Expect More UAW Organizing at Non-Union Plants

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

The United Auto Workers has been on a roll. First, it wrapped up negotiations with Ford. Then on October 28, with Stellantis. The UAW had struck Stellantis for 44 days. “We’ve achieved what just weeks ago we were told was impossible,” said the union’s indefatigable leader, Shawn Fain. In all, the UAW won a 25 percent raise over four and a half years, an 11 percent pay boost at ratification, a 150 percent pay hike for temps, a 37 percent jump in the top wage and a 68 percent increase in starting pay. Plus, the second pact saves jobs at a factory in Belvedere, Illinois, previously slated for closure, according to the union.

Then on October 30, the New York Times reported that “the UAW is said to have a tentative deal with G.M.” So the union’s seven weeks of “Stand-Up” strikes against the Big Three automakers paid off, proving yet again that strikes work – which is exactly why employers always bemoan their perils. Yes, perilous to CEOs who may have to trim their bloated bonuses to compensate workers more properly – though I’ve yet to read of one instance, ever, of that happening to any corporate bigwig. Ceo pay is sacrosanct. Worker pay, of course, that’s another story, one that only solidarity brings to a happy ending. This is why this tentative contract with G.M., which resembles those with Ford and Stellantis, is such good news.

G.M. is the biggest U.S. car company by sales, employing 46,000 UAW workers, who soon will vote on ratifying the contract. “G.M. said last week that the strike had lowered its earnings by about $800 million…” This is in keeping with the Big Three’s laments that the strike primarily benefitted non-union Tesla, Honda and Toyota. This is BS. Far more likely is that the UAW’s contract wins jumpstart unionizing at those companies. Previous organizing has not borne fruit. But now with new, and evidently very competent UAW leadership, that could change. Get out the popcorn and watch – you’re liable to see an uptick in union enthusiasm at those corporations in the coming months. And, of course, lots of management dirty tricks, combined with efforts to placate staff. Notably, on November 1, non-union Toyota hiked worker wages in the wake of the UAW deal.

Indeed, “one of our biggest goals coming out of this historic contract victory is to organize like we never organized before,” Fain said on October 29. “When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t be just with a Big Three, but with a Big Five or Big Six.” Tesla is a union target, which, according to Bloomberg October 30, is “the most valuable automaker in the world, the electric-car leader and employs tens of thousands of non-union workers across California, Texas, Nevada and New York.”

Indeed, this strike zeroed in on EV productions from the get-go. The UAW wants good union jobs in the transition to green vehicles; it has said so explicitly. So organizing Tesla would be the bulls-eye for any future campaign. “Tesla’s roughly 20,000 worker plant in Freemont, California,” Bloomberg notes, “currently has a UAW organizing committee whose members are talking to co-workers about the advantages of collective bargaining.” But not everyone is optimistic. “The UAW would love to get into Tesla,” Bloomberg quoted a former Freemont plant employee and UAW activist, “but I don’t think they have a chance.”

A big reason for that pessimism is Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk. His “vigorous pushback helped squash” an earlier union drive. Going up against this tycoon, infamous for his far-right views and the vociferous owner of Twitter, would be quite a fight. But it’s one the UAW is evidently willing to engage.

What helped the union beat G.M. was striking its most profitable plant, just outside Dallas, the huge Arlington Assembly. With 5000 workers, it is, LaborNotes quoted an industry analyst on October 24, ‘“the most profitable auto plant in the world,’ producing 30 percent of G.M. revenue.” Labornotes also quoted one worker who hoped the Arlington strike was UAW’s “last push to get them to come to the table with a good offer.” They indeed did so. Her hopes were not misplaced. Union leadership correctly calculated that starving G.M.’s cash cow would force it to see reason in its standoff with its six-day-a-week assembly workers. Remember, “G.M. top brass posted revenue of $44 billion in July through September.” No plutocrat in their right mind wants to jeopardize that.

Not surprisingly, some people were rather sour about these developments. “Detroit Is Paying Up to End the UAW Strike. Now Carmakers Will Live with the Cost,” griped a recent Wall Street Journal headline. I guess WSJ believes the corporations didn’t make a nasty enough effort to break the strike. Had the Big Three hired scabs or resorted to other, standard underhanded tricks, that still might not have sufficed for the gung-ho, union-busting publication. WSJ wanted the strike to fail.

Meanwhile, CNBC on November 4 confirmed the UAW/G.M. deal. Earlier, CNN on October 30 had reported that the tentative compact “could bring an end to the union’s unprecedented strike against all three of the nation’s unionized automakers.” Of course, the rank and file must ratify these contracts, and they could, conceivably, be voted down. But workers don’t strike on a whim, and these settlements are pretty good. So in all likelihood, they will fly. Still, according to CNN, the rank and file recently nixed a pact with Mack Trucks, “where nearly 4000 UAW members went on strike on October 8 after voting no on their own tentative agreement. The Mack Truck workers remain on strike.”

In addition to improved 401(k) retirement benefits and record wage gains, Fain has shown with this strike that the union can win and win big. Out-of-the-box thinking helped, too. In fact, that’s apparently Fain’s forte. And he’ll need plenty of it, if he truly aims to put all of the Big Six under contract with the UAW in the next few years. Especially if he wants to organize Tesla. Remember, Musk personally attacked an organizer on social media during the last union drive, demonstrating his willingness to sink as low as necessary to clobber the union. And according to National Labor Relations Board rulings, Tesla resorted to illegal tactics. Musk also called the unionizing effort “morally outrageous.” I’m sure most other American oligarchs and the best Congress money can buy would agree.

Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.