The United Auto Workers (UAW) has had a historic year.
Coming into 2023, the union had held its first-ever direct elections for leadership, and when the year began, the race for the top seat was too close to call. Shawn Fain, the candidate for the UAW Members United reform slate and a member of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a recently formed reform caucus, was vying with incumbent Ray Curry for the international presidency.
The results of the runoff came in mere days before the union held a special bargaining convention in Detroit, Michigan, to determine priorities for the upcoming negotiations with the Big Three automakers, who employ some 150,000 members. When the ballots were tallied, Fain had won by less than five hundred votes. He was sworn in as UAW president on March 26, the day before the convention kicked off. It proved to be one of the most important political developments in the United States all year.
In the months that followed, the UAW ran its first-ever contract campaign to prepare members for upcoming negotiations at the Big Three. And when the companies dragged their feet, failing to offer acceptable proposals to workers determined to win back what they’d lost in decades of concessionary contracts, the union struck. This was the first time the union had ever simultaneously walked out at the Detroit automakers — Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis — and it did so with a strategy it termed the “stand-up strike.” Rather than calling out all 150,000 members at once, the UAW escalated the work stoppages in waves, keeping pressure on the companies to offer more at the table or lose additional plants to the strike.
Despite capitalist conniptions about the cost the strike could pose to consumers, the public backed the autoworkers. As Fain argued, the fight was not only for the members, but for the entire working class. Indeed, the work stoppage in key swing states moved the political class into action, with Donald Trump traveling to Michigan to pretend to speak with the strikers, and Joe Biden actually walking a UAW picket line, the first-ever sitting president to do so.
“If you work for a living and you’ve been left behind, we have the same issues,” Fain told me. “The COVID pandemic made people reflect on what’s important in life, and what’s important in life isn’t working seven days a week, twelve or sixteen hours a day, or working multiple jobs to survive. People want to live.”
The gambit worked. Auto executives, despite their fury at the leadership’s antagonistic approach, had no choice but to give in. The now-ratified Big Three contracts include a host of wins, from cost-of-living allowances given up during the Great Recession to wage raises of 33 percent to the conversion of many temporary workers into full-time positions, with some of those employees’ wages more than doubling. The Stellantis contract also includes the reopening of an idled assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois, a priority for that plant’s former workers who have been scattered across the country since Stellantis shuttered the shop earlier this year.
“The UAW was underestimated the whole way, because when the game was over, it was just a real beatdown,” conceded CNBC’s Jim Cramer, who spent the weeks leading up to the strike fulminating over the union’s aggressive approach.
Fresh off its landmark strike win, the union announced on Friday that it would not only join the growing calls for a permanent cease-fire in Israel-Palestine, but form a Divestment and Just Transition working group to study the history of Israel and Palestine, the union’s economic ties to the conflict (the UAW owned Israeli bonds for years, and some of its members manufacture weapons bought by Israel), and how the UAW can contribute to a “just transition” for US defense workers from war to peace.
The announcement came two days after another historic one, the launching of a campaign to unionize workers at thirteen automakers, an ambitious push that will target 150,000 autoworkers, roughly the same number as are covered under the Big Three contracts.
“I Want Expectations Through the Roof”
While this year’s Big Three contracts represent major progress over the concessionary agreements of recent years, some members voted against approving them. The vote was 70 percent in favor of ratification at Stellantis, 69.3 percent at Ford, and 54.7 percent at General Motors.
“It sends a great message from the membership to the corporate class that, hey, they just got a record contract and they’re still not happy with it,” Fain said of the ratification votes. “When we set these demands, I was cautioned by several people in our leadership that we are setting expectations too high. But I want expectations fucking high. I want them through the roof. We should have high expectations because we’ve made a habit of aiming low and selling lower and we’ve got to get away from that.”
When I asked him to reflect on the remarkable year, he referred back to the March bargaining convention in Detroit to measure just how far the UAW has come.
“I was running the convention with no planning, no agenda, and no staff in place,” he said. “You saw that house, how it was that day: it was very divided, it was very cold. I’ve been president for seven months and in that time, we went from that opening to running our first-ever contract campaign to being completely transparent with our members throughout the bargaining process to not shaking hands with the CEOs at the opening of bargaining in favor of shaking hands with the members — who are truly the most important people — to bargaining our most successful contract in our union’s history. Now, we’re having an effect on other workers.”
Those other workers in question are the focus of the UAW’s next plan: going on the offensive at automakers who have built up a parallel nonunion workforce.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the number of autoworkers in the United States has not fallen in recent decades, remaining fairly steady at 1 percent of overall employment. What has dropped is the share of union workers: whereas 586,000 autoworkers were UAW members in 1983, that number was 225,000 in 2022. The union’s current membership consists of 380,000 workers and some six hundred thousand retirees. In other words, the majority of the country’s autoworkers are now nonunion.
The UAW wants to change that. Last Wednesday, the union went public with a campaign to organize workers at thirteen automakers: BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Mazda, Mercedes, Nissan, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. The drive will range from Tesla’s twenty thousand–worker factory in California to plants in the Midwest and, especially, the South, a region that functions as a low-wage, largely nonunion haven for businesses.
“We’ve shown the world that this industry is harming workers and consumers to the benefit of company executives and the rich, and it’s time that the working class did something about it,” said Fain in a video announcing the organizing drive. “You don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck. You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to feed your family while the company makes billions. A better life is out there. It starts with you: UAW.”
In the video, Fain notes that the Japanese and Korean six — Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru, and Mazda — raked in $470 billion in profits over the past decade, more than twice that of the Big Three, with more than 40 percent of their profits coming from the companies’ North American operations. The German three — Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes — have made $460 billion in profits over the same period.
The UAW says that it has heard from thousands of nonunion autoworkers over the past few months and is urging nonunion autoworkers to contact them directly to electronically sign union cards. Evidence of the seriousness of the push can be seen in the raises a number of nonunion employers have granted their workforces in the wake of the Big Three strike in hopes of retaining workers and warding off organizing campaigns: Honda has announced that it will hike pay for some workers in January 2024 by 11 percent — the same increase that many UAW members at the Big Three will see in the first year of their contract; Toyota is bumping wages by 9.2 percent for most assembly-line workers; Hyundai says that it will boost wages 25 percent by 2028; Subaru, too has announced plans to raise wages.
While most union campaigns favor secrecy until filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) (and after a supermajority of workers have signed union cards), the UAW is operating differently this time. The plan is as follows: once 30 percent of workers at a nonunion plant sign cards, it will make that news public. Once 50 percent of workers join, the union will hold a rally with union leadership featuring Fain, families, neighbors, and community leaders to build momentum for the effort. At 70 percent and with an organizing committee in place with members from every shift and job classification, the workers will seek voluntary recognition for their union. Should the company refuse, they will file for an NLRB election.
Such an approach is known as “hot shop” organizing: following up on leads from workers at plants where there is a desire to unionize rather than solely pursuing predetermined targets. The hope is that wins will beget more wins, with the strong contracts achieved at the Big Three a more effective organizing tool than any amount of planning and strategizing. Rather than taking the lead from the UAW, workers in nonunion shops are encouraged to move quickly and push now, while the time is right and the working class has the wind at its back.
“We Saw What the UAW Members Won”
In a press release announcing its new union drive in auto manufacturing, the UAW highlighted organizing efforts already underway at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, assembly complex, which employs 7,800 workers making the Camry, RAV 4, and Lexus ES. Despite the company’s efforts to hobble the nascent union drive with its recent raise, Jeff Allen, an employee at the complex, said there is little chance of dissuading him and his coworkers.
“We’ve lost so much since I started here, and the raise won’t make up for that,” said Allen, who has had two work-related surgeries since he started at the plant. “It won’t make up for the health benefits we’ve lost, it won’t make up for the wear and tear on our bodies. We still build a quality vehicle. People take pride in that, but morale is at an all-time low. They can give you a raise today and jack up your health benefits tomorrow. A union contract is the only way to win what’s fair.”
As Labor Notes reports, organizing is in the works at electric vehicle plants too. Workers at Rivian’s five thousand–employee plant in Bloomington, Illinois, have “already built an organizing committee, surveyed 1,000 of their co-workers on major job improvements, and run petitions demanding longer breaks.” The workers say that they have given management opportunities to meet with them, only for managers to call in sick each time.
“We saw what the UAW members won and it started us thinking that we as workers are worth a lot more than our company currently values us at,” said Isaac Meadows, a worker at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga, Tennessee, assembly plant, which the UAW tried to organize in recent years without success.
“Workers realize that these companies could have given their people raises a year ago, but they didn’t,” Fain told me. “They did it as a direct result of our bargaining. So when you see our bargaining have an impact, not just for ourselves but for others, it’s great messaging for us to take forward. We’re putting a plan in place and we’re going to get moving.”
A New UAW
“In 1968, when Walter Reuther stated his opposition to the Vietnam War, he said, ‘We must mobilize for peace rather than for wider theaters of war in order to turn our resources and the hearts, hands, and minds of our people to the fulfillment of America’s unfinished agenda at home,’” said Brandon Mancilla, who was elected this year as director of UAW Region 9A, which represents fifty thousand active and retired workers. Standing just outside of the White House gates last week, he was speaking into a microphone above a sign that read “Biden, you are starving Gaza. Permanent ceasefire now!”
Behind Mancilla was a group of elected officials and organizers on their fifth day of a hunger strike undertaken to push Biden to stop supporting Israel’s war on Gaza — which has killed more than fifteen thousand Palestinians, the vast majority of them civilians — and pressure the Israeli government for a permanent cease-fire.
“What Reuther meant,” he continued, “was that the labor movement would not be able to achieve the transformative goals it has for social justice, for worker justice, for economic justice, if it turned a blind eye to what was happening across the world. We opposed fascism during World War II, we ended up opposing the Vietnam War, and we opposed apartheid South Africa, and we mobilized resources and the rest of the labor movement to join us in that fight.”
With that, Mancilla announced that the UAW international had voted to join the call for a permanent cease-fire, joining the likes of the American Postal Workers Union (AWPU), the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades (IUPAT), along with a lengthy and quickly growing list of other unions.
The UAW’s announcement concerning the war abroad is not just a statement, but a commitment to analyze its ties to those responsible for the violence and then explore divesting itself from such actors. Given that some UAW members produce the weapons that Israel uses to kill civilians, that is no simple matter.
Speaking with me, Mancilla described the move as not only building on the history of rank-and-file efforts such as the Arab Workers Caucus’s 1973 wildcat strike to push for the union to divest itself from Israeli bonds but on the UAW’s heyday under Reuther’s leadership too.
“We dug into the history of how Reuther went from supporting Lyndon B. Johnson to calling for the end of the Vietnam War and what they used to call the conversion of military defense workers to peace workers, building the technology for peace,” he said.
According to the Region 9A director, the decision by the international executive board followed a barrage of emails from members urging the union to take action on the issue. He, Region 6 director Mike Miller, and Fain received a large volume of such missives, especially from younger members and those in the higher-education and legal-services sector. Plus, the union counts many Arab Americans among its members in Michigan, where calls for a cease-fire have been particularly resolute. The topic is unavoidable.
In March, I wrote a dispatch from that bargaining convention in Detroit. The headline asked, “Can the UAW Rise Again?” Eight months later, that question has been answered. The new UAW is a far cry from that of recent decades, and its new leadership a stunning sea change. If this past year is anything to judge by, they’re eager for the union to reclaim its role as, in Reuther’s words, the “vanguard” of the labor movement.
“As a leader, you have to be able to change,” said Fain. “If you can’t see that working-class people in this country are fed up and that union members are fed up with going backwards, I don’t think you’re gonna survive as a leader. The days of complacency and just collecting a paycheck and giving members excuses are over.”