UAW And The Big Three: Autoworkers At A Crossroads

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The UAW needs to seriously prepare for a strike to meet the demands workers deserve!

The Big Three Detroit automakers (GM, Ford, Stellantis) and the United Auto Workers union (UAW) are negotiating a new labor contract. Their existing contract expires on September 14 and the UAW is recommending that their members vote ‘Yes’ on a strike authorization. The UAW needs to get strike-ready and seriously prepare their union members to go on strike to meet their contract demands.

Like the Teamster’s leadership, the UAW also has new leadership elected on a reform program. UAW’s new reformer president, Shawn Fain, is promising to take a more fighting, rank-and-file approach, and strategy to the Big Three contract campaigns. He recently said that the latest contract proposals from Stellantis “are a slap in the face,” and after tossing it in a waste basket said, “That’s where it belongs – in the trash – because that’s what it is.” He has previously expressed a general readiness to shut down factories with strikes across all three auto manufacturers which would include some 150,000 auto workers and UAW members. 

Talking big about fighting the bosses is an exciting development from one of organized labor’s heavy battalions. The previous UAW bureaucracy was rotten and corrupt. Their business unionist approach led them to accept a series of concessionary contracts. These contracts protected the companies’ profits, making the union look more like an extension of corporate HR departments than a union that fights for its members. Not only did the previous union bureaucracy capitulate to the bosses, but many of them were arrested and charged with corruption, including embezzling union membership dues to pay for their lavish golf vacations. 

Despite reformers being elected to union leadership at two of the biggest industrial unions in the US, the Teamsters had the opportunity to win further victories by struggling together with UAW as a source of inspiration for the broader labor movement and working people everywhere. The decision by O’Brien and Teamster leadership to agree to a TA that’s acceptable to UPS, without escalating the struggle by taking the strike action they said they were preparing for, acts as a huge brake on the labor movement and will impact the potential for a UAW strike. Any potential for a UAW strike at the Big Three would be much more likely if auto workers were getting inspiration from existing picket lines of striking Teamsters at UPS. What could have been two industrial unions, representing a huge share of the US economy, striking within a month of one another – potentially even overlapping – could have drastically increased the potential for building a more fighting labor movement that could have motivated unorganized workers across the country to join unions. 

Electric Vehicles And UAW’s Bold Contract Demands

In Detroit, the contract talks are playing out amid an industry-defining transition to electric vehicles (EVs). This has presented challenges for the UAW, and EVs are increasingly becoming a main feature in contract negotiations. The Big Three have invested billions of dollars in new technologies and battery plants. Despite not yet making any profits from EVs, the company coffers are safe. They are more profitable now than at any time since the Great Recession of 2008. Over the last 10 years, GM and Ford have typically made a profit of $7 billion to $11 billion per year in North America. Stellantis, the smallest of the three, has usually earned somewhat less but has already profited  $12 billion in the first half of this year, a 37% increase over last year. 

EVs have far fewer parts than conventional gas-powered combustion engines so require fewer workers to produce them. The Big Three have started building battery plants with joint-venture partners, outsourcing this manufacturing to non-union workers. By doing this, the Big Three are engaging in union busting and trying to break the UAW. The union is demanding guarantees that workers hired at the automakers’ new EV battery plants will be covered by the UAW national contracts, or at least given union contracts with comparable wage and safety terms.

Other UAW demands include a 46% wage increase over four years, regular cost-of-living (COLA) wage increases, converting all temporary workers into permanent positions, more paid time off, pension plans for a greater number of workers, and a job security plan for workers when plants are shuttered. The demands around plant closures are extremely important because the transition to EV production will be seen by these companies as a golden opportunity to close existing union plants and open new non-union plants elsewhere. The Big Three have already closed 65 plants during the last 20 years, so the UAW should fight this by striking over plant closures, demanding to retool existing plants for EV production without any job losses. 

A very exciting demand from UAW is reducing the hours worked without any loss in pay. UAW is demanding a workweek comprising four eight-hour days on the assembly line and a fifth day with eight hours of paid time off, so a 32-hour week with 40-hour pay. It’s very encouraging that the UAW is raising a demand that has such a rich tradition in the labor movement. The Big Three will fight this tooth-and-nail and be completely unwilling to make this concession without a fight, putting huge pressure on UAW leadership to drop the demand. It will likely take a strike from UAW to win this demand, but it is completely worth it, and could potentially be a model for the labor movement and a demand that all working people can rally around. 

UAW Shouldn’t Endorse Biden — Lead A Movement For A New Workers’ Party!

Despite Joe Biden and the Democrats claiming his White House is the most pro-labor since FDR, Biden has played a rotten role in UAW negotiations and is preparing to further betray any promises to organized labor and workers. Biden has said, “As the Big Three auto companies and the United Auto Workers come together — one month before the expiration of their contract — to negotiate a new agreement, I want to be clear about where I stand. I’m asking all sides to work together to forge a fair agreement.” To actually be clear, what Biden means when he says, “I’m asking all sides to work together to forge a fair agreement” is him telling the UAW to drop its demands and demobilize any strike preparations.  

Biden apologists, liberal economists, and pundits are touting something that’s now being called “Supply-Side Liberalism” when describing Biden’s industrial policy. This is presented as a kind of New-New Deal with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, the CHIPS Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. This is being celebrated by some liberals as a decisive turn away from Neoliberalism and the Reagan Supply-Side, “trickle-down” consensus.       

The auto industry is very much a part of this new industrial policy. Biden wants two-thirds of all new passenger cars to be completely electric by 2032. The administration has provided automakers with billions of dollars in tax incentives and other inducements to speed the transition to EV production, but of course absent is any labor protections and is making it easier for US automakers to break the UAW. Biden’s approach is not one that seeks to build necessary harmony between the needs of the planet and the needs of workers in currently polluting industries. Instead, it is accelerating the trend that allows the growing EV sector to threaten labor standards won over decades by autoworkers and the UAW. This is bad for workers in the traditional auto industry, and it’s bad for workers in EV who are underpaid and, at times, in hazardous working conditions. The UAW has called on Biden to tie EV incentives to wage and safety standards if he expects the union’s endorsement for his reelection.

Despite the AFL-CIO endorsing Biden almost immediately after he announced without any democratic discussion from their rank-and-file members, the UAW has so far refused to go along with the US labor federation. Any job losses from EVs could be offset by a significant strengthening of industries with union representation all along the EV supply chain. Also, sharing out the work without any reduction in pay will also defend auto manufacturing jobs from cuts, but of course, Biden has not shown any willingness to do any of these things. 

UAW should not only refuse to endorse Biden, but the UAW should break from the Democrats and endorse the Cornel West campaign. The Cornel West campaign represents the best opportunity in decades for the labor movement to end its dependence on the Democratic Party that has betrayed them and will continue to do so. Cornel West is the clear left-wing, pro-worker alternative, independent of both corporate parties that puts the interests of the bosses over workers. Unions like UAW are long-standing, well-established worker organizations that can provide the real infrastructure and organization needed to build a new independent workers’ party that can also be the political vehicle of struggle for social movements. UAW could lead the way and convince other militant sections of the labor movement to also break from the Democrats and begin organizing a movement for a new workers’ party with the Cornel West campaign. Unions in other countries were foundational in establishing their new worker parties. Despite the huge sacrifices and militant strikes from workers and unions – like the UAW – in the US, the labor movement here hasn’t yet established its own independent political party for itself, which is a historical task for working people in our struggle for socialism.

UAW Reform Caucus: Unite All Workers For Democracy (UAWD)

When Shawn Fain won the UAW presidency he ran as part of a reformer slate called UAW Members United, and all seven of the slate’s candidates won their leadership elections. They were backed by Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), a reform caucus of which Fain is a member. The slogan that the reformer slate ran on was “No corruption. No concessions. No tiers.” This could indeed be a breakthrough for the UAW to rise again.   

The campaign that sparked UAWD’s formation in 2019 was to make elections to the UAW’s International Executive Board direct elections open to all UAW members instead of just delegates at a stage-managed convention. The UAWD reform caucus and new reformer leadership have yet to be tested, but this contract fight with the Big Three will be a big challenge. Fain’s election victory was nail-bitingly close, and voter turnout was dismally low. So if Fain and UAWD are going to consolidate their election victories and point UAW in a new direction they need to put forward a clear fighting strategy to win real material gains for auto workers that go beyond just democratizing the union structures. The new leadership needs to show members that they are unafraid to go toe-to-toe with the Big Three, building a fighting movement towards a militant strike if that’s what it takes to win their contract demands.

The UAW should escalate its contract struggle with the Big Three and prepare to go further than the Teamsters did with UPS. The UAW needs to seriously prepare for a strike, including organizing “practice pickets” like the Teamsters did at UPS. The Teamsters leadership talked a big game about striking but ended up agreeing to a TA that paled in comparison to what could’ve been won with a strike. The UAW should not make the same mistake and instead be prepared to actually go through with a nationwide strike with pickets at every Big Three factory. Solidarity with UAW!

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