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,
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
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
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.
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