- Interview by
- Teddy Ostrow
On Friday, September 22, United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain announced that the union would be expanding its “stand-up strike” against the Big Three automakers to thirty-eight parts distribution centers owned by General Motors (GM) or Stellantis. The five thousand workers at those sites are joining the thirteen thousand autoworkers at three assembly plants who walked out when the strike began on September 15.
The UAW’s strategy — striking all of the Big Three at once, but escalating gradually by beginning at a few worksites and calling out more over time to ramp up pressure — is unprecedented in the union’s history. The strike represents a dramatic departure from the union’s recent history in other ways as well, with leadership actively working to involve members in the contract campaign, and President Fain declaring that the union is fighting “for the good of the entire working class.” The leadership’s new approach is due in large part to the election of Fain and other officers associated with Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a union reform caucus that earlier this year swept out the corrupt old guard that had dominated UAW for over seventy years.
Jacobin contributor Teddy Ostrow recently sat down with Barry Eidlin, associate professor of sociology at McGill University, to talk about the stand-up strike’s precedents in the 1936–37 sit-downs, the long history of efforts to reform the UAW, and the current strike’s implications for the broader labor movement in the United States and Canada.
Sitting Down and Standing Up
Let’s start with the historic nature of the strike. How is the stand-up strike similar to or different from previous auto strikes by the United Auto Workers?
It is historic on many levels. It’s the first time in the UAW’s history that it has engaged in strike activity at all three of the Big Three simultaneously. Prior to this, the standard operating procedure was to pick a target company — GM, Ford, or Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) — and negotiate and reach an agreement with that company, and then basically get the other two companies to agree to that, a sort of pattern agreement.
It’s also historic in how the strike action is happening. Rather than having an all-out strike, the UAW is targeting specific parts of these companies based on strategic calculations.
The union initially targeted one plant in each company, targeting production lines that were generating a lot of profits, but not plants that necessarily have huge knock-on effects. It didn’t take out engine plants, for example. When you strike an engine plant, within a few days, huge slots of the auto manufacturing network are taken out.
Then in the second week of the strike, the UAW targeted parts distribution centers. I think the goal there was to build visibility for the strike by expanding it nationwide. These are distribution centers that service the dealerships, and they’re spread out across the country so that parts can be delivered quickly. Obviously, halting the after-sales repair market is also hurting the company, but it also brings the strike much closer to your average consumer.
It creates opportunities for labor supporters to get more involved, too: you’ve seen people from across the country showing up on the picket lines. So the escalating nature of this stand-up strike strategy is something quite different from what came before.
The stand-up strike makes explicit historic reference to the sit-down strikes of 1936–37. While the content of the tactic is different, in the sense that these aren’t plant occupations, the tactics are similar in the sense that the sit-down strike was also a targeted intervention. The sit-down was at Fisher Body Plant in Flint for much of the time, and then it had a surprise expansion to the Chevy engine plant — that was the coup de grace that got GM to cave. But it was not an all-out strike against General Motors, in the same way that the stand-up strike is not an all-out strike against the Big Three.
What’s also historic, certainly in comparison to recent history, is the messaging and rhetoric surrounding the strike and the degree of member involvement. This is the first time that the UAW has run anything like a contract campaign to prepare workers and get them involved. This is the first time that the UAW leadership has actually tried to inform members about negotiating.
Shawn Fain has gone on these Facebook livestreams — which tens of thousands of workers are showing up to watch — providing detailed information about the status of negotiations and a clear message of, “We’re not just fighting for ourselves. We’re fighting for the whole working class. We’re taking on the billionaire class.” It’s very explicit class-struggle rhetoric of a kind that has been completely absent from the UAW for decades.
Another comparison that I’ve seen, from Nelson Lichtenstein, is to the 1945–1946 strike, in terms of political context. It seems that this is a political strike too.
It’s obviously a very different context. The 1945–46 strike was right after World War II, and it was in the context of rampant inflation. There was also the expiration of the no-strike pledge that the UAW had agreed to during the war. So, there’s that inflationary context that parallels what workers are experiencing now — feeling their paychecks have been chewed up by inflation over the past couple of years — and the desire to catch up.
That’s why you see these significant wage demands, which really aren’t that significant when you put them in the broader context of forty years of pay stagnation and the more recent inflationary rise in the cost of living. That’s a parallel with the ’45–46 strike.
I do see another parallel, in that the ’45–46 GM negotiations were the last time the UAW tried to use the strike to articulate a broader political vision for the union that expanded far beyond negotiating over wages and benefits. It was demanding in that strike for GM to open their books, and for workers to have some sort of say over investment decisions. Not just how much they’re going to get paid, and what are their pensions going to be, and stuff like that, but: Where are these cars going to get made? What kinds of cars are we going to make?
This was in the time of the wartime reconversion. There were no cars made during the war because the plants all got converted to making weapons and artillery. Then during the reconversion, Walter Reuther, to his credit, wanted to insert himself into the discussion about what the auto industry would look like after the world war. The ’45–46 strike was sort of an effort to do that. Obviously, GM vehemently resisted that. They had stockpiled inventory, and so the strikes went on for some time.
The 1945–46 strike wave more broadly was the biggest year in US history for strikes, and the autoworkers were a big part of that. But the overall result was lackluster, in the sense that you got the political backlash that led to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947.
Then four years later, you got the Treaty of Detroit, which is basically Walter Reuther’s admission of defeat for his broader social vision — for control over investment, the fight for national health care, and other broader social programs.
Instead, they built a private welfare state. The trade-off in the Treaty of Detroit was that the UAW would give management control over the shop floor in exchange for job security and good wages and benefits.
It’s too early to tell how much the historical parallel applies to that part of the 1946–47 strike, but indications so far are that that’s unlikely. There’s broad public support for the strike, and a sense that this is overdue. What the workers are asking for is nothing extravagant, and they are speaking to issues that affect a wide swath of workers across the United States and Canada — and other parts of the world for that matter.
Part of the parallel of ’46 to today is that then, there was this postwar push for greater control over investment decisions, and today, workers are trying to insert themselves into decisions surrounding the green transition, specifically electric vehicles (EVs).
Yes, they’re fighting to have a say in the shape that the EV industry is going to take. That’s key.
The Administration Caucus and UAW Reform
As you and I discussed on The Upsurge podcast, I think it’s safe to say the strike right now, and also the “us-versus-them,” class-struggle orientation of the union leadership, wouldn’t have emerged without the organizational push of the rank-and-file reform movement, Unite All Workers for Democracy.
Can you explain the role UAWD has played in crafting this moment? What are its historical precedents in the union?
It’s important to recognize that UAWD is a pretty ragtag group that got its start in 2019, when this vast corruption scandal that engulfed the top leadership of the union was taking hold. UAWD was the animating force behind the effort to propose a referendum on direct election for top officers, the “one member, one vote” system, which became part of the settlement with the federal government when it was prosecuting the union.
UAWD were the ground troops that mobilized to win the referendum on one member, one vote. It was also the group that put together the slate that included Shawn Fain at the top of the ticket, but also other candidates for the General Executive Board. UAWD campaigned for that group, and while it was too small to field a complete slate of leadership candidates, it was powerful enough such that everywhere it did have candidates, it won.
There’s been a lot of media focus on Shawn Fain and his distinctive character as a UAW leader; he’s a radical departure from previous leaders going back several decades. But I think a much more important part of the story is this movement that made Shawn Fain possible —that made it such that he’s not just a voice crying in the wilderness, and instead is president of the UAW, hosting Facebook livestreams with tens of thousands of members tuning in, and leading negotiations and one of the most consequential strikes in recent decades.
You’re right that this movement has a lineage to it. You have to go way back to the 1940s and understand that from its founding in the mid-1930s up until 1947, the UAW was a hotbed of diversity of opinion and internal contention. There were all these factions within the union that were vying for power and were promoting different visions for the union.
Some were affiliated with the Communist Party. There were Trotskyists in the mix; socialists, Catholic unionists, all these different elements. There was a very lively internal culture in the union that we can’t sugarcoat — it could get nasty at times — but also it was a dynamic driving force behind the growth of the union.
That’s the period when the union went from zero to a million members. At the 1947 convention, the faction affiliated with Walter Reuther, known as the Administration Caucus, was able to consolidate its power in the union. (This is something that Nelson Lichtenstein recounts in great detail in his biography of Reuther.)
After that, the Administration Caucus becomes the one party in the UAW. There was a transformation of the UAW from this vibrant multiparty democracy to a one-party state. After 1947, if you want to play a role in the union, you have to be part of the Administration Caucus. It calls the shots; it manages the conventions. It incorporates not just the elected leadership, but the staff of the union, which also played a critical role.
But despite this very hierarchical system of control, there’s something about the struggles of the 1930s and ’40s that established an organic culture of rank-and-file militancy in the union that persisted. So in the 1960s, you start getting wildcat strike waves. This is part of a generational transition in the auto plants. Just as you had a New Left on campus, there was a young layer of autoworkers and workers in general who were influenced by the culture of the 1960s, which rejected what they saw as the conformity of the 1950s culture they grew up in.
They were not content to be trapped in this gilded cage of these 1960s-era auto plants, where they were getting paid well, they had pensions, they had job security, but the shop floor was just this brutal regime. It got worse in the ’60s as the Big Three implemented new work reorganization systems that intensified the pace of production.
The most prominent example of this pushback was the Lordstown Strike of 1972. But you also had the emergence of the Revolutionary Union Movement starting in Detroit with DRUM (Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement), which was intimately tied to the civil rights movement. This was in the late ’60s, so it was tied more to the Black Power edge of it, but it also had a fairly explicit Marxist orientation. DRUM was affiliated with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. (This is all recounted in Detroit: I Do Mind Dying by Marvin Surkin and Dan Georgakas, and there’s also a movie about it on YouTube called Finally Got the News.)
The UAW had an image as the sort of paragon of racial progressivism. The union was funding a lot of the buses that brought people to DC for the March on Washington; it was funding a lot of the early civil rights organizing.
So while workers were protesting the shop-floor element, the largely black workforce at Chrysler’s Dodge Main assembly plant were also protesting the hypocrisy in the union — that the leadership layers of the union were largely white and the shop floor was racially segregated. The worst jobs were given to the black workers; the skilled trades were largely off limits to black workers. They engaged in these strikes that were not just against the company but against the union leadership for their practices.
By the early 1970s, this challenge to the Administration Caucus was largely gone, but then you have the emergence of something called the United National Caucus led by Pete Kelly, a respected local leader in Detroit. The United National Caucus really didn’t get very far. It led some wildcats, but there isn’t a whole lot to point to that it was able to do. There’s virtually nothing written about the United National Caucus.
In any case, there were these grumblings of resistance to the Administration Caucus throughout the 1960s and ’70s. But the real moment comes after the Chrysler bailout of 1979, when for the first time, the UAW engages in concessionary bargaining and gives back things it had won previously. This had never been done in the history of the UAW.
In 1979, Chrysler was trying to avoid bankruptcy and came to union and said, “you need to give us these things or we’re going bankrupt.” It ended up having to get bailed out anyway, but it marked the beginning of the pattern of concessionary bargaining that became characteristic of the Administration Caucus.
That morphed over the course of the ’80s into this rhetoric of “labor-management partnership,” which took a variety of forms, one of which was adopting the Japanese-style “team concept.” There was more rhetoric of working together to create win-win situations and that kind of stuff. It was really a way of institutionalizing concessionary bargaining, and it marked a new era of UAW leadership collaborating with management to worsen the wages, benefits, and working conditions of autoworkers.
There was pushback to this in the ’80s that came in the form of something called the New Directions Caucus, which was small but significant. The leading figure here was Jerry Tucker, who came out of St Louis, Missouri, and was able to rise through the ranks of the UAW despite his opposition to the Administration Caucus.
He was a dissident, in the same vein as Shawn Fain, and was able to win election to the directorship of UAW Region 5, which covered a lot of the western part of the country. He was this lone voice speaking out against concessions, against the team concept. He would come to Labor Notes conferences and talk about this.
New Directions was able to hang on into the ’90s, but Tucker was removed from office, and it wasn’t able to make a lot of headway. Nonetheless, New Directions continued that tradition of standing up against the Administration Caucus, and standing for a vision of unionism that it rightly viewed as more in tune with the founding ethos of the union.
After New Directions fades, some veterans of the movement continue to keep the flame alive with a small group called the Autoworkers Caravan, but they were not able to exert meaningful power in the union. There’s certain flashes of militancy, again related to this strangely persistent, organic rank-and-file militancy that continues to bubble up now and then.
But organized opposition to the Administration Caucus remains pretty nonexistent until the auto bailouts of 2009. This is the beginning of the end, where the union gives away the store and introduces tiers, which continue to proliferate in the subsequent years. As is often the case with one-party states, the initial generation that is forged in the flames of struggle might be a dynamic force and won’t forget where they came from — but in subsequent generations, that legacy of the initial struggle wears off and the leadership layer becomes much more complacent and corrupt.
That’s what happened in the UAW. In the mid-2010s, it really caught up to the union, and the leadership was caught engaging in the most cartoonish versions of union corruption you can think of. Straight out of a union buster’s playbook: the cigars, the champagne, the suitcases of cash. There were union leaders getting payoffs in exchange for agreeing to contract concessions.
That was exposed, and you had a number of the top leadership do prison time, including two of the former presidents. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back; it created an opening.
But the mere fact of having a corruption scandal that challenges the leadership doesn’t mean that things are going to change — you need a viable alternative. The corruption scandal in itself could easily result in members’ cynicism and withdrawal from the union. That’s where UAWD comes in.
There are two points about UAWD to recognize. Number one is that the new leadership and the strike that we’re seeing would not be possible without UAWD. Number two, which is an equally important point to make, is that UAWD itself would not be possible without the generations of previous efforts to challenge the power of the Administration Caucus, because they created a layer of veterans who were a key part of what went into building the caucus. It wasn’t starting from scratch in 2019.
The UAW Strike and the Broader Labor Movement
You teach in Canada, where there have also been important negotiations between Unifor, the Canadian autoworkers’ union, and the Big Three. This is the first time the Canadian and American contract negotiations have lined up since 1999, though exceptional renegotiations of contracts occurred simultaneously in 2009.
Unifor recently announced that its members ratified a new contract with Ford, which was their target for pattern bargaining. What’s happening there? What’s different about Unifor’s approach, and what are the implications of their contract with Ford for US negotiations?
It’s interesting here because Unifor is the successor organization of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), which itself formed in a split from the United Auto Workers in 1985. The CAW split precisely over resistance to the sort of concessionary approach that the Administration Caucus was pursuing in the United States. (There’s a great documentary about this called Final Offer on YouTube.)
But over the years, that more militant variety of unionism has eroded even within Unifor. There was some corruption that led to its previous leader being removed, though nothing like what you’ve seen in the United States.
But Unifor has not had this radical change in direction that you’ve seen with the UAW. Lana Payne, the head of Unifor in Canada, has pursued a negotiation strategy that’s much more in line with the traditional UAW playbook of picking a target and not doing much in terms of a contract campaign or mobilizing members.
Unifor came right down to its strike deadline, announced a twenty-four-hour extension, and then soon after, when they were close to the twenty-four hours, it announced a tentative agreement. Then over the weekend, the union had an online informational meeting about the contract and had online voting to ratify the contract, which it did.
We got some details about what’s in the contract, but it appears that a lot of it is along the lines of the Ford agreement that Shawn Fain threw in the trash. It’s a shorter, three-year agreement, so that part’s good, and there are significant wage increases. There’s a one-time signing bonus, which is a standard trick in auto and a lot of other contract negotiations, unfortunately.
Unifor can rightly say that this is one of the richest contracts they’ve negotiated, but in the context of inflation and the past decade’s erosion of working conditions, there was a real question as to whether this would pass muster, particularly when Canadian autoworkers were seeing what was happening south of the border. [The agreement was ratified with 54 percent of Ford workers in favor.]
Now, Unifor is going to bring that deal to GM and Stellantis and do the standard thing where they negotiate the pattern agreement. Then those need to get ratified too. The Ford ratification was fairly rushed. So maybe the groups of workers at GM and Stellantis, if there is this more organic opposition, will have more time to organize. But even if they don’t, it’s pretty clear that they are negotiating on a changed terrain, based on a new pattern that’s set by Shawn Fain in the UAW.
How do you view the UAW’s fight at the Big Three within this year’s greater labor moment?
It’s one of the most consequential strikes we’ve seen in recent decades. And it’s in this context of a summer of strikes unlike any we’ve seen in recent decades.
Obviously, we need to view it in the even broader historical context. We’re still in this period of record lows, and in the context of strikes having basically flatlined for the past thirty years, any number of strikes is going to seem like a lot.
But there is this greater mood of militancy among a broad swath of the working class. There was a minor strike wave in 2018, but it was almost entirely in education. Now the strikes are happening across all sorts of industries.
It’s in both the United States and Canada. Here in Quebec, there’s 420,000 public sector workers who are on the verge of going out on strike as part of a common front of four different unions across the entire province. If that strike happened, that would be about 5 percent of the Quebec population — not the workforce, the entire population — out on strike.
So all indications point to our “Hot Labor Summer” transitioning into what we might call a “Fiery Labor Fall.” That’s my trademark.