Class struggle is back! 150,000 Auto Workers poised to strike

United Auto Workers members march at a union rally held near a Stellantis factory in Detroit, Aug. 23.

A strike by 150,000 workers at automakers Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler) looks imminent.  

In a recent Facebook Live event, United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain declared the Stellantis proposal trash, tossing it into a wastebasket. Fain has aptly declared contract talks as war between billionaires and workers.  

If the Auto Workers walk out when their contract expires on Sept. 14, it would be the second-largest strike in over 25 years, second only to the current actors’ strike by 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA. 

Strikes of 100 or more workers are up 40% in the past 12 months, according to Cornell University’s “strike tracker.”

What’s fueling this fight is the drive to reverse concessions the union made from 2007 to 2009. In real terms, workers who sacrificed to make obscene profits for the auto bosses, especially during the COVID-19 crisis, have seen their wages eroded, their backs and minds broken by forced overtime, and their health sacrificed. They are sick to death of inequalities and injustice.

Collectively, the Big Three auto companies posted net income of $164 billion over the last year.  CEOs earn multiple millions in annual compensation. That’s not even counting the bailouts by the federal government.

UAW President Fain spoke plainly to Ford workers in Louisville, Kentucky. “They get out-of-control salaries,” he said. “They get pensions they don’t even need. They get top-rate health care. They work whatever schedule they want. The majority of our members do not get a pension nowadays. It’s crazy. We get substandard health care. We don’t get to work remotely.”

Canadian auto workers, whose contract expires four days later, have also voted to strike. They have targeted Ford. 

There are separate contracts with the three U.S. automakers, and so it is possible that the union could stay on the job at one or two of them even if it strikes others.

Top union demands

The UAW has set a series of bold and necessary contract proposals meant to reverse workers’ losses and to better position its members for future battles, especially with the development and manufacture of electric cars.

Some of the top demands include:

  • Ending the two-tier wage and benefit system for those hired since 2007;
  • 46% pay increase over the four-year contract;
  • 32-hour work week;
  • Increased sick and vacation days and an end to mandatory overtime;
  • Traditional pensions plan rather than the current 401K plans, including retiree health care;
  • Limits on part-time and contract workers;
  • Reinstating COLA (cost of living allowance); 
  • The right to strike in the event of a plant closing, including provisions that would require bosses to pay workers to do community service if their plant closes. 

This is a partial list.

Two-tier wages, benefits 

The two-tier wage system, which was one of the key issues for Teamster drivers at United Parcel Service (UPS), became a strategy for bosses to beat back workers’ gains and a ploy during union contract negotiations following the Reagan administration’s defeat of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike in 1981. 

It deepened during the financial crisis of 2007. By 2008, an estimated 30% of workers had been corralled into a two-tier wage system. Much of the union leadership had given up on class struggle during that period. The reasons for this acquiescence are complex. 

In simple terms, it meant new workers were hired at a lower scale of pay and benefits then workers already employed. It insidiously pits workers against each other and has a devastating impact for all workers by ultimately lowering wages and benefits across the board.  

How this works in the auto industry was explained by Vox in the article, “What a UAW strike could mean for labor”:

“But a major driver of the strike is actually a two-tiered wage system first instituted in the UAW’s 2007 contract; workers hired before that are in the first tier and started at about $28 per hour, while second-tier workers start at between $16 and $19 per hour — a rate that has barely increased over the past decade. The second-tier class of workers grows as first-tier workers retire and are replaced by new second-tier workers, ultimately bringing down wages for an increasing number of workers — who also increasingly make up the UAW membership.”

32-hour work week

The demand for a 32-hour work week is long overdue. Technology for people, not for profit, can give all humans a life where culture and leisure can become central. But in the hands of the capitalist class, it means fewer workers and greater exploitation, including longer hours for those still working.

It is exciting that the UAW is making this demand central. It lays the basis to restore a shorter work week as a major labor demand for all workers.

The union’s call to end the grueling work culture that forces people to put their lives last is best described directly in the words of its president: 

“If COVID did anything, it made people reflect on what’s important in life, and it sure as hell isn’t living in a factory. We need to get back to fighting for a vision of society in which everyone earns family-sustaining wages and everyone has enough free time to enjoy their lives and see their kids grow up and their parents grow old,” Fain said.

Electric vehicles: a key issue

With union workers set to battle the Big Three, the issue of the transition to electric vehicles remains ever-present.  

Automakers are spending tens of billions of dollars to transition to electrical vehicles. Their manufacture will require fewer workers. What happens in this contract will set the stage around this issue.

So far the UAW has withheld its endorsement of President Joe Biden in 2024 because of concerns over jobs created with federal subsidies for EVs (electric vehicles) and their related jobs. 

If the union emerges stronger, it will better position itself in this fight.

Strike! Strike! Strike!

There is no way to predict the outcome of this battle. Certainly, the stakes are high for the entire working class both at home and globally.  

For the rank-and-file members, it takes confidence and courage. It means facing the potential of losing homes and apartments, the risk of being locked out, of being cut off from needed health care, not just for themselves, but for their children and families. No worker takes a strike lightly.

What we do know is that it is certainly overdue and any form of win will reverberate widely among non-unionized workers – especially in the South, among Amazon and Starbucks workers who continue to stand up to Bezos and Schultz. And it will raise the floor for all workers.

A strike will be a test on many levels. It will test the newly elected leadership of the UAW, both its skill and resolve. Have preparations been successful? Will the leadership skirt company traps? Transparency and solidarity will be key, keeping workers informed will be critical.

But most importantly, it will be the rank-and-file members, the wind beneath the union’s wings, who will hold the answer in their hands.  

Everyone’s role will be to give these workers and all others on strike our active solidarity.

The writer is a former assembly line worker at the General Motors Wilmington, Delaware, plant, which shut down in 2009. She was one of the first women workers hired at the Boxwood plant during that period.

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