In the United States, members of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) launched rolling strikes against three major US-owned car manufacturers, at midnight on September 15, as they negotiate for wages and conditions in a radically changing industry.
Immediately, about 12,700 assembly line workers at the Ford Motor plant in Michigan, the Stellantis plant in Ohio and the General Motors (GM) plant in Missouri hit the picket lines.
The UAW, which represents 150,000 workers, has never launched a strike hitting the “Big Three” manufacturers at the same time before. It is historic.
In announcing the strike, UAW President Shawn Fain — who was elected in March, replacing the longstanding incumbents — said the strike was class warfare between the working class and the billionaire class.
‘Enough is enough!’
Days before the strike began, Fain made clear what is at stake for workers: “Living paycheck to paycheck, scraping to get by? That’s hell. Choosing between medicine and rent is hell. Working seven days a week for twelve hours a day for months on end is hell.
“Having your plant close down and your family scattered across the country is hell.
“Being made to work during a pandemic and not knowing whether you might get sick and die or spread the disease to your family is hell.
“Enough is enough. It's time to decide what kind of world we want to live in and it’s time to decide what we are willing to do to get it.”
The strike takes place as the major carmakers invest billions in developing electric vehicles (EVs), while still profiting from petrol-powered cars. Because they have fewer parts, EVs can be made with fewer workers than petrol-powered vehicles.
The strike is significant, as the outcome of negotiations will determine the balance of power between car workers and bosses for years to come. It also takes place as EVs are shaking up the industry in the biggest change since Henry Ford established the assembly line.
That makes the strike as much a struggle for job security as it is about wages, benefits and working conditions.
GM, Ford and Stellantis (which owns Chrysler, Jeep and Ram) are trying to defend their massive profits and market share against competition from anti-union Tesla (which makes EVs), as well as non-unionised European and Asian car manufacturers.
The “Big Three” bosses see the strike as threatening their profits as EVs become more prevalent.
The union’s demands for wage rises, retraining and job security in a radically changing industry are not unreasonable. However even they do not make up for decades of wage and benefit losses.
Autoworkers in the 1930s organised sit-ins and pitch battles to build their independent unions. Their militancy — along with that of other workers in many industries — forced the Federal government to pass pro-worker laws. The US ruling class also feared a workers’ revolution against capitalism.
That’s not the situation today. Organised labour is still reeling from decades of concessions and take backs. Non-union labour has grown in basic manufacturing and further with the use of new technology.
Union’s ‘stand-up’ strategy
Rather than an all-out strike, the UAW is engaging in what it calls a “stand-up strike” — a reference to the 1937 sit-down strikes that built the UAW and ignited the 20th-century US labour movement.
Specific UAW locals will be called out on strike with little warning — a means of destabilising operations — while others will continue working under an expired contract.
Fain has said that if the employers refuse to budge, more factories will be struck. If there is no progress by September 22, more plants will be shut down.
“We are maintaining maximum flexibility,” he said.
“We can call on multiple locals to go out at once or one at a time. We can do this multiple times a week or only once a week. This will provide national negotiators with leverage at the table. And we can keep escalating and keep taking plants out.”
The downside of this tactic is that it reduces the immediate economic impact on the companies and could isolate strikers, failing to foster the unity so critical to pulling off a strike against some of the country’s most powerful companies. That unity is important for UAW members and for the US working class more broadly.
CEO pays versus wages
The big business media continues to present the owners’ big lie that the union’s demand for a 40% wage rise over four years is too much. Yet the CEO salaries and benefits dwarf those of a typical production worker — who averages $28 an hour at the top of the scale.
Ford’s CEO Jim Farley takes home about $21 million a year, Stellantis’ Carlos Tavares nearly $25 million and GM’s Mary Barra about $29 million.
Autoworkers’ wages have gone backwards in the last 16 years, “while the CEOs gave themselves 40% pay increases in the last four years alone,” Fain said from a picket line in Michigan. “And they want to call us greedy.”
During the Great Recession of 2007‒09, the UAW lost 45% of its members. Today non-union labour builds more cars than union labour.
The UAW has failed to organise any of the non-union manufacturers, which operate mainly in the South. Tesla’s main assembly plant is in Fremont, California, which was once owned by GM. Tesla bought the property,but the UAW failed to sign up the new workforce.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, CEO salaries and benefits at the top publicly traded companies in the US grew by 1,460% between 1978 and 2021, while a typical worker’s pay grew by just 18.1%. Based on inflation, workers lost real income as executive salaries and benefits skyrocketed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the dollar’s average inflation rate of 3.10% a year from 1980–2023 means prices have increased (cumulatively) by about 271% in the same period. A fair wage increase would be much higher than the union is demanding.
The combination of huge executive pay packages, massive profits, low wages and tiered pay systems that harm newer workers has increased “the likelihood of a long strike”, according to former US Labor Secretary, Robert Reich.
Two tier wage system
A two-tier wage structure was first brought in at a Big Three auto supplier in 2003, then by the assembly plants.
While the union opposed the system at first, including the use of temporary employees, it became standard in contract language. Currently it takes up to eight years to reach wage parity. This keeps all wages down and fosters bitterness between workers doing the same jobs.
The Big Three are offering to reduce the time it takes from eight to four or six years. The union wants a snap back to 90 days after completion of probation.
President Joe Biden’s administration, which constantly calls itself “pro-union”, is seeking a comprise.
Striking workers have little faith in the government. A year ago, Biden stepped in to prevent rail workers from striking. Recently he pressured the Teamsters leadership at United Parcel Service to settle without a strike, even though union members believed a strike would get them a better deal.
Striking workers are getting $500 a week strike pay — raised last year from $275 — paid from the union’s $825 million strike fund. The union also pays strikers’ health insurance premiums.
A favourable outcome for the UAW would give the union a strong calling card when it then tries to organise employees at Tesla and other non-union carmakers like Hyundai, which is planning to manufacture electric vehicles at a huge new factory in Georgia.
Teamsters Union members who deliver cars for the Big Three have vowed not to deliver to dealerships during the strike. “We are 100 percent supportive of UAW workers and Shawn Fain’s positions,” Kevin Moore, president of Teamsters Local 299 in Detroit, told the Detroit Free Press. “Our Teamsters will not cross strike lines.”
It is urgent that the strikers are supported by the labour movement and by students and others. If the strike fails, the non-union sectors will grow, and it will take a radical change in strategy by the labour movement to turn things around.
A victory would also help the six-month-long Hollywood writers and actors strike and the workers at Amazon and Starbucks and other companies that have won union votes but face the challenging task to win a decent contract.
The bosses and investors of Wall Street understand this very well.
[For strike updates go to UAW.org.]