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UAW's Strike Against GM Brings To Mind Last Century's Labor Battles


There was a time when a strike at GM sent shockwaves throughout the U.S. economy. But talks aimed at ending an ongoing strike are expected to continue into the weekend. And it's clear neither the company nor the United Autoworkers Union are as powerful as they once were. Here's NPR's Scott Horsley.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Americans woke up this week to something we don't see that often anymore - workers at a major industrial company walking a picket line.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: A strike against General Motors is already taking a toll on the country's largest automaker. GM stocks...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Nearly 50,000 United Auto Workers striking against General Motors this morning...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: I want you to take a look. You can see a number of workers already on the picket line here. The union's...

HORSLEY: While GM's vehicles are bigger than ever, strikes have gotten smaller. The company's unionized workforce has shrunk by about 90% from its peak in the 1970s. Micheline Maynard, who covered autos and manufacturing for NPR and The New York Times, says the UAW has actually been supplementing its picket lines with workers from other companies.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: It is being portrayed as - let's help our brothers and sisters at General Motors. But it wasn't necessary 10 or 15 years ago.

HORSLEY: Indeed, it was a very different story during General Motors' heyday.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Chevrolet - quality mass production demands people, thousands of people.

HORSLEY: For most of the company's history, those people were unionized. Labor expert Harley Shaiken of UC Berkeley says General Motors and the UAW practically grew up together. In 1950, they signed the Treaty of Detroit, a five-year deal that gave workers annual pay raises and a generous pension.

HARLEY SHAIKEN: It was the UAW and General Motors at the bargaining table that brought millions of Americans into the middle class, and that fueled a growing economy and a broader prosperity.


DINAH SHORE: (Singing) See the USA in your Chevrolet. America is asking you to call.

HORSLEY: In the 1950s, General Motors was riding high - and so were Ford and Chrysler. The big three controlled 90% of the auto market. Japan and Germany were still recovering from the war. America had it all, it seemed. And union President Walter Reuther insisted workers get their share.


WALTER REUTHER: We believe this is the most effective way to expand purchasing power. And purchasing power is the key to the economic future of the American economy.

HORSLEY: That strong bargaining power continued through 1970, when GM workers staged another headline-grabbing strike.


UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: Good evening. General Motors and the United Auto Workers have announced tentative agreement on a new three-year contract.

HORSLEY: That contract included pay raises totaling nearly 20%. But the good times were about to give way to a decade of malaise. Inflation soared in the 1970s and so did the price of gasoline. U.S. automakers struggled to keep up with changing tastes.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: General Motors' 1975 Chevrolet Nova - there may never be a better time to move to a GM compact.

HORSLEY: Demand for compact cars created an opening that foreign carmakers were quick to exploit.

MAYNARD: That was kind of the beginning of the concessions era.

HORSLEY: Maynard, who wrote the book "The End of Detroit," says foreign carmakers, like Toyota, Honda and Volkswagen began opening their own factories here in the U.S.

MAYNARD: The bet was that those companies would come in and build factories and employ Americans, and then those Americans would join the UAW.

HORSLEY: They didn't. GM and the union did get a reprieve in the '90s, when gas prices fell and sales of pickup trucks and SUVs took off. But the profits from those big vehicles masked a lot of rotten management. And managers often struggled with a complacent and unyielding union. When the recession hit just over a decade ago, the once mighty General Motors was forced into bankruptcy. Only a rescue from the federal government saved GM and Chrysler from going under.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The collapse of these companies would have been devastating for countless Americans and done enormous damage to our economy.

HORSLEY: In return for its help, the Obama administration demanded big concessions from both the companies and the union, including a new two-tiered wage scale that allowed GM to pay new workers less. Shaiken says it was a bitter pill.

SHAIKEN: That was an incredibly grim moment for the UAW, but their central priority was to ensure that the Detroit automakers survived. That wasn't a given.

HORSLEY: General Motors did survive. And after years of sacrifice, the union now wants a bigger piece of its profits, which topped $8 billion last year. GM is a much-diminished company, though. Its market share has tumbled from a high of 50% to less than 16%. Union power suffered a similar decline.

GM has also invested heavily in Mexico, where workers make a fraction of what they do here. That raises the question that Walter Reuther might have asked. With fewer and fewer well-paid American workers, who will buy all those cars the company is making? Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
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