The following article is an adapted version of the On Strike episode on the United Auto Workers’ new tentative agreement from the Big Three automakers which aired on November 2. Watch the episode here!
The massive gap between corporate profits and the cost-of-living crisis facing working people has helped lead to a resurgence of labor struggles, as we’ve covered here in the On Strike broadcast. In these strikes, cost of living adjustments, or COLA, have been a running theme in the workers’ demands.
As UAW reform leader Shawn Fain has been saying, “record profits mean record contracts.” If billionaires can make a killing off the auto industry, then the workers actually making the company run ought not to be getting killed by inflation in the meantime – and the fact is that right now, working people also have more leverage to fight back. In the context of the high employment and high demand for labor, the bosses can’t afford to risk losing workers, whereas workers can be more confident of finding a new job.
So workers going on strike have more ability to force concessions – if and when we use it to the fullest.
How much workers are able to force concessions, however, is heavily based on the threat of a strike, and in the case of an actual strike taking place, how strong that strike is and how much it cuts into the bosses’ profits.
On this broadcast, we’ve talked about how we’d like to see Shawn Fain escalate the strikes at the Big Three automakers toward shutting down production entirely – because we wanted to see UAW workers win as much as possible by making the auto bosses hurt as much as possible.
We’ll come back to that in a little bit. But first, congratulations are in order, to the thousands of UAW workers and to Shawn Fain. The workers still need to vote on whether to approve these tentative agreements, but it appears that very important gains have been made.
All three of the US-label automakers have now agreed to 25% wage increases over the period of the four-and-a-half-year contract. This is a major victory. The wage gains in these contracts are four times bigger than gains in the 2019 deal.
And there are other gains as well. Most importantly, the union prioritized raising the pay of the lowest-paid, which is a huge step towards erasing the viciously divisive system of tiers, which cause different workers to be paid dramatically different amounts for doing exactly the same work, side by side on the production line or in other parts of the same industry.
For example, UAW’s website shows how Ford workers who are currently making only pennies over $18/hour will see immediate pay increases to $24.91/hour, and will be on the same wage scales as legacy workers three years from now, more than doubling their existing pay. This is in comparison to the old contracts, where that would have taken eight years or not happened at all.
Workers Strike Back activists have interviewed workers on Stellantis picket lines who were classified as “temporaries” for more than twenty years. According to news reports, these workers will see raises of as much as 165% under this contract.
All of this shows that when workers fight, they can win – that we don’t have to accept the crumbs on offer, we can turn over the bosses’ table instead.
This is a breakthrough victory – and we think it should be taken as a sign by workers in the US and globally that they can do this, too. Just as the writers’ union showed a few weeks ago with their historic victory, which we covered in a previous On Strike episode. The message is clear.
The UAW strike grew to include more than 45,000 workers from GM, Ford, and Stellantis at eight assembly plants. What was won was won because the strike cost the Big 3 automakers billions of dollars. Ford publicly reported that UAW’s 41-day strike cost them alone an estimated 1.3 billion dollars. This is the central reason why the Big Three auto companies conceded to 25% increases.
Of course, the role of On Strike is to provide a serious analysis for working-class people about how to beat the bosses. In order to make a serious assessment of a given strike, to learn lessons for future struggles, we also have to ask not just what was won, but what it was possible to win, and not just what was done, but what could have been done.
In the run-up to the strike, the UAW leadership promised to reverse the losses of past concessionary contracts, originally demanding 46% pay increases. But as many workers are pointing out in unofficial social media groups, at the end of this contract the top rate of pay will still be less in terms of purchasing power than it was in 2006.
In those same 41 days of the strike, UAW could have cost Ford much more than 1.3 billion dollars if all plants had been shut down, thus putting much more pressure to win something closer to UAW’s demands – which just in terms of wages, was 46%, not 25%. That limitation also shows in some of the other details of the contract. The proposed contract doesn’t include a return to all workers getting pension and retiree healthcare. Needless to say, it also does not include victories on the most far-reaching demands put forward by UAW, like a 32-hour work week.
The six-week strike ultimately cost the companies less than the 40-day walkout of GM during contract negotiations in 2019. The pro-business outlet Automotive News reported, “Fain’s selective strike – which in the end closed nine assembly plants and 38 parts distribution facilities – still allowed roughly two-thirds of the automakers’ plants to continue to churn out cars.”
It also says something that Ford managed to still post a third-quarter net profit, and that its third-quarter adjusted earnings still rose 22% despite the strike. Given their record profits, Ford could certainly have afforded to give up far more.
Of course, none of that changes the fact that this is a historic victory by the American working class, brought to you by UAW auto workers. And we are all in debt to them for their courageous strike.
These major concessions show what can be won if workers exercise their power. At the same time, the strike also hints at how much more can be won if their power is fully leveraged and mobilized – with the strongest possible strikes. Crucially, this has the potential to open the floodgates for further strikes and class struggle.
At the Big 3, the next major fight needs to be over electric vehicle production, because the transition to EVs is being used by the auto bosses to attempt to break the union by moving it to non-union plants. While there are many victories in the proposed contracts, this issue remains as an ominous threat to UAW and the whole labor movement.
This victory needs to also be the beginning of a real drive to organize all the non-union auto production in the US, including especially the non-union EV automakers like Tesla. Workers in these companies can now see that there’s a real advantage to a union contract as their wages are so far behind those of UAW workers. There are over a million workers in the manufacturing side of the auto industry – only 146,000 of them are in UAW, so there’s plenty of room to grow. The union needs to strike while the iron is hot, and show the way to rebuilding a real fighting labor movement that the working class of this country needs!