Labor History in 2:00

September 15 350,000 GM Workers Strike

September 15, 2017

On this day in labor history, the year was 1970. 

That was the day 350,000 GM workers kicked off a 67-day strike. 

It was the largest auto strike since the end of World War II. 

According to historian Jefferson Cowie, it was likely the costliest. 

In his book, Stayin’ Alive, Cowie notes that the strike cost GM a billion dollars in profits and nearly bankrupted the union.   

But he adds it “lacked the proletarian drama that fired journalists’ hearts.” 

For Cowie, it was an example of labor-management cooperation, “a civilized affair.” 

But historian Jeremy Brecher points out that The Wall Street Journal drew different conclusions about the strike at the time. 

In a series of articles, the paper noted that labor-management cooperation during the strike served ironically, to get workers back to work.

A long and costly strike served a number of functions. 

It wore down strikers’ expectations. 

After eight or ten weeks, workers would be amenable to terms they initially rejected. 

It also provided an escape valve for built up frustration over working conditions. 

And a long strike served to coalesce internal union factions around a common enemy, strengthening the union’s leadership in the process. 

For management, a long and costly strike leant hope that workers would be reluctant to strike in the future. 

But Brecher notes, these ideas about workers motives nearly backfired. 

Strikers simply wouldn’t budge on their demands. 

They made gains in wages, pensions and cost of living allowances.

And they were finally able to retire after 30 years.  

But critics argued the agreement fell short of initial demands. 

And workers lacked more say in the workplace.  

This would be a key issue in the many strikes and wildcats in the years to come.

 

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