In Canada and the US, Autoworkers Have Notched Major Victories Against the Big Three

The United Auto Workers’ strikes against Ford, GM, and Stellantis have resulted in historic wins. The union’s counterpart in Canada was negotiating with the automakers at the same time — and, despite differences in strategy and tactics, also made big gains.

Employees and Unifor members hold "On Strike" signs outside the General Motors plant in Ingersoll, Ontario, on September 20, 2017.(James MacDonald / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Auto unions have played an outsize role in the history of the North American labor movement, dating back to the famous sit-down strikes organized by the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s that launched industrial unionism. During the postwar Fordist era, the economic gains won by the United Auto Workers came to symbolize the potential of “middle-class” prosperity.

Under neoliberalism, that success was undermined by restructuring, globalization, and plant closures. No longer the leading wedge of working-class expectations, autoworkers spent the next decades mostly trying to hang onto past gains. Real wages, pensions, and job security all suffered. The nadir was 2009, when two of the three North American automakers — General Motors (GM) and what was then Chrysler, now part of the global Stellantis conglomerate — entered bankruptcy protection, resulting in major reductions in contract terms across the industry.

This painful history underlines the historical significance of autoworkers and their unions fighting back now. Despite a smaller market share and manufacturing footprint, the North American automakers have booked tens of billions of dollars in profit in recent years. On workers’ side of the ledger, a tighter labor market, anger at the cost-of-living crisis, and a broader upsurge in union activity have emboldened autoworkers to take the initiative, advancing much more forceful demands in this year’s bargaining with the automakers.

Under new leadership, the UAW entered 2023 contract talks with the Detroit Three automakers (GM, Stellantis, and Ford) with an ambitious agenda and a new approach to bargaining. A series of targeted strikes at all three companies began on September 15. Six weeks later, about one-third of the UAW’s 146,000 members at the three companies were on strike.

On October 25, the UAW reached a tentative deal with Ford, containing historic wage gains (25 percent improvements in base wages over a four-year eight-month contract term, as well as cost-of-living adjustments), elimination of former lower-tier wage categories, pension improvements, and investment commitments (including winning a pledge from Stellantis to reopen its shuttered Belvidere manufacturing facility).

Within days, a parallel tentative agreement was reached with Stellantis. Hours later, following an escalation of strike activity, GM accepted the same terms. The UAW is now launching a ratification process for its members at all three companies.

North of the border, the UAW’s Canadian counterparts in Unifor — an amalgamated union that includes Canadian autoworkers — also achieved big wins. They reached a new contract with Ford on September 19, featuring what are likely the richest economic gains in the history of the Canadian auto industry.

Then, after a one-day strike that shuttered all of GM’s Canadian operations, that company accepted the same deal. Two weeks later, after a strike that lasted only eight hours, Unifor reached a tentative deal with Stellantis, again with parallel terms.

Two Countries

This year marked the first time since 1999 that autoworkers in both countries negotiated regular contracts at the same time. This naturally invites comparisons between the two unions and their strategies. (Autoworkers in Mexico are equally important in the continent’s integrated auto industry, but they are fragmented among many different unions, with different contract periods, and hence there are no corresponding industry-wide negotiations as in Canada and the United States.)

There are many differences in the history, structure, and strategies of auto unions in the United States and Canada. Ultimately, however, both unions are engaged in the same struggle: to win a fairer share of the wealth produced by this industry, boost worker power in the sector, and in so doing rejuvenate industrial trade unionism. And both unions made historic progress in this round of bargaining.

Big differences in the broader legal and political climate have shaped the course of trade unionism on each side of the border, including in the auto industry. On this score there is no doubt Canada has been the more receptive environment for unions.

The overall unionization rate (nearly 30 percent) is almost three times higher than in the United States. Canadian labor laws (such as rules on unfair labor practices, strikes, and achieving first contracts in newly organized workplaces) are far more union-friendly. Strikes are more frequent in Canada too: typically more workdays are lost to strikes each year than in the entire US, which has nine times the population.

Canada’s “Rand formula” (first won by autoworkers after a long strike at a Ford factory in Windsor, Ontario, in 1946) establishes a secure financial basis for certified unions, by requiring all workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement to pay union dues; unlike in the United States, there are no “right-to-work” laws in Canada.

Two Unions

Reflecting these different legal, economic, and political contexts, the UAW and Unifor evolved in different ways after the independent Canadian auto union was formed in 1985. For the first half-century of industrial unionism, unionized Canadian autoworkers belonged to the UAW, which included workers at the Canadian plants of GM, Ford, Chrysler, and then American Motors (eventually acquired by Chrysler) beginning in the 1930s.

But after years of tension over strategy (reflected in the Canadians’ opposition to wage concessions, profit-sharing schemes, and two-tier wages), the Canadian branch of the UAW split away to form the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) in 1985. At the time, the UAW had about 1.2 million members, one-tenth (120,000) of whom belonged to its Canadian branch.

After independence, the CAW embarked on a program of mergers and new organizing to diversify its membership into many other sectors (including transportation, hospitality, health care, and retail). In 2013, it combined with another Canadian industrial union to form Unifor, Canada’s largest private sector union. Today, Unifor has 325,000 members, less than one-tenth of whom are in the auto industry.

This size and diversity has given Unifor financial and political clout: able to withstand long strikes even at large employers and exercising strong influence with both federal and provincial leaders. This influence is evident in huge government support for auto industry investments (including new electric vehicle and battery plants) and pro-worker solutions to labor conflicts (such as forcing the right-wing Ontario government to abandon recent anti-union laws).

The UAW’s evolution since the split has been more challenging, reflecting the much more hostile environment for unions in the United States. Since the CAW left in 1985, the UAW has lost two-thirds of its membership; it now has fewer than 400,000 members. Despite organizing in other sectors (notably universities), about half the union’s members still work in auto.

Both unions endured tough times as the North American auto industry restructured in the face of growing market dominance by offshore automakers — none of which are yet unionized in either the United States or Canada — big losses at the North American automakers in the 2000s, and dozens of plant closures. Unifor hung onto a few more of its past gains, including better wage growth (in 2022, real production wages after inflation for autoworkers were 16 percent higher than when the CAW was formed in 1985, versus a real wage decline in the United States over the same period), avoiding full two-tier wage systems, and preserving partial cost-of-living adjustments (COLA).

Another similarity is that both unions entered the current bargaining with new leadership. UAW members elected a new slate of leaders earlier this year, headed by President Shawn Fain, promising to strengthen internal democracy and rekindle the UAW’s activist history. Fain’s leadership represents a sharp change from the bureaucratic, concessionary approach of recent generations of UAW leaders, several of whom were jailed for corruption.

In Canada, Unifor’s Lana Payne (the first woman to head the auto union in either country) was elected in 2022. Her predecessor had also left office under a cloud (although without criminal charges), having accepted payments from an outside company. She has become a national figurehead for a reenergized union movement in Canada.

Recognizing their common cause, the two leaders have already established a cooperative relationship, meeting in person and liaising regularly through the current bargaining. That marks a distinct shift from years of cool relations between the two unions dating back to the CAW’s departure in 1985.

Different Strategies

The two unions and their leaders have in interesting respects pursued different bargaining and communication strategies. In most (but not all) previous auto bargaining, each union would choose an initial “target” company with which to negotiate an initial “pattern” contract. Then in subsequent talks, the union would try to get the other companies to agree to the same broad economic terms. Specific workplace issues were determined by local plant agreements.

This pattern system has been a vital bulwark for the unions. The goal is to set industry-wide benchmarks, so companies cannot compete by driving down labor costs; instead, they battle on productivity, quality, and innovation. Pattern bargaining was common in many industries during the postwar heyday of private sector unionism, but in most cases it has since been defeated by corporate opposition.

The UAW and Unifor are both determined to maintain the pattern system, but this year pursued it in different ways. Under Fain, the UAW bargained with all three companies at the same time. By maintaining active negotiations with all three and launching targeted strikes against each of them, Fain hoped they would compete to offer the best deal to workers — on pain of continuing strikes at the holdouts.

Fain’s team also pursued a very public approach in communicating the details of bargaining proposals, including widely publicizing them through both conventional and social media channels. Initial union demands included a 46 percent pay raise, a four-day workweek, restoration of defined benefit pensions, and more.

In this way, the UAW’s leaders built public support for the targeted strikes and for the broader goal of a revitalized labor movement.

Unifor pursued a more conventional pattern bargaining strategy: reaching the first deal with a target company and then demanding that the other firms match it. And while Unifor has a very strong media and social media presence, the details of its bargaining positions were generally held within the negotiating committees. Any final deal reached is then subject to endorsement by all the committees and then by union members in a ratification vote.

The initial pattern deal Unifor reached with Ford contained economic improvements that are historic by any measure. Base wages will grow more than 20 percent over three years and regular quarterly COLA adjustments are being reinstated. Wages for skilled trades workers and younger workers increase faster: wages for a worker with one-year seniority will rise 80 percent by the third year (thanks to shortening and lifting the wage scale for new hires). A new pension system with guaranteed defined payments for retirees, instead of 401(k)-style accounts, will be implemented. Commitments were also made to new capital investments and special job security measures during the coming transition to electric vehicle production.

This pattern deal was ratified by Unifor members at Ford by a relatively narrow 54 percent margin. This continued a recent trend of narrow ratifications or outright rejections of tentative agreements by Canadian union members. Even seemingly strong agreements have received narrow endorsements in recent months; some (including for workers in construction, ports, and supermarkets) were turned down, extending work stoppages and forcing negotiators back to the table.

This trend confirms that workers are angry — and rightly so, after the pandemic, inflation, and decades of trickle-up inequality. That anger strengthens union power. On the other hand, unions must harness that anger in ways that win concrete progress and consolidate internal solidarity, also essential to union power. Ratification of the second Unifor contract at GM was much stronger, at 80 percent. Unifor is now organizing ratification meetings for its members at Stellantis.

Both unions have leveraged the current conjuncture of conditions — record automaker profits, tight labor markets, and a desire to fight back among rank-and-file members — to make historic gains. Some observers will focus on comparing the two sets of contracts. They offer broadly comparable economic gains, with some slight differences: the Unifor deal features slightly faster annualized wage increases and a stronger defined pension system; the UAW deal achieved a faster wage grow-in for new hires (three years versus Unifor’s four).

But by far the most obvious conclusion drawn from analyzing the bargaining in both countries is that both unions made enormous gains. And the militance that was expressed on both sides of the border clearly amplified the bargaining position of each union.

Both unions also hope the gains in this contract will spur a broader resurgence in industrial unionism. In announcing its tentative deal with Stellantis, the UAW even predicted that the next round of US auto bargaining (to occur in 2028) would by then feature five or six automakers, not just the Detroit Three — hoping that gains in this contract will spur organizing efforts at nonunion plants of companies like Toyota, Hyundai, and Tesla. Unifor also maintains an active organizing program, which has unionized important automotive and other plants in recent months.

Investment analysts will fret about the higher costs implied by these deals. However, direct labor costs account for under 5 percent of total expenses for brand-name automakers. Given their recent historic profits, it’s clear these companies can easily afford significant improvements in compensation and job security in both countries.

The UAW and Unifor have different histories and structures and operate in different legal and economic environments. But they are confirming again that workers need the collective strength that comes with strong, democratic, and ambitious unions to challenge the lopsided power imbalances of modern capitalism.