UAW Strike Ends Winning Historic Agreements with Big 3 Automakers

Interview with Jeff Schuhrke, assistant professor at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College, conducted by Scott Harris

After a six-week strike, the United Auto Workers union scored a major victory, winning new contracts with U.S. “Big 3” automakers Ford, GM and Stellantis, which await a ratification vote by union members. The union recovered much of the substantial concessions members made in the aftermath of nation’s 2008 economic crisis, where U.S. auto companies teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. In the 4.5-year contract, the UAW negotiated a 25 percent wage increase, cost-of-living increases, the right to strike over plant closures and a shorter time-period for workers to reach top pay.

Soon after the UAW victory, Toyota announced an increase in wages for its non-union U.S. Southern factory workers, apparently in response to UAW President Shawn Fain’s message that the union will soon be setting its sights on organizing nonunion workers at Toyota, Honda and Tesla’s American auto assembly plants.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jeff Schuhrke, assistant professor at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies at the State University of New York’s Empire State College in New York City.  Here he talks about the UAW’s victory and the likely impact of the union’s success on the larger U.S. labor movement.

JEFF SCHUHRKE: So a lot of what this strike was about was winning back some of the things that have been lost, particularly because the Big Three have been making record profits — a quarter of a trillion dollars in North American profits over the last decade. So the slogan, of course, of UAW and its new president Shawn Fain was, “Record profits mean record contracts.”

So that’s what they set out to accomplish. They had a lot of really bold, ambitious demands in bargaining. They certainly didn’t get everything, but I think they moved things forward in a way that a lot of folks were saying was not possible.

SCOTT HARRIS: Professor Schuhrke, tell us about part of these agreements that focused on unionizing the battery plants, which is quite important given the future of the automotive industry that many of course see as being tied up in the production of electric vehicles.

JEFF SCHUHRKE: In the agreements, the UAW did succeed in extending the master agreement at GM and Stellantis, in particular, to being able to offer a path for workers at those plants to be able to unionize through a card check, where it’s a much more simple process where they don’t have to face an employer pushback or anti-union campaign. At Ford, at least two electric vehicle plants that are under construction in Tennessee and in Marshall, Michigan will also have a path to fall under the agreement.

But the larger significance, of course, is like you said, that electric vehicles, they are and should be the future of the auto industry as a way to reckon with the realities of climate change and we can’t keep relying on gas-powered cars. I should add that a company like Tesla, Elon Musk’s the biggest electric vehicle automaker, is also the only entirely non-union auto company in the United States. And UAW is looking to unionize Tesla now and can use this victory at the Big Three to say to workers at Tesla as well as workers at the other auto companies, a lot of the Japanes-based companies like Toyota. If they unionize, they can make a lot more money, they can have better benefits.

SCOTT HARRIS: The US labor movement has been losing hundreds of thousands of members in recent decades and it seems in the last couple of years, we’ve seen a turnaround, at least in the energy and efforts going into organizing new workers and new sectors. What impact do you think this United Auto Workers victory will have on the larger U.S. labor movement?

JEFF SCHUHRKE: I think it will have a big impact. It’ll inspire a lot more of the actually existing established unions that they should be willing to be bold at the bargaining table and to be innovative in their strategies.

It’s important, the context of this victory that the UAW just achieved is that they only a few months ago voted in a new president and new leadership after passing an amendment to allow the rank and file to directly vote for top officers, which had never been on the table before. So I think that will inspire rank and file movements within other established unions to say, “We should be able to have a direct vote in who our leaders are and vote in new, more energized, more visionary kinds of leaders and take these kinds of risks.”

And for the non-union workers, any kind of victory is inspiring them to say, “I should unionize too. I want to be able to improve my working conditions and raise my pay and accomplish things that people might say are impossible.” But again, we all see that these corporations, these employers where millions of people work are incredibly profitable and they’re raking in billions of dollars and they’re rewarding their CEOs and their shareholders and the workers get left behind.

And that’s why there was so much public support for this UAW strike. And I think the fact that the strike appears to have paid off and really did make a difference — that’s certainly going to inspire more workers who are non-union right now to want to organize a union themselves so they can enjoy those kinds of victories, raises and improved conditions as well.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Jeff Schuhrke (17:46) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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