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The Strike That Birthed The United Auto Workers

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tens of thousands of United Auto Workers union members have ratified a new, four-year contract with Fiat-Chrysler. After rejecting an earlier version of the deal, the rank-and-file voted yesterday to approve. Now negotiations move on to General Motors.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Even though it took two tries, the parties clinched the Fiat-Chrysler deal in a predetermined time frame, across a conference table - no work stoppage, no picket lines, no lockouts.

MONTAGNE: But, as Jacob Goldstein of our Planet Money team reminds us, things haven't always gone that way. He takes us back to the UAW's earliest moments in a scene of all-out bloody battle.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: The United Auto Workers and, really, unions as we know them, were born out of a single strike. It happened in Flint, Mich., in 1936, where a few autoworkers wanted to shut down General Motors. The plan? Seize a few key factories and stay there until the company agreed to negotiate. On the day it happened, someone gave the signal, and the other workers, people like Leo Robinson, knew it was on.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEO ROBINSON: So we waited just about five, six minutes before we started to pull.

GOLDSTEIN: Pulling switches, turning off the machines. Robinson was interviewed by a BBC documentary crew back in the 1970s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBINSON: And I had three bosses running behind me, brother, hollering you're fired, you're fired, you're fired. And I was still grabbing switches.

GOLDSTEIN: It was called a sit-down strike. Kevin Boyle, a historian at Northwestern University, says this kind of thing had happened before at other companies. And the companies usually won. Workers can't just seize a factory. It belongs to the company. And if you were a company, Boyle says, the law was on your side.

KEVIN BOYLE: Yeah, you call the cops. You call the National Guard. You send them in to open up the plant. This was bloody, bloody conflict.

GOLDSTEIN: The conflict in Flint came a few weeks into the strike. Victor Reuther, a UAW organizer who was there, described it in a documentary called "Brothers On The Line."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BROTHERS ON THE LINE")

VICTOR REUTHER: The police had gathered at the top of the hill. And as they got close enough to the bridge, they began firing tear gas shells.

GOLDSTEIN: The strikers responded by heading for the roof of the factory, where they'd made weapons out of spare auto parts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BROTHERS ON THE LINE")

REUTHER: And they had these pound-and-a-half hinges, which they made there. And they stretched inner tubes between two heavy steel poles, so they could use them as a great slingshot to throw these hinges.

GOLDSTEIN: Strikers on the ground turned over the sheriff's car while the sheriff was still in it. Then the sheriff got out of his car and got hit in the head by a flying hinge. The police started shooting. Eventually, the governor of Michigan called in the National Guard. But - but the guard did not try to get the workers out of the factory. Instead, the governor, Frank Murphy, ordered the guard to keep the peace - to get between the local police and the strikers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FRANK MURPHY: We are not going to settle this strike by force and violence. We will work our way out of this strike peacefully and without injustice to anyone.

GOLDSTEIN: The main thing the strikers wanted was for the company to negotiate with them on things like seniority and benefits, what we think of today as basic union stuff. A few weeks after the governor called in the guard, the company agreed. The strike was over. The Flint strike set off this huge wave. Over the next few years, industry after industry was unionized. This big swath of the economy was transformed. Richard Freeman, a labor economist at Harvard, says this is the way union growth tends to happen in the U.S. and around the world.

RICHARD FREEMAN: When unions go up, they go up in a really sharp, you know, boom, bang.

GOLDSTEIN: Unions took off after the Flint strike for a bunch of reasons. Unions were a good fit for assembly-line workers, and there were a lot of assembly-line workers back then. Also, it was a moment when the political climate was pretty pro-union. When those things changed, Freeman says, the share of private sector workers in unions started falling. And it's been falling for decades now. As of last year, fewer than 7 percent of private sector workers were in unions. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.