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 The Depression News

Michigan Historical Museum

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Labor Unions Rise

The rise of labor organizations resulted
from the growth of industry in the 1920s
and the devastating effects of
the Great Depression in the 1930s.

During the Great Depression, unemployment was high. Many employers tried to get as much work as possible from their employees for the lowest possible wage. Workers were upset with the speedup of assembly lines, working conditions and the lack of job security. Seeking strength in unity, they formed unions.

Automobile workers organized the U.A.W. (United Automobile Workers of America) in 1935. General Motors would not recognize the U.A.W. as the workers' bargaining representative. Hearing rumors that G.M. was moving work to factories where the union was not as strong, workers in Flint began a sit-down strike on December 30, 1936.

The sit-down was an effective way to strike. When workers walked off the job and picketed a plant, management could bring in new workers to break the strike. If the workers stayed in the plant, management could not replace them with other workers.

This photograph in the Labor Gallery shows the broken windows at General Motors' Flint Fisher Body Plant during the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37. You can see a video program about the sit-down strike in the gallery.

Broken Windows, Fisher Body Plant

The Women's Auxiliary organized a first aid station, provided child care and collected food and money for strikers and their families. Some of the women organized the Emergency Brigade, an offshoot of the Women's Auxiliary. These women picketed the auto plant to divert management while another plant was seized. They smashed the auto plant's windows after they heard that the strikers had been gassed inside the building.

Red Beret and Arm Band
The women wore red tams, arm bands and political buttons such as these, which were loaned to the museum by the Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University. The button with the words "Roosevelt: Labor's Choice" reflects labor's growing support for President Roosevelt.

On March 12, 1937, the Flint sit-down strike ended with an agreement under which General Motors recognized the United Auto Workers as the bargaining agent for their workers. The success of the U.A.W. inspired others. Unions grew across the nation.


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