In 1937, General Motors factory employees were ready to unionize. Work on the United Auto Workers union began two years prior, and at GM, workers began plans for the automaker to recognize the legitimacy of the union and for bargaining purposes.
A historical gallery from The Detroit News depicts a 44-day-long strike that eventually led to GM recognizing the UAW as a bargaining unit, and the photos show the workers’ struggle as they fought for higher wages and employment protections. At the time, GM continuously shipped work to plants without union protections.
Throughout 1937, the strike pushed forward with mass demonstrations outside of various Detroit, Michigan, factories. Employees staged a sit-in at the Fisher Body Plant number one, which housed two sets of dies the automaker used to stamp nearly all of its cars. Without the dies, GM nearly shut down entirely. Workers guarded windows to keep scabs and strikebreakers from entering and moving equipment; women came together to set up kitchens to feed striking workers; and employees clashed with local police.
Michigan’s former governor, Frank Murphy, met with GM President Alfred Sloan and the U.S. Department of Labor in 1937 to discuss an end to the strike. Eventually, President Roosevelt called on GM to recognize the union so the plants could reopen. Finally, on February 11, 1937, GM signed a document to recognize the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for GM employees.
Historians look back on the strike as the most important in U.S. history as it provided pensions and higher wages for thousands of workers—the beginning of a higher standard of living for the entire country.