The UAW Decided to Use a Novel Strike Strategy. It’s Working.

The UAW’s “stand-up” strike strategy, which targets portions of the Big Three simultaneously, was a gamble. But the approach has worked so far, allowing the union to gradually escalate pressure on companies while empowering rank-and-file workers.

United Auto Workers (UAW) members and supporters on a picket line outside the Ford Motor Co. Chicago Assembly Plant in Chicago, Illinois, on September 30, 2023. (Taylor Glascock / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Many longtime observers of North America’s autoworker unions expressed bewilderment at the United Auto Workers’ announcement in August 2023 that it would strike the Big Three automakers all at once this fall. How could this possibly work?

It’s true that it’s a major departure from the union’s long-established approach. Since the 1940s, and certainly since Walter Reuther negotiated the 1950 Treaty of Detroit with General Motors (GM), the United Auto Workers (UAW) have used pattern bargaining to set the sectoral standard, first targeting one company and then spreading the pattern collective agreement reached there to the others. A strike might be needed at one of the companies, to either establish or spread the pattern, but never all three at once. That practice was replicated in Canada and is still being used by Unifor, the union built out from the Canadian Auto Workers, in bargaining that is also now underway.

As the UAW strike enters its third week, the shape of the union’s strategy and tactics has come into greater focus. No contract agreements have been reached, so we are still talking about the as-yet unrealized promise of the UAW’s approach. But a few elements are worth noting, since they signal some interesting lessons for other unions.

First, bargaining is very public. Members know what’s happening at the table, which is novel enough. The tradition in North American labor relations has long been to bargain in private; members are brought in when an impasse or a tentative agreement is reached. Employers prefer it this way. GM CEO Mary Barra confirmed this on September 29 in her statement on negotiations, asserting that “serious bargaining happens at the table, not in public.”

This approach has been challenged in recent years, not least by Jane McAlevey’s advocacy of big, open bargaining as a key source of union power. In her approach, members are not only informed but actively involved in the strategic discussions around bargaining. Their engagement lends the effort more power by demonstrating unity, harnessing their creativity and knowledge, and preventing employers from being able to frame what’s happening in bargaining, because everyone is watching.

But the fact that McAlevey and groups like Labor Notes have had to work so hard to spread this approach tells us how entrenched the default is. The UAW’s use of social media to broadcast the current state of play on key bargaining issues might not conform exactly to McAlevey’s model, but it does stake out an approach that insists that bargaining will not take place solely in backrooms.

But the public knows all about UAW bargaining too. Why? Relaying the union’s demands to the public is an approach more commonly used by public sector unions. Many of them have come to rely on strategies involving the public because the public is directly implicated, whether as service users or taxpayers. Allowing the employer to mobilize the public against striking workers creates a huge strategic problem, so the union must figure out how to bring the public onto its side in meaningful ways. In recent years, the Chicago Teachers Union and other education workers’ unions have demonstrated this strategy by “bargaining for the common good,” tying educators’ demands for livable wages and better staffing to the quality of students’ education.

The connection between the public interest and the outcomes of private sector bargaining can seem more distant. For years, nonunion workers have looked at union contracts as something they don’t benefit from. And it’s not that long ago that autoworkers were considered among the most privileged in the working class, to be resented rather than emulated.

But today it’s clear that what happens in private sector negotiations does affect the public interest. From the outset, the UAW has framed its bargaining as not only about getting record contracts but also inspiring other workers to demand more in their own workplaces. These negotiations are also about the health of communities where UAW members live, as the union has conveyed in its public communications. Better wages and more job security means healthier and more sustainable local economies: working people spend their money in their communities rather than hoarding it in offshore bank accounts. This clear positioning of the union’s actions as in the public interest is resonating, if public opinion polls and President Joe Biden’s historic visit to the autoworkers’ picket lines are any indication.

Bargaining with the Big Three in public, all at the same time, also turns the tables on the companies. UAW members aren’t competing in a race to the bottom — instead, the companies must compete to sign a good deal first and prevent more disruption to their operations. And everyone knows who the holdouts are.

We can see this tactic in operation over the last two weeks. On September 21, when the UAW expanded the strike to GM and Stellantis parts distribution centers across the United States, it refrained from expanding the strike at Ford as a reward for major progress at the bargaining table and punished GM and Stellantis. On September 28, Stellantis got the reward for last-minute progress on a cost-of-living adjustment, workers’ rights not to cross picket lines, and the right to strike over plant closures, and the walkout was expanded to Ford and GM assembly plants in Chicago and Lansing Delta Township. In this way, the union can surgically increase pressure on the companies, without blowing the whole strike fund, and still leave a path to settle the strike on the union’s terms before a sector-wide walkout is needed.

All of this lends credence to the UAW’s tactical approach to escalation and the union’s strategic decision to take on the Big Three all at once. It’s a new take on how to set sector-wide standards, but one that might produce better results than sequencing bargaining, since the union can likely minimize the divergence between the different contract agreements.

The UAW strategy also centers members’ collective power. They are active in the contract fight, whether on the picket line or not. Being on strike is an essential form of leverage, but it’s not the only one. Working UAW members are exerting pressure by refusing voluntary overtime and monitoring changes to working conditions. They are practicing picketing and rallying to show their strike readiness. They are joining road trips and convoys to support other members’ picket lines. They are dancing and making music, expressing their experiences in ways that resonate and inspire.

These displays build the morale of those out on strike, but also signal to the employers who might be going out next — providing information that may or may not be correct. In fact, rumors about which plants were in line to be struck caused management to move parts around to anticipate the disruption, only to find that the shutdown they thought was happening at the one plant was taking place in the location where they sent the parts. So it seems members are providing strategic information to the bargaining team and leadership that can be used tactically to bait and switch, interfering with the Big Three supply chains in ways that might not be possible without that on-the-ground knowledge.

In other words, UAW members are rediscovering their collective power on the job, a power that can be used after the strike is over — because once a contract is bargained, it needs to be enforced. Labor relations is replete with examples of employers agreeing to contract provisions knowing that they will find a way around them once bargaining is done. An active and empowered membership makes such end runs much more difficult.

In the meantime, the UAW’s leadership and staff, whether president, bargaining team, lawyers, or communications, aren’t substituting for members and telling them, “We’re the experts, we’ll take of it.” Instead, leaders’ and staff’s expertise is being deployed to support and empower members in their participation, during and potentially after the strike.

Twenty-five thousand members at the Big Three are now on the picket line, so there is a still quite a way to go before we see a full walkout of the UAW’s 150,000 auto-sector membership. Only time will tell whether this tactical application of pressure will be enough to reach the high expectations the union has set. But one thing is for certain: this is a UAW transformed, and a strike to learn from.