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In 2006 Detroit-headquartered auto giant General Motors (GM) was the world’s largest automaker and ranked number three on the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations. The company has been a major player in U.S. labor history, and its vast worldwide expansion has had, and continues to have, many social consequences.
In 1897 Ransom E. Olds (1864–1950) formed the Olds Motor Vehicle Company and created several different automobile models powered by electricity and gasoline. After a fire in its factory, the company was forced to change its marketing and development strategy, which had previously focused on the wealthy, and instead moved to create a mass market for its vehicles, making them competitively priced with horses and buggies. This strategy was effective, and by 1904 the company had sold more than 12,500 vehicles.
Meanwhile, the owner of Buick was developing a complex network of suppliers to lower its costs, and incorporated with its holdings as General Motors. From 1908 to 1910 Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and several other smaller companies joined forces with the new company to create a larger, more powerful automaker. The incorporation included many more suppliers and an expansion to trucks and airplanes, and in the first half of the twentieth century, GM grew rapidly. The company also benefited from many defense contracts during World War I (1914–1918) and World War II (1939–1945).
GM’s massive growth led to a need for large numbers of workers to assemble parts and automobiles. To improve their working conditions and increase their pay, workers throughout GM began to unionize in 1935 under the AFL-CIO. Later, a split in this organization led to the development of what would become one of the largest and most powerful unions in U.S. history: the United Auto Workers (UAW). The UAW was one of the first unions in the United States to include black workers.
Shortly after its formation, the UAW demanded contracts for GM autoworkers, but was denied negotiations with the automaker. On December 29, 1936, GM was informed that its largest stamping plant, in Flint, Michigan, was going to strike, and the company quickly made plans to move the machinery from the facility. In order to keep GM from removing the machinery, the workers staged a sit-down strike. Police attacked the strikers with tear gas, but workers remained at the plant for forty-four days until GM signed a document recognizing the UAW as the official representative of its workers for bargaining purposes. This was a significant event in U.S. labor history, as a large corporation conceded to the demands of a union.
The unionization of autoworkers at GM helped the American middle class grow rapidly in the 1950s. Despite their blue-collar jobs, workers had salaries and benefits that allowed them the luxuries of middle-class life. Many scholars believe this change in status allowed embourgeoisement to take place; that is, working-class laborers gained middleclass values and lifestyles because of their increased wages and class position, and their support for radical political movements declined (Abercrombie et al. 2000).
GM has been criticized for corporate practices that are ecologically unsound or that violate human rights. Throughout the 1990s, there was much concern about GM’s use of factories in the developing world (especially Mexico) for cheap and less-restricted labor. According to a 1998 Human Rights Watch report, the directors of GMrun maquiladoras (foreign-owned plants that are operated by multinational corporations) in Mexico were repeatedly accused by their workers of unfair work termination and sex discrimination, especially pregnancy-related discrimination. Female employees complained that they were forced to undergo pregnancy tests before gaining employment, and some said they were even made to show their sanitary napkins to prove that they were not pregnant to retain employment. Other concerns have been raised over GM’s relationship with the environment. For example, its Hummer brand has been repeatedly cited as one of the worse violators in the consumer truck market because of its high emissions and a fuel economy of less than ten miles per gallon. A 2006 documentary, Who Killed the Electric Car, attacks GM for the systematic dismantling of its electric-car program and for what the filmmakers imply was a conspiracy between GM and the oil industry.
- Abercrombie, Nicholas, Stephen Hill, and Bryan S. Turner, eds. The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology. 4th ed. New York: Penguin.
- Bailey, L. Scott, ed. 1983. General Motors: The First 75 Years of Transportation Products. Princeton, NJ: Automobile Quarterly.
- Jefferson, LaShawn, and Phoebe McKinney. 1998. A Job or Your Rights: Continued Sex Discrimination in Mexico’s Maquiladora Sector. Human Rights Watch report 10 (1) December. http://www.hrw.org/reports98/women2/.
- Paine, Chris, dir. 2006. Who Killed the Electric Car. Plinyminor and Electric Entertainment.
- Remembering the Flint Sit-Down Strike, 1936–1937. HistoricalVoices.org presented by Michigan State University. http://www.historicalvoices.org/flint/.
- Weisman, Jonathan. 2004. No Guzzle, No Glory: History Says Gas Spike Won’t Smother SUV Love. The Washington Post, June 13: F01.
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