UAW Faces the Tasks Ahead

Dianne Feeley

For UAW workers, eliminating tiers were a priority demand.

AS THE United Auto Workers’ tentative agreements were announced at the end of October, UAW President Shawn Fain explained that not all 10 central demands of the Stand-Up Strike were fully met. To do so it would be necessary to gain our “full strength.”

By the time of the next contract expiration on May 1, 2028, he anticipates, negotiations would not only take place with the Big Three but with the “Big Five, Big Seven or Big Ten.” Fain also had encouraged other unions to set their contract expiration date to coincide that International Workers’ Day and be in a position to strike together.

This perspective contrasted with the worry some workers expressed. If the demands were not fully implemented now, by 2028 there might be a recession and the UAW would be in a weaker bargaining position.

Over the course of the contract negotiations, the UAW had been able to win elements of almost every demand. This included restoration of the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) suspended more than a decade earlier and one that analysts and auto workers — including this writer! — had thought might prove impossible.

Other breakthroughs included the right to strike over plant closures, two-weeks pay for parental leave, and opening the door to winning union recognition at the joint-venture battery facilities. Importantly, Stellantis agreed to reopen the Belvidere plant and add a battery facility on the site. Negotiators were unable, however, to break through the legal wall that corporations had erected against post-retirement health care and pensions.

Part of what gave Fain confidence to project growing strength were emails flooding in from workers in non-union plants. Non-union employers also felt the impact of the UAW contract victory with Toyota immediately increasing wages 9% and decreasing the time for workers to reach top pay. Honda announced an 11% wage increase, with Hyundai promised a 25% wage hike by 2028.

Terming these moves “the UAW bump,” Fain asserted that corporate attempts to match UAW-won wage increases were a smart move, but not enough to stop workers determined to win their rights. After all, being part of a militant union isn’t just having higher wages and good benefits but altering the power dynamic.

Through the contract campaign and strike strategy, the UAW halted concessions and wage tiers, reined in the abuse of temporary workers and even forced the companies — which had attempted to outwit the union by setting up battery facilities as joint ventures — to unlock those doors.

More than a decade ago the Detroit Three shut down post-retirement benefits to wipe future “liabilities” off their books. Although unwilling to buck Wall Street’s concerns, the companies agreed with this contract to put 10% of a worker’s 40-hour weekly wage into their 401k even without any matching contribution. They even agreed to pay strikers $105 a day for every day they were out. And they were willing to include even temporary workers in the $5,000 signing and profit-sharing bonuses.

But to win post-retirement benefits, the UAW will have to be bigger, stronger and bolder. As Fain pointed out, it had taken a much larger UAW over 100 days to win pensions back in 1950.

Organizing a Reshaped Work Force

Within two weeks of the Detroit Three contracts being ratified, the UAW International Executive Board (IEB) launched a multi-pronged campaign with a short video encouraging workers in non-union companies to sign up with the UAW. As in the recent contract campaign, the video discusses corporate profitability over the past decade. It ends with President Fain’s message:

“The money is there, the time is right and the answer is simple. You don’t have to live paycheck to paycheck, you don’t have to worry about how you’re gonna pay your rent or feed your family while the company makes billions. A better life is out there and it starts with you: UAW.”

A subsequent flyer outlines how the organizing process can advance across multiple companies. Unlike the previous unsuccessful attempts at Nissan (1989, 2001, 2017) and Volkswagen (2014, 2019), these depend on in-plant organizing committees. That is, intensive one-on-one organizing will be based on workers’ self-organization.

This follows the model that the recently elected reformers to the IEB used to encourage members in preparation for the Stand-Up Strike. As with the strike, this in-plant organizing does not concentrate on one company. Instead, it encourages workers at their plants to seize the current momentum.

Organizing committees seem to be developing in at least three assembly plants. the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee where 1,000 workers, representing 30% of the workforce, signed union authorization cards within a week, the Toyota plant in Georgetown, Kentucky with a workforce of 7,800 and the Rivian electric vehicle plant of 5,000 in Bloomington, Illinois.

Luis Feliz Leon reported in “Auto Workers Direct Momentum Toward Organizing Plants Across the U.S.” that the already formed organizing committee at Rivian surveyed 1,000 co-workers and developed petitions demanding longer break time. At a December Facebook Live meeting, Fain described how workers are asserting their right to distribute UAW literature. He announced that the UAW is backing them up by filing harassment charges with the National Labor Relations Board against three companies.

Although the UAW has long been seen as setting the pace for workers’ wages and benefits, the reality is that UAW auto workers are only 140,000 strong — just a portion of roughly 645,000 U.S. workers manufacturing and assembling today’s vehicles.

Currently the so-called Big Three produce only 40% of the country’s cars; the other 60% are produced by 150,000 non-union workers at BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Nissan, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Over the past decade these corporations raked in almost a trillion dollars in profits, with at least 40% earned in the United States. Many of their plants are situated in “right-to-work” states.

However, the majority of auto workers manufacture parts rather than assemble finished vehicles. The more than 5,000 auto parts manufacturers, employing over 350,000 mostly non-unionized workers, feed the assembly plants. To minimize transportation costs, facilities are often located near assembly plants.

The Detroit Three used to produce their own core parts, but the majority were sold off 25-30 years ago to what are now called tier-one suppliers. Those few parts plants remaining within the three companies, although covered under the Master Contract, had been designated lower-tier facilities. Workers hired after 2007 — in GM’s “subsystems,” Ford’s two axle plants, or at Stellantis’ distribution centers (Mopar) — were unable to reach the top wage that assembly workers made and ineligible for post-retirement benefits.

In the just-ratified agreement that wage gap has been abolished. But other parts plants, even in those represented by the UAW or another union, are more likely to pay lower wages and offer fewer benefits.

Parts plants vary in size, with some having less than 100 workers while the largest have more than 500. While non-union assembly plants generally match the wages of the Detroit Three plants, parts plants typically pay less even though the work is usually more dangerous.

Charting a New Path

In its 2023 contract campaign the new UAW leadership emphasized the fight between the working class, whose labor produces wealth, and an arrogant corporate elite that expropriates it. This militant approach called upon every UAW member to play an active role.

At the height of the strike one-third of the membership was picketing their plant. Meanwhile the two-thirds still at work were encouraged to refuse voluntary overtime, monitor management, talk with co-workers and be prepared to join the picket lines at a moment’s notice.

A weekly video update kept everyone informed on the state of the negotiations and outlined what was necessary to exert additional pressure. This was in sharp contrast to how previous negotiations were carried out.

While the Stand-Up Strike may not be a model every time a contract is negotiated or a plant organized, several elements are certainly applicable. Most important is the centrality of the membership.

The contract demands came from the membership; the contract campaign and strike were driven by worker participation. The weekly updates gave workers a window into the progress of the negotiations and once a tentative agreement was reached, the negotiating committee reported to the membership who then read and discussed the contract before voting.

Given that the reformers only recently took office, they did not have the infrastructure in place to consider a work-to-rule campaign instead of a strike. This had proved to be a successful strategy back in the 1980s when employed by Jerry Tucker and the New Directions movement in UAW’s Region 5.

First used in the United States at the General Motors Ternstedt parts plant on Detroit’s west side in 1937, work-to-rule is most successful when a significant majority of workers go through the motions of working but machines develop problems, materials are mislaid or delivered to the wrong department. The coordinated chaos quickly con­vinces management to settle.

The version developed with the Stand-Up Strike was to have a minority of plants across the three corporations on strike while the majority at work were encouraged to do their job “by the book” and take no shortcut.

Members were encouraged to be creative. In one case, skilled trades workers at the GM plant in Arlington, Texas chose not to ride bikes to get around the huge facility for their work assignments. Since this was not part of any job description, the bikes sat idle while tradespeople leisurely walked from one job to the next. This lesson was not only empowering for those involved, but for all who saw them and found their way to do their part. Now that the strike is over, how can this energy be channeled to maximize what has been won?

Next Steps for Revitalized UAW

Scott Holdieson, an electrician at Ford Chicago Assembly and chair of Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) — the rank-and-file caucus supporting the reform slate that won the majority of the UAW leadership team — was recently asked to explain what “organizing” meant. He divided it into four categories — internal, external, community and political. That summarizes the tasks before the UAW as we continue the transformation to a more democratic and militant union.

First is understanding that the contract — an agreement between union and management — will be implemented or violated in daily life in various workplaces. That means every member needs to be on guard as contract provisions come into effect.

Are temporary workers hassled by foremen? Are they made permanent as the contract outlines? Are co-workers being pressured into working overtime? Are safety protocols being followed? Is management discriminating against African Americans or women?

The responsibility of enforcing the contract to the advantage of the union is not just the job of a committeeperson or other union officials, but of members, many of whom developed leadership skills during the strike. When a foreman harasses a worker, how can defending that individual force management to step back?

An immediate response from co-workers may turn into filing a group grievance, demand discussion of the issue at team meetings, or march to the plant manager’s office on break time. Shop-floor vigilance can sometimes be successfully connected to the union’s committee structures and develop into a plant-wide campaign. The point is always have each other’s backs.

Second, internal organizing can lead to external organizing. Workers on the back dock can compile a list of which companies are delivering materials. Which come from non-union parts plants?

While the IEB is coordinating with workers in the non-union assembly plants, members can use their lists to contact workers in nearby non-union parts plants. Perhaps some members used to work there, or have relatives or friends working there — ingenuity will discover ways.

It could be an exciting project if UAW members map their plants’ links to suppliers and build relationships with workers interested in being a part of the UAW. After all, UAW members are pretty good at withstanding the bullying tactics management employs and have a number of practical suggestions to pass along.

The secret to being an effective union is acting together as a coherent and democratic body. That’s true whether or not you have succeeded in winning formal unionization. And this is experience explains why UAW members are excellent at recruiting others.

The failure in past UAW organizing attempts was that it built the campaign from the outside. When workers feel vulnerable, they won’t be convinced by a radio or TV ad, or even a local rally with dynamic speakers. If supervisors can harass and isolate key pro-union activists, the campaign will falter.

Enforcing the contract on a daily basis is dependent on an active membership and so is building union consciousness at a non-union work site. That’s why it’s good to see the perspective of the UAW IEB, which promises to help a core that is building a base inside the workplace.

Third, we saw from the Stand-Up Strike how reaching out to one’s religious or social institutions, recruiting friends and family members to walk the picket lines, and encouraging them raise money or bring supplies to the food pantries energized everyone. Community support is always a crucial element in building a strong union.

We need to consider how the community can be integral to the struggle for workers’ rights. This isn’t easy given that workers no longer necessarily live in areas immediately surrounding the facilities. But in mapping this wider community, it is essential to build relationships with other unions, community organizations and institutions that share our solidaristic values. We seek to create a culture that supports transparency, encourages innovation and values equality.

Broader Politics

The fourth element in UAW organizing is a recognition that the problems we face often need solutions that include but go far beyond our workplace. Many teachers, for example, have developed the concept of “bargaining for the common good.” They have pointed out how issues in the community effect their working conditions and their students’ well-being. They have raised issues such housing justice and challenged the school-to-prison pipeline. This can aid us in developing strategies on how to raise some of our unmet demands at the bargaining table and beyond.

We deserve the right to a balanced work and home life, the right to quality health care at every stage of our lives and the right to retire with security. How might the individual company provide those benefits? Why is it necessary that each union have a research team on hand to cost out benefits that should be one’s right as a human being? Why should workers be forced to work for an employer because of their benefits package?

Medicare for All, quality and accessible housing and education are necessary social issues unions need to support not only for their members but for the whole working class — past, present and future.

When the UAW first won health care and pension benefits, we negotiate these benefits because we’d been unable to win them for everyone. With these benefits available to about 20% of the workforce, isn’t it time to re-launch the fight for universal coverage?

When UAW President Fain raised the need for work/life balance, he recalled an interview where elderly people were asked what they regretted being unable to do over their lifetime. He noted that they never mentioned working more overtime.

When I was first hired at Ford in 1979 my work week was 50 hours one week, 58 the next. Auto workers are forced to work overtime because the industry is built on it — it’s cheaper to pay time-and-a half rather than to hire more workers. But our lives are more than our jobs!

Fain pointed to the old UAW slogan, “32 hours work for 40 hours pay.” Increased production and automation makes this slogan more relevant today, but like the universal health care and social security, corporations are fiercely against it.

As the auto industry restructures in response to the growing environmental crisis, it seems appropriate to raise questions not only about the length of the work day but about the work itself. Electric vehicles may help reduce fossil fuels, but they rely on the extraction of limited minerals and under horrendous conditions.

A “just transition” means good jobs along the whole of the supply line. It means listening to the demands miners raise and making sure we stand with them. It means working on the problems facing mining communities.

This means we are pulling the curtain back to reveal how decisions need to be calculated. What are the total social costs?

Given the costs, why does the individual U.S. family need one or more vehicles when they sit idle 90% of the time and require an infrastructure including garages and parking spaces? Why not reduce our footprint by designing low-cost electric cars and bikes that could be rented when needed and build free, quality and accessible mass transit?

As we rebuild our strength and unite with other unions to make sure no one is left behind, we will need to think strategically about how to implement a vision of worker solidarity and commitment to an egalitarian society. It won’t be easy but by prioritizing justice, we can work toward a sustainable future.

January-February 2024, ATC 228


  1. Right now in the plants a big issue is how many temporary workers will become permanent. Temporary workers only got work when management chose to give it to them. Now that temporaries will become permanent, management is going to try to lay-off was many as they can. To force management to keep as many workers as possible, workers should not work voluntary overtime. The contract still has rotten language from many years ago which says you may not try to talk your fellow workers out of working overtime. But if each worker decides on their own not to work, it would force management to make more temporaries permanent.

    1. Wendy you probably don’t remember me and my husband, we used to meet with Gregg Shotwell and Don Thomas. Thank you for continuing to send us information about what’s going on at GM. Gregg used to write all the time but the last time he wrote was about his wife having written a book. That was quite some time ago. thank you again we appreciate being informed.

  2. Great and informative article, thank you for providing this insight on past, current and future plans. I look forward to working together to increase awareness and build a better Union.

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