The UAW was founded in May 1935 in Detroit, Michigan under the auspices of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) after years of agitation within the AFL for organizing unions within major industries. The AFL had focused on organizing small craft unions since its founding in 1881 by Samuel Gompers, but at its 1935 convention, a caucus of industrial unions led by John L. Lewis formed the Committee of Industrial Organizations, the original CIO, within the AFL. Within one year, the AFL suspended the unions in the CIO, and these, including the UAW, formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The UAW was one of the first major unions that was willing to organize African-American workers, which increased it's ability to garner enough support to win in union election -- despite the racial prejudice of many workers. The UAW rapidly found success in organizing with the sit-down strike -- first in a General Motors plant in Atlanta, Georgia in 1936, and more famously in the Flint sit-down strike that began on December 30, 1936. That strike ended in February 1937 after Michigan's governor Frank Murphy played the role of mediator, negotiating recognition of the UAW by General Motors. The next month, auto workers at Chrysler won recognition of the UAW as their representative in a sit-down strike.
The UAW's next target was the Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford had promised that "The UAW would organize Ford over my dead body." Ford selected Harry Bennett to keep the union out of the company, and the "Ford Service Department" was set up as a sort of internal security, intimidation, and espionage unit within the company, and quickly gained a reputation of being willing to use force against union organizers and sympathizers. It took until 1941 for Ford to agree to a collective bargaining agreement with the UAW. By the end of the year, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor dramatically changed the nature of the UAW's organizing.
The UAW's Executive Board voted to make a "no strike" pledge to insure the war effort will not be hindered by strikes, and that pledge was later reaffirmed by the membership.
After the war, Walter Reuther won the race to be president of the UAW, and served for almost 25 years -- from 1946 until his death in an small airplane accident in 1970 -- leading the union during one of the most prosperous periods for workers in U.S. history. In the 1960's, the UAW used it's strategy of negotiating a contract with one major auto maker and applying it to the other to secure a number of new benefits for auto workers, including fully paid hospitalization and sick leave benefits at General Motors, profit sharing in American Motors. The UAW also grew to include workers in other major industries such as the aerospace and agricultural implement-industries.
During this time, UAW members became one of the best paid groups of industrial workers in the country -- many buying second homes in the country, boats, and earning enough to move to the suburbs and end their children to college. However, by the end of this period, changes in the global economy and competition from European and Japanese automobile makers had already started to significantly reduce the profits of the major auto makers and set the stage for the drastic changes in the 1970's.
The situation for the automotive industry and UAW members worsened dramatically with the 1973 Oil embargo. This started years of layoffs and wage reductions, and the UAW found itself in the position of giving up many of the benefits it had won for workers over the decades. By the early 1980's, the state of Michigan had been devastated economically by the losses in jobs and income within the state's largest industry. This peaked with the near-bankruptcy of Chrysler in 1979. Cities such as Flint, Lansing, and to a lesser extent Detroit began to lose population and businesses (as was dramatically shown in Michael Moore's movie Roger_&_Me.)
In the 1990's, the UAW began to focus on new areas of organizing both geographically -- in places like Puerto Rico -- and in terms of occupations, with new initiatives among university staff and employees of non-profit organizations. And in the 2000's the UAW is also taking on the organization of graduate students under the slogan "Uniting Academic Workers". Universities with UAW grad student representation include the public schools the University of California, University of Massachusetts, University of Washington, and private New York University.