Column: ‘Historic' UAW strike, indeed — Jeep workers strike in Toledo is somehow a first

How Toledo Jeep workers never struck is at least as intriguing historically as is why they are striking now.

Local 12 was organized in 1933 in part by workers at Willys-Overland, which had just 20 years earlier been the nation’s second-largest automaker behind Ford Motor Co., but which was now struggling through the Great Depression. Through constant reorganizations and retrenchments, the automaker survived, but was never in good financial shape, until its fortunes changed with the development of and contract to produce the Willys MB in November 1940.

Toledo produced tens of thousands of those original Jeeps, and the vehicle was credited for helping win WWII for their durability and nearly unsoppable capabilities. The Willys MB remains the touchstone for the Jeeps of today, especially the Wrangler SUV and Gladiator pickup currently made in Toledo.

With World War II raging in Europe and an important part of the war effort to produce, there was little to no appetite for disruptive strikes at Willys-Overland until at least hostilities had ceased overseas. And after the war, longtime UAW President Walter Reuther committed the labor union to a decades-long strategy of pattern bargaining with automakers: Choosing a target, usually the Detroit automaker with the deepest pockets, and hammering out agreements — sometimes with the help of strikes — that would be adapted to the remaining automakers.

While Reuther’s strategy undoubtedly benefited workers making Jeeps in Toledo, their relatively tiny slice of the U.S. auto industry and meager comparable profitability meant that in the post-war decades that followed, the “target” for each UAW round of negotiations was always affixed to other automakers.

Through its various corporate owners between World War II and 1987 — Toledo’s Jeep operations transferred from Willys-Overland to Kaiser (1953) to American Motors (1970) — Toledo’s Jeep plant wasn’t a part of what was then known as “The Big Three” until it was purchased by Chrysler Corp. in 1987.

Bradley J. Sommer, who holds a PhD in American history from Carnegie Mellon University and specializes in Toledo labor history, said the UAW’s historically strong presence in Toledo and its active longtime participation in a local Labor Management Citizens Committee to head off conflicts helped keep labor peace.

“I think that there was sort of a fear of the UAW striking that sort of led some of the automotive companies in Toledo to not necessarily give in, but not necessarily do some of the stuff that maybe you saw some of the Big Three employers doing,” said Sommer, who is a research historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington, D.C. “I also think the UAW’s participation in the Labor Management Citizens Committee sort of tempered some of the more radical elements within the union. If you look at Toledo in that period, there were a lot of strikes, but they’re generally smaller strikes from smaller unions.”

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