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Historical: Union power, past and present (audio)

Seventy years ago, Ford Motor Company recognized the UAW.  Ford was the last major automaker to recognize the union, and that decision marked the starting point of the union’s “Golden Age.”

In this interview, Michigan Radio's Jenn White talks with Jack Lessenberry, Michigan Radio’s political analyst about unions past and present. And what lessons can be learned from those "golden years."


In 1941, the UAW signed contracts with General Motors and Chrysler, but Henry Ford remained opposed to unionization. After several days of strikes Ford gave in and soon after the first contracts took effect.

Lessenberry says unions gained traction through highly publicized sit down strikes and popular music.

If they could paralyze the company at a particular location, the company couldn't make cars or make any money. And if the labor union people were some how able to wade them out, they had a good chance of winning.

 "Sit Down," a song written by Maurice Sugar during sit down strikes in the auto industry in Flint, Michigan, in 1937 reads:

When they tie the hands of the union man - sit down, sit down When they give 'em a pact they'll take them back - sit down, sit down When they smile and say, "No raise in pay!" - sit down, sit down When you want the boss to come across - sit down, sit down

You can hear a rendition of the song by the Manhattan Chorus at LaborArts.org:

Looking back Lessenberry says union contracts became more and more complex. People who were against unions thought companies couldn't make money or innovate and try new things.  But, there were  benefits.

The vast majority of line workers in the 1930's and 1940's wanted the union. They wanted benefits, they wanted some relief from crippling conditions and they wanted to be paid if they were hurt on the job.

Lessenberry tells Michigan Radio's Jenn White unions have come a long way when it comes to rights for women and minorities. Lessenberry adds unions today need to better address the changing work place.


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