Politically, I understand the role of labor unions in our history and their often checkered past and present. I’m personally not a fan of most major labor unions as I see them as more of a detriment to industry than a positive. Knowing that, however, I was amazed to learn some more personalized history of the United Auto Workers (one of my least favorite unions) and its beginnings.
Most of us are aware of the controversy and sometime-shenanigans that have gone on around the UAW in recent times. What we probably aren’t aware of – at least I wasn’t – is the history of this union and where it all started. Most importantly, though, why it all started.
Built in Detroit by Bob Morris chronicles his father Ken’s journey from a struggling factory worker to becoming a longtime UAW executive board member. The book is based on Morris’ father’s oral histories and personal notes. The beginnings of the book are all about why the union began and the people and personalities that began to shape it into existence in the early 1930s.
Organization began around one of the automotive industry’s primary suppliers, Briggs Manufacturing, which contracted with Detroit makes to build auto bodies. The plant work was often dangerous, didn’t pay well, and Biggs was considered one of the worst places to work in the city. All of this, for Briggs’ owners, meant low costs and continued business as automakers had little reason to invest in their own tooling when they could hire it so cheaply from Briggs.
Over time, Ken Morris begins to hear about the new unionization pushes and eventually begins to take part. After beatings by police and union busters, not to mention heavy in-fighting and backroom dealings in the union itself, Morris emerges as a key figure in the new UAW. Arguments over things as diverse as whether to organize union-wide strikes in solidarity with specific groups, whether or not to include African-Americans in the union, and even how to resolve wildcat strikes during World War II – which gave the union a bad name – are covered.
In all, it’s a rich, well-done history of the UAW from the perspective of one of its earliest insiders and leaders. The book is split into three parts, with the first being a first-hand account from Morris and the second being a more open account of the struggles the union faced as it gained power and influence in the 1940s and 1950s. The third is about the failed assassination attempts on union leadership and finding justice for the perpetrators.
You can find Built in Detroit at Amazon.
Note: we received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.