The UAW Strike: What’s at Stake for the U.S. Labor Movement

Interview with Nelson Lichtenstein, research professor, the University of California, Santa Barbara, conducted by Scott Harris

As the United Auto Workers union strike against the Big Three U.S. automakers, entered its fifth week, union President Shawn Fain announced that the strike was entering a new phase, where future decisions to increase pressure on the car companies would be at random — by day and by company.  Earlier on Oct. 12, 8,700 union members walked off the job at Ford’s Kentucky assembly plant that manufacturers their best-selling vehicles, including the popular F-150 pickup truck.

In a speech on Oct. 16, Ford’s Executive Chairman Bill Ford called on autoworkers to come together to end their strike, warning that high labor costs could limit spending on developing new vehicles and investing in factories. The strike, launched on Sept. 15, is the first time the UAW has struck all three of the nation’s unionized car manufacturers, GM, Ford and Stellantis, at the same time.

In an earlier sign of progress, the union announced on Oct. 6 that GM had agreed to place all electric vehicle battery plant workers under the union’s national master agreement. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Nelson Lichtenstein, research professor in the history department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Here he discusses the union’s demands and what’s at stake in the UAW strike for the U.S. labor movement.

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: The background of the strike is, of course, that real wages in the auto industry have declined about 20 percent over the last two decades. Certainly, the bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler, then in 2008 and 2009, workers had no wage increases; there were reductions in wages in various ways. You know, that’s sort of the background. And there was lots and lots of discontent in the union both over that and also over the creation of these so-called tiers, where some workers are paid less and have very few of the benefits that regular workers have and that’s expanded dramatically in the last 15 years.

Well, what you had was a election in the union, a kind of a referendum election, the first time that individual workers could directly vote for their leaders. And a reform insurgent slate won last winter with Shawn Fain as the president. It was a narrow win. But I think he’s now gained a lot of popularity. His campaign was “No Concessions, No Corruption, No Tiers.”

So he and others, obviously, the union, has put forward a pretty bold program, bold demands and among them, a large wage increase between really 36 and 40 percent, restoration of COLA, Cost of Living Allowances, end of the tier system, better pensions, etc.

And then even more important, bringing all the new battery plants that will be established, often with lots of federal money out of the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, making sure that these new plants are under the regular contract. They’re unionized and higher wage. So they’re doing all of that.

And Fain himself, I think is a very bold and effective speaker. And there seems to be tremendous public support for this strike as well as support within the union itself.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Lichtenstein, when you look at the U.S. labor movement that has been hemorrhaging membership for decades now, it’s interesting that the U.S. public is squarely on the side of the United Auto Workers in this strike and other strikes that have been occurring in record numbers recently. But in your view, what’s at stake in this GM strike by the UAW for the broader U.S. labor movement?

NELSON LICHTENSTEIN: Victory begets victory. Success generates success. So if the union is able to succeed, then I think it will make the entire labor movement look much more attractive. It will continue the momentum which we’ve seen in the last two or three years. It may mean that a good settlement with the Big Three automakers, the union can then say, “Hey, we can go to Toyota workers,” who are nonunion today. Or Tesla workers who are nonunion and “Say, hey, join us.” And maybe that might have some more attractive power than in the past when the union was really on the defensive.

Now, I think this is a political strike in a fundamental way. And here’s where I think what’s also at stake — and it intersects with American partisan politics — the Biden administration has really put its money where its mouth is when it comes to what we call industrial policy. That is, in fact, picking and choosing certain industries and certain technologies which you think is essential — in this case to a green transition and putting billions and billions of dollars of loans, grants and guarantees at the disposal of the auto industry to hurry up, accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. You know, for climate reasons and everything of that sort. The battery plants are being funded partly at least by the federal government.

Now, Donald Trump makes the argument and he made the argument in Michigan just a couple of weeks ago that this whole green transition is a disaster, that the old auto industry will collapse. That is, the building engines, gasoline-powered engines and whatnot will all collapse. People will lose their jobs and then any new jobs created will be lousy. They’ll either be in China or they’ll be just low wage, terrible jobs.

In a sense then, he’s sort of banking on defeat of the union. He has a wager on defeat. And in fact, if that were the case that the new jobs were lousy, a nonunion or many of them were sent to China, then workers would say, “Heck yeah, I don’t want this green transition. Biden’s wrong. We don’t need to do that.”

However, what the UAW is saying is just the opposite. And it’s really, in a sense, in tandem with the Biden administration, although they don’t, you know, make that a big point. But it’s there. “That is, we want good jobs. We want unionized jobs so that the standard of living of people in the battery plants and the electrical vehicle factories will be as high as that of traditionally the auto workers were when the union was strong.”

And secondly, the Biden administration and the UAW say, “Yes, these jobs are going to be in the United States.” I mean, that’s the whole point of the Inflation Reduction Act, so-called. That is, we’re going to build these things in the U.S.

So if the union is successful, then it’s really an endorsement, a ratification and a making real and popular Biden’s green transition plan not just for the auto industry, but for other industries as well.

So that’s up in the air right now.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Nelson Lichtenstein (18:18) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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