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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

UNITED AUTO WORKERS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

The UNITED AUTO WORKERS, officially the United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Workers, represented over 60,000 workers in Cleveland by 1986. The UAW was organized nationally in 1934 as a federal union by the craft-oriented AFL, which half-heartedly incorporated the diverse auto industry into its ranks, but did little to organize the workers. In Cleveland, the basis of what became the UAW began in 1934 when the Cleveland District Auto Council under Wyndham Mortimer was organized. Its members included federal unionists at FISHER BODY DIVISION OF GENERAL MOTORS CORP., Hupmobile, NATIONAL CARBON CO., Baker Raulang, WILLARD STORAGE BATTERY CO., and WHITE MOTOR CORP.. A major site of UAW activity, Cleveland workers from Local 45 at the Coit Rd. Fisher Body plant participated in the sitdown strike of 1936 that resulted in a union contract with General Motors. The Cleveland District Auto Council sponsored mass meetings to win worker support, and when the fledgling auto union realigned itself with the CIO in 1937, UAW organization proceeded quickly at over 40 local factories. By 1942 the UAW had 40,000 members in Cleveland and was the largest union in the CLEVELAND INDUSTRIAL UNION COUNCIL, the local branch of the CIO.

Throughout the 1930s-1940s the UAW worked actively to rid the union of Communist influence. The primary Cleveland battleground was Local 45, where Walter Reuther waged a running battle with Communist sympathizer LEO FENSTER†, the recording secretary, and Charles Beckman, the president. The union's other emphasis was to win contracts that improved the standard of living for auto workers. By the mid-1950s, the UAW fought for a guaranteed annual wage to stabilize hours and wages--a demand which was met in 1956 in the form of Supplemental Unemployment Benefits funded by the auto companies. Automation and other damaging trends in the auto industry caused a decline in UAW membership, and the Parma Chevy plant Local 1005, which once had 6,500 members, had only 3,500 active members, with 1,500 laid off in 1982. The aging Coit Rd. Fisher Body plant also closed the next year despite worker concessions, and workers at GM, Ford, and Chrysler were forced to accept givebacks. Although the local UAW became part of the Cleveland AFL-CIO after the two were merged in 1958, disagreements at the national level caused it to remain outside the AFL-CIO during the 1980s. The situation persisted into 1995, when the UAW represented 57,000 auto workers in eastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania.

Barnard, John. Walter Reuther and the Rise of the Auto Workers (1984).

Mortimer, Wyndham. Organize! (1971).

Last Modified: 23 Jul 1997 09:44:18 AM

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