The UAW Strike Matters for the Entire US Working Class

The United Auto Workers, headed by a new reform leadership, are set to strike the Big Three automakers at midnight tonight. The entire working class will be watching to see if autoworkers can claw back decades of concessions and win a transformative contract.

Shawn Fain, president of the UAW, marches with union members and supporters on Labor Day in Detroit, Michigan. (Jeff Kowalsky / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Walter Reuther, the most well-known president of the United Auto Workers (UAW), was fond of calling the union the “vanguard” of the labor movement. Reuther was no Leninist — it is no secret that he ruthlessly fought radicals inside the union — but it was a nod to the outsize power the UAW had in setting the standard for the US working class. Reuther had relationships with social movement leaders, particularly in the civil rights movement, and he wielded broad power to sustain the union’s pacesetting role.

Today’s UAW is far diminished from Reuther’s era. The membership has shrunk as technology has been deployed to reduce labor costs and outsourcing has been used to shed jobs in the country’s auto plants. A minority of the nation’s autoworkers are now UAW members.

That’s a lot of ground to make up, but the union, spurred by new reform leadership elected in the first direct elections in the union’s history, is dead set on trying. At midnight, for the first time in history, the UAW may strike all of the Big Three automakers — Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis — should the companies fail to come up with acceptable counteroffers to the union’s key proposals for the four-year contracts that cover some 150,000 workers.

The companies have raked in roughly a quarter of a trillion dollars in profits in North America over the past decade; those profits have soared 65 percent over the past four years alone. Their CEOs have been handsomely rewarded for such success, with their pay rising 40 percent over the same period, even as workers’ real wages have declined 30 percent.

That is the basis for the UAW’s wage proposals: 40 percent raises over the course of the contract to make up for inflation and reward workers for the backbreaking labor that is life on the assembly line.

The Big Three have continued to move closer to the union’s proposals on wage increases — Ford is offering 20 percent, GM is offering 18 percent, and Stellantis is offering 17.5 percent — but significant distance from the union’s proposed 40 percent remains. While the UAW would likely compromise on that number were the Big Three to agree to enough of their other proposals, with mere hours before the contracts expire, such an agreement is unlikely to happen at all three companies.

Beyond wages, other central points of disagreement between the companies and the union include: restoring cost-of-living allowances (COLA) given up in the wake of the Great Recession, concessions that were supposed to be temporary but continue in the contract (the Big Three have rejected this proposal, though Ford offered a restoration of a COLA formula that the union has deemed so inadequate that Fain has been referring to it as “not even Diet Cola but Coke Zero); shortening the progression for temporary workers to receive full benefits and putting an end to tiers within the contracts (the union is proposing temps be converted to full-time workers with full benefits after ninety days, and while the Big Three have proposed cutting the progression from eight to four years, that is, self-evidently, far from the union’s proposed desired ninety days); significant raises to retiree pay (rejected by all three companies); job security with the union’s proposed Working Families Protection Plan, which would include the right to strike over plant closures (rejected by all three, with Stellantis in particular seeking to shutter and sell numerous facilities); greater work-life balance through more paid time off and holidays (all three have agreed to add Juneteenth as a paid holiday and Ford is offering two weeks of paid parental leave for the first time, but otherwise, all work-life proposals were rejected); and ensuring jobs created in the quickly growing number of electric vehicle (EV) plants be livable and safe (the Big Three continue to create joint-venture companies, what the union has called “legal fictions,” to keep their EV plants nonunion).

In a bargaining update broadcast on Facebook Live yesterday evening, Fain noted that, contrary to the narrative one might hear in the mainstream media, auto production is a capital-intensive enterprise. Labor constitutes a tiny fraction of the costs. Average car prices are up 34 percent over the past four years, but labor cost per vehicle is up only 4 to 5 percent. In other words, company price gouging, not workers, are to blame for rising costs to consumers.

Should the union strike, it would be the first-ever simultaneous strike at the Big Three. But rather than an all-out strike, the UAW is planning to engage in what it is calling a “stand-up strike,” a reference to the 1937 sit-down strikes that built the UAW and, in doing so, ignited the twentieth-century US labor movement. Specific UAW locals will be called out on strike with little warning, a means of destabilizing operations at the automakers, while other locals will continue working under an expired contract.

Such an approach has pros and cons. On the plus side, it means fewer workers will have to live off the $500 weekly benefits paid out from the union’s strike fund, which, while currently containing a hefty $850 million, would be depleted in a matter of weeks during an all-out strike. It also sets up further escalations.

“We are maintaining maximum flexibility,” said Fain on Wednesday, noting that he would announce which workers will be first called to strike at 10 p.m. tonight, two hours before the contract expires. “We can call on multiple locals to go out at once or one at a time. We can do this multiple times a week or only once a week. This will provide national negotiators leverage at the table. And we can keep escalating and keep taking plants out.”

The downside is that such a method reduces the immediate economic impact on the companies and could isolate strikers, failing to foster the unity so critical to pulling off a strike against some of the country’s most powerful companies. That unity is important not only for UAW members but for the US working class more broadly, which is hungry for a big public strike that could provide a rallying point for a labor movement that is finally beginning to act like a movement — going on the offensive, clawing back decades of concessions, and harnessing the dissatisfaction so many workers, especially young workers, feel years into the pandemic.

In response to those concerns, Fain emphasized the need for members in nonstriking facilities to continue organizing with red-shirt days, parking lot demonstrations, and flying squadrons to striking plants. He said the plan was formulated and agreed upon by union leadership, staff, and bargaining committee members, who had deemed it the most effective strategy.

“Shawn Fain and the autoworkers are recapturing and reactivating the excitement and support that the UAW once had when it was the vanguard in America,” said historian Nelson Lichtenstein, the author of The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor. “The UAW is much diminished, but in periods of social change and turmoil, well-organized sectors of the working class, even if they’re a small minority, can be a vanguard. Millions of Americans, workers and nonworkers, are thirsting for that, and I think it’s possible that this UAW strike is offering that leadership.”

Lichtenstein is right: a recent Gallup poll finds three in four members of the public side with the autoworkers over the Big Three. In a moment of growing labor movement activity, the likes of which we have not seen in the United States in decades, autoworkers are well-positioned to demand their fair share and, in the process, inspire others to do the same, with their picket lines a gathering place for the rising movement.

The capitalist class is already rolling out its counteroffensive. Auto companies are preparing contingency plans for nonunion personnel to work struck plants. CNBC television show host Jim Cramer has been apoplectic about the negotiations for weeks (Cramer is a former Spartacist, proving the adage that no right-winger is more ruthless than one who used to be on the Left). He compared Fain to Earl Browder, the former president of the Communist Party USA, and this week advocated that the Big Three immediately plan to shutter US facilities in favor of building out operations in Mexico. Cramer happily noted that he and his wife have “a factory in Mexico,” a reference to the pundit’s sideline in the mezcal business.

One Bank of America analyst advised the Big Three to shut down their operations and lay off workers in the face of targeted strikes, arguing that “it would be difficult for the companies to operate under such conditions.”

In response to such criticism, Fain said Wednesday that he is “at peace” with the decision to strike should it be necessary.

“I know that we’re on the right side in this battle,” said Fain. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class versus everybody else.”

During the broadcast, Fain, as he often does, cited scripture. Specifically, he read Matthew 19:24: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

“In the kingdom of God, no one hoards all the wealth while everyone else suffers and starves,” said Fain. “In the kingdom of God, no one puts themselves in a position of total domination over the entire community. In the kingdom of God, no one forces others to perform endless backbreaking work just to feed their families or put a roof over their heads. That world is not the kingdom of God; that world is hell.”

He continued:

Living paycheck to paycheck, scraping to get by? That’s hell. Choosing between medicine and rent is hell. Working seven days a week for twelve hours a day for months on end is hell. Having your plant close down and your family scattered across the country is hell. Being made to work during a pandemic and not knowing whether you might get sick and die or spread the disease to your family is hell.

Enough is enough. It’s time to decide what kind of world we want to live in and it’s time to decide what we are willing to do to get it.