Thursday, February 11, 2010

Good Days in American History: Februrary 11, 1937

I know it's weird for me to talk about good things that have happened in the American past. But sometimes, good can defeat evil. And it's worth talking about.

On February 11, 1937 General Motors finally agreed to recognize the United Auto Workers as the union representing their employees. It only took a herculean effort from the workers. On January 30, 1936, workers inside a Flint, Michigan GM plant sat-down on the job and refused to leave until GM recognized their union. GM tried all it could to crush the strike. They convinced a judge to issue an injunction against the strike, which was a real threat until the UAW found out that the judge owned a mere $200,000 in GM stock. GM convinced the Flint police force to attempt an invasion of the factory on January 11, but the workers kept them away by turning the plant's fire hoses on the cops. The police fired tear gas, but the strikers' wives broke holes in the plant's windows from the outside to give the workers some relief. When the strike spread to an additional plant on February 1, GM knew it had to negotiate.

But GM was so disgusted they refused to speak directly to the UAW representatives, forcing Michigan's governor, Frank Murphy, to serve as an intermediary between the two groups. Finally, on February 11, an agreement was reached. The UAW exploded in numbers, growing from 300,000 to 500,000 members in the next year.

Sadly, the UAW thought they had won not only the battle but also the war. During and after World War II, the UAW and the other CIO-affiliated unions decided to kick out the communist organizers who made so much of their success possible, get into bed with the companies, and assume permanent employment and great benefits. Of course, GM and every other American company were already looking for ways out of these arrangements with unions and began building new factories in the South and Mexico, which set the groundwork for the destruction of well-paid manufacturing labor in the United States, the crushing of Rust Belt economies, and globalization that would create cheap consumer products for Americans on the backs on nonunionzed impoverished labor in the developing world.

There are some wonderful oral histories of the Flint workers here. Check 'em out!