Early this morning, for the first time in its nearly ninety-year history, the United Auto Workers (UAW) commenced a strike at all three of America’s largest automakers. The union’s posture is a bold one, and the rhetoric of its new, reform-minded leadership — elected in a historic vote earlier this year — has sounded equally militant. Among the UAW’s demands are an end to discriminatory wage tiers, improved health care and retirement benefits, and a 40 percent pay increase.
Echoing the best of America’s labor tradition, President Shawn Fain has not been shy about presenting the strike as a broader action on behalf of all workers against corporate power. “If they’ve got money for Wall Street they sure as hell have money for the workers making the product,” he recently remarked. “We fight for the good of the entire working class and the poor.” Fain certainty isn’t wrong: over the past ten years alone, the Big Three automakers (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis) have taken in about a quarter of a trillion in profits — much of it over the past four years, which have seen those numbers jump an eye-popping 65 percent.
And in massive numbers, Americans seem to agree with Fain. In recent years, general support for trade unions has risen significantly, with Gallup registering a fifty-six-year high in public approval back in 2021 and remaining roughly comparable today. It’s an astonishing turn of events considering the record-low approval unions received as recently as 2009, and it’s doubtless among the reasons the Biden White House has felt more comfortable making positive noises about strikes like the current one than its most recent Democratic predecessor.
If public approval of unions in general has risen significantly in recent years, support for the UAW appears to be both overwhelming and cross-partisan. According to a Gallup poll conducted just before Labor Day, some 75 percent of Americans said they back the autoworkers. Other ongoing labor actions, like those by film and television writers and actors, boasted high levels of support as well.
The current climate is markedly different from that which prevailed during the country’s last significant period of economic turmoil post-2008. And even though the political and cultural landscape is arguably more polarized today than it was then, labor’s cause is now resonating to an extent not seen for at least a generation.
In this respect, the UAW’s strike action has the potential to spur significant, and potentially transformative, change outside the auto industry — particularly if workers ultimately win big gains. As historian Nelson Lichtenstein put it to Jacobin’s Alex Press: “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.”
Even before the UAW announced its walkout, strike activity had gone up a whopping 40 percent since last year. Across the United States, workers are increasingly withdrawing their labor and enjoying broad public support when they do. “I know that we’re on the right side in this battle,” remarked Fain earlier this week before the strike began. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class versus everybody else.”
In enormous numbers, Americans seem to agree.