If ever one doubted the power of a strike in the manufacturing sector, just look at the one the United Auto Workers (UAW) is waging against the Big Three auto manufacturers.
The historic strike — the first time the union has ever taken on the Detroit three all at once — has quickly created a political crisis. Joe Biden, who continues to call himself the most pro-labor president in US history, is under pressure to travel to a picket line himself, as Donald Trump claims he will skip another GOP debate in favor of some sort of event with autoworkers.
Biden made a statement echoing the union’s line — record profits, record contracts — and the administration said it would send labor secretary Julie Su and White House advisor Gene Sperling to Detroit, before shelving that plan for the time being. Reporting on the back-and-forth between the union and the White House suggests that the union simply extended an invitation to anyone who wants to show up in solidarity on the picket line. Biden, who despite his talk about Scranton, has rarely if ever been seen on a picket line, has not said he will do so. As we often say in the labor movement: we organize the politicians, they don’t organize us.
Meanwhile, Trump is continuing his faux-populist shtick as he prepares to run against Biden in the 2024 presidential election. The former president claims to support the union members, but he has urged them to stop paying their union dues as he spins a yarn about UAW leadership “ripping off” members by not condemning the Biden administration’s support for a transition to electric vehicles (EVs). Never mind that none of the strike’s myriad demands include an opposition to EV production; members object to the quality of jobs in EV plants, but not to the concept that we need more environmentally friendly vehicles, and that they should be the ones to build them.
“Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers,” UAW president Shawn Fain told CNN in response to Trump’s comments. “We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding of what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.”
Naturally, the other predictable fakers in the “populist” wing of the GOP also continue to trot out statements that echo the Big Three executives’ messaging — J. D. Vance, Josh Hawley, the Ivy League-educated gang’s all here. That they are presenting pro-corporate statements as if they were pro-worker only makes sense if you believe, as they do, that working-class people are morons.
Among those members of the Republican Party that apparently didn’t read the memo about pretending to be pro-worker: US ambassador to the United Nations and the former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley (who once said that she’d rather manufacturing jobs not come to South Carolina than come and be union), who went on Fox News this week to blame the Biden administration for encouraging workers to raise demands companies “can’t” meet. Also in this category is another South Carolinian, Senator Tim Scott, who when asked about the matter while on the campaign trail, cited as a model Ronald Reagan’s handling of the PATCO strike, a mass firing of public sector workers that marked an intensification of the ruling class’s war on the working class from which we have yet to recover.
“I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike,” said Scott. “He said, ‘You strike, you’re fired.’ Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely.”
Of course, it was Bernie Sanders who actually spoke at the union’s first big strike rally in Detroit, clad in a UAW jacket, saying, “If the ruling class of this country wants a redistribution of wealth, we’re going to give it to them.” Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, who backed the successful push to overturn the state’s right-to-work law, also joined the union leaders on stage.
Back on the shop floors of the UAW plants, Big Three companies have begun laying off workers, including two thousand at a GM manufacturing plant in Kansas, citing the impact of the strike. Wisely, the UAW is helping those workers stay afloat through its hefty strike fund, estimated to have around $800 million; strikers and laid-off workers will receive $500 a week.
Only 12,700 UAW members are currently on strike, so the majority of the 150,000 workers covered by the Big Three contracts are still working, now under an expired contract. (For a good laugh, here’s reporting suggesting that the companies fell for an inaccurate list of possible targets for the stand-up strike and burned lots of time and money trying to get ahead of the UAW by moving parts around various plants last week.) Many workers have been refusing to work voluntary overtime, on the basis that doing so assists the companies, which systematically understaff their facilities.
The expiration of the contract also means that managements’ rights clauses, too, have expired — i.e., any changes management wants to make to the status quo, such as to scheduling or other conditions of employment, must be bargained over. Members have been urged to report any attempts by the boss to make unilateral changes, which would now be a violation of the law.
Unfortunately, there are also stories of obstruction to such organizing by the Administration Caucus, the famously corrupt, often effectively pro-company caucus that controlled the union for decades until this year, when a reform slate won the first direct leadership elections in the union’s history. That old guard only lost power five months ago, and its presence in many locals shouldn’t be overlooked as a serious factor in the strike’s dynamic.
Actions by workers still on the job differ from plant to plant, but widespread organizing — be it parking-lot meetings, red-shirt days, or flying squadrons traveling to bolster picket lines at striking facilities — continues as workers await news from their elected leadership and bargaining committees in Detroit. Support for the strikers among the US public, meanwhile, has only increased since the strike began.
In speaking with me about how the moment feels, many workers use the language of a sports draft: they are staying alert, eagerly awaiting the moment when their local’s number is called to stand up and strike.
As for those already on strike, in speaking with the Washington Post, one Ford striker described his pride in this new, more militant, more democratic UAW as incomparable to what he’d felt in previous decades.
“In the past we were proud, but not like this,” he told the publication, in a great story about the impossibility of making a living as a lower-tier Big Three worker and the injustice of tiers’ existence in a union contract. “Your chest is pounding.”
Fain will be back on his preferred medium, Facebook Live, tomorrow at 10 a.m. EST to address the members. If insufficient progress has been made at the bargaining tables, the UAW president will call upon the next wave of UAW locals to stand up and walk off the job two hours later, at the noon deadline he gave the Big Three. Tick tock.