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Behind the latest UAW strike is its almost 90-year history

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The United Auto Workers union strike is now in its third week. Workers want better wages and benefits from auto companies that have seen record profits in recent years. That's largely because the union gave up a lot of its hard-fought benefits to bail out those companies during the Great Recession. There's a lot of history there. And NPR's Don Gonyea joins us now from Detroit with more. Good morning, Don.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

RASCOE: So this is a union that was born out of a strike - a work stoppage at GM in the 1930s in Flint, Mich. Tell us about that time.

GONYEA: It was 1936 when the famous sit-down strike took place at GM in Flint. There was no union at the time. The plants were dirty. The company had speed up the line to boost production when they needed it. None of the veterans of the sit-down strike are alive today. But back in the mid-1980s, I was a younger reporter. I got to know some of those sit-down strikers. Here are some short clips from a radio story I produced 50 years after the strike.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We were running between jobs. There wasn't any walking back there leisurely. You ran between jobs to get - to try to pick up your work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You're running 75 and 80 cars an hour. There were so many men on each job, see, and you had to keep up with them jobs. We didn't even have time to go to the bathroom. I'm telling you the truth.

LARRY JONES: Vacation? You got - we had long vacations. We had a good vacation period - 3, 4 months every year - but we didn't get paid.

GONYEA: Again, those are voices from 1986. That last one you heard there is former Flint worker Larry Jones. The key to the sit-down strike was that they didn't set up a picket line. They simply sat down on the job and occupied the plant. The factory was shut down as a result. It worked. That's when the UAW was born. That's when they won the right to negotiate contracts.

RASCOE: How did that go? Like, did the gains come quickly or...

GONYEA: They did not. It was slow. There were more strikes, more struggles and violent clashes at times. Then came World War II. U.S. car factories switched to wartime production with union help. Union car plants began cranking out jeeps and tanks and planes. Remember Rosie the Riveter? She was a UAW member. And the key to all of this was a young UAW leader named Walter Reuther. When the war ended and workers had more leverage, Reuther and the UAW fought hard for better wages, for better health benefits and even pensions. Two decades later, Reuther looked back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALTER REUTHER: And our slogan was, we wanted pensions for workers to provide security and dignity when they are too old to work but too young to die.

RASCOE: So were the postwar years also boom years for the union in the way that they were for much of the U.S. economy back then?

GONYEA: Absolutely. And unions then really created the middle class. Generation after generation in a single family would get jobs at auto plants. The same held for African American families. There were opportunities in car plants. It was a key part of building the Black middle class, as well. Postwar car sales boom - big cars, big fins, new models every year. And the UAW grew, too.

RASCOE: But boom times - they don't last. And we know that it's not the way it used to be today, right?

GONYEA: Right. The jolt of reality came in the early '70s - the Arab oil embargo. Gas prices soared. Gas-guzzling American cars had a problem. U.S. market share plummeted. GM once had a 50% market share in the U.S. These days - less than 20%. And as time went on, Japanese carmakers moved some production to the U.S. but to nonunion plants while U.S. carmakers started shifting some of their production overseas. All of that hurt the UAW. As a large number of U.S. plants were closed, there were more strikes in the '80s and in the '90s, and it was all about saving jobs then. Here's a striking welder named Gary Canaan (ph). I talked to him 25 years ago outside a factory in Flint.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GARY CANAAN: We don't stand up now - it's going to affect us even five years down the line where General Motors is going to shut at least another quarter of assembly plants down and parts plants down. Well, we got to fight now. If we don't fight now for our own people, there won't be anything for our children. There's going to be nothing for us, and that's the issue.

GONYEA: And it's interesting - today's battles are actually being fought by those children, and they're fighting for things Canaan warned about back then, including the pensions we heard Walter Reuther mention.

RASCOE: So one of the big sticking points at the bargaining table now is over how much UAW members gave up back in 2008, 2009. You know, there was the financial crisis, and both GM and Chrysler were at risk. They both declared bankruptcy.

GONYEA: The union gave up big concessions back then in order to help the companies survive. As a result, new workers got paid less. Veteran workers gave up pay and benefits. Here's President Obama - still new, very new, to office, then - thanking autoworkers for sacrificing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: The United Auto Workers, who had already made painful concessions, agreed to further cuts in wages and benefits - cuts that will help Chrysler survive, making it possible for so many workers to keep their jobs and about 170,000 retirees and their families to keep their health care.

GONYEA: And those concessions are now front and center in today's strike.

RASCOE: NPR's Don Gonyea, thank you so much for joining us.

GONYEA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.