USA: Historic auto workers strike

On Friday, September 22nd, following unsuccessful negotiations between the United Auto Workers (UAW) and the management of the three largest US car companies—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, collectively referred to as the “Big Three”—the UAW declared an escalation of its strike action.

This development followed a week of strikes that began on Friday, September 15th, coinciding with the expiration of the old contract. The September 15th strikes occurred at three specific plants owned by the aforementioned companies, strategically located in Michigan, Missouri, and Ohio. In total, approximately 13,000 workers were involved in these initial strikes.

One month prior, in August, the leadership of the UAW had proposed to its membership, of about roughly 150,000 workers, that they participate in strikes concurrent with the ongoing negotiations. Their demands centered on substantial wage increases and the establishment of a new contract which would include key workers’ demands.

Remarkably, the proposal for strike action garnered overwhelming support, with 97% of the workforce voting in favor. This momentous decision marked a historic occasion in American labor history, as it signaled the first instance of a joint strike, featuring shared demands, being organized at the country’s three largest car manufacturers. These corporations collectively control a significant 50% share of the annual car production in the United States, further underscoring the gravity of the situation. This sector also holds immense international significance, given that US car production ranks as the world’s second-largest, trailing only China in annual output.

A different kind of strike

As of the time of writing, the UAW leadership is implementing the decision made by its rank and file, employing a distinctive tactical approach. Instead of initiating a simultaneous strike across all plants belonging to the three major companies right from the outset, they have opted for a phased strike strategy. Under this plan, various plants and parts depots are called to go on strike at different times, giving the union the ability to top-up pressure when there is no progress in negotiations.

This strategy carries distinct advantages for the strike’s potential longevity and prospect for escalation, both of which are crucial, if it is used correctly. Firstly, it ensures that the strike fund, currently totaling $825 million, is not depleted too rapidly. Presently, each striking worker is receiving $500 per week in compensation by the union. Analysts have estimated that if all 150,000 union members were to strike simultaneously, the fund would only last for three months.

A brief examination of the history of the American labor movement reveals that significant confrontations between auto workers and these global corporate giants have consistently been resolved through prolonged and heroic strikes. For instance, in 2019, the GM strike concluded in favor of the workers after lasting more than a month. In 1970, GM workers emerged victorious after enduring a 67-day strike. Back in 1950, Chrysler employees went on strike for an impressive 104 days and emerged victorious.

Developments after the first week of the strike underscore the critical need for both the duration and escalation of the struggle. The management of the “Big Three” did not yield in the face of profit losses; instead, they adopted a counter-offensive stance by announcing layoffs. Additionally, they attempted to attribute these decisions to the allegedly “irresponsible” actions of the striking workers. This tactic of divide and rule is deeply ingrained in the capitalists’ approach. Simultaneously, they accused the strikers of making unreasonable demands that could undermine their investments in “green” vehicles, which are intended to compete with China. A prominent political advocate for this perspective is former US President Donald Trump, who is vying for the Republican presidential nomination once again in 2024.

In response, the UAW leadership took decisive action on September 22nd by escalating the strike to include 38 parts depots affiliated with Stellantis and General Motors. This move significantly expanded the number of strikers to 18,600, excluding Ford which, according to the union leadership, has a relatively more flexible negotiation profile.

Fair demands

The strikers have put forth a set of bold demands, including:

  • A 36% wage increase spread out over the next four years.
  • A reduction in the standard working week to 32 hours.
  • Swift alignment of the wages for new hires with those of older workers.
  • The reinstatement of a system of sliding scale of wages that was in effect until 2009.
  • The right to strike against the closure of factories that are slated to be “transformed” into “green” car production facilities in the coming years.

In response to the recurring question of where the resources to meet these demands would come from, the UAW provides a compelling argument by highlighting key facts about the financial standing of the Big Three:

  • The combined profits of the Big Three over the past decade have surpassed an astonishing $250 billion.
  • In the first half of 2023 alone, these companies achieved profits totaling $21 billion.
  • This decade of prosperity was underpinned by two main factors. Firstly, the Big Three received substantial bailouts, totaling between $80-85 billion, from successive Democratic and Republican administrations following the financial crisis of ‘07-‘08-‘09. Secondly, it was sustained by the “class peace” negotiated by the previous UAW leaderships, which involved accepting benefit reductions and wage freezes.
  • Furthermore, CEO compensation has reached astronomical levels. In 2022, Ford’s CEO earned a salary of $21 million, Stellantis’ CEO received $24 million, and GM’s CEO was compensated with $29 million. According to UAW estimates, in just the last four years, CEO pay at the Big Three has surged by a staggering 40%. In stark contrast, during the same period, workers’ wages have increased by a mere 6%, a figure that fails to keep pace with inflation.

In the words of Shawn Fain, the newly elected UAW president as of March 2023:

“They pretend that the sky will fall if we get our fair share of the quarter of a trillion dollars the Big Three has made over the past decade,” UAW President Shawn Fain says in the video. “They want to say that our righteous fight for a higher quality of life for the working class would wreck the economy. We’re not going to wreck the economy, we’re going to wreck their economy because it only works for the billionaire class.”

A strike with the potential to make history

By establishing this political and class-oriented approach, the UAW has succeeded in winning the support and solidarity of the majority of American workers from the very outset of their strike. A Gallup poll conducted at the end of August revealed that a remarkable 75% of respondents expressed their support for the autoworkers’ strike. Similarly, the recent militant strike led by Hollywood writers and actors also garnered substantial backing, with 72% of the population expressing support.

Overall, the class struggle in the United States in recent years serves as an example for drawing critical lessons applicable to the global working class, labor movements, and the anti-capitalist left. The stark inequalities stemming from the toil and exploitation of the American proletariat are acting as a catalyst. Between 1978 and 2022, while the average worker’s wage in the US increased by a modest 15.3%, CEO compensation skyrocketed by a staggering 1,209.2%!

As of mid-September 2023, there had been a total of 396 organized strikes conducted by labor unions in the US, a figure only slightly lower than the 409 strikes recorded the previous year. Within this atmosphere, it is evident that the outcome of this particular strike will wield significant influence over the consciousness of wide-ranging parts of the workforce, both in the United States and internationally. Millions of workers are monitoring the strike and are awaiting the outcome of this struggle, viewing it as a litmus test for the future of labor activism.

Should the striking autoworkers compel the “big bosses” of the auto industry to yield to their demands, it will likely set a precedent and embolden unionized workers, who represent 12% of the total US workforce, to consider similar actions. Simultaneously, it will serve as a crucial example for the formation of new unions in non-unionized sectors within the United States, including the burgeoning electric car industry.

Furthermore, workers in traditional automotive industries around the world will draw valuable lessons from this struggle as they confront the challenges associated with factory closures and mass layoffs, driven by capitalists transitioning toward the production of electric (“green”) vehicles.

The outcome of this labor battle will have ramifications that extend far beyond the borders of the United States, impacting the global labor movement and its response to rising inflation, “labor shortage” and the shifting dynamics of the automotive industry.

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