Shopfloor Matters: Labor-Management Relations in Twentieth-Century American Manufacturing

Shopfloor Matters: Labor-Management Relations in Twentieth-Century American Manufacturing

Shopfloor Matters: Labor-Management Relations in Twentieth-Century American Manufacturing

Shopfloor Matters: Labor-Management Relations in Twentieth-Century American Manufacturing

Synopsis

It is widely argued that America, along with some other Western countries, struggles to introduce more flexible ways of working because of a prior history of industrial conflict. This book argues for a more nuanced view of U.S. labour history.

Excerpt

In the winter of 1936-7, workers at two of General Motors’ Fisher Body plants in Flint, Michigan quit work, sat down, and occupied the plants for over a month in what would become one of the most famous events in US labor history. The strike quickly spread to other GM facilities, eventually encompassing seventeen plants and idling 136,000 workers. Lost production was estimated to be roughly 280,000 automobiles, valued at $175 million. The strike ended with General Motors agreeing to recognize and engage in collective bargaining with the United Auto Workers of America (UAW), a relationship that would come to pit one of the most powerful corporations against one of the most powerful unions of the twentieth century.

This strike is remembered as the beginning of collective bargaining in the auto industry. It is often recalled that the strike began the year after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act granting workers the right to organize unions and also after John L. Lewis broke with the skilledtrades dominated American Federation of Labor (AFL) to form the Committee for Industrial Organization in an attempt to organize the semiskilled workers of the mass-production industries. The strike is commonly associated with the struggle for decent pay, health and pension benefits, and employment security, all of which would come to mark the achievements of collective bargaining in the auto industry and mass-production manufacturing more broadly in the decades that followed.

And yet in the minds of the workers who initiated the strike, shopfloor conditions were the primary cause and the single most important demand sustaining their efforts to organize a union. Discontent with the arbitrary and dictatorial behavior of foremen and, above all, the pace of production, animated their struggle. As Sidney Fine states in his careful study of the GM sit-down strike:

It was the speed-up in the view of the principal participants that was the major cause for the GM sit-down strike… . It was the inexorable speed and the “coerced rhythms” of the assembly line, an insufficient number of relief men on the line, the production standards set for

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