Auto: The Future on the Line

Against the Current No. 227, November/December 2023

The Editors

During negotiations UAW President Shawn Fain visited picket lines regularly, and the press followed.

WE BELIEVE WE are on solid ground in calling the not-yet-ratified 2023 agreements the United Auto Workers has hammered out at General Motors, Ford and used-to-be-Chrysler Stellantis a breakthrough for U.S. labor.

The strikes concluded shortly before this issue of Against the Current went to press. While we don’t yet have the full details of all three tentative agreements, we can say already that this strike holds historic significance in several ways. A major industrial union, with new leadership explicitly identifying itself with a rank-and-file-based insurgent movement, has undertaken a frontal assault on the whole raft of disastrous giveaways of more than two decades. At the same time, it has opened the door to becoming the work force in the joint-venture battery facilities from which they were going to be excluded. [For a discussion of some of the innovative tactics in this and recent labor struggles, see Dianne Feeley’s article in this issue.]

Because most media coverage didn’t go much beyond sound-bite quotes of what wage increases auto workers were seeking versus what the companies purportedly offered, it’s worth reviewing a few of the union’s demands. Half of UAW’s 10 demands called for a reversal of concessions that the union had agreed to during the recession: tiered wages and benefits, use of permanent temporaries, and suspension of cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).

Although these givebacks were supposedly “sacrifices” necessary for workers to make in order to keep their jobs, the reality is that this resulted in corporations making whopping profits. Labor costs dropped from about 8% to 4-5%. Over the last four years, CEO compensation rose 40% while workers’ wages rose 6% — actually lower than the previous year given the rate of inflation.

Members hated the inequality they experienced working next to “temporaries” — who frequently worked from two to eight years without basic job security. United in their determination to end concessions, the so-called “legacy” workers [workers hired before 2007] and temps were told by the leadership it wasn’t realistic to eliminate tiers.

The reform leadership won with the slogan “no concessions, no corruption, no tiers.” Clearly the 2023 negotiations were about reversing the power dynamic between the union and the Detroit Three.

The Context and the Stakes

The context of the negotiations was rising U.S. labor activism, from workers in traditional industries to fast food, teachers, college campus, screenwriting and acting, and health care workers. In our previous issue (ATC 226) we’ve scrutinized, for example, what was won, and wasn’t, by UPS Teamster workers although without a summer 2023 strike.

The UAW dynamic is distinctive. While the new Teamsters United union leadership was allied with the longtime Teamsters for a Democratic Union rank-and-file movement and welcomed activist “ready-to-strike” preparations, it did not identify with TDU. By comparison, the campaign waged by the new UAW president Shawn Fain and a majority of the governing International Executive Board (IEB) was more clearly backed by the insurgent movement Unite All Workers for Democracy.

But UAWD is nowhere near the size or with the roots of TDU, nor did it hold office in locals. As most readers will know, the new leadership resulted from the membership’s newly instituted right to vote for top officers, replacing the system of “elections” at conventions tightly controlled by the Administration Caucus (AC). Established by Walter Reuther as a caucus with a social democratic ideology, the AC was always authoritarian, extending its ruthless control over the union at all levels. But the increasingly sclerotic UAW leadership came to embrace and enforce restructuring as necessary in order for the membership to keep their jobs.

In fact, when wage tiers were “reluctantly” introduced, they came on top of previous retreats on working conditions beginning with the 1979-81 recession and going forward. Also added were various methods of intensifying work: team concept, draconian absentee policies, and whipsawing plants against each other like a game of musical chairs. By the mid-1990s the Detroit Three sold off parts plants in order to reduce their work force, but also to establish captive companies that had to follow strict guidelines.

This dictatorship by companies, enforced by the AC leadership, was able to blunt the various oppositions that developed over the years. In 2019, a small group of workers — UAWD — decided that meaningful change could only happen if top UAW officials faced direct elections. They drafted a resolution to have a special convention and change the constitutional provision for top officers to be elected at the delegated convention to a direct election. They were able to pass the resolution in a number of locals, but couldn’t make the deadline, and resolved to begin again.

Meanwhile corruption scandals unfolded, sending more than a dozen Solidarity House officials to prison. The remaining members of the IEC, also AC members, argued it could self-monitor and eliminate corruption but were forced to accept a federal monitor to oversee the process.

UAWD decided to request a referendum on the election of top officers — and when the monitor agreeed, won the vote. In the subsequent election and runoff, UAWD-backed candidates won half the IEB seats — including Shawn Fain as president. He won against the AC machine by 600 votes.

As the reform UAW leadership focused on the upcoming negotiations, Fain vowed “Record profits mean record contracts.” The Detroit Three, having made $21 billion in the first half of 2023, were prepared for a hike in wages but claimed they could do little more given the massive restructuring necessary to bring Electric Vehicles into production.

That raised the stakes even higher, as EV production requires less labor — potentially threatening big job losses. While each battery plant is projected to need 1,700-5,000 workers, the corporations set up them up as joint ventures. This was undoubtedly a decision to build a legal structure that denies automatic UAW representation. The UAW’s demands had to find a way to address this future threat as well as reverse years of on-the-job inequality.

Bargaining for the “Common Good”

Attention in the press, even the left press, has primarily focused on the gains outlined in the three contracts: eliminating the category of permanent temps, reducing the wage scale of new hires from eight years to three, winning a 25% wage increase over the life of the contract and restoring COLA. These are remarkable wins. Although unable to restore post-retirement health care and pensions for those hired after 2007, the UAW did manage to win management’s upping its contribution to 401ks.

A couple of the other UAW demands pointed toward the future in a restructuring industry. While the old guard had been relatively silent about the EV transition because they saw it as a job loss for which they had no answer, Fain called for a “just transition” to a greener economy.

Three demands point the way. First was more time off in order to give workers a chance to have a life outside of work. Second was the demand that if plants are shut, workers should be eligible for corporation-paid community service work for a period of time.

Third was the right to strike over plant closures. Fain talked about how 65 plants had been closed over 20 years, included the recent “idling” of the Belvidere plant. These closures not only threaten the worker and family members, but devastate hometowns.

The formulation of these three demands all reach beyond the individual worker and indicate a strategy based on “bargaining for the common good” that many public sector unions are raising. It is particularly relevant given that the new battery plants are often constructed on farmland rather than being built where closed plants idle in a polluted wasteland of broken concrete.

The online Bridge magazine reported 26,000 Michigan shuttered and contaminated properties associated with the auto industry. It identified 100 that require at least $259 million to remediate. As auto companies have abandoned sites including several GM plants in the Lansing area tainted with chemicals “ranging from PCBs and 1,4-dioxane to PFAS,” pollution is seeping into neighborhoods.

Ironically, seven miles west, in Delta Township, GM is building a $2.6 billion battery plant on farmland. Bridge notes:

“Last year, Michigan awarded GM and partner LG Energy Solution $344 million in state subsidies to build the joint-venture Ultium Cells Battery plant. The companies also received part of a $2.5 billion federal loan, and will be eligible for a state tax break on their equipment worth millions more.” (“As automakers win incentives for EV plants Michigan pays for polluted past,” Michigan Environmental Watch, Bridge, September 25, 2003.)

Tying together issues about the length of the work week, the right of workers and their communities to jobs and a work/life balance is only partially realized in what was actually won in the tentative agreements, but they were raised.

According to Fain’s October 6 update, GM agreed in writing to place its electric battery production under the master agreement with the UAW. Now that the UAW-Ford agreement is available on the UAW website, we can read that Ford has committed to bringing its future battery plants under their master agreement at the Marshall, Michigan and Tennessee Electric Vehicle Center under one of two conditions: either through card check or through the transfer of “surplus” UAW members.

The UAW, committed to the reopening of the Belvidere “idled” plant, won not only a product that guarantees work but also an agreement that employees at their battery facility will be UAW members. Not only did Stellantis agree to the union’s right to strike over plant closings — as the other two have done — but also acknowledged the union’s right to strike over the outsourcing of existing core jobs as well as its product and investment decisions.

These provisions for the mostly not-yet-open battery plants are remarkable breakthroughs. As Fain remarked on October 6, when GM, faced with a strike on its profitable Arlington, Texas plant, offered to bring its joint-venture employees into the master agreement:

“We have been told for months this is impossible. We have been told the EV future must be a race to the bottom. We called their bluff.

“What this will mean for our membership cannot be understated. The plan was to draw down engine and transmission plants, and permanently replace them with low-wage battery jobs. We had a different plan.”

In forcing the reopening of Belvidere, the UAW has renounced the “hands off” approach the union took with the 1950 Treaty of Detroit. Then the union agreed to cede management control over investment decisions for job security. Now it is demanding both.

The Prospects

The new UAW leadership needed to break out of the old apathetic dynamic. It began by organizing a campaign for the contract, encouraging members to sign up for weekly updates on what became known as the “Stand Up Strike.“

As with every contract, enforcing its guarantees will be critical, and in this case even more than most. At the local and level leadership remains in the hands of Administration Caucus loyalists, whose commitment to the new methods of struggle and the union’s visionary goals are uneven at best. Hopefully some AC members, seeing the victories of a militant campaign, will be won over to the strategy.

Certainly the enthusiasm of striking workers, and their sense of fighting not just “for ourselves” but for “the working class” as a whole, is an inspiring sign for the union’s future. It is so inspiring that Toyota immediately announced it would raise wages and lower the time between tiers. Obviously this is to stave off attempts of its employees to join the UAW but that’s what’s next.

Fain has invited workers to join the stand up strategy and join the UAW. He promised that by the time of the 2028 contracts, corporations will find stronger, louder and larger UAW.

As Barry Eidlin tells us, there are 48% more autoworkers today than there were in 1968, it’s the union density that has dropped — from 59% in 1983 to 16% in 2022. (“The UAW’s Strike Wins Could Mark a Shift Toward a new Kind of Unionism,” Jacobin, October 31, 2023)

By virtue of everything that’s on the line — the way the strike was waged, the profound change it reflects in the UAW, the implications for all of labor — the 2023 UAW strike opens a new and exciting era.

November-December 2023, ATC 227

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