Labor’s next huge battle: UAW autoworkers vs. the Big 3

Photo: Members of UAW Local 600. Credit: UAW

Nearly 150,000 members of the United Auto Workers at the Big Three automakers — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — are bargaining for new contracts and are preparing to strike if necessary in mid-September. These negotiations come at a crucial moment. As the companies hit record profits and are set to transition much of their production to electric vehicles, this struggle can be the next step in a revived U.S. labor movement. 

With all three national contracts set to expire on Sept. 14, UAW has made bold demands. These include a major wage increase, an end to two-tiered pay and benefits and the right to strike over plant closings. There are high hopes that this contract fight will be the first step in returning to the union’s militant heyday in which UAW contracts set the standard for millions of workers. 

Bosses roll back gains

After first winning union recognition following the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1930s, UAW autoworkers won unprecedented gains in the post-war period including an employer-funded pension plan and health benefits, unemployment coverage, equal pay for equal work, and cost-of-living pay increases. These benefits soon became standard for millions of workers across the country.

With auto sales and production impacted by the capitalist boom-bust cycle, employers used the economic downturns in the 1980s and 1990s to win some concessions from the union, but the Great Recession gave them an unprecedented opportunity. With the auto companies on the brink of bankruptcy, the just-elected Obama administration provided over $80 billion in corporate bailouts and pressured the union to accept a series of major concessions. UAW ultimately agreed to a two-tier pay system with lower salaries for “non-core” jobs, a 401k plan instead of a pension for new hires, and a pay freeze, including an end to cost-of-living increases. After driving their companies into bankruptcy, corporate CEOs presented these concessions as necessary to save the auto industry.  

In the 15 years since the bailouts, the auto companies have become massively profitable, making a quarter-trillion dollars in North American profits in the last decade and $21 billion in just the first half of 2023. Following UAW’s announcement of its initial demands, Mark Stewart, the Stellantis Chief Operating Officer, released a statement that the union’s “demands could endanger our ability to make decisions in the future that provide job security for our employees.” Over the last four years, Big Three executives received 40% pay increases, and Stewart himself just purchased the most expensive home in the Detroit area, the Fisher Mansion built by auto magnate Alfred Fisher in the 1920s. 

While the CEOs live in luxury, autoworkers struggle to make ends meet. In a recent livestream with Senator Bernie Sanders that focused on the UAW struggle, GM worker Michelle Collins described having to move from Indiana to Tennessee to keep working after her plant was sold and then working 12-hour shifts for 90 straight days during a 2016 vehicle launch. Collins said, “You don’t have any time for really anything at all. You work, you eat, and you sleep, and I saw none of my family because I was originally from Kokomo [Indiana]. It was a very lonely time, if I didn’t have my faith I don’t know where my mental health would have been.” 

A new contract struggle opens

In the last set of negotiations in 2019, 48,000 UAW workers went on strike for a month and won a partial rollback of the two-tier pay structure in which newly hired workers have a faster transition to the full pay rate, 3-4% annual salary increases and $75-85,000 assistance packages for workers impacted by three plant closings. These agreements were a start, but left more work to do. 

This year’s negotiations also come at a crucial time for the UAW. Following a corruption scandal that broke between 2019-21, the union membership voted in 2021 to institute direct elections for the national leadership. Under the new system, recently elected leaders, including President Shawn Fain, have pledged to take a more militant approach toward management. 

This has been on display during the first month of bargaining as Fain canceled the traditional “handshake ceremony” with the company negotiating teams in favor of a “membership handshake” and also recorded a Facebook livestream where he took the initial Stellantis proposal that included a long list of concessions and threw it in the trash. On the livestream, Fain said “Stellantis’ proposal is … an affront to the hard work of our members over the past four years. Instead of honoring the sacrifices employees have made, management chose to spit in our faces.”

The future of auto production

Another crucial factor is the imminent transition to electric vehicles. Stellantis and Ford are projecting half of their U.S. sales will be electric vehicles by 2030, while GM plans to exclusively sell EVs by 2035. This is a major shift, as the companies currently sell 2-10% EVs. 

This transition presents many challenges for the workers: Fewer jobs are required to manufacture an electric vehicle, and nearly all assembly and battery plants are non-union. Successful 2023 negotiations at the Big Three would set the stage for a wave of EV organizing. 

The Biden administration has provided massive government subsidies to fund the EV transition, but with no pro-labor guarantees such as card-check neutrality agreements at the new facilities. Ford recently received a $9.2 billion loan to Ford to build three battery plants in Kentucky and Tennessee in a joint venture with SK On, a company based in South Korea. UAW has harshly criticized the Biden administration for this huge corporate giveaway and has declined to grant an early endorsement for the 2024 election. 

Ready to fight

In the next month, the autoworkers’ struggle will ratchet up. UAW members have been taking action to get strike ready, including leafleting at factory gates, organizing contract action trainings, and saving their money so they can hold out in a protracted fight. 

While in the past UAW has targeted one company for negotiations and a potential strike — a strategy called pattern bargaining — Fain and the other leaders have repeatedly stated that “Big 3 are the target.” Whether one company is targeted or all three, the workers are ready to struggle and actions have started at facilities across the country. The auto sector represents 3% of the entire U.S. economy, so the impacts of these negotiations will be far-reaching and a strike would impact a broad range of industries.

The recent struggle of the UPS Teamsters shows the way forward. Through an activated membership that is organized and ready to strike and bolstered by broad community support, UPS workers won a new contract that eliminates tiers, includes historic wage increases and boosts the number of full-time jobs. 

The next big showdown in the U.S. class struggle is the fight at the Big 3 automakers. Workers across the United States are fighting with an intensity not seen in decades in response to skyrocketing inequality. Every advance builds on the previous fight, and as more and more workers enter the struggle the momentum can become irresistible. For those who want to see the working class turn the tide against Corporate America, all eyes are on the UAW autoworkers. 

Related Articles

Back to top button