By JOHN CAST and ERNIE GOTTA
On Sept. 15, the United Auto Workers (UAW) began, for the first time, a strike against each of the Big Three automakers—Ford, Stellantis, and General Motors (GM). The following Friday, Sept. 22, the strike was expanded from an initial three production facilities to include 38 parts suppliers, bringing the total number of strikers to just under 20,000.
Demands include the need to raise long stagnant wages to match inflation, the end of a tiered wage system, bringing back cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), and the institution of a four-day week—or a 32-hour week at 40 hours pay. Another demand raised is the restoration of the defined-benefit pension and retiree health care. Any workers hired since 2007 have not had these benefits.
UAW President Shawn Fain noted in his live-stream address to union members that the Big Three can easily afford to give auto workers these demands—and more. Fain stated, “Finally, and this is key: the cost of labor for the Big Three is around 4–5 percent of total operations. Think about that. They could double our wages, not raise car prices, and still make billions of dollars.”
The UAW leadership is calling their tactic the “Stand Up Strike,” in which only a selected few plants go on strike. Initially, 13,000 of the 150,000 UAW members employed by these companies were on strike at the three plants before the walkout was expanded to the parts distribution centers, adding an additional 5600 members to the picket lines. Fain explained, “The beauty of the stand-up strike is that it provides us maximum flexibility moving forward. We are keeping all of our options open as we continue to bargain with the companies. So an all-out strike is still possible. Our options are open.”
The great majority of rank-and-file workers have shown great enthusiasm for the strike. Yet some of the ranks expressed skepticism when the tactic was announced. For example, during a Facebook live stream, many workers commented in the chat that they wanted a stronger response; they wanted all of the 150,000 workers to go out on strike at once.
While the “Stand Up Strike ” doesn’t yet evoke the same power and rank-and-file driven initiative as the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, there have been significant changes and a more aggressive class-struggle posture taken by the new UAW leadership in comparison to its predecessors. From refusing a long-standing tradition of shaking hands with the Big Three CEOs prior to negotiations, to the class-struggle rhetoric of wrecking the billionaires’ economy, Fain recognizes that rank-and-file UAW members are fed up with the usual bureaucratic pomp and circumstance of the past few decades.
At the same time, UAW leaders still align themselves with progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders and are even welcoming strike-breaking President Biden to the picket lines. What type of solidarity can be expected from a president like Biden, who broke a potential railroad strike by forcing a deadly concessionary contract on union rail workers?
The UAW demands
Inflation, and the rise in the cost of basic needs like eggs, milk, gasoline, rent, etc., means that the wage raises asked for by the UAW are reasonable. UAW President Shawn Fain is correct in saying that the big auto companies, having raked in massive profits, can more than afford to support the wage increases for their workers. In fact, a sliding scale of wages to reflect local costs and inflation should be implemented everywhere. This would ensure that the real purchasing power of the working class does not fall. For this reason, the demand to bring back COLA also has significance for workers around the world.
There is also the issue of the tiered wage system. This system allows the boss to pay workers hired at a later date a smaller wage for the same work. This is a fundamentally unfair system and has been fought by workers at Kellogg’s, Amazon, UPS, and others in the recent period. This system allows the boss to gain more profits from the labor of workers while also creating animosity between different tiered workers. This kind of system should be abolished everywhere. The UAW members could play a great role in the overall working-class fightback against this unjust practice.
The most interesting demand, and perhaps the demand with the most potential impact, is for the four-day workweek without a reduction in pay. The most fundamental aspect of the bosses’ exploitation of labor in modern society is that we, as workers, basically sell our labor in the form of time to the boss. In exchange for our time at work, we receive payment in the form of a wage. A 32-hour workweek at the rate of pay of a 40-hour workweek would be a drastic and much needed improvement of the quality of life of the UAW workers.
A reduction in the workweek without a reduction in pay is a demand that all workers should be raising, and holds increasing importance as forced overtime, seven-day workweeks, and 12-hour days become the norm in many industries—including construction, dairy, rail work, meatpacking, nursing, etc. The epidemic of overwork must be challenged so the working class can regain its freedom and quality of life. We work so we may live, not live so we may work!
The UAW strike holds much importance for the entire U.S. working class, and indeed, the world. Auto and metal workers in countries like Brazil and Mexico face similar challenges, where COLA and a 32-hour workweek would go a long way to help the working class. Solidarity across companies, unions, and sectors is vital to ensure the successful victory of any one of these demands, and UAW members could take the lead.
New technology: Organize the non-union companies!
The Big Three auto companies are in competition with foreign companies and domestic non-unionized companies. In addition, the so-called “green transition” to electric vehicles (EV) is putting pressure on these companies, which would rather cut labor costs to remain competitive against (or with) these new technologies. Under capitalism, this competitive drive always puts labor and the bosses at odds, as the boss is compelled by economic laws to cut their costs for the sake of profits. This results inevitably in an attack on the quality of life of workers.
Therefore the UAW has a dual challenge in this and future strikes. On the one hand, the transition to EV indicates at present that more and more plants will be staffed by non-union labor, making them easier to exploit and more profitable for the bosses. This also means the fighting strength of the UAW itself would be weakened, as the old technology of gas and diesel vehicles is replaced and workers are progressively laid off. Fain has criticized auto companies for not using union labor, stating that “the 11,000 workers that will be hired by Ford for its Blue Oval City electric vehicle manufacturing complex in Tennessee should belong to the UAW.”
On the other hand, workers in other companies and other unions need to be included in the fight and encouraged to do so. Auto workers at Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, Tesla, Volkswagen, etc. could join with the UAW in an industry-wide fight against falling (real) wages, tiered wages, and for the 32-hour week. To the degree that these workers remain separated and in competition with each other, to that same degree will the bosses at these companies exploit them. History has shown that the bosses will team up in cartels, monopolies, and other combinations for their mutual profit. The workers have every right (and every need) to do so as well.
Solidarity with the strike! All out to support the picket lines!
Solidarity with UAW strikers is pouring in from all over. Video and picture solidarity posts on social media are urging on the fight and filling up time lines everywhere. Readers can join in by calling 1-318-300-1249 to leave a message for the CEOs of Ford, GM, and Stellantis; tell them that UAW members deserve the same 40% raise the CEOs got over the last four years.
Some organizations are finding creative ways to show their solidarity. During contract negotiations, prior to the strike, the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) launched a campaign to connect the environmental movement with the struggle of autoworkers fighting for a just transition, as automakers move to greater Electric Vehicle production that is largely non-union with lower pay and benefits. LNS organized 100 climate groups to build solidarity with UAW members through a robust call-in and social media campaign that mobilized thousands to express their solidarity.
In Brazil, Luiz Carlos Prates, a metalworker and leading member of the National Executive Committee of the 2 million-member trade-union federation CSP-Conlutas stood alongside members of Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos de São José dos Campos e Região outside a General Motors plant of 4000 to send solidarity greetings. Building this type of international solidarity can help sustain picket lines, build momentum, and open workers’ eyes to the broader class struggle outside our borders.
To push this solidarity forward, Workers’ Voice is organizing a panel discussion on Thursday, Sept. 28, called, “U.S. and Brazil: Union Auto Workers Fight Back!” The panel will feature Marcie Pedraza, a worker in the auto industry for 30 years and environmental activist in her Chicago Southeast Side community. The event will also feature Luiz Carlos Prates and as well as Herbert Claros, an industrial worker and leader of the Sindicato dos Metalúrgicos de São José dos Campos e Região. Readers can register for the online event by clicking here: Brazil and U.S: Auto Workers Fight Back!
Workers’ Voice is calling on all readers and supporters to find some way to express their solidarity with striking autoworkers. If you are near the auto plants on strike, head to the picket lines and donate food and supplies! Check social media, you may find UAW locals practice picketing in your area. Post solidarity videos and photos on social media. Pass resolutions in your unions in solidarity!
The New York Times writes, “A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of the public backed the autoworkers in the showdown, compared with 19 percent who were more sympathetic to the companies.” This is unsurprising given the new wave of public support for unions, and the new wave of workplace struggles from auto, rail, warehousing, communications, teaching, actors, etc. A successful auto strike in the U.S. could bring renewed hope and vigor to the U.S. labor movement, eager to take the fightback to the boss, everywhere!
For a sliding scale of wages pegged to the rise in cost of living! End two tier! For the four-day week; 32 hours work for 40 hours pay!
Photo: Mike Householder / AP