How Democratic Socialists Can Stand in Solidarity With the UAW Strike

Members of my chapter, Detroit’s Democratic Socialists of America, are mobilizing to support the United Auto Workers’ historic strike. Here’s some of what we’re doing — and what other socialists can do when the strike comes to their town.

UAW workers and supporters rally outside Ford's Michigan Assembly Plant on the eve of the strike. (Matthew Hatcher / AFP via Getty Images)

In Detroit, these are heady days. Veteran autoworkers, chatting with supporters at rallies and pickets, have said over and over, “The UAW has never felt like this before.” They are talking about the energy of a historic strike in a newly transformed union that is appealing to all working-class people for support — and getting it — with the fate of 150,000 autoworkers and an industrial green transition on the line.

Members of my chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are pulling out all the stops to organize the biggest strike support operation in our history. With the walkout now spreading to more areas of the country, we are eager to share what we’re trying and to inspire other supporters to prepare for the day the “stand-up strike” comes to their area.

Experiments at Scale

The UAW’s new president, Shawn Fain, was elected recently as part of a reform movement, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), that is seeking to make the union more militant and democratic. In a dramatic departure from the UAW’s recent history, Fain is leading a strike against all of the Big Three automakers at once and openly describing the strike as a fight for the entire working class. Union leadership is also being very public about its contract demands and proactively involving rank-and-file members in the contract campaign, including training them on how to speak to the media.

Ideally, Fain and company would have had years to prepare the members to mount a strike of this ambition; instead, they had mere months. As a result, there is uneven strike preparation across and within strike sites, and uneven enthusiasm among local officials still tied to “old guard” union politics.

But this means there are important opportunities for supporters outside the UAW to help build excitement on the picket lines.

How to Prepare for the Strike

If no plants or parts distribution centers are on strike near you yet, you have time to get ready. Here are a few concrete ideas for strike solidarity:

Host public parties, town halls, and kickoff events — not just “meetings.” Public events that sound fun and accessible will bring in more new people than anything billed as a “meeting.” On the strike’s first day, Detroit DSA held a campaign kickoff event at a friendly bar after a big rally with Bernie Sanders, Shawn Fain, and Rashida Tlaib. We hyped the event on social media and canvassed the rally crowd with event flyers.

We had a great turnout of new and old DSA members, along with some UAW activists and other unionists.  We did a training on how to talk to workers at the picket line and organized carpools to picket shifts. When the strike started, Detroit DSA was at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant gates to cheer on workers as they walked out at midnight.

Prepare new organizers to talk to workers on the picket line. Talking to striking workers is the number-one task of all supporters who go to the picket line. This strike is an opportunity to learn how left-wing demands for redistribution and economic democracy connect with rank-and-file workers in this moment, and to show the UAW’s workforce that solidarity is more than a slogan to us. But new organizers and people who’ve never been to a picket line may need a little guidance on how to start forming these connections.

At our Strike Ready event, we held breakouts to practice picket conversations. DSA members got ready to ask workers why they went on strike, what demands matter most to them, what it’s like to work at the plant, and how it feels to be on strike. Supporters who are members of other unions should lead with cross-union solidarity. If you’re in touch with UAWD, you can connect especially fired-up workers with UAWD organizers.

Do an art build. To build energy before the strike started, Detroit DSA held an art build to make our own picket signs. You can get ambitious and reach out to union screen-printers and leftist art spaces to host you, or just meet up in a park and go DIY (that’s what we did). You’ll need poster paint, cardboard from broken-down boxes, rulers and pencils for lettering, and wood furring strips. You can also make or prepare stencils ahead of time. Bring a list of slogans and font ideas for inspiration.

If you’re a DSA chapter or another group, organize picket shifts. Detroit DSA has scheduled picket shifts (two two-hour shifts per day) and organized our members into regional chat groups to plan carpools, since the Ford plant is at the far corner of our territory.

No plants near you? Try dealerships. Big Three car dealerships are seldom owned by the Big Three, but for those that are, the UAW may be prohibited from taking action outside of them due to bans on “secondary strikes.” Outside supporters, including groups like DSA, are under no such limitations. Post up on the public sidewalk outside a dealership on a busy weekend day with signs and banners, make noise, and try to talk to the public and dealership workers about the strike. We want auto dealers to be begging the bosses to concede.

What to Do on the Line

DSA’s National Labor Commission steering committee has established a national network of “solidarity captains” with a WhatsApp chat. If you’re in DSA — or thinking about joining — you should get connected with them. You can participate in weekly calls and chats to discuss and plan strike support work with other DSA comrades across the country. And then . . .

Show up. The most important thing you can do on the picket line is show up and bring good energy. Come back often. Striking workers will be out on a regular schedule, so try to be at the same gate on the same days so you can get to know people and build relationships.

Ask striking workers and picket leaders what they need. Notice who the official or organic leader is at each gate, and after you get to know them, ask what you can do to be supportive. Do they need pizzas and hot coffee? Art supplies to make new signs? Take your cues from the workers as much as possible. 

Do sign repair. One of our enterprising new members noticed that picket signs were getting raggedy after five days of striking. He went to the picket line with a repair bag containing sharpies, tape, and staplers, and asked striking workers if they wanted to spruce up their signs. He talked to dozens of people while helping them shore up their signs. Even better, he took a selfie and shared his innovation with the rest of the chapter.

Bring audio equipment. If you have speakers, microphones, or bullhorns, bring them with you. Some lines will be all set on A/V and already partying; others will be quiet. After you’ve established rapport with workers at a quiet line, offer to grab speakers and a mic to liven things up. See which strikers want to DJ and have a backup playlist ready (like this one from the 2019 Chicago Teachers Strike). 

Have a list of chants ready. Print out a list of good picket chants or have a list ready to share on your phone. Of course, don’t just show up and grab the mic. But if the line you are on is running low on new chants and you’ve built rapport with the strike captain or other leaders, offer your list or some ideas from it, or offer to get on the mic yourself. 

Take photos and videos. Post lots of selfies, strike action shots, and videos of people having fun on the picket lines. Create a crushing sense of FOMO online so more people want to come out with you, and to show that the strike is bringing in people from beyond the plant gates. Follow Detroit DSA on social media for inspiration.

Once you have a good relationship with individuals or a whole picket line, take photos and get quotes from them about why they are striking. Share your social accounts and ask for workers’ contact info so you can share posts with them.