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Women & the UAW

Standing up by slowing down

Published Mar 25, 2011 7:20 PM

Beating the bosses is never easy — but it is possible. And there are more ways than one to win. Throughout history the determination and creative energy of women has shown the whole working class new ways to fight back.

The “flying squadron” — a mobile group of strikers that would go from shop to shop to convince workers to walk out — was pioneered more than a century ago by female textile workers in New England.

For autoworkers the first successful in-plant slowdown was in 1937. It was made possible by women at the Ternstedt division of General Motors in Flint, Mich.

Before the United Auto Workers won recognition, life in GM plants was hell. This was truly the case in the Ternstedt division, where a workforce that was 70 percent women made door handles, chrome trim, and other small parts for the world’s largest car company. Wages there were notoriously low, even by pre-UAW standards. The hourly rate was supposed to be supplemented by a bonus for making more than a standard number of parts. In reality the standard was raised and manipulated to make the bonus almost unattainable.

Roughly half the women were Polish immigrants; the other half were Southern and Appalachian whites. There were no Black women and only two Black men in the entire division. The two dominant groups were segregated in different areas of the plant.

When the Southern women complained about not getting the bonus, they were told the Polish women had made much more production than they had.

When the Polish women complained about the same thing, they were told the same lie about the Southern women. Of course, the foremen referred to both in the most derisive terms to further stir up hatred and division.

There were other ways the company made lives miserable. One was the “shape-up,” where each day the boss would pick just the number of workers needed and send the rest home without pay. Spurning the foreman’s advances might get you sent home or put on the worst jobs. Another gripe was that if you were taken off one job and sent to another, you were off the clock during travel time.

If you can’t strike, slow down production

The organizing drive began when a popular Polish UAW leader, Stanley Nowak, began leafleting outside the two main plants in Detroit. Nowak had challenged other male UAW leaders who didn’t think women could be organized. The Slovene Hall made space available to assist the union effort.

Soon a group of determined plant women came together and began signing up their coworkers to join the union. They produced their own newsletter, the Ternstedt Flash.

On Feb. 11, 1937 — after the victory of the 44-day Flint sit-down strike — GM agreed to accept the UAW as the bargaining agent at Ternstedt. Yet plant management refused every modest demand made by the negotiating team, which was made up of women from the two dominant ethnic groups.

The UAW had a problem: It had agreed not to strike as a condition for winning its very first contract. The dilemma was solved when the women, without walking out, began to slow down.

Production dropped by at least 40 percent of normal output in every department and even as little as 5 percent in some. The slowdown was not spontaneous. The plan had been discussed among the bargaining committee, who explained it to an army of 200 shop stewards, who then went over the strategy with their trusted constituents. The slowdown was staggered — first one department, then another, then another, all at prearranged times.

The action was at least 80 percent successful, and joy over the success had hundreds more lining up to join the UAW.

On April 13, less than two weeks into the struggle, the slowdown ended in victory. Plant manager S. E. Skinner agreed to recognize the union, abolish the hated piecework system and raise hourly rates.

Martha Grevatt is a 23-year UAW Chrysler worker.