By Geoff Mirelowitz
United Auto Workers (UAW) members who recently concluded a strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis scored a victory for the union and the working class. For the first time in many years, a nationwide strike by industrial workers resulted in a substantial improvement in wages and working conditions.
That strengthens the UAW and the entire working class. It is proof that union power can achieve results.
The contracts the UAW won at all three employers narrowed the gap in wages and benefits among UAW members — a particularly important gain. That gap not only enables even greater profits for the automakers at the expense of new hires. It also divides the union membership and weakens solidarity.
The tiered wage system — workers doing the same job but being paid differently based on when they were hired — has been substantially weakened. In the new UAW contracts, the lowest paid workers made the largest wage gains. The union comes out of this strike stronger and in a position to fight to definitively end that system — and make further gains in other areas — in the future.
The outcome of the UAW strike, and its popularity among millions, reverberated nationwide — showing the impact of this battle across the auto industry. Even before the rank-and-file finished voting on the new contracts, Honda, Huyndai, and Toyota were the first among the non-union automakers to announce significant wage increases in their factories.
Gains of four-year contract
An article in the November 4 Detroit Free Press, What’s the deal? UAW details gains of new four-year contract with GM, reported:
“The United Auto Workers’ ‘record’ contract with General Motors Co., outlined Saturday [November 4] by top union leaders, raises pay and sweeps new groups of workers into a new national agreement likely to set a higher standard for labor in the U.S. auto industry as it marks the likely end of a months-long battle.
“Similar to deals with Ford Motor Co. and Stellantis NV, the UAW-GM contract includes 27% in compounded base wage increases for hourly employees, revives cost-of-living adjustments, requires a shorter timeline to the top wage, sets rollover commitments for temporary/supplemental workers and charts a pathway for employees at future battery plants to become unionized under the union’s master agreement with the companies.
“Compounded, wage increases would total 27% over the four-and-a-half years, up from the $32.22 per hour top wage today. That includes an immediate 11% increase followed by 3% hikes in 2024, ’25 and ’26. Members would get a 5% increase in 2027.
“The deal with GM includes similar benefits to what’s in the pacts with Ford and Stellantis, including:
From November 4 Detroit Free Press.
- A three-year progression period to top wages, down from eight years.
- Reinstatement of cost-of-living allowances.
- All new temporary employees would be converted to in-progression employees after nine months.
- All full-time temporary employees with 90 days would be converted to in-progression.
- A 10% 401(k) employer contribution.
- A $5,000 ratification bonus.
- Right to strike over plant closings.
- Temporary employees get profit sharing.”
Exact contract details vary among the three automakers and the results of the ratification votes at each were not identical. After voting that concluded on November 16, Ford workers approved the deal by 69%, Stellantis by 70%, and GM by nearly 55%. Those totals suggest that a substantial number of workers may have believed the union could have won even more. But the majority of UAW members clearly view the contracts as a step forward.
The battle, which the UAW called “The Stand-Up Strike,” began on September 15 with walkouts at three auto assembly plants in Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. Subsequently union members struck five more assembly plants and 38 parts distribution centers in a total of 22 states.
Militant rank-and-file spirit and new leadership
The union leadership was headed by Shawn Fain, the first president in UAW history to be elected by direct vote of the membership. This was the first time the membership was able to put its stamp directly on the top union officialdom.
UAW members were in a fighting mood. Fain signaled he understood this from the beginning.
For decades UAW negotiations with the auto bosses began with a symbolic handshake. Fain ended that tradition. “Fain would shake hands, he said, after they’d reached a fair deal,” reported the Washington Post.
Gestures do not always have real meaning. This one did.
In a November 12 article, the Post explained further, “To Fain and his supporters, decades of relatively civil negotiations with the automakers brought little but pain for workers, who saw many of their factories close and their buying power fall. Fain blames years of weak and corrupt union leadership for UAW wages that have lagged far behind inflation — and for the big concessions on pay and benefits the union made to help the companies survive the Great Recession [2007-2009]. Now that the automakers have recovered and recorded years of healthy profits, it’s time they give workers their fair share, he said.”
Over the past 30 years and longer, strikes have been relatively few and far between. Most were defensive battles at best, seeking to avoid further concessions to the employers. Many could not even achieve that result. Confidence in withholding workers’ labor as the most powerful expression of union power had declined.
Top union officials in the UAW and other unions have been tied to a policy of class collaboration — subordinating the needs of the union membership to “cooperation” with management. When workers have walked out, many, if not most, felt that these union officials had no real strategy to win a strike, nor any determination to do so. This year’s UAW battle with the auto companies represented a fundamental break in that pattern.
Workers may hold different opinions about the “selective strike” strategy that kept many UAW workers on the job while others walked picket lines. Could an industry-wide shutdown have won even greater gains? That question cannot be definitively answered.
As the ratification results indicate, there may be different opinions among the union membership that will require future discussion. But in contrast to the recent past, UAW members clearly believed that this time the union and its newly elected leadership had a strategy and it produced results.
Fain was elected by a slim margin seven months ago. He clearly wanted to demonstrate he identifies with the dissatisfaction and militant spirit in the ranks.
As the Post reported, “‘Our members have busted their a—es to deliver quality products to the consumer while their conditions have regressed, and their bodies endure wear and tear,’ he said. ‘We will not stand for the continued lack of respect for our jobs and our futures.’”
This resonated far beyond UAW members. As the UAW pointed over and over to the auto makers’ enormous profits, it won the battle for public opinion, especially working-class public opinion.
After a month on strike, Fain requested a meeting with Ford to hear a new contract offer. Upon arrival, Ford informed the UAW delegation it had no new offer.
“Fain stood up,” reported the Post, “and said ‘This just cost you Kentucky Truck Plant.’” A UAW crew then filmed Fain placing a phone call to local union leaders to shut down Ford’s largest factory.
Workers inspired by UAW strike and its results
This approach encouraged the militant spirit in the ranks of the union; quite a change from decades of UAW “leadership” that aimed to extinguish any such resolve. Moreover, the example of militant rank-and-file action inspired other workers as well.
It also inspired fear among other employers.
As AP News reported, “Hyundai said Monday [November 13] it will raise factory worker pay 25% by 2028, matching the general wage increase won by the UAW during that period. Toyota raised factory pay 9% to 10% starting in January, while Honda said it will increase wages 11% during the same period.”
This is no accident and even less a burst of generosity on the part of these automakers who have resisted unionization. These companies recognize their employees are now looking at the UAW with fresh eyes.
The UAW says it will step up efforts to organize workers at these unorganized plants. “The Big Three aren’t the only auto companies making record profits,” Fain has said. “Autoworkers at Toyota, Honda, Volkswagen, Hyundai, and Tesla, they deserve record contracts, too. And we’re going to do everything we can to support them in the fight to win what they deserve.”
“They could have just as easily raised wages a month ago or a year ago,” Fain said of Toyota, according to Reuters. “They did it now because the company knows we’re coming for ’em.”
The strike unquestionably improved the union’s organizing prospects. This is now absolutely central to the UAW’s future.
“We’ve received a lot of calls from people who want to organize now,” including from workers at auto-parts companies,” Chris Pena, president of UAW Local 551 in Chicago, told the Washington Post. “We have a lot of nonunion shops that saw the power of the union and why it works.”
In testimony to Congress on November 14, Fain again referred to the wage increases at Toyota, Honda and Hyundai. “We call that the UAW bump, and that stands for: U Are Welcome,” he said.
His comment can be understood two ways. Workers at those employers can thank the UAW strike for the wage increases. But equally important, they are welcome to join the union.
Geoff Mirelowitz was an active trade unionist for more than 30 years, including 17 years as a member of SMART Local 845 in Seattle while working on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions