Why Striking Matters

If the Teamsters’ contract campaign at UPS was a battle postponed, the UAW’s strike against the Auto bosses is the big industrial battle that many on the left and in the labor movement were hoping for this year. This is a real fight, not the shadowboxing on social media like so much of the Teamsters’ contract campaign was at UPS. The biggest strike in modern U.S. history at UPS didn’t materialize, despite the media hype and the hopes of the Left.

Everyone is aware that the outcome of the UAW’s battle will determine the fate of the once famed union, at what was known historically as the “Big Three” automakers: General Motors (GM), Ford and Chrysler. However, the Big Three include the non-union Toyota, the second largest car manufacturer in the U.S., while Ford employs more UAW members than GM, formerly the largest, private-sector unionized employer in the United States, a position now held by UPS. These changes are just the tip of the iceberg that reflected the mammoth restructuring of the U.S. auto during the past four decades.

That same era saw the UAW, led by the old Administration Caucus (AC) pursue a strategy of contract concessions and “partnership” programs in fast-changing industry, that drained it of members and wed it even more closely to the Big Three. The 2009 restructuring of the nearly bankrupt Auto industry, reeling from the early stages of the 2008 Great Recession, by the Obama-Biden administration devastated the working conditions of unionized Auto workers destroying its credibility in big organizing drives in the U.S. South, where a large part of the modern industry is located. In 2017, I wrote:

The UAW has staggered from one defeat to the next for many years. Three years ago, the union got a punch in the gut when it was defeated in a recognition vote at Volkswagen (VW) in Tennessee. Friday’s defeat at Nissan was nothing less than a knockout punch ending for the foreseeable future any efforts by the UAW to organize the large, predominantly foreign-owned auto assembly plants in the South.

The defeats continued. In 2019, on the eve of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the UAW old guard called a strike against GM, and 50,000 workers hit the picket lines. But, after six weeks on strike union members ratified a contract that, with a little cosmetic tinkering, essentially left in place all that made working in the auto industry unbearable.

Recently elected UAW President Shawn Fain on the UAWD slate, has broken with many of the suicidal policies pursued by his predecessors during the past four decades. The UAW has come alive. Here are the union’s bargaining goals posted on the UAW’s website:

ELIMINATE TIERS – It’s wrong to make any worker second class. The Teamsters ended tiers at UPS. We’re ending them at the Big Three.

BIG WAGE INCREASES – We’re demanding double-digit pay raises. Big Three CEOs saw their pay spike 40 percent on average over the last four years. We know our members are worth the same and more.

RESTORE COLA – Cost of Living Adjustments (COLA) made sure the working class thrived for decades. It must be restored.

DEFINED BENEFIT PENSION FOR ALL WORKERS – All workers deserve the retirement security UAW members had for generations.

RE-ESTABLISH RETIREE MEDICAL BENEFITS – That’s just as essential as a solid pension.

RIGHT TO STRIKE OVER PLANT CLOSURES – The Big Three have closed 65 plants over the last 20 years. That’s devastated our hometowns. We must have the right to defend our communities.

WORKING FAMILY PROTECTION PROGRAM – This program keeps UAW members on the job and products in our plants. If companies try a shutdown, they’ll have to pay UAW members to do community service work.

END ABUSE OF TEMP WORKERS – We are going to end the abuse of temps. Our fight at the Big Three is a fight for every worker.

MORE PAID TIME OFF TO BE WITH FAMILIES – Our members are working 60, 70, or even 80 hours a week just to make ends meet. That’s not living. It’s barely surviving and it needs to stop.

SIGNIFICANTLY INCREASE RETIREE PAY – We owe our retirees everything. They built these companies and they built our union.

Fain and the UAW are righteously attempting to wipe away decades of concessions and retreat, it is nothing less than a restructuring of the industry in the interest of rank-and-file autoworkers. So, it’s not surprising that the notoriously overpaid CEOs of GM, Ford, and Stellantis are taking such as hardline against the union. They are willing to talk about pay increases—much lower than the union is demanding—for their woefully underpaid workers, but aren’t budging on extending multiple-tiers and high pay scales at the EV battery manufacturing and assembly plants, ridiculously claiming they bankrupt the industry.

The jury is still out on whether Fain’s strategy of the “Stand Up Strike,” escalating strikes at the GM, Ford, and Stellantis will defeat the Auto bosses. There are currently 25,000 UAW members on strike over 40 parts distribution centers and assembly plants across the country, out of 146,000 potential strikers. Yet, there is a gaping hole in the union’s strategy right now. National Public Radio (NPR) reported:

The automakers’ most profitable vehicles, full-size pickup trucks, continue to be unaffected, and the plants that would have the biggest ripple effects on supply chains are also not yet targets for work stoppages.

We hope that these plants will be the next of the union’s list until all of 146,000 members are on the picket lines.

The UAW’s battle is in sharp contrast with the Teamsters contract campaign at UPS, where the much talked about “credible strike threat” failed to eliminate the historic pay gap between part-time and full-time workers or put air conditions in all of UPS’s package cars or hubs (warehouses). If threats aren’t backed up by real action, then it is just empty posturing and wind-bagging for the media. However, the UAW has put the strike weapon back into the national consciousness. We need a clear-cut victory.

JOE ALLEN is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service.