When Union Militancy Isn’t Enough

The GM strike was a reminder of two old lessons: rank-and-file militancy is the foundation of working-class struggle. But to win, we need a broader socialist politics that can both support worker organizing and push it further.

United Auto Workers union members picket at the General Motors Tech Center for the sixth week of their national strike against General Motors on October 25, 2019 in Warren, Michigan. Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

On September 16, 2019, forty-six thousand defiant General Motors (GM) workers streamed out on strike. This eruption of long-festering worker anger and frustrations was directed not only at a corporation that had treated its workforce so shabbily, but also at the often-complicit role of their own union. The strike call came from the UAW’s top officers, but it was clearly the rank-and-file who were in the lead. Nothing GM was ready to offer before the strike could have met the workers’ goals, and a strike was virtually inevitable. The strike lasted six weeks, the longest at GM’s US operations in half a century.

In taking on GM, autoworkers were driven by their own particular grievances. But they couldn’t help but be emboldened by the wider upsurge of worker militancy in the United States. In 2018, almost half a million American workers had participated in major strikes (i.e., strikes with one-thousand-plus workers) — the most such strikes since 1986 and a trend that continued into 2019. Moreover, as with the surprising empathy eight years earlier for Occupy’s challenge to the “1 percent,” the strikes touched an oppositional nerve among a significant portion of the public — a sense, not necessarily well defined, that the union battles expressed the animus of “the many” to the grotesque inequality that had come to characterize American society.

recent Gallup Poll further documented the pro-union temper of the times, noting that “union approval is near a 50-year high.” This mood was graphically captured in the presidential primaries as Democratic hopefuls clamored to present themselves as having the closest union ties and promising the most progressive labor legislation. Some of the candidates even moved beyond the usual anodyne laments for the disappearing “middle class” and, following Bernie Sanders, dared to reference the “working class” and emphasize the priority of empowering unions.

As it turned out, the GM strike ended on a mixed note. The ratification turnout, over 80 percent, was among the highest ever at the Big Three auto companies, but the workers weren’t there to praise the negotiators. Only 57 percent of those attending voted for the agreement — a notably small proportion given that the option was to continue the long strike and to do so under an uninspiring union leadership further weakened by a reprehensible scandal. The dissatisfaction with the outcome was clear even among those who reluctantly voted to end the strike.

This did not mean the strike was a failure. In contrast to the years of relative passivity, autoworkers took their main weapon, the strike, out of its shed and became actors in a larger struggle. The readiness to resist pushed talk of concessions aside. Instead of pessimistically asking themselves, “What are we going to give up this time?,” autoworkers returned collective bargaining to a space for workers to make demands on the company. Battles elsewhere, including abroad, now took on a new hue and resonated more deeply. Picket-line discussions shared stories and dreams. Supportive rap artists from the community joined pickets to perform with “lay rappers” from the assembly line. Monetary gains were minor, but the focus on ending tiered wages was a powerful signal to newer hires that solidarity still meant something to most autoworkers, a message crucial to building for future struggles. Class formation advanced a step.

Yet what did all this ultimately mean? Is anything fundamental likely to change in the union as a result of the strike? What lessons, for both workers and the socialist left, were suggested by the strike, and what potentials did it open up? It’s useful to begin such a discussion by revisiting the details of the GM settlement.

The Settlement: A Beginning, Not an End

The strike revolved around three issues: getting back some of the income workers lost over the previous dozen years, ending the abomination of workers doing the same work but not getting the same pay, and reversing the announced closures of four plants as part of achieving some measure of job security.

The demands seemed reasonable. After all, even if we leave aside the tiered wages, the hourly wage of a traditional assembler was 10 percent lower in real terms going into bargaining than they were twelve years ago, while GM, on the other hand, had taken in $35 billion in after-tax profits in the past three years. And, as if to rub salt into the workers’ wounds, GM was paying their top executive and point person in the announced plant closures more each day than an assembler working forty hours, day in and day out, was paid in a year in wages plus profit-sharing.


The new agreement included wage increases of 6 percent over the four-year life of the agreement (3 percent in each of the second and fourth years, up from the 2-percent offer before the strike), and the cost-of-living clause remained inoperative. At the very most, this would keep wages at par with inflation. It would not at all reverse the decline in real wages over the previous dozen years, and it might even increase them further.

Lump sums in the first and third year were intended, as in past agreements, to cushion disappointments with wage increases. The highly publicized signing bonus of $11,000 ($4,500 for temps) allegedly offset the wages lost in the course of the strike, but the pre-strike offer had already been $9,000, so the strike only gained an additional $2,000 — an amount that would only cover what workers lost in the first eight or so days of the strike.

The profit-sharing plan — amounting to less than 5 percent of GM’s total after-tax profits — remained unchanged, other than the cap being lifted in case GM’s profits continued to run at their recent high levels. There is, of course, nothing wrong with sharing profits — private-sector bargaining is always about precisely that. But it is something else to accept a particular formula for profit-sharing as opposed to trying to shift the share of profits going to workers, and for the sharing to take the form of an annual lump sum rather than workers having input into it going instead to wage increases, better pensions, equalizing wages across the workplace, and more paid time off.

No More Tiers

Once the union accepted two tiers for the same job, it was no surprise that the corporation saw an opening for going further. Labor Notes columnist Jane Slaughter has pointed out that going into this agreement, the number of tiers had expanded to the point that there were at least ten different wage rates for the exact same job. Though modifications were made in the status of temps and the time path to the top rate for second-tier workers, the structure of unequal pay for the same work remained in place.

Under the new agreement, a certain number of “temps” — who generally work full time for years but are paid less than half the full wage rate — will have a chance to become permanent workers. But once in, they are still only in the second (i.e., lower) tier and need to wait eight years to get the top rate. Nor is GM prevented from hiring new temps. As well, the agreement includes an improvement for second-tier workers: those with four or more years of seniority will be brought up to the full rate instead of waiting eight years. But the tiers remain in place. Anyone hired under the new contract will still start at a lower wage and have to move through steps taking eight years to get the full wage. Moreover, neither the temps nor the second-tier workers will ever move into a defined pension benefit plan.

The tiered structure GM was able to put in place in 2007 saved the corporation billions and, to boot, provided the company with a divided and weaker workforce. Only a union crusade, not a lukewarm demand among miscellaneous other demands, could have forced GM to give this up. It would, for example, have meant starting at least a year or two in advance to prepare the members for a war with the company, solidly win over the broad public in spite of a prolonged strike, and isolate General Motors. The absence of such preparations didn’t just make it harder to eventually win; it sent the message to the company that the union wasn’t all that serious about putting an end to tiered wages and would be satisfied with some face-saving tinkering — which is what the workers, in fact, ended up with.

Job Security

Without jobs, there is nothing to bargain over. For unionized workers with “decent” jobs, hanging on to them is their most important concern, yet also the most difficult to address through collective bargaining. While an end to tiered wages involved a return to the past and would affect the level of corporate profits, job security had no real precedent and challenged a sacred corporate property right: the right to restructure its operations as it saw fit.

The UAW record disastrously confirmed the limits of trying to solve the job security issue through bargaining. In the late ’70s, GM had some 450,000 UAW members. In every agreement since then, the bargaining highlights prominently announced the achievement of “job security.” Yet today that membership is down to 46,000 — an astounding decline of 90 percent of the workforce. In the last collective agreement in 2015, GM promised to add 3,300 to the existing 52,500 jobs, bringing the workforce to near 56,000 jobs. By the end of that agreement, the workforce instead numbered 10,000 lower.

If anything, prioritizing job security turned out to be a trap. Corporations successfully turned the issue into what workers were willing to give up to “buy” jobs, and even with that, there was no enforcement mechanism beyond the life of the collective agreement — or even within it. The union could win a ban on plant closures, but it had no control over companies declaring them “idled,” “mothballed,” or having their products “unallocated” until they could formally shut them down once the collective agreement expired.

The crime here wasn’t so much that the union didn’t deliver, but that as part of selling the agreements, the union leadership dishonestly and cynically promised something that experience showed couldn’t be delivered. Militancy might save a plant here and there, but, in general, militancy was in this case not enough. Addressing job security demanded action far beyond the bargaining relationship. It demanded political intervention.

A counter-approach was put on the agenda in Canada by Green Jobs Oshawa, a group of autoworkers, retirees, and community activists that came together after GM’s announcement in November 2018 of the closing of the Oshawa facility — once the largest auto complex in North America — along with the four plants slated to be closed in the United States. The Oshawa group grasped that any solution had to think beyond GM, and they seized the opportunity of linking this to the environmental crisis.

GM had been telling the world that as a forward-looking company, they were preparing to move to electric vehicles, but behind the scenes — as was recently seen in GM’s lobbying against California’s tougher environmental standards — GM was working to slow down the transition to electric vehicles. Moreover, GM and other auto companies were making no secrets about their intention, once environmental reality and popular pressures forced them to go electric, to, as likely as not, produce those vehicles outside the United States and Canada. And so direct government ownership of the facility (whether by the federal government or the municipality with government support) was the only practical option to keeping the productive capacity in the community.

Under public ownership, and oriented to social needs rather than private profits, the facility could be converted to environmentally essential products — for which there will be plenty of demand since the looming environmental catastrophe will mean refurbishing virtually everything about how we live, work, travel, and play. As one of the group’s posters declared, “Take the Plant/Save the Planet.” Electric vehicles would be a logical place to start, and Green Jobs Oshawa commissioned a study to look at government procurement of electric fleets from various state agencies (post office and hydro vans, shuttle buses and school buses, ambulances, municipal-run car sharing) to provide the basic market.

The study confirmed that the Oshawa facility had the equipment to produce other products, that the workers had the necessary skills and so did nearby suppliers, and that the environmental crisis presented a unique opportunity to bring social needs and productive jobs together. (Autoworker Caravan, a network of progressive autoworkers and retirees in the United States, had long pointed to how rapidly and effectively the auto industry converted to war production in 1942 — when producing cars was made illegal — and then reconverting tanks, planes, and other war materials back to cars in 1945 as an example of the technical feasibility of planned conversion.)

Limits and Possibilities

The GM strike served as a reminder of two old lessons. Rank-and-file militancy is the foundation of working-class struggles, yet it is not enough. And unions, too — even the best of unions — though absolutely fundamental to workers having a more secure and all-around richer life, are by themselves insufficient.

Union members can and must push their unions to be better, but without a leadership completely on board with their aspirations — that is, bringing all of the union’s assets, authority, and creativity to the struggle — the ability of the rank and file to defeat a powerful enemy is limited, and the membership’s confidence in sustaining the fight will lag. Fulfilling the potential of unions demands transforming them — and transforming them can’t happen without a new generation of worker activists guided by a radical respect for the rights and potentials of working people and ready to replace, not just push, the old guard.

Going further, though militant and class-conscious unions are a precondition for the defense of workers and for making gains, there are battles that cannot be won at the fragmented level of unions. Unions may influence, but they cannot determine, the context in which they operate and struggle. They cannot block outsourcing or free trade, prevent corporations from holding back investment or moving elsewhere, guarantee affordable health care when workers lose their jobs, win the best education for their kids, maintain social services, or implement a fair tax system to finance such programs — and collective bargaining cannot overcome the existential threat of environmental collapse. Something larger is needed.

There is, in this current moment, a unique potential in the United States to pursue that “something larger.” A unique confluence of historic possibilities holds out the hope, though certainly not the guarantee, of radical change.

1. The possibility of ending the monopoly of incumbents in the UAW

For seven decades — ever since Walter Reuther consolidated his hold on the union at the end of the 1940s — those at the pinnacle of the UAW have handpicked their successors. The likelihood of this continuing cannot be written off, but genuine prospects for an internal rebellion exist. While the top leadership has been discredited by its meek defense of workers and ugly scandals, the protracted strike saw the emergence of potential challengers in the form of impressive new informal leaders. The revival from the dead of a private-sector union that was once so prominent would substantially reinforce the weight of labor’s so far predominantly public-sector resurgence.

2. The possibility of the labor movement once again being a social force

The new wave of militancy in labor has been exhilarating. As we cheer this upsurge on, we must, however, not lose perspective. Union density hasn’t followed the new combativeness and, in fact, it fell slightly in 2018. Private-sector unionization remains, stunningly, below where it was a century ago. Destructive anti-union legislation has been brought into formerly strong union states like Michigan and Wisconsin. And though the numbers on strike are large, they remain very heavily concentrated in a few sectors (the US Bureau of Labor classifies 90 percent of the strikers as being in the category of “education, health and social services”).

Numbers don’t, of course, tell the whole story, but some qualifications are needed to contextualize the narrative of 2018 having had the largest number of workers on strike since 1986. The average number of workers participating in strikes in the four decades before 1986 was 1.3 million each year — almost three times that of 2018, while overall days lost due to strikes in those earlier decades averaged 22.8 million each year, or more than eight times the 2.8 million days lost in 2018 (and this is in the context of the smaller workforce in the earlier years). Then there is the sobering reality that the great militancy in those earlier years didn’t prevent corporations and the state from subsequently carrying out their attacks on, and defeat of, the labor movement.

This reminder of how much remains to be done is not to deny the significance of the labor movement getting its legs again. What is so decisive and critical is the exciting change in the movement from what it recently was to its new energy and creativity.

3. The possibility of a new politics

Socialist speak is on the political agenda again. Though it is clearly rooted in a widespread and deeply felt dissatisfaction with the functioning of capitalism, it cannot yet be said that it represents any widespread challenge to capitalism itself. Nevertheless, after having been effectively eradicated from American politics since at least the Second World War, there is no underestimating the importance of a recovered space to raise issues of class, the demonstrated contradictions between aspirations for political democracy and an undemocratic economy, the failures of global capitalism, the potential for economic planning, etc.

What is especially notable here is that the new politics is emerging alongside the new labor militancy, bringing the potential of each to strengthen and sustain the other. Critical here is that politics not be reduced to electoralism and policy platforms. Both of these are obviously relevant, but the challenge lies in building the power to implement new directions, and this depends on centrally organizing the working class, broadly defined, into a social force with the ambition, capacity and confidence to transform the world. The fact that sections of the Democratic Socialists of America are making it a priority of their political practice to support workers on picket lines and engage workers in a grounded way in strategic debates is especially encouraging.

4. The radical possibilities inherent in the threat of environmental collapse

Concern with the environment is not new in the same way as the above. But the extent to which it has risen to prominence now changes all strategic considerations. For example, in the case of autoworkers, serious prospects for job security now lie (as we argued above) in moving beyond collective bargaining and dependence on their companies, and instead focusing on integrating their productive skills into the project of environmental conversion. The labor movement more generally cannot fight for greater equality without putting much greater weight on the kind of consumption environmental limits allows us to sustain, an orientation that shifts the weight of consumption from private goods to collective public services (health, education, public transit, and public spaces involving arts, sports, and culture).

In this regard, the Green New Deal and commitment to a just transition are impressive attempts to link up with the labor movement and identify the challenge of environmental change as an opportunity as well as a threat. Yet there is the danger that these well-meaning phrases are seen by working people as only abstract slogans that don’t seriously speak to how these promises can be delivered. Elaborating on environmental standards, and wonkish presentations on carbon taxes, incentives, and upping the ante on how much this will cost do not answer the skepticism.

What is needed — though it demands a longer-term perspective than environmentalists would like (but can’t avoid) — is explicitly asserting and carrying out the widest popular education campaign on the reality that we are past the stage of tinkering to achieve the change we so desperately need. We simply can’t address the environmental crisis without planning the restructuring of our economy and society, and you cannot plan what you don’t control. Environmental change must mean a politics that builds the social base, especially but not only in the working class, to take on in the most fundamental way the private (and undemocratic) power of corporations.

These historical openings can move us to action or intimidate and overwhelm us. What we need to clearly and honestly accept is the fact of the polarization of options. It’s been the refusal to think big that has contributed to getting us where we are today. We can either move to a bigger stage or accept the continuation of death by a thousand cuts.