By: - November 21, 2023 4:18 am

A crowd of striking UAW members pickets outside the General Motors plant in Hamtramck in 1945, carrying signs demanding higher wages. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

On Nov. 21, 1945, the United Auto Workers (UAW) launched a worker’s strike against Detroit-based General Motors.

The 113-day national work stoppage was not resolved until March 13, 1946. It affected about 320,000 hourly workers in 96 plants, including several in Michigan.  

During the early days of the work stoppage, Democratic President Harry Truman vowed that he would not get directly involved in resolving the impasse. 

The union, founded a decade before, called for a 30% wage boost that came after World War II years of rationing limits on items such as butter, coffee, meat, gasoline and sugar. 

At the same time, the U.S. birth rate began to rise. The National Center for Health Statistics recorded 2.9 million births in 1945, which increased by almost 20% to 3.4 million births in 1946. Moreover, new car sales quadrupled between 1945 and 1955. 

Michigan’s population increased by 21% between 1940 and 1950, making it the seventh-largest state in America. Only New York, California, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Texas had more residents. 

Members of New York’s various unions collect food and toys to be distributed on Christmas 1945 to the families of General Motors workers on strike in New York City. In the background union members demonstrate their support by carrying signs. | Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

About the 1945-46 strike, Walter Reuther, UAW vice president and the union’s top official assigned to GM, was resolute. 

“There is no turning back now that we have been forced to turn down this strike road,” Reuther said, according to Detroit Free Press reporting at the time. “We will not call off this strike until we get our wage demands.”  

In the final contract with GM, UAW workers agreed to a raise of 18.5 cents an hour, paid vacations and overtime.

To place the 1945-46 strike in perspective, the longest strike between the UAW and at least one of the Detroit Three – General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler Corp.) – lasted 136 days involving union members in the Flint area from 1969 to 1970 at the Fisher Body II plant. 

The recent UAW strike against the Detroit Three this year lasted about 40 days. Each of the three automakers have now ratified contract agreements. 

Two weeks after the strike ended, Reuther won the UAW presidency by 125 votes out of fewer than 10,000 votes cast on March 27, 1946, at the union’s tenth convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Reuther defeated Roland Jaye (better known as R.J.) Thomas, the incumbent. 

Reuther served in the role until 1970 when he, his wife, May, and several others died in the plane crash near Pellston. He was 62. 

Then-U.S. President Richard Nixon called Reuther’s death “a deep loss not only for organized labor but also for the cause of collective bargaining and the entire American process,” according to New York Times reporting at the time. 


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.