"The strike of 1936 haunts the memory of the syndicalists of General Motors"

On Monday, October 7, the builder's employees begin their fourth week of strike. This exceptional event, does it mean the return of major social conflicts in American industry?

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General Motors employees, unionized at the UAW, demonstrate in front of the Detroit plant on September 25.
General Motors employees, unionized at the UAW, demonstrate in front of the Detroit plant on September 25. BILL PUGLIANO / AFP

Losses and profits. On December 30, 1936, workers at the General Motors (GM) plant in Flint, Michigan, stopped work and demanded general negotiations with management. Instead of going on strike on their way home, 2,000 of them are working in the factory to avoid moving machinery and parts. They sleep and eat on the spot, elect a mayor, organize a small company. The management sends the police, files a complaint. But President Roosevelt opposes the intervention of federal forces and the strike extends during the month of January to all GM establishments in the region. After forty-four days of strike, the company concludes the first social agreement of its history. He recognizes the union, grants a salary increase of 5% and the right to speak during lunch breaks.

The UAW, the youngest auto union, has its first win, its legitimacy, and is taking the opportunity to extend the benefits to the other two automakers, Ford, the most recalcitrant, and Chrysler. After the war, the UAW, which had stopped all movement during the conflict, obtained widespread social coverage.

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It is this history, major in American capitalism, that haunts the memory of the trade unionists who begin, this Monday, September 7, their fourth week of strike. An agreement seemed close this weekend with salary increase at the end, and then stumbled at the last minute, especially on commitments to invest in the group's American factories. This is the longest strike since 1970, when the UAW was still at the height of its splendor. It has already lost nearly one billion dollars (911 million euros) to the company.

Loss of influence

This exceptional event by its magnitude sign the return of the great social conflicts in the American industry and the revival of the unions? Since the 1980s, the UAW has fallen victim to massive relocations of the automobile industry and new competition, particularly from Japan, which has been established in the southern states, which are not very unionized, and then in Mexico. In its heyday, during the years 1950-1960, the union gathered nearly 30% of all workers in the sector, against 11% today, and even less out of the big three manufacturers. This loss of influence, also linked to the shift of jobs towards services, has largely contributed to the great wage moderation during the last decades and to the increase of inequalities.


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