Sheffield Are the autoworkers getting everything on their wish list from their strike? Of course not, or it wouldn’t be collective bargaining, but without a doubt the UAW, their union, is making some very good deals and achieving a good chunk of what they needed. Tentative agreements have now been reached with both Ford and Stellantis, and the terms are solid. Reports indicate that they are also very close to a deal with General Motors, so barring something unusual and unforeseen, it’s a safe time to throw out some accolades along with some warnings, and look at what we’re learning from their great work.
Looking first at the agreements, they seem solid. Wage increases in the 25% neighborhood over four-year contracts with some cost-of-living triggers pays the workers back for their time on the streets. They have also gotten better bumps at the bottom, reducing the distance in the former tiers and nice guarantees at the top skilled positions, where workers are often the most senior and hardest to please. Importantly, they managed in both cases to save some plants and move some battery and other EV work under their master agreements only requiring a card check accretion. A hike to 10% on the pension contribution is also huge. They didn’t get all of the electric vehicle work or some of the joint ventures. There are probably more details worth discussion, but the package from the early reports seems excellent.
Saying that the strike was important isn’t enough of an answer, because they have struck before and not done as well. This time they developed a bargaining and strike strategy on their objectives that put the companies on the defensive and kept them there. Although some saw it as controversial, the us-against-them, workers-against-fat cats, inequality arguments were excellent communications framing at times when these companies were making billions, no matter how much handwringing they were doing about future changes in the industry. The leadership beat the drum on class differences which resonated with the public and somehow surprised the companies and kept them wrong footed.
As good as the strategy was, the tactics were even better. Hitting all three companies at once and turning the heat up and down from strategic plant to plant hit the companies where they hurt, and kept the workers fired up, ready, and engaged. The union was always able to stay on the offensive. With GM the last holdout, even with almost constant negotiations over the weekend, normally unions would turn down the heat to signal to the company good faith and the value of closure. Instead, the UAW responded by calling another critical plant out on the street to put a sharper edge to GM’s neck to get it done now. Hats off for a set of brilliant tactics, well executed by a united membership.
The other key ingredient that has to be recognized was the fact that there was new leadership in Shawn Fain. Only in office the last six months since March and elected narrowly in an upset victory over the previous incumbent after years of leadership scandal, Fain had something to prove. Additionally, because this was the first UAW election where membership voted directly rather than through delegates, membership had to be served and entrenched relationships between veteran representatives and the companies had little value. All of that made it easier for Biden to hit the picket line and embrace the strikers, and that counted for a lot as well, since the companies knew the government would not lean on the union to settle. Democracy matters in unions and this should be part of the lesson for both members and leaders. More of this could revive the entire labor movement.
Fain is claiming he is more committed to organizing now and that these contracts will shrink the differentials in wages and therefore car prices. That’s not usually the case actually, even if it’s good to hear. On the other hand, aggressive, democratic leadership and smart strategy and tactics might convince nonunion workers that this is something for them.
Altogether this propels the UAW back to the forefront of the labor movement, bringing hope to us all.