The UAW Strike Could Spark a Broader Revival of Working-Class Militancy

Nelson Lichtenstein

With its ongoing strike against the Big Three, the UAW is attempting to recapture the fighting spirit of its heroic early days. The union’s militant approach marks a sharp break with the recent past — and could spark more insurgency across the labor movement.

Striking UAW members march in front of the Stellantis Mopar facility on September 26, 2023 in Ontario, California. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Interview by
Suzi Weissman

The United Auto Workers (UAW) have now been on strike against the Big Three automakers — Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis — for nearly two weeks. Under the leadership of newly elected president Shawn Fain, the UAW is for the first time in its history striking all three of the companies at once. The union is deploying a novel approach that it is calling the “stand-up strike”: gradually escalating the walkout by calling out only a few plants at a time to slowly ratchet up pressure on the automakers.

The “stand-up strike” moniker is a reference to the legendary sit-down strikes of 1936–37 that allowed the UAW to unionize the American auto industry. The current strike is also making history: it has galvanized mass public support and pressured President Joe Biden himself to join striking workers on the picket line, the first time a sitting US president has done so. For the Jacobin Radio podcast, Suzi Weissman interviewed the great American political economist and labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein about the strategy behind the strike, its historical resonances, and what it might mean for the broader labor movement. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Suzi Weissman

Give us an overview of the UAW strike.

Nelson Lichtenstein

There’s been a reanimation of autoworker militancy and commitment — I’ve gotten reports from the picket line that make that pretty clear. We are at a moment when 70 percent of Americans are in favor of unions, and 75 percent are in favor of this auto strike.

The union started by striking just one plant at each of the Big Three. I think the theory is that, as the negotiations go on and if they stall, then UAW will say, “We’re going to strike another three plants, and then have the ones that are on strike continue to be on strike.” And the thing will build over the following weeks or maybe even months.

Striking all three — this is the first time in the entire history of the auto industry that has happened. Why is that? In the salad days of the UAW, back in the postwar period up through the ’70s, when the union was quite large and strong, and basically the auto industry was only the Big Three — how does this compare? I think the decision to strike all three comes out of both weakness and strength.

The weakness is that pattern bargaining, which used to be the way the union did it, meant that the UAW would choose one company as the target. It would often strike Ford; Ford seemed both to have money and was a little more innovative than the others. The union would strike one of the companies and then reach a settlement, and then that pattern would be adopted by the others. That worked when the entire auto industry was unionized, and when the companies had an oligopoly.

Today that’s not the case. There are many auto plants; obviously the transplants, not to mention Tesla, are nonunion. So I think there was a fear that pattern bargaining wouldn’t work. Stellantis in particular would balk at it — Stellantis gets most of its revenue from Europe anyway. GM gets a lot of revenue from China; it produces more cars in China than in the United States.

UAW president Shawn Fain speaks as UAW members and their supporters gather for Solidarity Sunday at the UAW Region 1 office in Warren, Michigan, on August 20, 2023. (Jeff Kowalsky / AFP via Getty Images)

So they have to strike all of the companies. Then, the idea is that the companies won’t know which of their plants are going down. They will compete with each other to offer more concessions. That’s the hope of the union.

That’s the weak side of it. The strength of striking all three is that, in the past, when it struck just one, those workers who were not on strike, they said, “What about us? Do we just sit here passively?” The auto workforce and the working class, they want to be engaged — they want to fight. I think this is a way of saying, “Yes, you’re all going to be ready, and those of you who aren’t on strike now, be ready. You will be called upon.”

Second, this politicizes the strike. The strike is as much a political strike as an economic strike, and it has to do with the policies of the Biden administration and really the larger political economy of the industry itself. I think striking all three is saying, “This is a new day.” Shawn Fain and others have said, “It’s a stand-up strike. We had sit-down strikes eighty years ago, and that was important. Now we’re asking autoworkers to stand up.” I think that’s clever and intelligent, and I think it reflects the mood of the working class now.

Suzi Weissman

We’ve had this period of rising momentum in the labor movement, including the UPS Teamsters representing 340,000 workers, who had practice pickets and were ready to go on strike, and then won a historic contract. Some people say they should have gone on strike. I want to get your reflection on why it’s a good moment now for UAW to do this.

Nelson Lichtenstein

I think there’s a thirst out there for demonstrations of labor power, which is why some people, myself included, were looking forward to a short Teamsters strike. I think they won a lot — a good contract. But the UPS demonstration of power would’ve been quite good, because everyone knows a UPS driver. Autoworkers are in factories, so you don’t encounter them every day.

But the companies have been making money, there is low unemployment, and employees are working long shifts. That’s one of the complaints: we have mandatory overtime, we don’t have a life. Hire more people! What about turning the temporary workers into full-time workers? That’s part of their argument.

As everyone from the conservative labor economist on one side to the most militant worker on the other would agree, this is a moment of labor empowerment. One of the issues in this moment, despite this period of favorable conditions for labor, is that companies are remaining intransigent when it comes to union recognition. That’s obviously clear with Starbucks and Amazon, but it’s also the studios; it’s also the automakers.

Ford and GM are unionized, but when it comes to the electric vehicle battery plants, which are very important, they’ve said, “They’re joint ventures. We can’t agree to automatic unionization there. And if we do, we want lower wages and so on.” So capital is remaining intransigent despite this moment of working-class empowerment.

In previous moments, going back to the 1880s and around 1900 and World War I, and then the 1930s and the ’60s, when you had moments of working-class insurgency, union membership ballooned. That’s not happening yet today. I think that says something about what’s going on in the corridors of power, and these companies know what’s going on there. I think part of their strategy is, “Let’s wait for the next recession.”

Suzi Weissman

I like that Shawn Fain said that the CEOs of the Big Three have had a 40 percent increase in their pay, so workers are going to ask for the same thing. In other words, they’re going to claw back gains after all those years of concessionary contracts.

Nelson Lichtenstein

Shawn Fain’s been giving excellent speeches, and they’ve gotten better. He is basically channeling Walter Reuther on the one hand and Bernie Sanders on the other.

One of the most remarkable things that’s happened inside the UAW is that Fain has appointed and recruited to his staff people who were once oppositionists, people around Labor Notes. For forty years, there has been this ginger group outside the UAW — the Labor Notes group, which I identify with — saying, “Let’s put some movement back in the labor movement.” People like Chris Brooks, who was a writer for Labor Notes, and Jonah Furman, a radical labor writer, are now on his staff. And there’s this kind of popular front. I think [it shows] that Fain is a very skillful leader.

By the way, the idea of this strike — we’re going to strike three factories now, then next week another three, and so on — is a way of keeping this thing in the news. That’s important, keeping it in the political news, because in previous years, there are big headlines the first day of the strike and then everyone forgets about it. Especially when the union and the management are having these negotiations in secret. . . . Fain wants to advertise exactly what’s been offered, and he’s doing that. I think that’s very important, and the union is doing it skillfully.

I want to say something about politics here and about the Biden administration. Here’s my big historical analogy: in 1946, when the UAW went on its famous great postwar strike against GM, the issue for the country at that time was, were working-class living standards going to remain as high as they’d been during World War II? Were they going to continue at that level, or are we going to have a depression and a return to what had happened after World War I, and so on?

GM employees on the picket line outside at the Chevrolet Gear & Axle Plant No. 1 during the United Auto Workers strike in Detroit, Michigan, circa 1946. (Graphic House / Archive Photos / Getty Images)

The UAW’s demand at that time was purchasing power for prosperity. That was the phrase: wage increases without price increases, which meant we want the Office of Price Administration, which was a very popular agency, to continue to maintain a price ceiling on things like steel and cars while wages go up, and you’d have a real wage increase. This was what the wartime New Deal wanted, what even the Truman administration wanted. The union strike was not just for autoworkers — and Reuther was very good at making that clear — but it was in the interest of the entire working class.

The UAW didn’t win what they wanted, but it did in fact set the stage for the doubling of working-class living standards over the next three decades. It’s the only time in the last 175 years of American capitalism where workers’ real incomes doubled.

Today Fain and the UAW are saying, what is the government policy? It is to have a transition to a green economy and in the process reindustrialize the Midwest with good jobs, which will be a prophylactic against Trumpism. So the UAW is saying, this is what we’re fighting for, and it’s really fighting for what at least a sizable slice of the polity also wants. And they’re forcing Joe Biden to say — and he did in fact say — “Yes, the autoworkers deserve more money.”

The problem is that the devil’s always in the details. The Biden administration put out all this money to help companies transition, but what are the criteria whereby both unionism will take place and there will be high wages in these battery plants? That’s where you’ve got to get the details right. That’s also part of what the UAW is doing.

Suzi Weissman

Let’s talk about the tactic of the stand-up strike, because people are calling it the twenty-first-century equivalent to the 1930s sit-down strikes. That refers principally to the Flint sit-down strikes.

Does the analogy hold, and do you think that the stand-up strike is as effective? One of the things that I think is worrying is that while these individual factories are on strike, what are the rest of the workers in the UAW doing? How do you maintain unity and broad support?

Nelson Lichtenstein

In 1937, the sit-down strikes were a distinct minority of the workforce. It was the militant minority. The overall majority of autoworkers continued working or were sitting on their hands at home, waiting to see what would happen. It was only after the minority had occupied the factories that people poured into the union, all those who’d been sitting on their hands or just continuing to work.

A young striker off sentry duty sleeping on an assembly line of auto seats in Fisher Body Plant Factory No. 3 in Flint, Michigan, 1937. (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

There is a tactical difference. In 1937, the UAW wanted to strike crucial plants that would then shut down other plants. And it did. That was the famous occupation Chevy No. 4, which they did a few weeks on, and it was kind of a battle.

This time, the UAW does not want to shut down the entire company by striking crucial plants, to begin with at least. They want to increase the pressure, like with the frog in the pot. They are not choosing crucial plants. They are choosing profitable assembly plants that are making money and selling cars, but they’re not striking crucial plants. The ideological and social spirit is the same, but the actual tactic is to increase the pressure slowly. They don’t want to shut down the companies.

Suzi Weissman

We’re talking about “Why now?” and this hot summer of strikes and renewed militancy. Do you see this strike, along with the other strikes this summer, as igniting a new period?

Nelson Lichtenstein

I can’t see the crystal ball. I’m hopeful, of course. One thing I do know is you get a good contract — and I think they are going to get higher wages — then you take those high wages, that good contract, you go to Toyota, you go to Tesla, and you say, “Hey, you should be unionized, because here’s what we just got.” The Teamsters will do that with Amazon.

That’s very important because these concession-era contracts with two tiers . . . people at Toyota or other companies, they say, “Why should I join you? Why should I pay dues? Because you aren’t doing so well.”

Let me say something about Tesla here. It’s a double-edged sword. The Big Three say, and they are correct in a certain sense, that if we have high labor costs and we have to compete with Tesla — and already the majority of electrical vehicles are being produced by Tesla — which is nonunion and has relatively low labor costs, it’s going to eat our lunch. So, UAW, you are just being shortsighted.

On the other hand, if the UAW does win high wages at the Big Three, then they can take that contract to Tesla workers and say, “Join us.” In theory, the Big Three would like to have Tesla be unionized. They’d like to have Tesla have higher costs, because that would be good for them.

Do we think the UAW can organize Tesla? Maybe not. You have this eccentric billionaire, who’s kind of trending fascist, with many billions to spend. You have a terrible labor law, which means he can run roughshod over his workforce, at a plant that used to be a font of militancy in the area.

Organizing Tesla is existentially important in terms of the green transition because, if it doesn’t happen, then these companies are going to be resistant. This is why everything is at stake here: the fate of labor law and the nature of the working class in the Midwest and Trump’s appeal — it’s all there.

Suzi Weissman

Do you see this strike, and the other strikes, as renewing a spirit for the public [good] and a social democratization of society?

Nelson Lichtenstein

We may live in a social democratic moment — not a revolutionary moment, but a social democratic moment. Winning is good. Winning begets more winning. I think we’re having some of that winning and that creates enthusiasm.

The Starbucks thing is, partly at least, [that one store] unionized and then that spread like wildfire. The Teamster victory was a good contract. It could have been better, but it was a very good one. I think that’s the kind of message you can take to many other people. There’s a reason there’s interest in unionization. Most people don’t even know what a union is, but at least they support it. They’re looking for something to oppose this inequality.

Let me say one more thing about inequality. I think sometimes the Left makes a mistake in emphasizing that [GM CEO] Mary Barra or some rich person is getting all these millions of dollars, and that’s five hundred times more than the ordinary worker. Most ordinary workers never encounter a billionaire. They may see that as a kind of abstract thing.

What they do see is the person next to them and working is making $3 more an hour than they are. That’s what pisses people off: these sort of inequalities within the working class. The two-tier thing is obviously in auto factories, but it happens everywhere. It’s all over the place, in every service-sector job, hospitals and whatnot — inequalities that grow during periods of labor weakness; management makes all these kinds of decisions of their own.

One of the things that the union movement did during its moment of power was, in the period of great compression, it wasn’t just that the CEOs got relatively less than workers. Within the working class, there was this compression. So in the state of Michigan in 1955, African-American autoworkers earned 95 percent of what white autoworkers earned. You could find that in lots of places. Those inequalities have grown in a period of union weakness.

That’s what the unions are seeking to do: “We want progression, we want to know what’s going on, we want define the structure of the wages so that it is less inequitable.” I think that is important and has as much of an impact as denunciations of the billionaire class.

Suzi Weissman

You said somewhere that 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 the UAW strike is offering that leadership. Can you talk a bit about that?

Nelson Lichtenstein

The working class has always proceeded with a vanguard: a minority with consciousness and power and a sense of purpose. That’s going back to the mid-nineteenth century. Walter Reuther famously said the UAW is the vanguard in America. He meant it’s setting the standards for the future.

All of the unions we’ve been talking about are anywhere from eighty to 120 years old. Sometimes the unions are corrupt and stolid and so on, but sometimes they’re full of new young militants. The UAW, this institution that’s been around for a long time, has been diminished. But now it has a leadership and a membership who want to do something. It’s quite possible people all over the country will take inspiration from that, and I’m hopeful that will happen.