Off-the-Mark Media Coverage Aside, UAW Strike Shows the Time is Now for Workers to Unite

September 21, 2023

The US is in the throes of a major resurgence of union drives and strike activity, and the “hot labor summer” seems poised to become a vibrant labor autumn. With private sector union membership at just 6.0 percent in 2022, the size and scope of the strikes are still far from what they were in decades gone by when as many as one in three workers were in a union. Regardless, it has been galvanizing to see workers fighting for their rights and uniting in solidarity. Only time will tell if the historical record will note this as a watershed moment. For now, strikers are in the streets, and other workers are celebrating newly bargained contracts that delivered long overdue wage increases and better benefits for hundreds of thousands.

The latest action took place last week when UAW members and leadership spearheaded a strategic and historic strike. The UAW strike is the first in its history to involve all three major Detroit automakers at once. Workers are looking to recoup years of lost ground in these negotiations. Unfortunately, too much of the press coverage has focused on ancillary stories with too little emphasis on the big picture and why workers are sacrificing so much to fight for change. 

Some stories suggest that the current economy is fragile and/or on the verge of recession, making it the wrong time for workers to strike. These stories implicitly or explicitly fault striking workers for not thinking of the bigger economic picture. In addition to their questionable characterizations of the current economy, stories like these fail to grapple with the root cause of the strike: that the Big 3 automakers aren’t treating their workers fairly, and haven’t been for a long time. Suggesting that the burden should instead fall on workers to accept yet another contract that doesn’t meet their needs  — “for the economy”  — keeps the one-step-up, two-steps-back status quo in place. It also promotes a specific kind of economy, one that is exploitative and unfair to the workers who make it run. 

Other stories have supported the companies’ attempts to cast striking auto workers as an impediment to environmental progress. Those reports typically fail to mention that the Big 3 spent years lobbying against emissions regulations and electric vehicle rule proposals. The companies also donated considerable sums to groups that cast doubt on the scientific consensus around climate change. Meanwhile, UAW workers are merely demanding just compensation for their labor — and that the transition to a greener fleet does not come at the expense of the workers who build it. UAW President Shawn Fain affirmed the union’s commitment to a just transition, one that prioritizes both workers and the climate rather than falsely pitting them against each other. And a slew of environmental organizations have gone on the record in support of the striking workers, echoing Fain’s sentiment.

Another type of misguided news coverage preoccupies itself with the role of the Biden administration in the negotiations, and what it all means for President Biden’s reelection bid. It includes insinuation that the union chose less strategic plants for its initial round of stand-up strikes at the Biden administration’s behest. While it’s true that the White House had sought to deploy Administration officials for support, this is a far cry from their calling the shots. The last time we saw the Biden administration truly intervene in union negotiations, it did so to avert a strike by the railroad workers, and it did so very publicly. There is little evidence to suggest a similar level or type of involvement by the Administration in the negotiations between the Big 3 automakers and the UAW. UAW President Shawn Fain has publicly stated that he does not see a major role for the White House in resolving this dispute. Given what we know, it’s insulting to the UAW’s leadership and its members to chalk up the actions the union has taken so far to President Biden’s reelection strategy. The notion that the UAW is pulling its punches to placate the White House fails to afford workers the credit and the agency they deserve. 

And the credit the UAW members and leadership deserve is considerable. Instead of all 150 thousand affected UAW members walking out at once, the union is holding a series of “stand-up strikes”, where workers at select facilities are called on to strike at any given time. This strategy has many advantages. It helps the union preserve its strike fund as more workers stay on the job. And where a traditional strike is an effective but blunt instrument, the UAW’s stand-up strategy allows workers to leverage their withheld labor with more precision. It gives the union the ability to ratchet up the pressure as needed, leaving room for escalation if negotiations continue to stall. It also gives the union the disruptive advantage of surprise. In both respects, it bears some resemblance to auto workers’ successful Flint sit-down strike in 1937 (in a blow to labor, sit-down strikes were later deemed illegal). So far in 2023, the UAW’s strategy seems to be working as intended, with Stellantis confirming that they were fully in the dark about which facility would be targeted first. Without knowing which plants will be affected next, the companies must consider costly preparations at numerous locations, keeping them on their toes and giving the union a considerable edge.

All of this is taking place against a backdrop of six decades of union membership decline and an accompanying increase in economic inequality. Significant obstacles to forming new unions and weak labor protections make reversing these trends an uphill battle for workers. The contours of US capitalism have fundamentally tilted the economic playing field to a perilous degree for millions of workers who are now saying enough is enough. They are choosing union representation and action as a countervailing force to fight for broadly based economic prosperity and fairness at work.  

Unions and collective bargaining built the middle class and helped to unwind unfettered capitalism. We stand now at a confluence of events that brought us to a realization that corporate power and economic elites have taken more than their fair share of five decades of a growing economic pie. 

If not now, when? Reversing persistent and damaging economic trends will require worker power and worker-centered economic policies. Some of these big picture trends, which many in the media are ignoring and necessitate these strikes, include:   

The productivity-pay split. Historically, when workers became more productive, businesses shared the benefits of efficiency gains with their workers via higher pay. From post-WW II to 1979, productivity growth and average worker compensation (i.e., wages plus benefits) increased at similar rates — 118% and 108%, respectively. But the link began to break in the 1980s as the two trends diverged. Over the 1979–2021 period, productivity grew at 3.7 times the rate of worker pay — 65% and 17%, respectively. 

Labor’s share of national income. It has been on a downward trend for decades. Whether using the measure provided by the US BLS or the Economic Policy Institute’s arguably better measure that sheds light on worker bargaining power, labor’s share of corporate income is very low in historical terms. Restoring a higher share for workers should be a top priority for economic policy. 

Vast and ever-increasing inequality. A tremendous redistribution of income and wealth from the broad middle class to the richest among us has occurred over the last five decades. The Realtime Inequality project is a great resource to point-and-click your way around historical data on the two measures. Income growth from 1976 to March of this year was just 18.8% for the Bottom 50%, 60.6% for the middle 40%, and 169.9% for the Top 10%. Parsing out the Top 0.01% clocks in at an astounding 671.8% growth in income. 

Much of the reporting about workers organizing and striking, especially since the UAW actions, has focused on perceived ill-advised timing, the prospect of a strike-induced recession, unions asking for too much, unions holding up the shift to electric vehicles, or how much President Biden has influenced both sides — all of which misses the point. There has been less focus on the harsh circumstances that workers have faced for many decades and the vast imbalance of economic power in the US that has delivered enormous wealth and income gains to those at the top at the expense of everybody else. If not now, when is a good time for workers to stand up and say enough is enough? 

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