Autoworkers and Their Unions
- Daniel ClarkDaniel ClarkDepartment of History, Oakland University
Since the introduction of “Fordism” in the early 1910s, which emphasized technological improvements and maximizing productive efficiency, US autoworkers have struggled with repetitive, exhausting, often dangerous jobs. Yet beginning with Ford’s Five Dollar Day, introduced in 1914, auto jobs have also provided higher pay than most other wage work, attracting hundreds of thousands of people, especially to Detroit, Michigan, through the 1920s, and again from World War II until the mid-1950s. Successful unionization campaigns by the United Auto Workers (UAW) in the 1930s and early 1940s resulted in contracts that guaranteed particular wage increases, reduced the power of foremen, and created a process for resolving workplace conflicts. In the late 1940s and early 1950s UAW president Walter Reuther negotiated generous medical benefits and pensions for autoworkers. The volatility of the auto industry, however, often brought layoffs that undermined economic security. By the 1950s overproduction and automation contributed heavily to instability for autoworkers. The UAW officially supported racial and gender equality, but realities in auto plants and the makeup of union leadership often belied those principles. Beginning in the 1970s US autoworkers faced disruptions caused by high oil prices, foreign competition, and outsourcing to Mexico. Contract concessions at unionized plants began in the late 1970s and continued into the 2000s. By the end of the 20th century, many American autoworkers did not belong to the UAW because they were employed by foreign automakers, who built factories in the United States and successfully opposed unionization. For good reason, autoworkers who survived the industry’s turbulence and were able to retire with guaranteed pensions and medical care look back fondly on all that they gained from working in the industry under UAW contracts. Countless others left auto work permanently and often reluctantly in periodic massive layoffs and the continuous loss of jobs from automation.