How UAW auto workers took on the Big 3 and won

In the past few weeks, United Auto Workers members reached historic tentative agreements with the Big 3 automakers following a six-week strike that has inspired workers across the country. 150,000 UAW members at Ford, General Motors and Stellantis are now voting on ratifying the contracts. After years of being on the defensive, in this campaign the workers turned the corner and hit back against the corporations by making bold demands and utilizing new tactics to win demands that few thought possible.

The union’s key priority was reversing concessions won by the companies during past economic downturns. With the Big 3 returning to record profitability, it was time for payback. The UAW’s demands included a major wage increase, an end to two-tiered pay and benefits, job security guarantees including the right to strike over plant closings, pension improvements, and more. The coming transition of auto production to electric vehicles and batteries — now largely produced in non-union plants — raised the stakes even higher. 

Innovative “Stand-Up Strike” keeps companies off balance

After negotiations began in July, all three companies moved at a glacial pace, failing to agree to regular bargaining sessions and passing concessionary proposals. As the September 15 contract expiration deadline approached, the lead negotiator for Stellantis spent much of his time at his second mansion in Acapulco while posting vacation photos on social media. Two of the companies refused to even respond to the UAW’s demands until the union filed federal labor charges. In the waning hours before midnight on September 15, UAW president Shawn Fain spoke via livestream to tens of thousands of viewers and announced a new strike strategy designed to be unpredictable and that would allow the workers to ratchet up the pressure.

In a shift from the union’s practice of pattern bargaining — choosing to negotiate with and strike one company and using that agreement as a template for the others — the union leadership opted to strike all three automakers at once, starting on September 15 with three facilities that produce highly-profitable trucks and SUVs. By only striking several key plants, the union could strategically set deadlines to expand the strike if the companies failed to make progress at the bargaining table, while also conserving the union’s strike fund. As the strike unfolded over the next six weeks, the company had no idea when or where another set of workers would walk off, keeping them off balance and without a good strategy to maintain production. This “Stand Up Strike” strategy — with additional plants “standing up” to join the strike — echoed the 1937-38 Flint Sit-Down strike that led to the UAW’s first contract with GM. 

After the first wave of strikes at plants in Michigan, Ohio  and Missouri, in the second week workers at 38 parts distribution centers walked off. This stopped the flow of auto parts across the country. In October, after Ford showed up to a session empty handed, the union struck the massive Kentucky Truck Plant, which brings in annual revenue of more than $25 billion. The GM facility in Arlington, Texas soon followed, taking out the most profitable auto plant in the world. Each week, tens of thousands of workers turned in to Fain’s livestreams to hear updates from the bargaining table and to find out which facilities would join the strike. 

Big 3 cave to the strike 

As the escalating strike increased pressure on the Big 3, UAW started making progress at the bargaining table. After a week on strike, Ford agreed to reinstating the cost of living adjustments formula (COLA) that ensures wages keep pace with inflation. COLA was eliminated during the 2009 Great Recession and the companies had sworn they would never agree to reinstate. After three weeks, General Motors agreed to include all nonunion battery facilities under the contract for the first time, a key win as the industry rapidly shifts to EV production and something many considered impossible as the corporations are not legally required to bargain over nonunion facilities. 

When UAW and companies reached tentative agreements on the full contract by late October,  the list of “unthinkable” wins had grown. Starting wages will increase by about 70% over the course of the 4.5 year agreement, while the top wage will increase by 33%. The Big 3’s system of tiered wages, in which new hires receive lower pay, was significantly leveled as  progression to top wage would decrease to three years from eight previously. Previously temporary workers will get raises of more than 165% as they are converted to full-time employees, while workers at parts centers will get an immediate 76% increase. These salary increases are more than all the increases won by the union in the past 22 years. The agreements also include increases in pensions and 401(k) increases, reversing the employers’ long-standing efforts to degrade retirement benefits. 

The agreements also include major wins on job security and keeping plants open. Stellantis started negotiations by proposing to eliminate 5,000 jobs in the US but after the strike agreed to build a new midsize truck at its factory in Belvidere, Illinois, that was slated to be closed. About 1,200 workers will be hired back at Belvidere, plus another 1,000 workers will be added for a new electric vehicle battery plant, while the workforce will be doubled at the Toledo plant. In total, the three companies agree to invest about $38 billion in UAW-represented facilities, which means more union jobs over the long run. UAW also won the right to strike over plant closures and it can strike if the company doesn’t meet product and investment commitments. 

Gearing up for the fight ahead

UAW’s stand-up strike flipped the script. No longer on the defensive, autoworkers found creative and militant ways to hit the companies.  And they have expanded the frame of what seems possible in the face of decades-long efforts by the corporations to lower expectations. As with the string of contract wins earlier this year by UPS Teamsters, Writers Guild, and Kaiser healthcare workers, militant strike-ready campaigns are turning the tide. Fain described this contract fight as “a turning point in the class war that’s been raging in this country for the past 40 years” and said the tentative agreements are “a call to action to workers everywhere to organize and fight for a better life.” 

UAW members will now vote on the contracts over the next several weeks, but they won’t go back to work the same. Being on strike frames the class struggle in clear terms and shows the path for more victories. The contracts come at a crucial moment as the auto industry shifts to EVs and with a majority of US auto worker jobs at nonunion plants run by European, Japanese and Korean companies. But the new agreements are already causing ripples. Just days after the tentative agreements Toyota announced 9% raises for tens of thousands of nonunion factory workers, and Tesla workers at the Fremont, California plant announced they had formed an organizing committee to fight for union recognition with UAW. 

In a statement, Fain said “Toyota isn’t giving out raises out of the goodness of their heart. Toyota is the largest and most profitable auto company in the world. They could have just as easily raised wages a month ago or a year ago. They did it now because the company knows we’re coming for them.”

And the contract length for the Big 3 contracts also holds significance. The 4.5 year terms put contract expiration on April 30, 2028, just before May 1, International Workers’ Day. At the tentative agreement announcement, Fain said “We invite unions around the country to align your contract expirations with our own, so that together we can begin to flex our collective muscles. If we’re going to truly take on the billionaire class and rebuild the economy so that it starts to work for the benefit of the many, it’s important not only that we strike, but that we strike together.”  By uniting across industries and sectors using common expiration dates and many other tactics, workers can continue to turn the tide against the corporations and advance the fight for a more just world. 

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