The CIO Challenge to the AFL: A History of the American Labor Movement, 1935-1941

By Walter Galenson | Go to book overview

3
The Automobile Industry

The history of organization in automobile manufacturing differs strikingly from that in steel. Many things have contributed to this: among them are differences in the character of the work force, technology, and industrial organization. But one thing was shared in common: the hostile attitude of management toward trade unionism.

There had been a long tradition of unionism in steel, before the suppression of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers around the turn of the century. The automobile industry, on the other hand, had begun to expand rapidly during World War I and in the postwar years, when trade unionism was already on the defensive. A plan on the part of the AFL Metal Trades Department to launch an auto organizing drive during this period never got beyond the verbal stage. 1

The steel workers were largely immigrants or first generation Americans. While there were many immigrants among the auto workers as well, a large number of them were drawn from groups with previous industrial experience in the United States. Professor Taft records that the auto workers were more individualistic and self-reliant than the steel workers; that they had more confidence in their ability to organize, springing in part from the absence of the severe defeats that the steel workers had suffered. 2 The seasonal character of automobile operations resulted in greater mobility of the labor force, and in less reliance upon any individual employer. The auto industry was more vulnerable than the steel mills to stoppages in key plants because of the interdependent technological relationships. Indeed, this was one of the major factors in auto union strategy. Whatever the reasons, the unruly independence of the auto workers during the period of union upsurge, their insistence upon leadership drawn from their own ranks, stood in sharp contrast to the willingness of the steel worker to accept a much lesser degree of self-determination.

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