The UAW Strike Could Portend a Broader Revival of Working-Class Power

The United Auto Workers’ strike last fall saw the union renew its militancy and win big victories on behalf of worker control. The historic walkout suggests the possibility of a broader revival of class struggle and the ideal of economic democracy.

Supporters and members of United Auto Workers Local 230 march outside of a Stellantis parts distribution center in Ontario, California, on September 26, 2023. (Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)

On November 20, the United Auto Workers (UAW) announced that members had approved new contracts with General Motors (GM), Stellantis, and Ford by 64 percent following the union’s six-week strike against the Big Three US automakers.

The contracts at the three automakers represent historic victories. Across all three companies, the UAW achieved a 25 percent increase in base wages over the four-and-a-half-year contract span — more than workers had won over the previous twenty years — while also eliminating wage tiers and reinstating cost-of-living increases that had been given up during the Great Recession.

Importantly, the union also won the right to strike against plant closures. Stellantis and General Motors, meanwhile, have agreed to bring their joint-venture battery plants under the union’s master agreement, ensuring that EV workers receive wages and benefits comparable to workers in traditional auto manufacturing. The UAW also forced Stellantis to agree to reopen the Belvidere Assembly Plant in Belvidere, Illinois, that it had shuttered earlier this year. And at GM and Stellantis, the union additionally won the right to strike if the automakers break promises not to outsource certain aspects of production, or if they violate product and investment commitments at various plants.

Even more than the significant wage and benefit gains, forcing the reopening of a closed plant and winning the right to strike over investment decisions may be the union’s most important contract victories. They represent workers asserting control over something that management has long regarded as its exclusive prerogative.

Perhaps as important as the contract wins was how they were won. Breaking with decades of the union’s history of concessions and corruption, recently elected president Shawn Fain and other UAW leaders made ambitious demands and clearly communicated them to members and to the public. And the union has not shied away from the language of class war, with Fain denouncing the greed of the CEOs in biblical language and declaring that autoworkers were fighting ​“for the good of the entire working class.”

The militant strike and its victories suggest the revival of a vision of economic life that has been largely sidelined in the United States in recent decades. That vision sees workers as entitled to a real say over their workplaces, where they spend much of their working lives.

Who Gets a Say?

It’s hard to overstate the significance of the UAW winning the right to strike over plant closures and other investment decisions (and already forcing Stellantis to reverse course on its prior closure of Belvidere). Most businesses have long held that their owners and executives have a unilateral right to decide where and how their firms invest and what and how they produce.

The UAW’s contract victories directly rebuff this logic, establishing that workers, not just bosses, have a say in these company decisions. And by allowing the union to strike to influence these choices, the contract legally entitles workers to use their most powerful weapon to shape what the automakers do.

This amounts to a reversal of key aspects of the “Treaty of Detroit,” as Barry Eidlin details in Jacobin. In its 1950 agreement with GM, in exchange for generous and stable wages and benefit packages, the UAW, under its president Walter Reuther, accepted that management would have exclusive control over production on the shop floor as well as investment decisions. It was, in effect, an agreement to trade away workplace democracy for economic gains, which soon became standard for organized labor in the United States writ large.

But the Treaty of Detroit was at odds with a long-running radical strand in the American labor movement. From the Knights of Labor in the late 1800s to the International Workers of the World at the turn of the century to Socialist and Communist Party organizers, labor radicals have denied that management has legitimate unilateral authority over the workplace or investment decisions. This radical tradition saw the labor movement as workers’ weapon against employer tyranny, and sought to use it to establish democratic workplaces and collective control over productive investment.

Many early trade unionists viewed the democratic rights that (some) workers enjoyed as citizens as continuous with the kind of rights they should enjoy in the workplace. Just as citizens exercise influence in the political sphere through their rights to freedom of speech and assembly and the right to vote, these radicals thought, workers should similarly have a meaningful say over their lives on the job.

In the late nineteenth century, according to labor historian David Montgomery, factory workers resisted management’s control of the workplace in various ways, including by asserting union rules governing the labor process; they called such rules ​“legislation.” (The International Association of Machinists, for instance, mandated fixed apprenticeship terms for prospective journeymen and prohibited members from working more than one machine at a time.)

But the aspiration for workplace democracy extended beyond such rules. Groups like the Knights of Labor and later the Socialist Party of America, exemplified by leaders like Eugene Debs, wanted to replace privately owned and managed firms with a ​“cooperative commonwealth,” in which workers would democratically and collectively run their workplaces. A similar vision of workplace and economic democracy was promoted by the Communist labor organizers who helped build the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s and 1940s.

With the Red Scare that purged and marginalized socialists and communists in the labor movement in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the acceptance of business unionism by the UAW and other major unions, this vision receded into the background. The UAW’s recent wins, however, hearken back to this earlier tradition.

The Return of Class Struggle

It’s too soon to say whether the UAW’s victories are just a flash in the pan, or whether they could be a harbinger of a broader revival of the idea of economic democracy. But if workers in the United States are going to win a greater say over their workplaces, the UAW strike provides important lessons for them.

Shawn Fain was elected president of the UAW this past March, after a massive corruption scandal led the federal government to force the union to hold a vote on whether it would hold direct elections for top officers. Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) — a reform group in the union that formed in 2019 — campaigned to let members directly decide new leadership, and won. In fall 2022, UAWD helped elect six reform candidates to the UAW’s international leadership, while Fain and another UAWD-backed candidate won run-off elections in spring 2023.

UAWD members founded the group with the intention of democratizing the union and bringing back its fighting spirit, which had atrophied after decades of rule by the corrupt Administration Caucus. The Big Three strike seems to show that this effort is already bearing fruit. In a departure from prior practice, union leadership has been communicating transparently with workers and encouraging their own initiative and activity. As Jane Slaughter wrote in Labor Notes in late September, during the strike:

[Fain and allies] set to work building a contract campaign — strike pledge cards, practice picketing, lots of communication, lots of media — that built to the strike that started two weeks ago. . . . Members at the Big 3, whether they voted for UAWD or for no one, are thrilled that their president is actually sharing the union’s demands, speaking to them regularly via Facebook Live (and responding in real time to comments in the chat), and calling out the CEOs who make up to $14,000 an hour. . . . The excitement on the picket lines and the creativity of the slogans and tactics members are inventing are something not seen in the union in many decades.

UAWD (including Fain himself, who is a member) and the new UAW leadership are reviving a spirit of bottom-up militancy in the union. And they are projecting that militant spirit outward: Fain’s live speeches have been directed at the public as much as his own union, framing the UAW’s fight as a fight against the billionaire class. Fain has also encouraged other unions to set their contract expiration dates to match those of the UAW’s new contracts with the Big Three on April 30, 2028 — potentially laying the groundwork for a collective strike beginning on that year’s May Day (May 1), the international holiday celebrating the labor movement.

The UAW is now seeking to relay its victories at the Big Three into organizing nonunion auto shops across the country. An auspicious early sign: workers at Tesla’s Fremont, California, plant just announced they have formed a UAW organizing committee.

The Horizon of Worker Control

A wider revival of demands for economic democracy is not a vain hope. Recent research by political scientists Soumyajit Mazumder and Alan N. Yan suggests that most Americans would prefer to have democratic workplaces. The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample and found that most respondents would like to work at companies that put workers on corporate boards, give employees the opportunity for ownership in the firm, or that let workers directly elect their managers.

Nor is the UAW the only union that has fought for more control over the workplace. After a months-long joint strike this year, Hollywood film and TV writers won serious restrictions on studio use of artificial intelligence, including AI-generated digital replicas of actors and AI-written material. UPS Teamsters, meanwhile, leveraged a strike threat this summer to win a historic contract, which includes a provision requiring the introduction of new technology to be reviewed and approved by a technology committee with union representatives.

These victories show that winning more say by workers over the labor process and investment decisions is far from a pipe dream — and point toward a deeper vision of workplace democracy. Like the Knights of Labor and socialists and communists of earlier eras, today’s labor activists are positioned to articulate a more complete, long-term vision of democracy at work.

Thinkers like political economist Mike Beggs, for instance, have sought to develop proposals that show how workplace democracy can be made compatible with broader goals like income inequality and environmental sustainability, through combining firm-level democracy with a system of financing through public banks. Other writers in recent years have argued for their own proposals for economic democracy with similar goals in mind, from having corporate boards comprised of workers and instituting sectoral bargaining to having elected representatives help make companies’ planning decisions.

Ambitious visions of economic democracy like that may not be on the agenda today. More class-struggle victories like the UAW’s, however, could eventually help make them a real possibility.