On September 15, the United Auto Workers union (UAW) began a coordinated strike against the three major U.S. automakers. The UAW targeted one plant each at General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis, involving almost 13,000 workers.
The union is acting to defend its members from the debilitating effects of the automakers’ decades-long campaign to slash the unionized workforce, drive down wages, and weaken the union by instituting a permanent two-tier wage and benefit system.
UAW membership has declined to about 400,000 today from its peak of 1.5 million in 1979. Bloomberg news columnist Justin Fox wrote on September 7 that auto workers “real wages [adjusted for inflation] have fallen 30% over the past two decades.”
This strike deserves the support of the entire labor movement and all working people. The auto workers’ fight for decent wages and quality of life, as well as against the divisions within the working class imposed by two-tier pay scales, is a struggle millions of workers can identify with from our own experiences.
The strike occurs during an upsurge of union activity across the country. It includes the writers and actors strikes that have shut down most of Hollywood, as well as growing public support for unions, especially among young people. Other examples include the narrowly averted strike by 340,000 Teamster members at UPS in July and the determination by 120,000 rail workers to strike the major U.S. rail carriers last December. Only the last-minute intervention of the Biden administration and Congress that imposed an anti-labor contract prevented the latter.
‘Their Strike is Our Strike’
Railroad Workers United — an inter-union, cross-craft solidarity group of railroad workers and supporters — published a special bulletin just before the UAW strike deadline, titled “Their Strike is Our Strike: Railroaders Support the Auto Workers.” In it, the RWU explains:
The issues are very similar in both our cases: long hours, wages not keeping pace with inflation, an industry making record profits and investing in once-illegal stock buybacks, and a refusal by the Big Three automakers to share the wealth with those who created it — the workers. Railroad Workers United urges our members, all rail workers and union officials to lend these brothers and sisters our full support in every way possible. Remember, we will be needing their support in the future, when national rail contract negotiations begin next year!
In another vital expression of solidarity, car haulers, Teamster unionists who transport vehicles for the Big Three auto manufacturers, have vowed to refuse to make deliveries to dealerships during the strike. “We are 100 percent supportive of UAW workers and [UAW president] Shawn Fain’s positions,” Kevin Moore, president of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit, told the Detroit Free Press. “Our Teamsters will not cross strike lines.”
Fain, the first UAW president elected directly by rank-and-file union members, has pointed to outsize company profits and bloated executive pay in response to claims in corporate media that the walkout may have a negative impact on the U.S. economy.
“They could double our raises and not raise car prices — and still make billions of dollars in profit,” Fain said the day before the strike deadline. “They spent more money enriching shareholders in a year than they spent on us in the entirety of the last contract cycle.” Autoworkers, he said, are not the problem. “Corporate greed is the problem.”
The mood among many industrial workers in the United States is becoming more militant as such inequality continues to rise, and as living and working conditions keep deteriorating for most working people even during an economic upturn. In an August video meeting for all UAW members, Fain pointed out, “We haven’t kept up with inflation in the last 20 years as they’ve closed 65 plants… Wages have regressed in the last 16 years: went backwards $10 an hour; meanwhile, CEO pay went up 40% in the last four years alone.”
Battle over future of auto industry
“This is our generation’s defining moment,” Fain told UAW members. “The money is there, the cause is righteous, the world is watching, and the UAW is ready to stand up.”
Ford CEO Jim Farley claimed that to meet the union’s demands company owners “would have to cancel our E.V. investments.”
Farley was referring to electric vehicles. A September 16 New York Times news analysis was headlined, “Battle Over Electric Vehicles Is Central to Auto Strike.” The article noted that “carmakers are anxious to keep costs down as they ramp up electric vehicle manufacturing.” Farley told the Times, “We want to actually have a conversation about a sustainable future… not one that forces us to choose between going out of business and rewarding our workers.”
Such claims are deceptive and unlikely to persuade auto and many other workers. The Big Three have reported $21 billion in profits in just the first six months of 2023, and more than $250 billion in profits over the past decade. In addition, General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis have authorized $5 billion in stock buybacks in the past 12 months, handing billions of dollars to shareholders.
Meanwhile, no “conversation about a sustainable future” was apparently needed when establishing pay for the Big Three CEOs. According to the Associated Press, Farley received nearly $21 million in total compensation in 2022. GM chief Mary Barra received $28.92 million. Stellantis reported CEO Carlos Tavares’ 2022 pay was 23.46 million euros ($25 million).
The automakers want workers to pay for the cost of converting their facilities to electric vehicle production, while losing jobs at the same time, because fewer workers are needed to assemble such cars and trucks. The ranks of the union are saying “No!”
According to National Public Radio (NPR), Fain “envisions a 32-hour work week for 40 hours of pay, and overtime for anything more.” NPR reported that Fain has been “agitating” for this idea in negotiations with the automakers in Detroit. “Our members are working 60, 70, even 80 hours a week just to make ends meet,” Fain said on a Facebook Live event last month. “That’s not a living. That’s barely surviving, and it needs to stop.”
That proposal is a necessary element of a real effort to combat the employers’ constant drive to compel more production from fewer people while cutting jobs. It would be a giant step forward for labor if the UAW were to champion a campaign to win the demand. But it does not appear to be at the center of the union’s current battle.
It remains to be seen if striking selective auto plants can put enough pressure on the Big Three to settle the strike on terms acceptable to the ranks. As of September 20, the sixth day of the strike, there was no sign of progress in the negotiations. The Washington Post reported September 19 that the UAW threatened to expand the strike on Friday, September 22, unless “serious progress” is made towards an agreement.
After the picket lines went up, the White House said it would quickly dispatch Julie Su, the acting secretary of labor, and Gene Sperling, a top government economic adviser to Detroit, “to support both sides in the negotiation,” according to the New York Times.
The union is right to be suspicious of such trickery. The UAW and the automakers have counterposed interests as most of the news coverage of the strike reveals. The last time the Biden administration stepped into a national contract battle, railroad workers paid the price. (See Biden Stabs Rail Labor in the Back and Rail Contract Shows Unions Need New Leadership; Workers Need Our Own Party.)
Today the labor movement and all supporters of workers’ rights should extend support and solidarity to the UAW. Auto manufacturing remains one of the most massive industries in the United States, accounting for roughly 3% of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). To win this battle against the auto barons and their supporters in the government, the labor movement needs to mobilize its full power.