Bright lights shine in a black-and-white photo of an automotive factory as multiple men work on the assembly line.
Factory workers work on cars on the assembly line in the former Chrysler Jefferson Avenue Plant. Photo credit: Courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University/Historic Detroit

Detroit and the country at large are bracing for impact as the clock ticks down on the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) national contract with General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NA (formerly Fiat Chrysler Automobiles US). 

As the contract’s Sept. 14 expiration looms, the union is prepared to strike over demands that include higher pay, getting rid of a two-tiered wage system and protecting pensions and job security amid the rise of electric vehicles, which need fewer parts, and therefore, fewer workers.

Detroit has been a hotspot for highly publicized, progressive labor movements since at least the 1930s. Outlier Media sat down with Wayne State University archivist Dan Golodner to discuss this history and what current advocates can learn from them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How is the current labor situation influenced by the history of the labor movement in Detroit?

Man in a dark blue shirt and glasses smiles in front of metal shelves filled with boxes.
Wayne State University archivist Dan Golodner specializes in Detroit labor history. Photo credit: Courtesy of Wayne State University

You can look at what’s currently going on with the potential UAW strike by first looking back at Detroit labor history in the 1930s. That’s when everything pretty much exploded. Activity was happening all around Detroit, specifically around 1936-38. There were lots of sit-down strikes. We all heard about the Great Flint sit-down, but little sit-downs were happening already. 

Estimates are that about 100,000 workers walked off jobs, and about 35,000 sat down in their workplaces to gain collective bargaining rights. This is from auto workers, to women working in the service industry, to private industry all over the place, except for public employees who did not have bargaining rights until the 1960s.

This didn’t just happen all of a sudden. It took a lot of militant organizing years beforehand, just like what’s happening today. It took them years to figure out how to do the game plan. 

How have Black Detroiters contributed to the labor movement in the city and country?

Historically, the labor and the civil rights movements were working together because they both realized they had to. In order to gain civil rights, you need better jobs.To get better jobs, you need a union. To get a union, you also break down discrimination. 

Before the 1930s, the main trade union federation was the American Federation of Labor (AFL). They were stuck on only organizing trade unions of crafts. African American workers were excluded from the AFL. There were a few: A. Philip Randolph, who was the president of the porters, became a huge civil rights organizer. He organized the March on Washington

Instead, African Americans were embraced by independent unions and other unemployment councils. There, they gained an understanding of organizing. When the Big Three started collective bargaining, there were already seeds within the community. In 1935, a split happened with the AFL where it created the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who organized not only by craft, but by the industry. That included everybody. 

The labor movement of the United States is bloody, and it’s horrendous. The bosses usually tried to use African Americans as strikebreakers. So there’s already distrust and manipulation. But by 1942, in the auto industry, you had organized workers across races. African Americans still weren’t able to move up within the auto factories. Most of them still worked in pretty crappy conditions. But they had a foothold.

What should current organizers take away from historical labor movements?

It is a long, long battle. It is not spontaneous. It doesn’t happen overnight. 

There was a great Ford Hunger March that was organized by these unemployment councils which were created to stop evictions. Henry Ford basically was the largest employer, and most of the people were unemployed. During the Great Depression in Detroit, you had 50% average unemployment, where the national average was about 25%. 

About 4,000 men marched to the River Rouge plant demanding jobs from Ford, one of the richest men in Detroit, because he was turning his back to Detroit. His private police force answered with water cannons. The temperature was about 10 degrees. Then unemployed workers started to throw rocks and frozen mud. The answer back from the private police was to shoot. Five men were killed, 50 injured.

It didn’t stop the mobilization. It didn’t stop the action. Two days later, 50,000 people marched to Woodward. It was a sign of solidarity: Enough is enough. We can’t stand this anymore.

The defeat, the blood and the death didn’t stop the movement. In today’s world, we’re facing mass capitalism that takes what they want.

We have large international corporations, globalization and a fear of climate change. We also have grassroots organizers who are still trying to fight the fight. They look at the past to see it didn’t just happen overnight. It took a lot of organizing strength and a minority militant mass that can actually move people to understand what was needed.

So that’s what everybody today has to look at. It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens through dedication and a lot of sweat.

Are there issues today in the labor movement that are the same as in the past?

Look at our Amazon factory work. The same thing was happening in the 1920s. In factories, if they didn’t make a certain auto part within a certain amount of seconds, then they could lose their job. At Amazon, if they don’t lift the box within a certain amount of seconds, they could potentially lose their job

Another problem is the gig economy: You have Uber drivers and Lyft drivers who are basically independent contractors, so they have no real rights of overtime. They have no real rights with the National Labor Relations Board. This is the same thing with sweatshops back in the 1920s and ’30s. They had piecework and would take pieces of the work back home, just so they could actually make money. What unions are trying to do is show that it’s a sort of social contract. If you give something, you’ll get something too. They’re not allowing these huge corporations to run our economies.

How did historical labor organizers sway public opinion without social media?

With every kind of action, part of it is to get your message across. But also, it’s the ground war of public opinion.

In the past, in Detroit, Walter Reuther and a bunch of others were on an overpass outside the Rouge plant passing out leaflets. The leaflets said, “You should join the UAW.” Ford had a private police force. They came out and said, “You can’t do this,” but before Reuther could even answer, these thugs started beating the crap out of them and threw them down the stairs. 

Public opinion swayed because there was a photographer taking pictures. You see these big huge guys beating the crap out of these other guys. Public opinion swayed quickly. Eventually, Ford lost the PR game.

But, it just so happened there was a photographer there. There were no photographers at the Hunger March.

What’s your favorite resource for learning about Detroit’s labor movements?

There is a book called “Working Detroit” that’s written by some wonderful professors from Wayne State University and some independent researchers. It tells the whole story from the very beginning to about the 1960s of working Detroit people. The resources at the Reuther Library are rich, full of our complete history. Urban history intersects with labor history.

I always try to learn from those who came before me. Those who fought the battles before me — they are the greatest resource. So don’t forget to talk to your elders, because they remember stuff that you’ve never even experienced. That’s what young militants or young organizers need to do.

For up-to-date information on UAW’s impending strike and the possible fallout, follow the coverage from our newsroom partner, WXYZ (Channel 7).

SaMya (she/her) believes in empowering and encouraging minority voices through local journalism because journalism is a service to the community, not vice versa. She loves Campus Martius, especially during holiday time with the bright lights and snow.