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labor The Auto Workers Go All In

By devoting $40 million to its campaign to organize non-union auto plants, the UAW is challenging not just corporate America but also labor’s status quo.


In an event that’s way more groundbreaking than it should be, the United Auto Workers announced last week that it is committing $40 million to organize the workers in the nation’s non-union auto and battery factories: “particularly,” the announcement said, “in the South.”

A union appropriating that level of funding for on-the-ground organizing isn’t something we’ve seen very much, if at all, in recent decades—at least, not in industries where management views their workers as replaceable, which is how management commonly views most workers in manufacturing, retail, transportation, food services, and the like. In the playbook of American business, replaceable workers can be fired for participating in or just supporting an organizing campaign, and even though such firings are illegal, the penalties for violating that law have long been negligible. In going all in to organize the nation’s Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, Mercedes, Tesla, and other factories, the UAW executive board had three good reasons to think their union could overcome what has been this most daunting of obstacles.

First, as a result of the pro-worker rulings from President Biden’s National Labor Relations Board, many of the legally dubious union suppression strategies that companies commonly employ are now far from foolproof. Under the Board’s Cemex ruling, when a majority of workers have signed union affiliation cards, management must either recognize the union or promptly move to an NLRB-supervised election. But if management commits an unfair labor practice such as firing a worker for backing the union—which is the most common of management practices—the union will automatically be recognized and management ordered to begin bargaining. (Management can still stall at the bargaining table, but since almost all these companies are foreign-owned and unionized in their home countries, reports of such stalling might not go down well in their homelands.)

Second, both Gallup and Pew polls show that the level of public support for unions hasn’t been this high since the 1960s, particularly among the young, who are well represented in workforces of the factories that the UAW is targeting.

Third, the UAW has just come off an almost breathtakingly victorious strike with the three big legacy automakers: General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. Moreover, the dynamics of its stand-up strike (with different factories of all three companies being struck at different times) and the almost unprecedented view that the union afforded the public of the state of the negotiations stamped the UAW’s efforts and its successes in the public’s consciousness more than any strike has in decades. It thereby compelled the non-union automakers to raise their workers’ wages, as they understood that their employees knew what the UAW had delivered for its members.

And from the beginning of its strike, the UAW clearly saw it as a way to roll the union on to unorganized factories, even in the non-union South. Union president Shawn Fain pledged that it would announce when 30 percent of the workers at those factories had signed UAW affiliation cards (as happened at Hyundai, Mercedes, and Volkswagen plants) and hold rallies when 50 percent had signed (as happened at Volkswagen), and would demand an election when 70 percent have signed. The union’s “join” web page has been a pretty fair organizer in itself, containing not only “how to” information, but also information on the respective companies’ profits and their CEOs’ pay.

If those three factors weren’t enough to prod the UAW to invest, there was also this: Should Donald Trump become president in 2025, the new administration will surely revoke every vestige of the Biden administration’s support for unions, and its new NLRB appointees would surely reverse such rulings as Cemex. Guided thus by the Hillel question “If not now, when?” and the non-Hillel question “If not us, who?” the UAW came in big.

One major question that the UAW’s decision raises is whether other unions will follow suit. Nearly two years ago, looking at the rising public support for unions, particularly among the young, and the Biden NLRB’s commitment to restoring workers’ right to organize, former New York Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse and I co-authored a Prospect piece that challenged unions to respond to these changing conditions. We noted that in the mid-1930s, following the enactment of the National Labor Relations Act, which provided legal protections to organizing and collective bargaining, two of the biggest American unions, the Mine Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, spent huge portions of their treasuries to unionize the nation’s steelworkers, autoworkers, rubber workers, electrical equipment workers, aircraft workers—the core of the American economy. Posing Hillel-esque questions, Steve and I asked whether today’s union leaders could rise to the current occasion.

Not every union, to be sure, can enter into large-scale organizing with as much wind at its back as the UAW has won. But the Teamsters—like the UAW, also with new leaders elected by the union’s rank-and-file members—recently won an excellent contract at UPS. And if any union can roll that victory on to the drivers and warehouse workers at the behemoth that is Amazon, the Teamsters have resources that dwarf most other unions’. (Then again, if the Teamsters’ just-announced gift of $45,000 to the Republican National Committee is any indication, they may be spending down their treasury by placing bets against the future of American unions.)

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When the Mine Workers and Clothing Workers emptied their bank accounts to organize industrial America, under the aegis of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), their new umbrella group, they almost immediately hired at least 500 organizers to talk to workers at plant gates and meeting halls. Organizers cost more today than they did in 1936 (what doesn’t?), but if the UAW spends about half of that $40 million on organizers, I figure they can hire (with benefits) maybe 200 organizers to help workers win some power at what is a considerably smaller number of factories than the CIO took on in the 1930s.

That’s the kind of commitment American workers need today, and it’s been a long time coming.