The International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America, better known as the United Auto Workers (UAW), is a labor union which represents workers in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Founded in order to represent workers in the automobile manufacturing industry, UAW members in the 21st century work in industries as diverse as health care, casino gaming and higher education. Headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, the union has approximately 800 local unions, which negotiated 3,100 contracts with some 2,000 employers.
In late 2008, the union was lobbying Congress for a bailout to prevent the Big 3 Auto companies from filing for bankruptcy.
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 labor federation. The AFL had focused on organizing 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. 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 29, 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 successful organization of the auto industry, the UAW moved towards unionization of other industries. For a time, the UAW even organized workers at bicycle fabrication and assembly plants in Cleveland and Chicago, including AMF, Murray, and later Schwinn Bicycle Co. The AMF and Murray plants later closed and were relocated to other states after increasing competition forced retooling, modernization, and a reduction in per-unit labor costs. In 1980, the Schwinn factory, hard hit by foreign competition and in need of complete modernization, also closed its doors.
At the UAW's constitutional convention in 1946 Walter Reuther won the election for president and served until his death in a small airplane accident in May 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. The UAW founded WDET 101.9fm in Detroit, MI in 1948. The station was later sold to Wayne State University for $1 in 1952.
During the 1950s and 1960s, UAW members became one of the best paid groups of industrial workers in the country — placing them solidly in the middle class of American society. By the end of this period, changes in the global economy, competition from European and Japanese automobile makers, and management decisions at the U.S. automakers 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 UAW disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO on July 1, 1968, after Reuther and AFL-CIO President George Meany could not come to agreement on a wide range of policy issues or reforms to AFL-CIO governance. On July 24, 1968, just days after the UAW disaffiliation, Teamsters General President Frank Fitzsimmons and Reuther formed the Alliance for Labor Action as a new national trade union center to organize unorganized workers and pursue leftist political and social projects. Meany denounced the ALA as a dual union, although Reuther argued it was not. The Alliance's initial program was ambitious. But Reuther's death in a plane crash on May 9, 1970, near Black Lake, Michigan, dealt a serious blow to the Alliance, and the group halted operations in July 1971 after the Auto Workers (almost bankrupt from a lengthy strike at General Motors) was unable to continue to fund its operations. The ALA formally disbanded in January 1972. The UAW re-affiliated with the AFL-CIO on July 1, 1981.
The situation for the automotive industry and UAW members worsened dramatically with the 1973 oil embargo. Rising fuel prices caused the U.S. auto makers to lose market share to foreign manufacturers who placed more emphasis on fuel efficiency. 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. As a result of plant closings, cities such as Flint, Lansing, and to a lesser extent Detroit began to lose population and businesses. In 1985 the union's Canadian division disaffiliated from the UAW over a dispute regarding negotiation tactics and formed the Canadian Auto Workers as an independent union. Specifically the Canadian division claimed they were being used to pressure the companies for extra benefits which went mostly to the American members.
The UAW has seen a dramatic decline in membership since the 1970s. Membership topped 1.5 million in 1979. But because of restructuring and decline of the American domestic auto industry due in part by the increased compensation and benefits advocated by the UAW, membership fell to approximately 540,000 at the end of 2006 and to just under 465,000 members by the end of 2007. The last time the UAW had fewer than 500,000 members was in 1941.
Currently, unionized employees of Detroit auto firms make about $55 an hour, about $40 of which comes from simple cash payments (wages, overtime, and vacation pay), and about $15 of which comes from fringe benefits, like health insurance and pensions. This is a little more than twice as much as the typical American worker makes, benefits included. Nonunionized employees of Honda and Toyota make around $45 an hour, with most of the gap stemming from their less generous benefits.