The temperature was near zero outside Fisher Body Plant No. 2 on the night of January 11, 1937, when about 50 cops tried to storm the idled auto plant to dislodge striking workers and end the great Flint sit-down strike. “A group of men in the doorway turned a fire hose on the police,” reported eyewitness G. Milton Kelly of the Associated Press, “and a shower of milk bottles, heavy nuts and bolts, and other missiles rained from second floor windows on the police and strikers below. Hand-to-hand fighting broke out on the street.” The police opened fire, and in a storm of blood, bullets, and busted bones, the United Automobile Workers became a national labor organization.
Although its history has often been tumultuous, the union’s biggest challenges might still lie ahead. This past September, the UAW struck General Motors in what would prove to be its longest walkout in 50 years. When it ended in late October, the union had wrestled some concessions, but the troubles at Solidarity House, the UAW’s Detroit headquarters, were only mounting.
President Gary Jones, who led the UAW through the recent GM strike, quit shortly after the settlement amid a federal corruption probe. The yearlong investigation had already seen several ranking union officials charged with embezzling over $1.5 million of worker training funds to blow on high living. GM rival Fiat Chrysler Automobiles is also said to have bribed UAW execs to get favorable contracts, and that scandal prompted GM to file a federal lawsuit against FCA in November, claiming the bribes gave FCA an unfair advantage on labor costs.
As of this writing, new president Rory Gamble was trying to get contracts ratified at Ford and FCA while working to mop up the rot from within that isn’t doing any favors for the UAW’s image as it attempts to organize the foreign-owned assembly plants that have sprung up throughout the southeast. The investigation may lead to the first federal takeover of the union in its eight-decade history. Such an end to the UAW’s independence could be long; only this year the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is expected to finally be free of 30 years of government oversight that resulted from the union’s corruption and mafia ties.
Even without the scandals, the UAW’s role in postindustrial America had been growing more precarious. From a peak membership of 1.5 million in the late 1970s, the union has shrunk to fewer than 400,000, having shed 35,000 members in 2018 alone. Its mission, including preserving good pay and benefits, limiting “temporary” workers who are paid less, and keeping factories open that are targeted for closure, seems increasingly quixotic in a global economy where manufacturers have chased the cheapest possible costs across borders and oceans while fewer Americans have any job security or benefits.
There’s no denying that the union has delivered, especially for older workers. In 2020, Ford expects health care costs for its 55,000 hourly employees to exceed $1 billion for the first time ever, partly because UAW members pay just three percent of their health care costs, compared to 18–30 percent for workers with employer-supplied coverage in the rest of the economy. Although up to 20 percent of the workers in Japanese-run factories in the U.S. are temps, in its latest contract with Ford, the UAW has kept the percentage capped at 8 percent companywide. GM has agreed to hire any temps with three years of service.
Despite the wins in this year’s talks, the union was unable to save from closure several plants, including the much publicized (and politicized) GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio. And it knows all too well that if the Detroit automakers collapse—as two did in 2009—everyone will suffer. Thus, the UAW has hard days ahead trying to hold on to what those sit-down strikers shed blood for back in 1937: ensuring that assembling cars in America remains a solidly middle-class job.