We are seeing a revival of trade union struggles in the US. Interestingly, there seems to be support for these among Americans if both Gallup (August) and the Morning Consult (September) Polls are accurate. We are witnessing a sea-change in support for trade unions, strikes and hopes that union struggles are successful and a recognition that trade unions themselves actually are good for the economy. This is a pivotal moment in recent US labour relations and it comes on the back of the previous set of teachers strikes! Solidarity Forever!
There is a long-running strike which began in May 2023 in which the Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been out on strike against the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers; in July, they were joined on the picket lines by the Screen-Actors Guild– American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). UPS just averted a strike by 300,000 workers represented by the Teamsters Union reaching a tentative contract in July, which was ratified by workers in August which addresses increased wages and benefits for workers, the end of two-tier wage system, and ending forced overtime and a host of other issues.
During the Teacher’s Strikes, there was clear support for public sector workers and their trade unions and striking workers. These recent strikes against private companies still command a high level of support; this is a welcome change and is long overdue; we know that these changed perceptions and solidarity are a real boost to striking workers. As stated in The Nation, these changing perceptions by Americans for unions and strikers represent a significant shift in attitude and this is something that we have not seen in a while. Demands that would seem absurd only 8 years ago are winning support:
”Importantly, these numbers also tell us that when unions make big demands, and when they aggressively advance those demands in order to counter corporate spin (as the UAW has done with a savvy social media campaign and unity-building op-eds written by Fain with allies such as US Representative Ro Khanna), the American people will recognize organized labor’s “asks” as fair and necessary.
That’s a point Senator Bernie Sanders made when he argued in a statement ahead of the UAW strike: “Despite what you might hear in the corporate media, what the UAW is fighting for is not radical. It is the reasonable demand that autoworkers, who have made enormous sacrifices over the past 40 years, finally receive a fair share of the enormous profits their labor has generated.”
On September 15th, the following appeared on the UAW Website:
UAW family and allies —
A few minutes ago, thousands of UAW members at Ford, GM, and Stellantis walked out, marking the beginning of the Stand Up Strike.
UAW members at GM Wentzville Assembly, Local 2250 in Region 4 are ON STRIKE.
UAW members at Stellantis Toledo Assembly Complex, Local 12in Region 2B are ON STRIKE.
UAW members at Ford Michigan Assembly Plant – Final Assembly and Paint, Local 900in Region 1A are ON STRIKE.
This fight is our generation’s defining moment. Not just at the Big Three, but across the entire working class.
We will stand up for ourselves. We will stand up for our families. We will stand up for our communities.
On the 15th of September following the collapse of talks between the United Auto Workers union (UAW) and the Big Three US car manufactures in the US, the UAW went on strike. This is the first time that all of the Big Three — Ford, GM and Stellantis (Fiat, Peugeot/Citroen, and Chrysler) have been struck simultaneously; historically, workers have struck at only one manufacturer.
This is a shift towards a more aggressive policy by the Union President Shawn Fein and the union membership. This is a fight against decades lost gains on wages, work contracts, benefits and pensions where in order to save jobs workers sacrificed their gains when US auto manufacturers were facing bankruptcies and threatening plant closures to shift production first to right-to-work states in the US South and then overseas to Mexico. These decisions by car manufacturers were done to both weaken the power of the UAW and to recoup higher levels of profits through moving to areas where there was lower wages and weaker unions. The destruction of the gains of US auto workers in the North of country was not only done by US auto manufacturers, but also international automobile producers in the US, first locating production in areas with weak unions and lower wages in the US and then moving overseas. Now the Big Three are making record profits (according to In These Times, those profits are over ¼ of a trillion dollars in this past decade and $21 billion dollars in the first 6 months of 2023 alone) and those have come on the backs of increased exploitation of workers while enabling massive redistribution of profits to shareholders and company executives.
In an article written for The Guardian, UAW President Shawn Fain and Congressman Ro Khanna say the following:
“UAW members who build cars for a living don’t do it out of a passion for combustion engines or electric vehicles. UAW members do it out of a passion for families and communities. Our priority is safe, family-wage jobs, not only building engines at legacy automakers, but also battery cells at EV startups. The electric vehicle future must be union made. We can have both economic and climate justice – and that starts by ensuring that the electric vehicle industry is entirely unionized and that EV jobs come with union standards.
This is a pivotal moment for the American economy and the workers that make it run. Corporations are pushing hard to use this moment to expand their power.
We’re mobilizing for a new model that puts working people, climate justice and human rights before profit. Generations before us, like Shawn’s grandparents and Ro’s parents, benefitted from a robust manufacturing economy with the kinds of high- wage jobs that having strong union contracts can bring. We are once again faced with a defining moment for a new generation of workers. Forcing workers to decide between good jobs and green jobs is a false choice. We can and must achieve both – and it can start with a fair contract for UAW autoworkers.”
The election of Shawn Fain as Union President in March 2023 on the UAW-United Members slate expressed the demand for a new level of militancy by UAW members and a change in the direction of the union. This vote overturned the control of the Administration Caucus which has run the union since 1946. Fain ran his campaign arguing against a top-down leadership which collapsed and capitulated in the face of the demands of auto manufacturers and calling for a rank-and-file approach to change the direction of the union itself. In an interview with Steven Greenhouse in In These Times following his election in March, Fain stated:
“This election was not just a race between two candidates, it was a referendum on the direction of the UAW. For too long, the UAW has been controlled by leadership with a top-down, company union philosophy who have been unwilling to confront management, and as a result we’ve seen nothing but concessions, corruption, and plant closures,” Fain said in a statement released March 25. “While the election was close, it is clear that our membership has long wanted to see a more aggressive approach with our employers. We now have a historic opportunity to get back to setting the standard across all sectors, and to transform the UAW into a member-led, fighting union once again, and we are going to take it. The future of the working class is at stake.”
Rather than using the all workers out strategy or sit-in strikes, the UAW is using the tactic of limited and targeted “stand up strikes” where workers strike at targets designated by their union, 13,000 UAW workers are out at 3 plants run by each of the Big Three in 3 states: Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant, Final Assembly and Paint in Wayne Michigan, Stellantis’ Toledo Complex in Toledo Ohio, and General Motor’s Wentzville Assembly Plant in Wentzville Missouri. These 3 plants were chosen to leverage the union’s power on plants that make high profits and probably to protect their strike funds as well. Other auto workers are prepared to strike if the strike is extended nationally (e.g., Chicago, Cleveland, and Kentucky).
The battle that we are seeing is not only about wages and cost of living adjustments that were lost, it is about the historical destruction of working contracts, the two-tied labour system using temporary workers doing the same jobs with lower wages and no benefits, it is about overtime, job security, it is about health care plans and pensions. It is important to stress that it is the workers that are pushing this change; not only in the election of Shawn Fain as UAW President, but in their understandings of why the union needs to change and how. A recent podcast from the Real News Network has a panel of autoworkers talking about why they are ready to strike (transcript).
Demands of the UAW
Decades of concessions by the UAW has led to the situation; these concessions must be put in context. Understanding the impact of globalisation and neoliberalism on the auto-industry (as in every other industrial and manufacturing sectors) enabled corporations to force concessions from workers and their unions under the threat of plant closures, moving manufacturing from the Rust Belt to areas where there were weaker trade unions and they could get away with poor wages and working conditions. If you have not seen Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” (1989) watch it. Moore spends the movie trying to talk to Roger Smith (then Chairman of General Motors) while detailing the destruction of Flint, Michigan which was one of the centres of auto industry production and one of the main beneficiaries of the capital-labour accord in the post-war period. Understanding how the auto workers lives and communities were shattered to keep US auto manufacturing competitive during the period of the beginnings of neoliberalism and globalisation is important. Forced into major concessions to preserve jobs and prevent plant closures, workers again and again gave up gains that they had won. The elimination of the capital-labour accord by corporations (taking the linkage between wage-productivity with it) while forcing unions and workers into compliance to just survive is a direct result of globalisation and neoliberalism. People forget the destruction of the PATCO union by St Ronnie Reagan and the deliberate destruction of union power as manufacturing and industry were located to right-to-work states. Shifting industrial and manufacturing production out of states with strong unions cost power, money and weakened trade unions. The shift toward international production undermined all the gains of industrial and manufacturing workers and the corps could force workers into accepting conditions for remaining in the area and the country itself.
In These Times has a list of demands by the UAW and an explanation of why these demands are on the table. An excellent discussion and further explanations on the Tier System can be found in Chris Viola’s article in Jacobin; the use of the tier system has destroyed workers’ wages, working conditions and benefits and it has been introduced in many sectors.
The UAW’s proposals include:
- Ending tiers. Before a major contract concession in 2007, newly hired auto workers could reach the maximum wage rate within three years and have guaranteed pensions and retiree healthcare. But “second-tier” workers — those hired since 2007 — must wait at least eight years before reaching top wage levels and get no pensions or post-retirement healthcare. The Big Three have also increasingly hired workers as low-paid temps, often extending the length of their supposedly “temporary” status before they can become permanent employees. The UAW wants to equalize pay and benefits so that all autoworkers, now and in the future, have pensions and retiree healthcare, and can reach maximum pay and permanent status within 90 days of being hired.
- Double-digit raises. The multimillionaire CEOs of GM, Ford and Stellantis have gotten an average raise of 40% over the past four years, so the union is seeking similarly large raises of around 46% for autoworkers over the course of the four-year contract. The UAW is relatedly calling for significant increases to the pension benefit paid to retirees.
- Restoring cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), which tie wages to inflation. Once a signature feature of autoworker contracts, the UAW’s former leadership agreed to suspend COLAs in 2009 as GM and Chrysler faced bankruptcy amid the Great Recession.
- Work-life balance. Because their real hourly wages have fallen so dramatically amid years of concessions, many autoworkers put in 60 to 80-hour weeks to make ends meet, leaving less time to spend with their families. In addition to calling for more paid time off, the UAW is making the eye-catching demand for a 32-hour workweek at 40 hours’ pay. “If Covid did anything, it made people reflect on what’s important in life, and it sure as hell isn’t living in a factory,” Fain said last month.
- Job security. With automakers shutting down factories and moving production to wherever in the world they can exploit workers the most — a process that has gone on for over 40 years and continues—the UAW is demanding the right to strike over plant closures and is calling for the creation of a Working Family Protection Program, which would make the companies keep employees at shuttered factories on payroll doing community service work.
- Enhanced profit sharing. With the Big Three’s shareholders reaping the benefits of record profits, the union is proposing that workers get $2 for every $1 million spent on stock buybacks and special dividends.
- A just transition to electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing. Aided by federal subsidies, the Big Three are building EV battery plants as “joint ventures” with South Korean tech firms. But these new factories fall outside the collective bargaining agreements covering other UAW autoworkers, so wages and working conditions are far worse than at plants making gas-powered cars. As part of its fight to eliminate all tiers, the UAW wants to extend the same union standards to new EV plants. Since EV workers are not currently covered by the Big Three contracts, this is a public demand rather than a bargaining proposal.”
In the midst of the negotiations, Stellantis has threatened to move production to Mexico. On the 15th of September just as the strikes commenced, Ford has “temporarily” laid off 600 non-striking workers at its Wayne Michigan plant where workers are out are strike. If you think the Big Three are not playing hardball, you need to look again. Much of the discussion around Just Transition in the demands relates to protecting workers rights during the transition away from combustion engines as less workers are needed. We need the transition away from combustion engines, but we must protect workers’ wages, conditions of work, and benefits and pensions. Our transition must be just.
This strike is not only a strike about the auto industry; it is part of the battle to reverse the losses brought about by neoliberalism and globalisation. It is a strike about the future of the American working class and how the capitalist economic system treats its workers. It is a fight over the manner and nature of exploitation of workers, a fight over a just transition and a struggle to revive the power of trade unions and all of these are essential to any discussion of the future of the working class in the US and elsewhere.
I haven’t found a link to donate to the UAW strike funds or to their shop. But here is a link to a petition saying you stand with striking auto workers. If anyone finds a merch shop or donation to the strike fund page, please let me know and I will edit the blog