By Andy Yorke
On 14 September 2023, contract talks expired between the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the traditional Big Three American car manufacturers (General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford Motor Company). Thirteen thousand workers from three major factories, one each from the Big Three, walked out – GM’s Wentzville Missouri assembly plant, the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant outside of the old ‘motor city’ Detroit, and Stellantis’ Toledo Assembly Complex struck. On 22 September, 5,600 more workers at 38 parts distribution centres for Stellantis and General Motors across 20 states joined them.
UAW president Shawn Fain, who entered office in March this year, vowed to workers that ‘the UAW doesn’t back down from a fight, we’re willing to do what’s necessary to win justice by any means necessary’. Federally-imposed direct elections saw a slate backed by Fain’s UAW Members United reform movement sweep to power in the first democratic elections in decades, ousting former president Ray Curry and the old corrupt leadership, who have repeatedly sold out (or sold short) the autoworkers’ struggle over the course of decades.
The about-face in strike strategy proves how powerful an obstacle to struggle the union bureaucracy can be and that even limited democratisation can help untie unions’ hands. To sustain the fight however, the workers need to ensure that this democratisation goes much further and deeper.
The situation in the US auto industry is a familiar story. In the decade up to 2022, the Big Three’s profits nearly doubled to $250 billion. The bosses say they can’t afford to give the workers a 40% pay increase, because they need to massively invest in the transition to electrical vehicles. But that didn’t stop them distributing nearly a third of their profit as ……..dividends for rich shareholders, stock buybacks for Wall Street investors and multi-million-dollar annual pay for the CEOs.
CEO pay at the Big Three rose 40% from 2013 to 2022. Last year GM CEO Mary Barras earned nearly $29 million, 362 times the typical GM worker. Ford CEO Jim Farley earned $21 million in total compensation, and Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares $24.8 million, 281 and 365 times their average workers’ pay packet respectively. These people have the nerve to tell workers to make sacrifices for their expansion plans!
The workers have paid the price for this corporate greed with their pay and conditions, with manufacturing workers’ pay falling nearly 20% since 2008. According to Fain, while car prices rose 34% over the last four years, workers’ pay rose only 6%. To make up for the past losses UAW wants across-the-board raises of 40% over four years, restoration of cost-of-living increases, pension increases for retirees who haven’t had a raise in a decade, improved health care and leave, and a profit-sharing scheme.
The union is also demanding the right to strike against plant closures, given Stellantis’ threat before the strike to close up to 20 plants and impose restructuring due to electric vehicle production. This makes it essential that there are no concessions on no-strike provisions.
However, the Fain leadership’s ‘Stand Up’ strike strategy has so far kept the bulk of the 146,000 UAW members on standby, limiting both the strike and the scale of its potential success. When the time came to escalate again on 29 September after a week of negotiations, Fain announced that only two more plants would strike: Ford’s Chicago Assembly Plant, and GM’s Lansing Delta Township Assembly, bringing the tally to 25,000 striking workers, one in six.
Then on 6 October, escalation to two more plants, including the huge and hugely profitable GM Arligton, Texas Assembly, was pulled at the last minute, due to the bosses agreeing to include EV workers in collective bargaining and a few concessions on temps and pay scales. Fain claims this proves his strategy is working – ‘Not everything is about pulling out the big bazooka’ – but in fact he is burying the pay claim, on which there has been no movement.
Fain bills this as a ‘smart strike’ strategy, saving strike funds (which have been banked up to last for three months) and playing off the big car manufacturers against each other: selected union locals (branches) strikes at selected plants, until 6 October expanding as each deadline for contract talks is passed, while arguing an overtime ban: ‘eight and skate’.
‘I see people want to go out at once,’ Fain said, ‘That’s still an option…We may strike all of the Big Three at once.’ But such an all-out strike seems further away than ever, as Stand Up has ground to a Stand Still. A serious escalating strike needs a sharp momentum, otherwise, as in Britain, they fall short of their target.
There are other, less visible, but still dangerous limits to this strategy. It is calculated to ensure the strike does the minimum possible to dent the auto monopolies’ profits, accepting these as the limits for the best settlement possible. Fain also aims to keep the liberal press at least neutral and avoid damage to Biden in the countdown to the 2024 general election. Even though the UAW has not yet endorsed Biden, Fain met him at the airport and travelled with him to a carefully staged picket line rally.
Fain claims ‘the Stand Up Strike is our generation’s answer to the movement that built our union, the Sit-Down Strikes of 1937’. But in reality this cautious strategy has nothing in common with that all-out action led by leftwing militants from below. As he admits, it’s about ‘giving our national negotiators maximum leverage and maximum flexibility to win a record contract,’ rather than forcing the bosses to concede by threatening their wealth.
Strike to Win
Strike strategy is something that workers should not just leave to the leaders but debate on picket lines, at strikers’ mass meetings, as well as in the canteens of the majority of plants still working. They need to lay down red lines (the complete abolition of the two-tier workforce, for one) and organise for a more hard-hitting strategy to escalate the strike quickly, up to all-out if the companies do not cave, to win all their demands.
While this turn to even limited strike action is welcome, accepting the Big Three’s profitability and the Biden government as necessary supports for higher wages would mean accepting real limits to the strike and therefore likely failing to achieve all the strikers’ demands. Workers should relyon their own strength. Their demands are only for the restoration of what has been lost, and all are absolutely essential. For UAW workers, an even larger struggle looms to organise the other, growing half of their industry and ensure that the much needed transition to net zero emissions transport is led by the working class, not the bosses.
The Big Three are under heavy pressure in the EV market from more nimble companies like the rapidly expanding Tesla and foreign competitors, particularly those from China. While they talk to Fain, they continue to shift production to the non-unionised South where 51% of the EV investment since 2020 has gone, while only 31% has gone to the old Midwest manufacturing core – and UAW’s membership. The EV transition contains a second, organic threat, in that it requires half the number of workers to assemble a car as the old internal combustion vehicles.
Therefore, no gains can be sustained for long unless the union fights for control of this EV transition and organises workers in the ‘right to work’ South and the unorganised plants of foreign car companies, imposing union recognition by strike action, including flying pickets and membership drives. In addition the unions should target the fiercely anti-union but rapidly expanding Tesla in California and Nevada. That will require a much harder-hitting fight.
Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is in the interest of all working people. A crucial part of this is the struggle for a just transition for workers in the polluting industries. Auto workers should receive retraining in similarly skilled positions, 100% free of charge, along with guarantees of no job or plant losses and a shorter working week if necessary. This must be accompanied by the end of the two-tier system and the demanded 40% pay rise.
If the bosses claim that they cannot afford this, workers should demand that they open their books to inspection by the unions. If these highly profitable companies try to claim they are insolvent, workers must struggle for a takeover of the whole sector under the democratic control of the workers. They must resist any attempts to bail-out the bosses, as happened in 2009.
Although Biden’s pledge to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is totally inadequate to the scale of the crisis, in reality the only way to achieve even this limited goal is to remove the bottle-neck of profit and convert the industry under the control of the workers and consumers. Nationalisation of the automobile industry, under workers’ control and without any compensation to the bosses, with the goal of preventing the climate catastrophe, would allow for the massive expansion of public transport, and plenty of work to replace declining car production.
To build such a political struggle will require more than another $160k a year reform-minded union leader. It will require strong workplace organisation, with regular mass meetings and elected strike committees, and a rank and file movement organising the militants and activists independently of the bureaucracy. Strike committees should be set up in every plant.
For those out on strike, such committees should organise to prevent scabbing and to defend strikers from attacks and intimidation. They should call on the local labour movement and community to provide the necessary support and solidarity. For those not yet out, these committees can organise solidarity with plants that are out, and face down management provocations with walk-outs or sit-ins.
Such a movement should back their leaders’ every positive initiative, but be willing to take the initiative where they hold back or obstruct effective action – no more suspensions of strikes. That means supporting every forward step by Fain and the UAW bureaucracy, while building the grassroots organisation needed to force them to go further than they wish. It should also discuss the objective of replacing the overpaid and over-mighty full-time officials with a leadership elected from, and recallable by the rank and file membership.
In order to succeed, union militants need to adopt a class-based analysis, and a socialist political goal for the unions, fighting to break them from subservience to either of the bosses parties. If successful this strategy can ultimately create a new, class struggle leadership of the unions, based on workers’ democracy. This means the most clear-sighted, political activists who have built this strike must work together with their fellow militants in the Teamsters, in the railroad and nursing unions to develop a movement for a new working class party, decisively breaking from the Democrats.