UAW’s strike against the “Big Three” automakers last year could be a turning point in working people’s fight against the billionaire class. Armed with the authority of a strong contract won over a historic 40 day strike, they have embarked on a campaign to unionize the entire auto industry. While the corporations will fight back, UAW currently enjoys strong headwinds to carry this out with the popularity of unions at all time highs and that there hasn’t been a catastrophic economic downtown (yet).
The victory has raised the expectations of workers everywhere. Despite the fact that auto-corporations immediately announced raises to head off union drives, in less than two months since the end of the strike, 5,500 workers at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee and 1,500 workers at a Mercedes Plant in Vance, Alabama have collected signed union authorization cards from 30% of their coworkers. Although this happened at an astonishing pace, the union is waiting until 70% of the cards before filing for an election.
UAW’s new president, Shawn Fain, is encouraging the whole working class to participate directly in the unionization effort. Any worker can go on UAW.org/join and sign an electronic authorization card, and there is a transparent “how to” guide published to forming a union. This recognition of the political moment combined with relying on the initiative of rank-and-workers stands in stark contrast to most unions, who rely on foggy, staff-driven, legalistic methods that can actually disempower workers.
Workers in existing unions are learning the lessons of the strike. Many of these workers are fed up with their own conservative leaders who don’t want to organize or fight and would rather sit in offices making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They are discussing launching their own rank-and-file reform caucuses to topple the old guard, inspired by Shawn Fain and Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD). Workers have seen what a leadership that is prepared to fight can do.
There is no doubt the strike has had an impact far beyond the existing unions. Workers across the country watched UAW go on strike, and win a big victory. More importantly, UAW is clear about the challenges workers face. Shawn Fain is clear about the need for class struggle. He’s clear that corporations will lie, cheat and steal to keep raking in massive profits. He tells workers that even the best lawyers can’t protect workers, because the bosses own the politicians who write the laws. All of this is in contrast to most labor leaders, who play up their “friendly relationships” with the bosses, at the expense of their own memberships.
For these reason, it’s a mistake for UAW to take all this authority, and throw it behind Biden’s 2024 election campaign. While it’s true a Trump 2.0 would be a thoroughly pro-corporate, anti-worker administration, Biden does not offer a way forward for workers either. Endorsing Biden undermines the powerful stance UAW took against the massacre in Palestine. We need to be clear that the breakthroughs for the labor movement over the last year came from workers taking the initiative and getting organized against the boss, not from favorable decisions at the National Labor Relations Board (appointed by the president).
Unions wasted $150 million electing Biden in 2020, far more than the dismal amount of resources they devote to organize the unorganized. That money would be far better spent unionizing workers, and rebuilding a fighting labor movement based on the working class struggle, which unites workers from different backgrounds against a common foe: the billionaires. UAW missed an opportunity to spearhead building an independent, working class movement capable of breaking the depressing cycle of Trump / Biden elections, but it can still play a decisive role in rebuilding a fighting labor movement, starting by going all out to win at Mercedes in Alabama and VW in Chattanooga.