Strike is a high-stakes gamble for auto workers and the labor movement

Since the start of the pandemic, unions have experienced something of a renaissance. They made inroads into previously non-union companies like Starbucks and Amazon, and won exceptionally strong contracts for hundreds of thousands of workers. Last year, public approval for unions reached its highest level since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.

What the unions did not have during this period was a real moment of national control. Strikes by railroad workers and UPS employees, which could disrupt the American economy, were averted at the last minute. The consequences of the continuing writers’ and actors’ strikes were heavily concentrated in Southern California.

The United Auto Workers strike, whose members walked out at three plants Friday, is shaping up to be such a test. A contract providing substantial wage increases and other concessions from the three automakers could make the union an economic force to be reckoned with and accelerate a recent wave of unionization.

But there are also real pitfalls. A prolonged strike could weaken the three established U.S. automakers – General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, Jeep and Ram – and plunge the politically crucial Midwest region into recession. If the union is seen as going too far, or if it settles for a weak deal after a costly shutdown, public support could deteriorate.

“Right now, unions are cool,” said Michael Lotito, an attorney at Littler Mendelson, a firm representing management.

“But the unions may not be very calm if there is a five-month strike in Los Angeles and an X-month strike in many other states,” he added.

If the stakes seem high for the UAW, that’s partly because the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, has done everything he can to raise them. In frequent video meetings with members before the strike, Mr. Fain described the negotiations as a broader struggle pitting ordinary workers against corporate titans.

“I know we are on the right side of this battle,” he said during a recent video appearance. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves against the have-nots, the billionaire class against everyone else.”

Mr. Fain’s framing of the contracting campaign in class terms appeared to resonate with his members, thousands of whom watched the sessions online.

Shunte Sanders-Beasley, a UAW member in Michigan who started working at a Chrysler plant in Indiana in 1999, said she sees the fight the same way.

“If you follow history, auto workers tend to set the tone,” said Ms. Sanders-Beasley, who served as vice president of her local and supported Mr. Fain’s campaign for the presidency of the union last year. “If we can recoup some of the concessions we’ve gotten, I hope there will be a trickle-down effect.”

A successful strike by auto workers in 1937, which led GM to recognize the UAW for the first time, helped spark a wave of unionization in various industries including steel, oil, textiles, and newspapers. over the following years.

Labor activists agreed that the current strike could also have repercussions in other sectors, where workers appear to be paying close attention to industrial action over the past year. “By holding meetings, they’re saying, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,'” said Jaz Brisack, a Workers United organizer who played a key role in Starbucks’ campaign.

But the flip side is that the strike could cause collateral damage that would create frustration and hardship among tens of thousands of non-union workers and their communities.

“The nation’s small and medium-sized businesses that make up the automotive industry’s integrated supply chain will feel the brunt of this work stoppage, whether they are unionized or not,” said Jay Timmons, executive director of the National Association car manufacturers. The manufacturers said in a statement Friday.

Higher wages and gains for rank-and-file workers can be good for the economy. But some argue that the aggressive demands of Mr. Fain and other union leaders could discourage companies from investing in the United States or make them uncompetitive with foreign rivals.

“Mr. Fain also needs to think about this: the long-term financial viability of these three companies,” said John Drake, vice president for transportation, infrastructure and supply chain policy at the House of Commons. United States trade.

Even those who welcome the union’s aggressive stance say it carries many risks. Gene Bruskin, a longtime union official who helped workers at a Smithfield, North Carolina, meatpacking plant win one of the biggest organizing victories in decades in 2008, said A long strike could disappoint workers if the union fails to meet its main demands. .

“If the UAW fails to make significant progress, particularly on the two-tier plan, its future could be seriously compromised,” Mr. Bruskin said, referring to a system in which new workers are far less paid than former workers who perform similar tasks. jobs.

Mr. Bruskin also fears that the union could effectively win the battle and lose the war if automakers respond by moving more production to Mexico, where they already have a significant presence.

The tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for domestic electric vehicle production that President Biden helped secure are expected to limit this shift and help keep manufacturing jobs at home. Many automakers are already setting up new factories in the United States to take advantage of these funds.

Still, Willy Shih, a manufacturing expert at Harvard Business School, said automakers could adjust their operations in ways that reduce UAW costs while continuing to produce cars domestically. Automation is an option, he said, as is locating new factories in poorly unionized Southern states.

Detroit automakers created joint ventures with foreign battery makers, outside the reach of the UAW’s domestic contracts, and sought to locate some of those factories in states like Tennessee and Kentucky. The union seeks to bring workers in these factories to the same wages and working standards enjoyed by direct employees of the Big Three, but has so far failed.

Given these threats, the union might feel justified in taking a more ambitious stance toward automakers. The main obstacle to moving work to other states will be the UAW’s ability to organize new factories, particularly in the South, where it has struggled to gain traction for years. Experts say the union would likely increase its chances of attracting members if it could show significant concrete gains.

“The answer is to gain strong contact here and use it to organize huge groups of auto workers who are currently not unionized,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies work.

And there are other reasons why being too careful can pose a greater risk to the union than being too aggressive. Organizers point out that workers are often demoralized when union leaders talk tough and quickly settle for a mediocre deal.

Critics of the previous UAW administration accused it of doing just that before Mr. Fain took office this year. “We’ll try to figure out how some things happened in the first place,” Shana Shaw, another longtime UAW member who supported Mr. Fain, said of the concessional contracts that auto workers have been asked to accept over the years.

Even Mr. Fain’s habit of defining the struggle in broad class terms may prove to be a strategic advantage. A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of the public supported auto workers in the confrontation, compared to 19 percent who were more favorable to the corporations.

The broad public support suggests that auto workers may be operating in a different context than workers in another strike that contributed to workers’ loss of power: air traffic controllers’ unsuccessful fight against the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, after which private strikes took place. employers in the sector seemed more comfortable firing and replacing striking employees.

Dr. Eidlin said that while air traffic controllers have failed to woo their allies in the labor movement, “the fact that Fain and the UAW are putting out a broader message, really trying to build this broad coalition, hints at the possibility of a different result.


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