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UAW Runs the Table

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With the news that the UAW had reached a tentative agreement with Ford, GM, and Stellantis (i.e, Chrysler), the largest (50,000 workers on strike) and longest (six weeks and two days) auto strike in decades is pretty much over. Privately, however, I knew that the strike was over and that the UAW had won for three weeks, ever since GM agreed to bring EV battery factories under the UAW contract. While this wasn’t the only issue that the UAW cared about by a long shot – reversing the wage losses since the Great Recession, ending the two-tiered system imposed during the Great Recession, a four day work week; there were lots of things on the agenda – the EV battery conflict was the most politically controversial (full disclosure: I’ve been having an argument over email with the UAW national office’s communications department about the decision to withhold a Biden endorsement for some time now) and the one with the greatest long-term strategic implications for the union and the industry for the future. Once the union had won on that issue, I knew that the rest would follow (although it took almost a month and expanding the UAW strike to strategically vital factories to get over the finish line).

Counting The Winnings

The end result is a tentative agreement that achieves most (although not all) of what Shaun Fain had come to power demanding:

  • historic wage increases of 25% over four years, further locked-in by an additional COLA provision that will ensure that those nominal increases turn into real wage gains no matter what happens with inflation.
  • while the two-tier system was not eliminated outright (the contract ends the practice at some plants but not others), a number of provisions significantly shrank the gap between the two tiers of employment and will likely lead to its gradual abolition. In a practically Scandinavian approach, while top earners (i.e, the most skilled and most senior workers) at Ford are getting a 33% wage increase, “the starting wage would increase 68 percent…Temporary workers would make 150 percent more over the course of the agreement.” Likewise, retirement pay is going up for both retirees with traditional defined benefit pensions and retirees with 401(k)s, with the clear intent being to achieve the same standard of living for long-term and more recent hires.
  • workers at GM’s EV battery plants will be covered by the UAW’s National Agreement, and “the union also said its agreement with Ford would make it relatively easy for workers at the company‚Äôs battery plants to join the U.A.W.” As I said above, this was probably the biggest sticking point of the whole contract: while EV battery plants are crucial for both the Big Three’s efforts to out-compete Tesla in the electric car market and the Biden Administration’s efforts to make the transition from fossil fuels a reality, these plants are technically and legally joint ventures and unionized auto manufacturers have historically resisted all attempts to bring joint ventures under their unions’ contracts – I remember going to UAW 2865’s solidarity pickets at the NUMMI plant in Fresno a full decade ago, and that conflict was all about getting Toyota to recognize the union at a joint venture factory. I’ll leave it to my colleague Erik to talk about the implications for the UAW’s relationship with climate activists and the environmental movement, but needless to say this is a big deal for getting a union currently tied to a fossil fuel industry to reorient its thinking and its material position on the “just transition” to a zero-carbon economy.

After six weeks of a national strike that very much was a test for a new UAW president who had come into office with an ambitious agenda and a lot to prove to the membership who had taken a chance on his leadership, one has to conclude that Shawn Fain is that rare creature: a union insurgent beloved of the labor left who also knows how to translate insurgent energy into actual contract wins. Sadly, as we have seen all too often in recent years, it is not automatic that political ideology comes together with organizational skills (in both senses of the word), and plenty of activists in the union and other social movements who have charisma and analytical insight but who simply don’t have what it takes to run large institutions.

As my colleague notes, we should always be wary of premature proclamations that a new leader or a new strategy has revitalized the union movement. Already, articles are being written about how the UAW’s victory will lead to the unionization of southern auto manufacturing, victories in the Starbucks and SAG-AFTRA campaigns, and even the reversal of the economy-wide rise in class inequality that began with Reagan’s victory over PATCO. I hope that these authors are right, and I agree that a combination of historically tight labor markets, public support for unions, a historically supportive NLRB, and increasing union militancy can lead to big gains for many different categories of workers, from Hollywood screenwriters to adjunct professors like myself. Where I differ from some of my colleagues in the labor studies world is the quasi-historical materialist belief that these larger forces inevitably lead to union victory once sufficient internal democracy has been established. Even with strong winds at your back and the most democratic possible union, winning a recognition campaign or a national strike is still incredibly difficult and far from a guaranteed outcome. This is what make Shawn Fain’s victory all the more impressive, precisely because of how much of a political and organizational lift it was.

Arguing over the Victory

While the natural instinct at a time like this is to sit back and enjoy the afterglow of victory, unfortunately labor scholars like myself have a sick tendency to jump to trying to fit this strike into the pre-existing argument going on in labor scholar-activist circles about how to fix the labor movement. So does the UAW strike prove that the Labor Notes crowd is right, and that hope for labor’s future rests in increased militancy and horizontal direct democracy? Or is something else going on?

I’m going to advance the hypothesis that, while it is still a bit early to be drawing conclusions from the UAW strike, victory in the Big Three strike may have come down to a synthesis between the “new” approach (hard to call something new when people have been arguing about this for thirty years) championed by the Labor Notes school and strategies pioneered by the old school decades ago. Much has been made of how Shawn Fain turned his “Eat the Rich” slogan and his identity as an internal insurgent into the kind of class-conscious populism that many on the left have been hoping could win back “the white working class” ever since Trump’s victory in 2016. I think there is something to how Fain used his image as a blue-collar Midwestern white guy to maintain solidarity among 50,000 workers who stood on picket lines for six weeks and stared down the barrel of a winter on strike pay.

At the same time, I think a large part of the UAW’s 2023 playbook comes straight out of the Walter Reuther manual and would have been seen as common sense by labor activists back in the 1950s. For example, a central pillar of Fain’s strategy was to structure the Big Three campaign as a rolling strike in which Fain would call on UAW members to strike on a factory-by-factory (and sometimes week-by-week) basis. This approach allowed the UAW to target individual plants that generated the most profits for the Big Three or occupied a vital chokepoint in the production process, spread out the economic costs of the strike on the membership so that no one group of workers had to bear the full brunt of lost wages, conserved strike funds, and made it incredibly difficult for management to plan counter-moves (or even plan work schedules in advance, since they didn’t know which workers would be showing up and which factories would be open). It’s a strategy that requires an enormous amount of logistical organization and political buy-in on the part of leadership and rank-and-file alike, but when done right can absolutely paralyze enormous industries…which is why it was a favorite strategy of Walter Reuther’s in his campaigns against the Big Three back in the 1940s. Fain’s rolling strike was seen as innovative by the press because it’s been a long while since the UAW used it, but it is very much an approach pioneered by the founders of the UAW’s “Administration Caucus” who Fain defeated in his internal election win a year ago.

Likewise, I would argue that Fain’s decision to invite Joe Biden to the picket line was a master stroke that goes beyond the boundaries of labor left insurgency and owes a lot to Reutherite social democracy. Both in his capacity as UAW President, CIO President, and AFL-CIO Vice President, Reuther was instrumental in forging the alliance between the Democratic Party and the labor movement during the New Deal, and made very sure that even if would-be Democratic Presidents didn’t show up at his picket lines, they absolutely did show up to launch their election and re-election bids at Cadillac Square in Detroit so that his workers knew what side they were on. (In a further note to the UAW national communications department: Reuther also made damn sure that his members got targeted anti-George Wallace literature in the 1968 election so that a fascist didn’t win the state of Michigan.)

Finally, I would argue that Fain’s strategy owes an enormous amount to the corporate strategic research strategy pioneered in the 1980s. While there’s a lot of drama in the moment where Fain told Stellantis “you just lost Ram” after they balked at the UAW’s demands, it was also a carefully-calculated decision to call out the 7,000 workers at the Sterling Heights Ram factory (as well as the nearly 9,000 workers at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant in Louisville who generate $25 billion a year from making most of Ford’s highly-profitable pickup trucks like the F-150), because that particular factory generates an enormous amount of Stellantis’ profits, so that a stoppage at that precise factory would disproportionately hurt quarterly earnings reports. As with the rolling strike, corporate strategic research is a strategy that requires a lot of organizational capacity on the part of the union – you need to hire plenty of academics who know how to map the internal structure of corporations from SEC disclosures, you need to recruit activists who can navigate shareholder meetings and know the difference between U.S and EU labor law, and you need a lot of buy-in from the rank-and-file that a strategy devised by a bunch of ivory tower eggheads is going to work.

Conclusion:

Another question very much in the minds of labor scholars and activists is “what’s next?”

If his victory lap speech is any indication, Shawn Fain doesn’t intend to rest on his laurels and has an extremely ambitious agenda that includes organizing Tesla, Toyota, and BMW (which means butting heads with anti-union employers in the South, which in recent decades has been a brick wall that the UAW has been battering its head against in vain) and trying to get other unions to align their contract expirations with this contract’s 2028 expiration date so that the next UAW strike will be a cross-sectoral strike (which is something the U.S has not seen since the 30s). It’s as ambitious a plan as we’ve seen come out of an American labor movement in recent decades has been long on proposals for phoenix-like resurrection and short on material changes in union density rates. It could all come to grief on the sharp rocks of contemporary political economy. And I hope that Fain realizes that its success will necessitate that Democrats control the NLRB in 2028.

But one could have said much the same thing about Fain’s Big Three campaign a year ago, and he’s just shown that he has what it takes to run a successful national campaign. So I’m not betting against him any time soon.

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