the UAW: The 1946 Election and the Ascendancy of Walter Reuther (1994)online edition
  • Halpern, Martin. UAW Politics in the Cold War Era (1988)
  • Howe, Irving and B. J. Widick. The UAW and Walter Reuther (1949) online edition
  • Kornhauser, Arthur et al. When Labor Votes: A Study of Auto Workers (1956) online edition
  • Lichtenstein, Nelson. The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor (1995) online edition
  • Lichtenstein, Nelson and Stephen Meyer, eds. On the Line: Essays in the History of Auto Work (1989)
  • Roberts, Chris. "Harnessing Competition? The UAW and Competitiveness in the Canadian Auto Industry, 1945-1990." PhD dissertation York U. 2003. 991 pp. DAI 2004 65(1): 277-A. DANQ86360
  • 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) online edition
  • Williams, Charles; with Reply by Gerstle, Gary and Smith, Rogers M. "The Racial Politics of Progressive Americanism: New Deal Liberalism and the Subordination of Black Workers in the UAW." Studies in American Political Development 2005 19(1): 75-97. Issn: 0898-588x Fulltext: Cambridge Journals
  • Williams, Charles Thomas. "Working-Class Americanism and the Rise of the United Auto Workers: From Labor Insurgency to Postwar Political Integration." PhD dissertation U. of California, Berkeley 2005. 253 pp. DAI 2006 67(4): 1520-A. DA3211569 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  • Zieger, Robert H. The CIO, 1935-1955 (1995) online edition

Primary sources

  • Christman, Henry M. ed. Walter P. Reuther: Selected Papers (1961) online edition

See also

External links


  1. Victor G. Devinatz, "Reassessing the Historical UAW: Walter Reuther's Affiliation with the Communist Party and Something of its Meaning - a Document of Party Involvement, 1939." Labour 2002 (49): 223-245. Issn: 0700-3862 Fulltext: in History Cooperative
  2. Boyle (1995)
  3. Cutler, (2004)
  4. Esposito, (2004)
  5. Roberts (2003)
  6. Devinatz, (2005)