US auto workers strike: UAW workers can win more!

After six weeks of selective strikes against the “Big 3” American automakers, the United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership reached tentative agreements (TAs) with Ford, GM, and Stellantis. Union leaders called off picket lines, and approximately 50,000 striking workers returned to their jobs. Now, the 150,000 rank-and-file union members at the three auto companies are voting on the TAs to either approve new contracts or send the negotiating team back to the table and possibly re-start the strike.

The UAW’s rolling strikes against all three automakers began on September 15 with walkouts at three assembly plants. The strike escalated over the following weeks with 38 parts and distribution centers (PDCs) walking out, followed by five more plants across the country.

The strikes included walkouts at the Big 3’s most profitable plants, notably Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant. The 8,700 workers there generate $48,000/minute in revenue for Ford, while new hires only earn $37,523/year. This is equivalent to $25 billion a year in revenue, or nearly half the company’s US earnings and a sixth of its total global revenue. If this site were its own standalone company, it would count among the Fortune 500. Other large moneymakers the UAW targeted were Stellantis’ Sterling Heights Assembly Plant and GM’s Arlington TX Assembly Plant. In total, the work stoppage cost the car companies over $5 billion in revenue over six weeks.

The strike made some gains for members compared to the Big 3’s “final offer,” but there are still crucial issues left unaddressed in the current TAs. Wage offers aren’t enough, workers do not get the same benefits and protections for the same work, and electric vehicle (EV) production jobs don’t automatically fall under the national union agreement. More can be won, especially considering the majority of UAW workers didn’t walk out, there was overwhelming public support (by a 4-1 margin) for the strike, and general support for unions is the strongest it’s been in 60 years.

The Independent Socialist Group (ISG) walked picket lines in solidarity with UAW members in their fight for strong contracts and encourages workers to carefully review and discuss what’s offered. In early October, UAW workers at Mack Trucks voted down by 73% a TA that would have provided 19% wage increases over 5 years. Of the 4,000 members on strike since October 9, UAW President Shawn Fain said, “I’m inspired to see UAW members at Mack holding out for a better deal.” We support a “no” vote on the current TAs because of the following concerns:

Wages

The UAW started negotiations in July calling for a 46% wage increase over a four-year contract. The union has pointed out the increase in the last four years of CEO pay by an average of 40%. Vehicle prices have gone up 36% and general inflation jumped by 20%. Yet UAW auto workers today make $10/hr less in real wages than they did in 2007, and auto workers on the whole have seen a 30% decline in pay over the past two decades. This was due to the union accepting major concessions in the aftermath of the 2008-2009 bailouts for the car corporations. Ron Gettelfinger, president of the UAW at the time, pushed members to accept wage freezes, the introduction of temp workers and second-tier full-timers, the loss of cost-of-living-adjustments (COLA), and hits to pensions and retiree healthcare.

The Ford, GM, and Stellantis tentative agreements offer wage increases of 25% over 4.5 years, including an 11% increase immediately upon ratification. This averages out to less than 6% per year. Starting wages will move to $25/hr for full-time workers while temp work will increase from a $21/hr starting wage to $25/hr after nine months of service.

While the TA wage increases are more than double what the companies initially offered (9%), it’s still a far cry from what workers need. Even the 46% increase the union called for in August would leave workers’ real wages 5% lower than before the bailouts. The proposed Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) of less than $0.50 per year will not keep up with inflation. The starting pay of $21-25/hr is not a living wage for most Americans. Workers need to make more than they did 20 years ago, not less, especially after so many years of concessions. The union leadership needs to boldly lead a fight for an immediate $10/hr increase for all workers—to restore real wages lost since ‘07—followed by significant above-inflation pay hikes and COLA.

Ending Tiers

Second-tier workers (those hired after 2007) do the same work for lower pay and are excluded from the pension and retiree healthcare. The second-tier 401k plan is far cheaper for the auto companies to provide than the pension and doesn’t guarantee pay for workers for the remainder of their lives. Denying workers retiree healthcare is also a massive “cost-saving” move for companies since healthcare, while especially crucial during retirement, is increasingly unaffordable.

Additionally, thousands of the Big 3 workers are hired for “temporary” jobs that pay less and don’t come with the same benefits and protections. Temps can face years of precarious work before attaining full-time status.

The UAW aimed to eliminate tiers and company abuse of temp positions by demanding a 90-day progression to convert all lower-tier workers to equal wages and benefits for doing the same work as “legacy” workers. With the current TA, all full-timers and temps will be able to reach top pay in three years instead of eight. Current temps will be converted to full-time status after working 90 days, with future temps guaranteed full-time status after nine months. Though the UAW has won greater equity in pay among workers, the union has not won back pensions or retiree healthcare for all members under the currently negotiated terms.

Retirement

The TAs increase employer contributions to 401k’s (from 6.4% to 10%) and to pensions and offer limited bonuses to retirees, but continue to deny workers hired after 2007 the pension plan or retiree healthcare. This means pensions will phase out as the remainder of the eligible workers retire. 401ks are not equivalent to high quality retiree healthcare benefits and pensions, especially given the skyrocketing costs of health and elder care.

Electric Vehicle Production, Plant Closures, & Job Security

Auto companies receive billions in federal loans to develop electric vehicle (EV) production. So far, the EV plants that have been built do not offer union jobs and benefits and are predominantly located in the South where labor laws and protections are notoriously weak. The UAW has taken up the fight for a “just transition” for auto workers that protects livelihoods, living standards, and union rights as the auto industry moves to EV production as part of the response to the climate crisis.

The tentative agreements with the Big 3 include provisions for EV plant workers to be represented under the national master contacts and win EV production work for UAW members at existing non-EV plants. However, EV sites would only be covered by the UAW agreements once the majority of workers there are UAW members. This does not guarantee immediate union rights for existing non-unionized EV plant workers or for all new plant hires once sites are in operation, but requires either enough UAW members to transfer to EV plants after conventional plant closures or the UAW to unionize the facilities from scratch. This “protects” union rights and jobs in name only.

The GM TA covers EV workers at Ultium Cells, a battery plant in Lordstown, Ohio, who voted overwhelmingly to unionize with the UAW last December. The GM terms also allow for former Lordstown Assembly Plant workers who’d been laid off to take jobs at Ultium and maintain UAW status, seniority, wages, and benefits.

The Stellantis TA provides workers with some union EV jobs. The company promises 1,000 EV positions at a future Belvidere battery plant set to open in 2028,  on top of 5,000 new UAW positions promised to the union under the proposed terms. It also reopens the idle Belvidere assembly plant that the company had closed earlier this year; some of the 1,350 workers laid off in that closure will be able to return to their jobs.

However, the Stellantis TA also accepts the closure of 18 facilities nationwide. This includes 10 Parts Distribution Centers (PDCs) that would be consolidated into a handful of mega-hubs. The 5,600 workers at these 10 PDCs spent five weeks on picket lines. If the TA is ratified, they will either have to uproot their lives for UAW jobs elsewhere or be forced to quit and forfeit their union pay and benefits. Workplace closures and layoffs are not inevitable but an attempt by auto companies to cut jobs, union-bust, and drive down wages and benefits. The union leadership should not agree to closures and job cuts and instead fight to maintain them.

Shorter Work Week

The UAW called for a 32-hour work week with no reduction in pay. This is an important demand that unions have raised before. Shorter work weeks greatly improve workers’ quality of life, provide them more personal time, and improve safety. Fewer working hours with no cut in pay is a demand the labor movement has put forward in the past to combat understaffing and forced overtime, as well as to create new high-quality jobs for the unemployed. While the UAW raised the idea of a shorter work week, union leadership did not organize a serious fight for this change.

Vote No and Fight for More!

The current round of UAW negotiations exhibit recent positive changes. UAW members voted in a new president in March in the union’s first one-member-one-vote election. New union leadership carried through their promise to lead members out on strike. They bargained and struck against all three companies simultaneously and doubled weekly strike pay from $250 to $500. Negotiations were more visible for members and the public, with regular updates in social media. Negotiations were also linked to new union organizing of non-union auto companies.

But the brutal attacks on auto workers during the 2008-2009 auto bailouts—followed by over a decade of further layoffs, numerous plant closures, and plummeting wages and benefits— have set back UAW members in the auto industry. And they’re not alone: these blows are part of a 50-year trend of decreasing living standards. UAW members can be a crucial part of the fight for US workers to win back what we’ve lost, to make better gains in wages and benefits, and to save jobs. The current TAs are not enough.

The Independent Socialist Group urges UAW members to vote no in order to fight for more concessions from the Big 3 automakers. Ford, GM, and Stellantis reaped a combined $250 billion in profits during the last decade. It was UAW members’ work that created the value that generated astronomical profits for the corporate bosses. Labor creates all value, but management wasted $5 billion on stock buybacks in the past year and claim that wage increases will further raise vehicle prices—which the companies themselves increased by 30% over the last 4 years while clamping down on wages. Labor only amounts to 4-5% of the price of a car.

The UAW hasn’t thrown its full weight into battle against Ford, GM, and Stellantis. The vast majority of union workers at the Big 3 —100,000 of them, in fact— were left out of the strikes. These workers labored under expired contracts and ensured the employers’ profits while their union siblings fought for a better contract by withholding their labor. ISG calls upon the UAW to take an all-out approach and shut down all Big 3 worksites across the country in an effort to win stronger wage increases and more than the simple restoration of the 2007 contract terms. Big 3 CEOs now make $21-29 million a year, the equivalent of up to $557,000 per week. Meanwhile, workers struggle with homelessness and poverty wages that force them to work overtime or multiple jobs.

The conditions for union workers often set the standard for an industry. Improving union pay and benefits can increase non-union wages as employers try to keep jobs filled and head off organizing efforts. Shortly after the strike was called off, Toyota announced a wage increase for its non-union US workforce that nearly matches the offer for UAW members. Clearly companies can immediately pay workers more, but will only do so under pressure from organized workers or the fear of workers unionizing. Already, Tesla workers at the Fremont California facility have formed an organizing committee with the UAW.

The market share of the Big 3 continues to drop (from 71% in 1998 to 40% in 2021), and the number of UAW auto workers also dwindles (from 305,000 in 2003 to 150,000 today). The UAW needs to launch a major campaign to unionize other auto manufacturers in the US, both domestic and foreign companies, in order to strengthen its power in the battle against the bosses, improve living and working conditions for many other workers in need, and thwart the efforts to union bust.

How UAW Members Can Win Their Demands

The UAW should not take on the major US automakers alone. Ford, GM, and Stellantis are some of the largest corporations in the world, with powerful politicians and the legal system on their side. They received $80 billion in bailouts in 2008-2009 under both the Bush and Obama administrations. In the past year, GM received $2.5 billion and Ford $9.2 billion in federal loans to construct non-union EV battery plants. To weather the strikes, big banks handed Ford a $4 billion credit line in August and GM a $6 billion credit line in October. Even with a $850 million strike fund and 150,000 auto workers, the UAW needs active solidarity from other unions and the wider working class.

Auto workers should take confidence in the overwhelming public support to launch an all-out offensive against the major US auto companies. The union could call for the support of solidarity strikes from other union members, as Tesla mechanics on strike in Sweden are currently doing. Already, the UAW has organized rallies with SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild) members who were on picket lines themselves for four months. It has received support from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, whose 26,000 members authorized a strike in August during their own contract battle. UAW graduate workers that make up one-fourth of UAW membership have walked out for their own much-needed wage gains, most significantly at the University of California last winter. Many members of other unions have also joined the UAW on picket lines the last two months.

International solidarity could also play a major role in coordinated actions. Canadian auto workers, unionized with Unifor, fought for their own contracts with the Big 3 while American auto workers were on strike. On October 10th, 4,300 Unifor members at GM walked out for one day, as 8,200 Stellantis Unifor members also did weeks later. The resulting TAs offered Unifor members 20% increases over three years. In Brazil, GM metalworkers went on strike in October for two weeks against mass layoffs of over 1,200 workers. Their strike reversed all the layoffs, and they’ve won back those jobs. Mass strike actions like these point to the possibility for auto workers to link up across countries to win better wages and working conditions for millions worldwide.

UAW President Shawn Fain has described the Big 3 contract battle as larger than just the UAW, as a fight for the broader working class. He has invited other American unions to align their contracts with the UAW’s to aim for a joint strike come May 1, 2028, stating, “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 and not the few, then it’s important that we not only strike, but that we strike together.” The possibility of a mass coordinated strike—even potentially a general strike—on International Workers’ Day in 2028, holds immense power as a tactic and could unify the labor movement.

But workers can’t wait another four years. Rampant inflation, poverty wages, and housing and food insecurity are major issues today for many workers, including auto workers. Working people should take every opportunity to unite and push for huge gains. The UAW’s past experience with the 1936-1937 Flint sit-down strikes and workplace occupations at GM facilities involved 136,000 workers and built the union from a force of 30,000 to 400,000 in a single year. Today’s UAW members can draw lessons from that struggle. Families and community members at the time supported the strikers with mass pickets and food donations, even blocking the police and eventually the national guard. The union can adopt similar tactics in current contract battles, drawing on the coordinated power and solidarity of the broader working-class.

The UAW has enormous potential to re-energize the labor movement and help lead the charge against the capitalist class—not only in words but in action. It needs to unite and fight with other unions for much better contracts and put massive resources into new organizing, including winning union drives and first contracts at the non-union car corporations like Tesla, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, etc. It will take tactics that have been absent from the labor movement for a long time, such as workplace occupations, solidarity strikes, general strikes, and building a political party for working people. UAW members have shown they can force the Big 3 to make concessions. The union has the power to seize the moment, to demand and fight for more—and they should take it.

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