The Volvo Strike

Photograph Source: Thecohorts – CC BY-SA 4.0

Volvo Trucks at the New River Valley (NRV) plant in Dublin, Virginia, employs over 3300 workers, 2900 of whom belong to the United Auto Workers (UAW) union. These UAW members have been on strike since June 7. The NRV plant is Volvo’s largest truckmaking facility in the world and provides Volvo’s sole output for the North American market.

The strike has had an impact on production at other Volvo plants. Parts shortages are causing temporary layoffs at the company’s Mack Trucks assembly plants in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

The Volvo multinational corporation had revenues of $30.68bn, and operating profits of $1.3bn, in 2020. The Covid pandemic caused both figures to be lower than their 2019 equivalents. Recently Volvo Group paid over $2.3 billion in dividends to shareholders.

The workers, who have had no pay increases for 5 years, voted down by 90-91% two previous tentative agreements with Volvo pushed by the UAW, and are resolute about seeking substantial improvements in their new contract in order to compensate for more than a decade of concessions by the boss-friendly UAW.

Workers at the Dublin plant have a deep distrust of their union, so much so that they formed the Volvo Workers Rank-and-File Committee (VWRFC) to counter the UAW’s attempts to isolate the striking workers.

Rather than supporting the strikers, the UAW’s bureaucracy has positioned itself as a referee of sorts between bosses and strikers. The UAW has put striking workers on starvation payments of $275 per week in strike benefits. Without admitting it, the UAW has imposed an information blackout on the Dublin strikers, making it difficult for union members elsewhere to act in solidarity with the strikers. A member of the VWRFC told the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS):

“It’s not just Volvo. We’re fighting the UAW too. That’s the hard part. We’re fighting them both. We have been trying to anticipate what their next attack will be and come up with our own answer before they can attack.

“The last three contracts the UAW negotiated were really bad. Workers who were rehired after being laid off took a $6-7 an hour pay cut under the 2008 deal, which introduced the two-tier wage system. It’s taken 15 years for some workers to finally get into the top-tier Core Group and now they are trying to reset the pay scale again. The UAW said we wouldn’t have two tiers anymore. But under their proposal workers hired after 2011 would top out at $27 an hour and the Core Group, hired before, would top out at $31”.

Fresh talks between Volvo and the UAW have been underway since June 23, and it was announced on July 2 that a (third) tentative agreement had been reached between Volvo and the UAW– members of UAW Local 2069 in Dublin are scheduled to vote on the proposed 6-year contract on July 9, according to a Local 2069 Facebook post. The workers will continue picketing in the meantime.

After rejecting the second agreement, strikers pointed to key issues that remained unresolved, including wage increases, wage progression taking inflation into account, wages respecting seniority and skilled trades, job security, shift premiums and overtime payments, work and holiday schedules, health and safety measures, pension and 401(k) provision, and health care and prescription drug coverage.

While the UAW leadership touted the third tentative agreement’s “significant gains from the prior two tentative agreements”, a striker and Volvo Workers Rank-and-File Committee member offered a different perspective to the WSWS:

“It will take six years before post-2011 hires get top pay, which will be $3-4 less than Core workers. The UAW didn’t listen to our demands to get rid of the wage tiers and bring everybody up sooner. Now we’re here and we’re losing even more stuff. The pay is not enough to cover the rising cost of living, and workers are not reaching top pay fast enough, or ever”.

A visit to the UAW Local 2069 Facebook page will show that this individual’s view is shared by other strikers. A sample of such posts on Facebook: “We are not getting what we hoped for !!!”; “some we won on but still nothing for retirees or future retirees”; “Just got my monthly statement, health care and vision a little over $700.00… Remember retirement is what we all worked for…”; “They have done nothing for the retirees”; “Our 4th won’t be anything, because our brothers and sisters are struggling and hungry…. Also it’s not about hot dogs my friends, it’s far bigger then [sic] that”; “We are sick and tired of concessionary contracts and WILL NOT vote another one in”.

It is obvious that the UAW bureaucracy is cagey about the NRV Volvo workers prevailing, against overwhelming odds, after rejecting 2 previous tentative agreements— for a plant in rural America to triumph over a major multinational will have reverberations throughout the country’s union movements and even beyond.

Official union movements in the US have been on the back-foot since the Reaganite ascendency. For a local union chapter to surmount its halfhearted HQ, and extract from an overweening multinational a deal viable for its workers — that would be an achievement beyond words.

At the same time, the costs, material and otherwise, incurred in the course of seeking this outcome have been immense. Workers and their families have been deeply marked by the sacrifices they have had to make in this justifiable cause.

Readers who wish to donate to the fund supporting striking UAW Local 2069 workers should make checks payable to:

UAW Local 2069 Community Services Fund
Checks should be mailed to:
UAW Local 2069
PO Box 306
Dublin VA 24084

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.