Unions have been in the news a lot lately, and this would be as good a time as any to take a quick refresher look at labor unions and how they pertain to the automotive industry.
it's unclear how far back labor unions date back to, although it seems that unions eventually descended from the artisan guilds of medieval Europe. Organizing unions and attempting to bargain collectively were activities that were more or less outlawed until around the middle of the 19th Century.
In the United States, unions were originally formed to protect workers from management abuses such unsafe working conditions and low wages, and the unions used their ability to strike as one way to get what they demanded from management.
The automotive industry was no exception to other industries when it came to unionization.
It started in 1935 in Detroit, Michigan, at the American Federation of Labor (AFL) convention. The AFL hadn't focused much on industry before that point, and a faction of the AFL came together as the Committee For Industrial Organization (CIO). Before a year was out, the original CIO was suspended by the AFL, and the unions within them, including the United Auto Workers (UAW), formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which replaced the first CIO.
The UAW found success in organizing through the use of strikes. Several strikes in 1936 and 1937 led to the recognition of the UAW by General Motors and Chrysler. Ford Motor Company took a far harder anti-union stance, even using its internal security forces--sometimes violently--to prevent attempts at organizing. Eventually, even Ford gave the UAW collective bargaining rights, in 1941.
During World War II, the union pledged not to strike, in order to avoid hindering the war effort. In 1968, the UAW separated itself from the AFL-CIO. Between 1946 and 1970, when Walter Reuther was president, the UAW became a key force in national politics, particularly within the Democratic Party.
Due to a number of factors--the oil embargoes of the 1970s, the entry of foreign automakers into the U.S. market, and the operation of non-union plants in the South--the UAW has seen membership decline greatly since 1970. The Great Recession that began in 2007 hasn't helped. Not only has the UAW lost membership, it also lost clout as it made concessions to management in an effort to keep the Detroit automakers from failing (despite these efforts, GM and Chrysler were unable to avoid bankruptcy). Not only did the UAW concede wages and benefits, but it agreed to suspend the jobs bank, a program in which laid-off workers could collect 95 percent of their pay and benefits.
Today's UAW is smaller and less powerful than it was in the past, but it's still a major part of the industry's labor picture. When discussing labor issues within the industry, one must remember to include the UAW, and having an overview of its history is instructive.