After decades of skyrocketing inequality and increasing capture of the government by the ultrarich, in 2016 and 2020, millions of Americans found a political voice for their anger — and hope for a better future — in the presidential campaign of a cranky, democratic socialist senator from Vermont. Bernie Sanders blazed across the country talking about the need for a “political revolution” of ordinary people against the billionaire class that had rigged society for its own benefit.
But today the signature reforms Sanders campaigned on — Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a jobs guarantee, free education for all from pre-K to college, etc. — are off the agenda. While President Joe Biden’s administration has been more progressive than expected, its achievements have come nowhere near the ambitious demands of Sanders’s political revolution.
Something else is happening, however. From high-profile organizing efforts at corporate behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks, to an explosion of labor activity in higher education, to the ouster of corrupt old-guard leaderships at major unions like the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW) and giant Hollywood strikes this summer, the United States’ long-moribund labor movement is showing signs of life.
The latest such episode: today, the 146,000-strong UAW, under new leadership elected on promises of reforming the union into a democratic and militant force, launched a strike against the Big Three US automakers (Stellantis, General Motors, and Ford). The union’s goals include reversing decades of concessions, ending contract tiers that divide workers, ensuring that the government-fueled transition to electric vehicles actually creates good jobs, and winning a shorter workweek.
New UAW president Shawn Fain made auto executives nervous with his uncompromising rhetoric in the lead-up to the strike. In his public statements, he has waxed poetic about class struggle and the plight of the US worker while invoking the Gospels. And he’s made a habit of concluding bargaining updates to members by literally putting the automakers’ contract proposals in the trash can.
I just watched Fain’s 37 minute presentation update on UAW negotiations. He often sounded like Bernie Sanders, but better because on September 14 Fain and the section of the working class he leads may well go on strike to make his rhetoric a reality. https://t.co/RoTkhjF7hc
— Nelson Lichtenstein (@NelsonLichtens1) September 1, 2023
It’s no wonder that many are drawing connections between Fain and Bernie Sanders (who is joining striking UAW workers at a rally in Detroit this afternoon). Earlier this month, labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein wrote on Twitter:
I just watched Fain’s 37 minute presentation update on UAW negotiations. He often sounded like Bernie Sanders, but better because on September 14 Fain and the section of the working class he leads may well go on strike to make his rhetoric a reality.
Since the 1970s, autoworkers have in many ways been the canaries in the coal mine for the US working class writ large. While they used to be able to expect good wages, job security, and generous pensions — largely because of their union — over the past several decades many autoworkers have found their standard of living deteriorate as auto companies shipped positions overseas or to nonunion regions, extracted more and more givebacks, established lower-tier jobs, and ramped up exploitation on the shop floor.
The UAW reform movement that brought Fain to power, and the current strike, represent workers fighting back. Autoworkers are attempting to undo what decades of neoliberalism have wrought in their industry and others.
This is how Fain himself framed the strike in a video the union released on September 13: “This is our generation’s defining moment. Let’s stand up for ourselves and the working class. Let’s stand up for future generations. Let’s stand up for economic and social justice.”
— UAW (@UAW) September 13, 2023
From the Ballot Box to the Shop Floor
Striking UAW members are taking the torch from Sanders’s presidential campaigns, in a few different ways. It’s not only that Sanders and the UAW share the goals of attacking corporate power. It’s that the revival of militancy at major unions like the UAW is essential to winning the transformative changes the Sanders movement has championed.
The giant strike wave that roiled the United States in the early 1930s was a major impetus behind the second wave of New Deal reforms, which institutionalized collective bargaining rights, established Social Security, and launched the massive Works Progress Administration. And the countries that Sanders likes to point to as having put his ideas into action — like Sweden and Finland — were able to do so only because of social democratic parties that came to power on the back of massive, militant trade union movements.
The progressives and socialists who flooded into groups like Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the Sunrise Movement in the wake of Sanders’s presidential campaigns have continued to win elections for public office across the country and notch legislative victories. But many have also realized the importance of organizing in the labor movement, as shown by DSA’s mobilization this summer to support the possible UPS Teamsters strike and their planned actions to stand in solidarity with the UAW. Through the Emergency Workplace Organizing Committee (EWOC), DSA members have been helping workers organize nonunion workplaces, and many socialists are taking jobs in important sectors like logistics, nursing, and teaching to help transform unions in a militant, democratic direction.
Today’s militancy in the UAW is in no small part the product of decades of efforts from similarly minded socialists and fellow travelers, especially groups like Labor Notes. And in an earlier era, left-wing rank-and-file organizers played key roles in building the US labor movement to the height of its power in the 1930s and ’40s. If the fighting spirit we’re now seeing in the UAW and elsewhere catches fire, it will probably be in large part thanks to the efforts of the Sanders-inspired left combining its efforts at the ballot box with fierce workplace organizing.