What a Union is...
Why Unions Were Needed...
What Happened With the Unions...
Jon Cox, U.S. History, Communications Academy

What Happened With the Unions...

         Employers usually did not want their workers to join a union because they knew it would cost them extra money, and would give their employers more control of the company. By them not wanting to give over some of their control, it resulted in situations similar to what happened when automobile workers organized the United Automobile Workers of America (U.A.W.) and General Motors would not accept them as a "workers' bargaining representative." General Motors was supposedly even considering "moving work to factories where the union was not as strong" to not be forced into allowing the union. This act on General Motors led the union to start a sit-down strike at General Motor' Flint Fisher Body Plant on December 30th, 1936 7.
         This sit-down strike on General Motors was effective as if they "walked off the job and picketed a plant, the management could bring in new workers to break the The factory at General Motors after the Emergency Brigade broke it's windows.strike." Since the workers stayed in the plant, they couldn't be fired. During the strike women provided a first aid station, child care and collected money and food for the striker's families. At one point when it was heard that the strikers had been gassed in the building, allowing for a group of women called the Emergency Brigade to smash the plant's windows 7. On March 12, 1937 the strike ended, in which General Motors accepted the U.A.W. as their bargaining agent. Because of this success, it led to the further growth of unions across the nation. Now the U.A.W. is one of the strongest unions in the world.
         Unions also continued to grow in the 1930's during the Roosevelt administration who had a pro-union stance. The actions taken by Roosevelt early in the New Deal brought about programs such as the Rural Electrifications Administration (REA), the Public Workers Administration (PWA) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) 1. In 1933 Roosevelt passed the National Industrial Recovery Act, which allowed for collective bargaining as well as requiring employers to sign a "President's Reemployment Agreement" which forced them to "limit work weeks to 40 hours, to pay a minimum wage of $12-$15 per week (at least 30 cents/hour) and to not hire children under 16," even though this agreement was later gotten rid of 2. Another strength for the unions was the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (or Wagner Act), that made it so businesses had to bargain with any union that was supported by the majority of the employees in their company 1. These actions put together allowed for unions to have new respect from businesses, and forced them to live with them even though they did not like the power it gave the employees over them.
         Through the rise of these unions there were many conflicts that resulted as well. Members of different unions demanded of their employers to compy with new laws concerning labor unions, but many refused as they felt that the new laws were unconstitutional. Many time times when a worker looked for recognition they brought in strikebreakers, while also stockpiling guns, ammunitions and year gas. Violence began in many different cities during this time, including "San Francisco, Minneapolis, Toledo and scores of other cities as workers insisted on their newly acquired rights" 8.
         Many strikes came about during this time because of the disagreements between the employers and the employees. One such major strike was the San Francisco longshoreman and general strike. It started in May, 1934 when the Harry Bridges confronts police.longshoreman went on strike, being led by Harry Bridges 6. After several months they began getting sympathy from people, who were not minding as much that food was not being delivered 3. After awhile an article was written about the strike stating that the necessities for everyday life were not being met, and that it was "bloody insurrection." People believed that Bridges' was a dangerous radical, as the Chief of Police told "This strike is just a dress rehearsal by the Communists toward world revolution" 6. Then on July 5, 1934, the police attacked the long shore workers on the San Francisco waterfront 4. In what later came to be known as the Battle of Rincon Hill, two people, Nick Bordoise and Howard Sperry were killed with 109 people being wounded. This then resulted in a General strike, where many different unions banded together in support of the dockworkers, which almost every union in San Francisco did 6. This strike was one of the three great strikes of 1934, and it was strikes that allowed the growth of these unions to happen 5.
         Unions may have existed before the Great Depression, but it was the dip that labor unions took during this time, and then their sudden growth that resulted in new interest about them as well as government support. As more and more people saw the benefits that unions gave to them like job security, especially in a time of little protection, a union was a safe place for them to be. With the efforts of those beginning few like at the Flint General Motors plant it only got easier as the more people began to become interested, the harder it was for a company to turn them away. Unions are an aspect of employment that still exists today, and is still growing even as they were then.


1. Labor Unions During the Great Depression and the New Deal
2. Without a Living Wage
3. George Seldes on San Francisco's Press and the 1934 General Strike
4. San Francisco General Strike
The Great Depression
6. The San Francisco General Strike
7. Labor Unions Rise
The Unions: What They Are, How They Came to Be, How They Affect Each of Us

Last Updated January 17, 2002