UAW Makes the Brave New Economy a Lot More Worker-Friendly
Portside Date:
Author: Harold Meyerson
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The American Prospect

The news last Friday that General Motors has agreed to the UAW’s demand that workers at GM’s joint-venture EV battery factories will be covered under the automaker’s master contract with the union is a historic breakthrough for American workers as they face transitions to a post–fossil fuel economy.

Until Friday, the U.S. auto companies were almost uniformly resisting the idea that their employees in the EV industry would receive wages and benefits comparable to those that UAW members had long received. Now, GM (and almost surely Ford and Stellantis, following in its wake) will effectively ratify the UAW’s argument that work in the new EV economy can provide the living standards that once enabled UAW members to thrive.

The UAW can now take that selling point to the workers at Tesla, and at the non-union EV factories springing up in the South. And President Biden can cite this breakthrough as a concrete refutation of Donald Trump’s harangues that the shift to EVs foretells the doom of American workers.

In announcing this epochal development, UAW President Shawn Fain said that GM changed its position on the eve of the union’s threatened expansion of its strike to the company’s huge plant in Arlington, Texas, which, Fain said, is GM’s single biggest revenue producer. The escalation to a key GM facility echoes the tipping point in the UAW’s sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1937, which led to the unionization of most American manufacturing.

Workers had already barricaded themselves into two of the many GM factories in Flint, but more than a month in, the company still refused to bargain. In a desperate effort to break the deadlock, the union spread the word to its activists, which also meant to the many GM spies within the activists’ ranks, that it would seize another factory, Chevrolet #9, the following day. When they launched that effort, GM turned out its goons in force to repel it, and the battle lasted for hours. Only belatedly did the company notice that the UAW had quietly barricaded itself in Chevrolet #4 while all the fighting at #9 was going on. Chevrolet #4 had been the UAW’s real target all along, as it made the parts that every other GM plant in the country needed. With Chevy #4 occupied, GM had no recourse but to recognize the union.

Fain often cites the UAW’s militant and very successful history of building worker power, and by making clear the strike was about to expand to Arlington, he hit GM in its pocketbook, much as Walter Reuther, Wyndham Mortimer, and other UAW founders did when they decided to shut down Chevy #4.

But there’s another historic antecedent for what the UAW won, and that concerns the issue of transitioning to a new and more efficient form of production. The conventional wisdom is that building an electric vehicle requires fewer workers than building a gas-powered vehicle, because EVs have fewer parts. But Heatmap News last week suggested that the evidence for this was thin, and that if you take into account the production of component parts like batteries, the workforce needed is roughly the same or could even be higher.

By unionizing battery factories, the UAW may well be able to maintain its level of membership, shifting workers no longer needed on assembly lines to jobs building the batteries. Now, having those workers covered under union contract ensures that the greater productivity created by the diminution of workers required to assemble new cars or other efficiencies in producing EVs may give a kind of productivity bonus to the UAW workforce.

By unionizing battery factories, the UAW may well be able to maintain its level of membership.

It is nowhere written that workers actually share in the gains realized from greater productivity. Most of the time, particularly in economies with low levels of unionization, they don’t. In 1950, however, the contract that Reuther’s UAW won from GM created an annual productivity raise for their members. In a completely novel development in U.S. labor relations, the workers’ wages would rise not only with the rising cost of living, but also in line with the increases in productivity that the government measured every year. For decades, that was a feature of UAW contracts, but during the concessionary bargaining of more recent decades, it was a feature the union was compelled to forgo.

The one U.S. union leader who most effectively won for his members an ongoing way to share in their industry’s productivity gains was the leftist president of the West Coast longshore workers from the 1930s through the 1970s, Harry Bridges. In 1960, Bridges foresaw the epochal shift in loading and unloading ships’ cargoes with the coming of containerization. The process had barely begun in 1960, and it took decades before it fully took the form of huge ships piled high with train car–sized containers being loaded and unloaded by cranes, each operated by a single member. In time, the change reduced the number of workers required to load and unload ships by 90 percent. (To see what the job was like before containerization, check out the Marlon Brando–Elia Kazan film On the Waterfront.)

Bridges fully understood how many members would lose their jobs over time, but he also saw that stopping the switch to the containers was impossible. So, he told the companies to go ahead, provided that they gave some compensation to workers who lost their jobs, and that the workers who kept theirs would get pay increases commensurate with the huge increases in productivity that came with the transition. Today, there are barely 20,000 workers on the nation’s docks, but as a consequence of Bridges’s efforts, they have the highest wages of any blue-collar workers in America, often well into six figures.

In a time of economic transition like ours, which, as David Dayen has noted, has been the issue behind the Hollywood strikes no less those in auto, winning that kind of reward for increased productivity should be the goal of every union facing such issues. The scope of the victories on the docks—the direct result of the militant activism that the West Coast longshore workers had shown for decades—may be beyond what most unions can win. But the alignment of the EV transition with higher pay and workplace standards that the UAW won last week is a historic step in the right direction.

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