Labour History Review

Industrial Unionism in the American Automobile Industry During the Post-World War I Era, 1918-23

Labour History Review (2002), 67, (1), 49–63.

Abstract

During the years immediately following the First World War a labour insurgency emerged in numerous American mass-production industries. In the automobile industry the United Automobile Aircraft and Vehicle Workers (UAAVW), a breakaway union from an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) led by members of the Socialist Party of America, advanced an innovative and resourceful organising strategy to build an industrial union. This strategy was distinct but not unrelated to that espoused by AFL activists, who sought to promote industrial unionism through an amalgamation of craft organisations, and that of the Industrial Workers of the World, which stressed direct action at the point of production to create ‘One Big Union’. The UAAVW made some inroads among medium-sized companies, such as Buick and Chevrolet, and component firms in New York, Michigan and Ohio, but were unsuccessful in denting the resistance of Ford and other larger producers who combined corporate welfare measures and strong-armed tactics to beat back union organising efforts. Notwithstanding its mixed track record, the UAAVW demonstrated that labour radicals and militants could act pragmatically and flexibly in their attempt to redefine the power relations between employers and workers.

Access Token
£25.00
READ THIS ARTICLE
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here

The Auto Worker, May 1919. Google Scholar

Joseph McCartin, Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modem Labor Relations, 1912-1921, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1997; Valerie Jean Conner, The National War Labor Board: Stability, Social Justice and the Voluntary State in World War I, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1983; Melvyn Dubofsky, ‘Abortive Reform: The Wilson Administration and Organized Labor, 1913-1920’, in James Cronin and Carmen Sirianni (eds), Work, Community and Power: The Experiences of Labor in Europe and America, 1900-1925, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1983; Melvyn Dubofsky, The State and Labor in Modem America, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1994; David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 370-5; and Leo Wolman, The Growth of American Trade Unions, 1880-1923, New York, Arno, 1975. Labor's Great War: The Struggle for Industrial Democracy and the Origins of Modem Labor Relations, 1912-1921 Google Scholar

David Montgomery, ‘The New Unionism and the Transformation of Workers Consciousness in America, 1909-1922’, in his Workers' Control in America, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1979; and Alexander Bing, War-time Strikes and Their Adjustment, New York, E. P. Dutton, 1921. Workers' Control in America Google Scholar

David Montgomery, ‘Industrial Democracy or Democracy in Industry?: the Theory and Practice of the Labor Movement, 1870-1925’, and Howell John Harris, ‘Industrial Democracy and Liberal Capitalism, 1890-1925’, in Nelson Lichtenstein and Howell John Harris (eds), Industrial Democracy in America: The Ambiguous Promise, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1993. Google Scholar

Marion Savage, Industrial Unionism in America, New York, Ronald Press, 1922. Industrial Unionism in America Google Scholar

See Steve Babson, Building the Union: Skilled Workers and Anglo-Gaelic Immigrants in the Rise of UAW, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 1991; Roger Keeren, The Communist Party and Auto Workers' Unions, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1980; and Joyce Shaw Peterson, American Automobile Workers, 1900-1933, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1987. Although each has underscored the perseverance of labour activists before the New Deal era, the UAAVW's efforts represent only a minor part of their studies. Building the Union: Skilled Workers and Anglo-Gaelic Immigrants in the Rise of UAW Google Scholar

The Spark Plug, February 1917; Robert Dunn, Labor and Automobiles, New York, International Publishers, 1929, p. 116; Savage, Industrial Unionism in America, pp. 281-4; Peterson, American Automobile Workers, p. 108; and Jack Skeels, ‘Early Carriage and Auto Unions: The Impact of Industrialization and Rival Unionism’, Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 17, 1964, pp. 566-83. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, December 1919. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, July and December 1919; and Joseph McCartin, ‘An American Feeling: Workers, Managers and the Struggle over Industrial Democracy in the World War I Era’, in Lichtenstein and Harris (eds), Industrial Democracy in America, pp. 67-86. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, July and December 1919. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, October 1919. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, January 1921. Google Scholar

Peterson, American Automobile Workers, pp. 112-14; and David Gartman, Auto Slavery: the Labor Process in the American Automobile Industry, 1897-1950, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1986, p. 161. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, February and March 1920, March 1923; and Babson, Building the Union, pp. 30-2. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, September 1920; and Savage, Industrial Unionism, p. 283. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, September 1920. Google Scholar

On corporatism, see Steve Fraser, ‘Dress Rehearsal for the New Deal: Shop-Floor Insurgents, Political Elites, and Industrial Democracy in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’, in Michael Frisch and Daniel Walkowitz (eds), Working Class America: Essays on Labor, Community and American Society, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1983; and Jeffrey Haydu, Making American Industry Safe for Democracy: Comparative Perspectives on the State and Employee Representation in the Era of World War I, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1997. For industrial democracy as collective bargaining, see Milton Derber, The American Idea of Industrial Democracy, 1865-1965, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1970; and Howard Dickman, Industrial Democracy in America: Idealogical Origins of National Labor Relations Policy, La Salle, Illinois, Open Court, 1987. Working Class America: Essays on Labor, Community and American Society Google Scholar

Louis Levine, ‘The Development of Syndicalism in American’, Political Science Quarterly, 28, 3, 1913, pp. 451-79; John Spargo, Syndicalism, Industrial Unionism and Socialism, New York, B. W. Huebsch, 1913; Andre Tridon, The New Unionism, New York, B. W. Huebsch, 1913. David Montgomery, ‘The New Unionism and the Transformation of Workers’ Consciousness in America, 1909-1922', in his The Fall of the House of Labor, stresses the syndicalist character of militant workers' initiatives in the munitions, electrical goods, shipbuilding and railway industries in which strikers forged alliances transcending demarcations of union affiliation, craft and skill. Howard Kimeldorf highlights the practical features of an ‘industrial syndicalism’ promoted by the IWW and a ‘business syndicalism’ advanced by AFL affiliates in Battling for American Labor: Wobblies, Craft Workers and the Making of the Union Movement, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999, pp. 11-19. The Development of Syndicalism in American Political Science Quarterly 28 451 79 Google Scholar

Steve Meyer III, The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908-1921, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1981. Bonus schemes prevailed between 1918 and 1922, but during the deep recession that hit the industry most were discontinued. United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, Wages and Hours of Labor in the Automobile Industry, Bulletin 348, October 1923, pp. 10-12. The Five Dollar Day: Labor Management and Social Control in the Ford Motor Company, 1908-1921 Google Scholar

Babson, Building the Union, pp. 33-5. Google Scholar

R. R. Lutz, The Metal Trades, Cleveland, Survey Committee of the Cleveland Foundation, 1916, pp. 81 and 83-4; US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Bulletin 348, 1923, 630-4; Gartman, Auto Slavery, pp. 128-41; and Peterson, American Automobile Workers, pp. 34-5. The Metal Trades 81 Google Scholar

According to 1920 Census data, almost half of the labourers and more than half of the operatives in auto plants were foreign born. Just under ten per cent of the industry's labourers and one per cent of the operatives were African American. Meanwhile, women constituted four per cent of the auto labour force in 1920 (Gartman, Auto Slavery, pp. 138-40). Google Scholar

Babson, Building the Union, p. 81, suggestively discusses the similarities of the UAAVW's shop committee system with the shop stewards' councils emerging in England between 1914 and 1921. This parallel development, he argues, was indicative of the influence of English immigrants in the early attempts to organise unions in Detroit's automobile industry. Google Scholar

Dunn, Labor and Automobiles, p. 188; The Auto Worker, August 1920. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, November and December 1923, January and February 1924. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, June 1919, April 1920. Google Scholar

The Auto Worker, May and June 1920. Google Scholar

If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here

Details

Author details

Mendel, Ronald