The Depression exacerbated labor woes. James Flink wrote, “Labor unrest in the automobile industry spread with massive unemployment and the deterioration of working conditions as the Depression deepened.” The crisis was compounded by technological stagnation, and since workers were more flexible than machines, human labor was pushed to increase productivity. Work on the assembly line was characterized by the “speed-up” and “stretch out” of the workforce. “Too many men competed for too few jobs and automobile manufacturers took advantage of the glut in the labor market.” Autoworkers of the 1930s had manifold complaints, but the foremost grievance was the speed-up. Workers argued bitterly that the speed of the line was unbearable; that annual earnings were inadequate; methods of payment were too complicated; the seasonal unemployment created by the industry’s insistence upon an annual model change; the practice of shutting down during the model changes (at Ford) and of hiring workers, regardless of skill, at the starting rate; management ignored and refused to recognize seniority; workers over 40 found it difficult to remain employed; female labor was being substituted to replace male labor; the continued “speed-up” of the assembly line; and the espionage networks and the Bennett regime of Ford. Mounting complaints would give impetus to a fledgling union movement.
Under the auspices of the New Deal, Congress passed the Wagner Act and created the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The original agreement was admittedly weak; it only stipulated requirements for worker representation, and automobile companies continued to resist unionization. The promises of the Wagner Act eventually came to fruition. “In only ten years,” noted historian Richard Oestriecher, “the Wagner Act led directly to an increase in union representation from approximately one worker in ten in 1934 . . . to more than three out of 10 by 1945, and strong unions forced corporations to raise wages at roughly the same rate that the economy expanded.” Concurrent with the Wagner Act, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) chartered the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW).
Even under the aegis of the Great Depression and the New Deal political climate, the “Big Three” were able to thwart worker’s attempts to organize. Unionization of the automobile industry was not concluded when the ink of the Wagner Act dried. Ford used a police regime to prevent violence; General Motors, Chrysler, and other firms embarked on campaigns of espionage. It was said at the time that one out of ten workers was a company informant. To unionize the auto industry, American politics had to be moved to the left. In Management and Managed Steven Jeffreys argued that the external political environment was crucial in shaping the limits of unionization. He observed that the
Companies battled to maintain
Collective bargaining was made a reality by historical actors who were catalyzed by the Great Depression and energized as a part of the New Deal political coalition. Franklin Roosevelt’s charisma forged a new political bloc that embraced class-based politics and sided tentatively with labor. Workers also began to overcome their differences, and as Ronald Edsforth and Robert Asher pointed out, “no matter what their race, ethnicity, or gender, automobile workers found themselves confronting similar problems . . . between 1935 and 1941 deeply felt resentments about what these workers called “the speedup” or “the stretch out” brought diverse groups of auto workers together in the successful organizing drives of the United Automobile Workers Union.” Leaders such as Homer Martin, Walter and Victor Ruether, Richard “Dick” Frankensteen, George Addes, and others organized a motley gang of laborers into the United Autoworkers (UAW). In a pivotal moment at the 1935 South Bend Convention, Dick Frankensteen’s Automotive Industrial Workers Association (AIWA) joined the UAW. Arnold Bernstein noted, “In the summer of 1936 the now more or less “United” Automobile Workers confronted the major task of organization, which, given the extreme oligopolistic structure of the more industry, necessitated a frontal attack upon one of the big three.
The opportunity for a “frontal assault” came in 1936 with the sit down strike at General Motors plants around the country. Arnold Bernstein noted that the youth of the autoworkers made the sit down strike “democracy run wild.” The autoworkers used the innovative sit-down strike tactic to prevent the removal of dies and to obstruct the importation of strike breakers. After a 44-day period of intense negotiations, the UAW gained the right to bargain with General Motors. The moment was unique in American history; both Michigan Governor Frank Murphy and President Franklin Roosevelt did not forcibly remove strikers. The UAW’s conquest of General Motors quickly exacted contracts from Hudson, Packard, and Studebaker, along with numerous parts producers. In the wake of the strike, the union had “256 locals, 400 collective bargaining agreements, and 220,000 dues-paying members.”