The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike against the Detroit “Big Three” auto companies is rapidly turning into a political conflict of enormous implications, whose outcome will reverberate into the 2024 presidential election and shape the economic and social terrain upon which a transition to a green economy is grounded. It already seems likely that Donald Trump will visit a UAW picket line in Michigan, and the speculation is that if he does so, President Joe Biden’s appearance outside a factory gate cannot be far behind.
The political character of the current walkout now echoes some of the most consequential labor management conflicts of the last century: the UAW strike against General Motors in 1945 and 1946, when the standard of living of the entire postwar working class was at stake; the Memphis Sanitation strike of 1968, which opened the door to the unionization and empowerment of a public sector workforce that was often linked to civil rights organizing; and the tragic strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981, whose destruction at the hands of President Ronald Reagan set the stage for years of labor defeat and demoralization.
Why the Strike is Becoming Political
We have come to this point for two reasons: first, the UAW is today led by a cohort of militants whose ambitions are expansive and transformative. President Shawn Fain’s rhetoric resembles that of both the legendary Walter Reuther, a social democrat who presided over a collective bargaining regime that doubled the real incomes of US autoworkers, and Bernie Sanders, whose denunciation of the billionaire class has animated a larger slice of the working class than any tribune since Eugene V. Debs. And there seems no doubt that a majority of autoworkers, not to mention millions of other US workers, heartily endorse the new militancy coursing through the veins of a union founded by Communists, Socialists, and Social Gospel Christians eighty-five years ago. (Fain skillfully deploys biblical texts in many speeches.)
Second, the present strike is becoming political because it coincides with a momentous transformation of the industry itself: a transition to electrical vehicles (EVs) whose production is being subsidized and incentivized by the Biden administration through a multibillion-dollar industrial policy — a policy whose impact on the America that actually makes things made of metal, glass, silicon chips, and plastic has been surpassed only by the mobilization of “manpower” and money that took place at the start of World War II.
Tax subsidies and federal grants and loans have generated a wave of new investments, among them nearly $90 billion in spending by the big auto manufacturers alone. There are plans to build EVs and the crucial battery plants that provide so much of the power train in Georgia (Hyundai and Rivian); North Carolina (Toyota); Texas (Tesla); South Carolina (BMW); Alabama (Mercedes-Benz); Tennessee (General Motors and Ford); and Kentucky (Ford).
In the ongoing negotiations with the UAW, it seems likely that the old Big Three will offer the union a large wage increase, partly to compensate workers for the real-dollar wage cuts they conceded during the economic crisis that followed the fiscal implosion of 2008 and 2009. GM and Chrysler went bankrupt then and were saved only by an Obama administration rescue, which is one reason that President Biden has taken the unusual step of publicly chiding auto management for its failure to offer workers more of a compensating wage boost.
The union is probably also going to win a substantial elimination of the wage tiers that the industry instituted in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Those tiers violate the canon “equal pay for equal work” and represent a subversion of the solidarity that lies at the heart of the union impulse.
Progressives are wont to denounce the inequality so manifest in the multimillion-dollar salaries and stock manipulations enjoyed by corporate executives. That’s all true, and UAW president Fain has made clear that if the top auto CEOs have enjoyed a 40 percent boost in their pay during the last four years, then autoworkers should as well. But of more social and political consequence has been the growth of inequalities within the working class, where resentment and conflict can fester, especially in hard times. The UAW wants to “compress” the wages paid to auto workers, both within existing unionized factories and in relation to those EV plants and battery factories yet to be built.
The EV Issue
Yet the most important issue on the table — though it is not officially on the table — involves the quest for unionization and Big Three wages at the many battery plants and other EV facilities that are being constructed, many in the South. The companies claim that since many of the battery plants are joint ventures with Korean or Chinese companies, they are not covered by any contract the UAW might negotiate. What’s more, many of these plants will not be in operation for many months, if not years.
But all this is just another way for Big Three executives to ensure that when those factories do come on line, they will be competitive with the production facilities at nonunion firms like Tesla and the East Asian and German transplants. That would create a new set of low-wage tiers, which Fain has denounced as an EV transition in which the federal government is “actively funding the race to the bottom with billions in public money.”
Fain and others in the UAW are hopeful that a contract victory can be taken to the nonunion workers at Tesla and Toyota, convincing them that militant and democratic unionism is the best pathway to a better life. Given the deplorable state of labor law and the intransigence of management, Fain will also need the active backing of the Biden administration.
The president has already asserted that he is behind the union in its quest for a big wage increase, but he’s been more equivocal about the unionization of the new battery plants. The administration wants a “just transition” to a green, electrically driven economy, and the billions of dollars in loans, grants, and consumer rebates would seem to give the feds significant leverage in prodding auto companies to accept the unionization of a new set of high-wage jobs. But when the Inflation Reduction Act was passed last year, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, the crucial Democratic vote, stripped out of the legislation a $4,500 consumer rebate for purchase of EV vehicles produced in unionized factories.
Manchin’s machinations left Biden without a crucial tool to make that electrified transition “just” and “union.” Nevertheless, he has sent to Detroit Julie Su, the acting labor secretary, and Gene Sperling, a senior advisor to the president, who are doubtless putting some pressure on the auto execs there. Sperling has been a high-level insider in every Democratic administration since Bill Clinton’s inauguration. In fact, in 1999, Clinton sent Sperling to China with trade official Charlene Barshefsky. Their job was to work out the deal that got China into the World Trade Organization, a move that over the next decade destroyed upward of five million manufacturing jobs, many in Midwestern industrial towns and cities. It’s a high irony that Sperling’s current mission seeks to rectify some of that damage, both economic and political.
The UAW, Trump, and Biden
If the administration and the union fail to secure high wages in the new battery plants, then Donald Trump’s denunciation of Bidenomics and the entire EV transition will win much purchase and votes among Midwestern and mid-South industrial workers. If the new jobs are inferior to the old, then workers and voters might well reject the whole green transition and the administration that champions it.
(Though the UAW has withheld its endorsement of Biden, Fain has also made clear where the union stands on Trump: “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. 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, expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.)
So the stakes are high. Indeed, the tension-filled relationship between the UAW and the Biden administration resembles that between Reuther’s UAW and the Harry Truman administration during the great General Motors strike of 1945 and 1946. Both the union and most postwar New Dealers wanted to advance real wages after the war by sustaining price controls on steel, autos, and electrical products. The UAW slogan “wage increases without price increases” proved both popular and in tandem with administration policy. This would have created the purchasing power necessary for a working class fearful of a return of Depression austerity.
The UAW lost that immediate postwar battle, but it won a larger war with the auto industry that over the next three decades doubled the real wages of workers in auto, agricultural implements, and aircraft and in all those other postwar corporations, union or not, that followed the “pattern” forged by the union and its adversaries in those industries where it represented upward of a million and a half workers.
Just as full production and a rising standard of living were New Deal and post–New Deal policies of many northern Democrats, today a politically viable transition to a green economy requires a potent and victorious union movement. The contemporary UAW is therefore the “vanguard” — a favorite Reuther word in the late 1940s — in the larger progressive effort to fight climate change, renew the industrial Midwest, and defeat the pernicious appeal of a Trumpist demagoguery within the US working class.