UAW Strikers Have Scored a Historic, Transformative Victory
The UAW’s victory in its forty-five-day strike against the Big Three Detroit automakers is historic and transformative, ending a forty-three-year era of concession bargaining and labor movement defeat that began with Chrysler’s near bankruptcy in 1979 and Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization two years later.
Not only did the union win substantial wage increases for all members in its tentative agreements (TAs) — at least 25 percent over the four-and-a-half-year contract — but the wage structure is radically progressive, eliminating the second- and third-class status endured by thousands of temps and second-tier workers. With the regularization of their employment status, these workers will enjoy extraordinary pay increases, in some cases upward of 150 percent.
And the union clawed back the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) that had been eliminated during the 2008 financial crisis. COLA had been a standard feature of UAW contracts since 1948, when General Motors first proposed it to the union to blunt the effort, forcefully pushed by then UAW president Walter Reuther, to limit auto and steel industry price hikes either through collective bargaining or government regulation. The labor movement at the time was fighting to limit inflation but secure a healthy wage increase — benefitting working class and middle class alike, union and nonunion, by advancing a program that shifted income and wealth from capital to labor.
That ambition failed during the increasingly conservative postwar years, making COLA increasingly coveted, and not just among industrial workers. During the major 2022 strike of graduate students and other academic workers at the University of California, winning COLA became the key demand of the most radical and activist segment of the student workers. Among the unionized workers of the Big Three, the restoration of COLA will probably add a 7 or 8 percent wage boost to the nominal wages workers earn over the life of the contract. (UAW members still need to ratify the tentative agreements, which they’re expected to do so in the coming weeks given the strength of the deals.)
UAW president Shawn Fain and other progressives, in the unions and out, have correctly denounced the vast pay inequalities that have given corporate CEOs three or four hundred times more income than the bulk of those employed in the same firms. But that income gap has always had an abstract quality. Few workers ever meet a top executive. Far more important, and divisive, have been the petty inequalities within the working class itself. When the person doing the same work on the line or behind the counter is making two dollars more an hour, solidarity decays and resentment festers. That is why Shawn Fain’s campaign for the UAW presidency last year declared, “No corruption, no concessions, no tiers.”
Indeed, this strike victory, spearheaded by Fain and a new slate of union leaders, resembles the dynamic that launched onto the national stage other tribunes of the US working class, from Eugene V. Debs in 1894 and William Z. Foster in 1919 to Walter Reuther in 1946 and Cesar Chavez in the late 1960s, armed with a progressive message and a mobilized membership backing that up. The UAW strike flowed organically from the movement to democratize the union, a multigenerational effort that culminated in the successful push, led by an opposition caucus, United All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), to elect top union leaders by a referendum vote of the entire membership. This would curb the insularity, corruption, and self-perpetuating leadership of a UAW executive board long dominated by a machine known as the Administration Caucus.
The Leader and the Strategy
Fain was not a leader of UAWD, but he made a name for himself inside the union, in 2009, when he vigorously opposed the concessions at his Kokomo, Indiana, Chrysler local that other UAW leaders accepted. He was chosen by UAWD to head an insurgent slate after a 2021 referendum, in which a majority of UAW members voted to henceforth elect top union officers by union-wide election.
Although most on the Fain slate easily defeated candidates of the ruling Administration Caucus, Fain was forced into a runoff against incumbent Ray Curry, who argued for the virtues of “experience” when the next round of collective bargaining began. The academic workers and graduate students, who now comprise nearly a quarter of the UAW membership, might well be credited with putting Fain over the top. They had not participated in large numbers, but when they did, university-employed people voted overwhelmingly for a changing of the guard.
Fain got off to a running start right after the election results were certified in March 2023. He put a new cohort of energetic labor militants on his staff, toured the country to mobilize support for a major confrontation with the corporations, and developed a rhetorical voice that grew in strength, radicalism, and self-confidence in the months leading up to the start of the strike on September 15 and during the conflict itself.
From Walter Reuther, the legendary UAW leader, Fain channeled the vision of the UAW as a vanguard institution setting the pace and purpose for a newly empowered working class; with Bernie Sanders, he openly denounced the billionaire class. In a highly symbolic rebuff, Fain absented himself at the formal start of negotiations when UAW leaders and company officials offer an across-the-table handshake for the press. Instead, Fain turned up at factory gates, pressing the flesh with the UAW membership in preparation for the struggle ahead.
And there is one more element that has made Fain a forceful spokesman, not only for his membership but for many thousands more. Fain deploys the social gospel in a very skillful fashion. Raised in a Protestant family, he declares that the UAW can “move mountains” when workers have faith in their power and righteousness. He denounces the greed and arrogance of corporate chieftains with the outrage of a prophet and declares that in the contemporary industrial world they have created a “hellish” underworld where men and women are forced to endure overtime, insecure jobs, and wages that fail to keep pace with either inflation or the never-ending growth of executive salaries. On occasion, Fain has also unleashed a sort of Midwestern populist condemnation of his cosmopolitan adversaries, as in one speech where he told UAW members that the CEOs at the big auto companies would never want to have dinner with their blue-collar employees or offer them a ride on their corporate jets. To such class contempt, Fain offered an even larger portion of disdain in return.
But rhetoric alone did not win the auto walkout. In a dramatic break from a seventy-seven-year bargaining tradition, the UAW did not choose just one company to strike and thereby set the “pattern” the others would follow. Instead, the union hit selected plants at all three companies, ratcheting up the number of factories and parts depots on strike according to the progress — or lack of progress — in negotiations.
Fain and his team called this the “stand-up strike,” in homage to the Flint sit-downs that founded the UAW and the modern US trade union movement in 1936–37. This strike and bargaining strategy had three advantages: it kept the conflict in a suspenseful news cycle as each new factory was shuttered; it preserved the UAW strike fund because only a minority of all workers would be out of work; and it applied a diverse set of pressures to all three corporations, in some instances generating last-minute concessions just before the UAW was scheduled to announce which new facility would be struck.
A Political Strike
The UAW strike was of a fundamentally political character, which is why it has often been compared to the UAW walkout against General Motors in 1945 and 1946. At stake in the recent strike was not just a wage hike big enough to compensate for the 20 percent drop in real wages during the previous two decades. Of equal importance was the entire auto industry’s transition to producing electrical vehicles. The Detroit Big Three, as well as all the nonunion companies, wanted the new generation of battery plants — the majority slated to be built in the South — to pay wages substantially lower than those mandated in the standard UAW contract. Virtually all the battery plants and some additional facilities were to be joint ventures between Korean or Chinese firms and US automakers, and thus excluded from contract coverage.
The UAW saw this as a union death sentence, and so did the most progressive parts of the Biden administration. The trillion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) offered billions to the auto companies in loan guarantees and outright grants to advance the green transition. Although the legislative sausage-making stripped the IRA of its capacity to coerce or incentivize companies to unionize their new facilities, Biden clearly wanted the UAW to get a strong contract, and he became the first sitting president in US history to actually show up on a picket line (at a GM distribution center in Michigan). His presence was intended not only to curry favor among a strategic strata of Midwestern industrial workers but also to counter the argument put forward by Donald Trump and other Republicans: that a green industrial policy was a recipe for low wages and lost jobs.
“Industrial policy” means that corporate managers are no longer the sole arbitrators of new investment in plant product, location, and technology. It’s not quite government planning, let alone workers’ control, but it does help politicize and, to a degree, democratize the industrial future.
As a result of the strike, the UAW has taken an important step in this direction. First, it has forced the Big Three to include contract language guaranteeing that their new battery production facilities will be included in the master UAW agreement. And the union won important leverage to ensure that plant closures will no longer be at the sole discretion of management: UAW will now have the right to strike an entire company to prevent the shuttering of a production facility.
Indeed, the UAW did something unprecedented at the conclusion of its strike against Stellantis, the parent company of the old Chrysler corporation. The new contract guarantees that the Belvidere Assembly Plant, located in the small Illinois city of the same name, will reopen after management mothballed it last February. This is an absolute first in the auto industry, making clear that investment decisions are not those of management alone. Stellantis has also agreed to place a new battery plant in Belvidere, which will eventually add some five thousand additional jobs to the town.
The Next Fight
However, unless the rest of the auto industry is soon organized, the UAW victory in Detroit will turn Pyrrhic. Auto executives like Ford’s James Farley have complained that the labor cost differential between his unionized firm and nonunion Tesla will hamper Dearborn’s competitiveness and the employment levels the company can sustain. With Toyota, Nissan, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Tesla, and Hyundai all nonunion, the UAW represents workers producing less than half of all cars sold in the United States. Despite the signal success of this contract round, those companies keep a steady, downward pressure on the wages that the Big Three can profitably pay.
For more than forty years, UAW leaders, even the most stolid, have been well aware of this threat. And yet the union has repeatedly failed to organize these nonunion competitors. The reasons are manyfold, but the incapacity of the UAW to demonstrate what a powerful union can accomplish is certainly paramount.
Now that has all changed. “One of our biggest goals coming out of this historic contract victory is to organize like we’ve never organized before,” said Fain after the union won a tentative agreement with GM. “When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t just be with the Big Three. It will be with the Big Five or Big Six.”
[Nelson Lichtenstein is research professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His newest book, which he wrote with the late Judith Stein, is A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism.]
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