The United Auto Workers (UAW) are expanding their strike against the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Stellantis) to two new plants belonging to Ford and GM. Roughly 7,000 more workers are joining pickets across the country to demand a strong contract that includes 40% raises, an end to all tiers, job protections against the growing threat of non-union EV production, and a 32 hour workweek with 40 hours pay.
All three companies are offering 20% raises, a record proposal, but this completely ignores the attacks on workers wages by the Big Three in recent years. Wages were cut on average by 20% from 2017-2022. Cost-of-living adjustments were removed from the contract during the 2008 crisis so the companies could remain “financially stable,” AKA profitable for investors. In an era of high inflation and workers gaining confidence to fight back, “record proposals” based on old standards are not enough.
Workers are increasingly turning towards unions to fight back against corporate greed and the mounting pressures caused by inflation and stagnating wages. Over 360,000 US workers have gone on strike so far this year, not including the near-strike at UPS and potential strike at American Airlines, compared to just 160,000 over the past two years combined. A high profile victory in the auto industry has the potential to be a breakthrough moment for the US labor movement.
Biden and Trump
We are barrelling towards a rematch of Trump vs. Biden for president, and both politicians are battling for support from the UAW and working-class voters. Biden became the first sitting president to ever visit a picket just nine months after he signed to break a strike by railway workers. During his visit, he said he is in support of auto workers demanding 40% raises. UAW President Shawn Fain invited Biden to the picket line in the midst of a tense stand-off, with the UAW taking the rare (and correct) step of withholding its endorsement saying that politicians will have to earn their support this election cycle. Meanwhile, Trump tried to court the UAW’s endorsement by holding a “pro-union” rally at a non-union auto plant.
Both men are reading the room and know that unions are more popular today than any politician. Biden is saying positive things now, but ultimately, he cannot tolerate a long term threat to the auto industry and will put pressure on the union leadership to call off the strike as time goes on. The role of both Democratic and Republican politicians is to manage the country on behalf of the capitalist class, like the CEOs at the Big Three. Biden’s attendance at the pickets should be taken as a sign that the overwhelming support for the strike is bearing down on the backs of corporate stooges like Biden.
Stand Up Strikes
This strike at UAW does not look like other strikes. Fain is claiming to have created a new strategy called the “stand up strike.” Rather than all plants striking at once, the union is calling on select plants to “stand up” and strike. Meanwhile, workers at all other plants are being asked to continue working without a contract. The union says this strategy provides “maximum leverage and maximum flexibility.”
Fain calls it an “innovative” approach to striking designed to protect the UAW’s $825 million strike fund while maintaining the threat of expanding the strike. The hope is the Big Three will choose to come to the table with better offers rather than put themselves at risk of a strike that seriously hurts their profits. The companies are seemingly rewarded for good behavior when they make progress, with Ford being spared from the first expansion of the strike, and now Stellantis has been spared this time around for making concessions around cost of living adjustments and the right to strike over plant closures.
Going on strike has already forced a better deal. Both Ford and GM have reportedly agreed to eliminate the hated wage tiers system, a major victory for the union. Compare this to the Canadian auto union Unifor, which represents Big Three workers in the country, who recently announced a tentative agreement at Ford including just a 15% general wage increase over three years and maintains “temp” workers. Winning the strongest possible contract though will require fully democratic discussions are had across the UAW and the broader labor movement to determine how best to truly maximize leverage during a strike.
Fain frequently draws comparisons to the famous sit down strikes by auto workers in the 1930’s, and claims the stand up strikes follow in the same tradition. However, this approach of sparing the bosses from the full weight of an all-out strike, and sparing those who show progress, is the total opposite of what made the sit down strikes so effective.
The sit down tactic was developed in the 1930’s by workers following brutal attacks faced during the Great Depression. The auto workers at the time were fighting for union recognition along with a 30-hour work week and 6-hour days. If any individual worker on their own tried to demand these things, they’d likely be fired on the spot and replaced with one of the 16 million unemployed workers at the time. The only way to take on the bosses was to organize into a single union, sit down, and show them who really creates the profits.
The sit down strikes were a response to the many barriers those workers faced, including a union leadership that acted as a stopgap on struggle. They were organized from below following democratic discussions around a series of demands and electing a strike committee in every workplace. Importantly, the strategy emphasized the need to expand the strike to as many plants as possible, especially the most profitable ones to hit the bosses where it hurts.
The socialist organizers of these strikes understood any strike is a test of power between workers and the bosses. They understood that the fight against any boss is a fight against the ruling class as a whole, including the courts and corporate politicians. Winning a strike meant generalizing the struggle into the wider working class, including unemployed workers and families, and mobilizing them directly into the struggle to win. This strategy of expanding the strike and seeking active solidarity from other unions is what just produced a record victory for the Writers Guild of America.
Fain won a tightly contested election by about 500 votes, but the 97% strike authorization vote has given him a mandate to wage a serious struggle at the Big Three. He has taken many positive steps forward by organizing the first ever simultaneous strike against all three companies, but auto workers are showing they want to go further. On a recent Facebook livestream hosted by Fain, auto workers were frequently commenting to expand the strike to all plants.
The bosses are not sitting idly while pickets pop up across the country. 2,000 GM workers in Kansas, 68 Stellantis workers in Ohio, and 600 Ford workers in Michigan have joined the growing list of workers who have been temporarily laid off. While Ford and Stellantis have been spared by the union, they are engaged in a campaign to wedge divisions between workers on the pickets and those still working without a contract. Workers temporarily laid off are not entitled to layoff pay because of the strike. Instead they need to navigate applying for unemployment benefits. This amounts to a small-scale lockout by the Big Three.
A major drawback of the stand up strike is that there are effectively three groups of workers within the union, those on strike, those still working, and those who have been laid off. Fain explicitly told members that staying on the job was as important as walking out, because “that is the only way the strategy works.” This sets up a prolonged battle of attrition between multi-billion dollar corporations and workers who are struggling to pay rent, healthcare costs, and maintain benefits. The Big Three have shown they are willing to defend their profits. Their willingness to lay off one worker for every four on strike will put strain on these divisions created by the stand up strike tactic.
Innovation within the labor movement has a rich and powerful history. It will always be necessary to be innovative in order to overcome the enormous power of the bosses. But this innovation needs to be rooted in empowering rank-and-file organizing and a class-struggle approach. UAW should facilitate expanding the strike to all plants and locals should have elections for strike committees and picket captains to lead the strike. Expanding the strike is the best way to fight back against the divisive layoffs and win the strongest possible contract.
If the strike fund is a barrier, UAW needs to appeal to the public and other unions to donate to keep striking workers on the picket lines. The Teamsters, for example, could contribute to the UAW’s strike fund following their deal without a strike at UPS. Fain has the support and the ability to follow in the tradition of the sit down strikes and truly maximize their leverage by shutting down all production.