UAW Strike Continues to Expand

Dianne Feeley

Posted August 23, 2023

August 20 rally: Stellantis worker Kiada Shanklin (wearing T-shirt saying “I have three major reasons to strike”) and her three children with UAW President Shawn Fain (far right). Photo UAW

OCTOBER 23 UPDATE: This morning 6800 autoworkers at Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (SHAP) in Metro Detroit joined the picket line. This is Stellantis’ most profitable U.S. plant, and one that operates with a significant number of what the corporation terms “supplemental” workers. The starting wage is $16.29 an hour, forcing many to take second and even third jobs while they hold on to the hopes of being offered a permanent job.

At last Friday’s update, UAW President Shawn Fain outlined the tools companies use to weaken workers’ sense of solidarity. When able to plant doubt and uncertainty over what’s possible to win, the companies have a shot of cutting the negotiations short and saving a bundle. Just a few days earlier Bill Ford had gone to the Rouge complex and encouraged workers to see themselves as part of the company team competing against foreign-owned companies. But as Ford talked about the need to be partner with their employer, the corporation announced another round of shareholder dividends. Sounds like they have another set of partners! Instead, Fain projected, UAW members should see the work force at the non-union sites as future union brother and sisters.

The update reviewed where the three corporations — after several rounds of bargaining — stood. It is clear that while they have agreed to roll back some of the concessions that led to the erosion of wages, benefits and working conditions, there is more to be done. The charts used to show the Detroit Three’s answer to the UAW demands were not only discussed at the update but are available for members to review at the UAW website.

OCTOBER 15 UPDATE: The UAW strike against the Detroit Three enters its second month with 35,000 active strikers while the other 1115,999 stand ready. The innovative Stand Up Strike became even more unpredictable when the UAW altered its practice of announcing additional strike targets after reviewing the week’s negotiations. This tactic was designed to pressure that week’s the slow walking corporations. But two days before the Friday update, when Ford had no new offer around pensions and joint-venture battery plants, the UAW made the decision to pull the plug on Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant. That facility along generates $25 billion in annual revenue.

Ford CEO Jim Farley claimed the corporation had reached the limit in its ability to meet UAW demands. Since he alone took home $21 million last year, his statement was the source of Saturday Night-type jokes on the picket lines. Calling out the 8700 members at Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant meant shutting down Ford’s most profitable plant. It makes $48,000 in revenue every minute.

The suprise strike makes it clear that the UAW believes it can do much better in this year’s contract negotiations. From the beginning, the strike strategy has been to aim high and keep bargaining.

At the Facebook Live update, UAW President Shawn Fain asked everyone not on strike to join the picket line the following day. He announced he would be traveling to Pennsylvania to talk with strikers at Mack Truck facilities. They turned down a tentative agreement with a hefty wage hike but no cost-of-living agreement by 73%. They thought they could do better.

The previous Sunday the union held a rally at the local representing Ford’s assembly plant in Chhicago. Representatives from a Brazilian metalworkers union flew in to attend. At the weekly update Fain proudly wore the sweatshirt stamped with their initials as a reflection of international solidarity. The strike is challenging inequality not just at Detroit Three plants but for workers everywhere.

OCTOBER 7 UPDATE: General Motors agreed in writing to include electric vehicle battery plant production in the GM-UAW master agreement last Friday. As President Shawn Fain noted at the beginning of the Friday update, when threatened with workers in its most profitable plant join the picket lines, GM leapfrogged in front of the other corporations. Given that battery plants have been designed as joint ventures, at least partly to circumvent the UAW, this guarantee opens the door to a just transition:

“What this will mean for our membership cannot be understated. The plan was to draw down engine and transmission plants, and permanently replace them with low-wage battery jobs. We had a different plan. And our plan is winning at GM. And we expect it to win at Ford and Stellantis as well.”

Fain went on to review the union’s demands and the positive responses from each company. For starters, the three have more than doubled their initial wage proposals. Ford and Stellantis agreed to restore the cost-of-living adjustment many said would never return. Given that all three corporations are currently engaged in serious negotiations, no additional plants were called out on strike. But more remains on the table and the clock is ticking.

The final portion of the update focused on strategy. While both GM CEO Mary Barra and Ford CEO Jim Farley claimed the UAW was engaging in theatrics, Fain countered that the UAW has shown the Detroit Three a willingness to fight for a record contract.

That means “We know their pain points. We know their money makers. We know the plants they really don’t want to see struck.” With more moves to make, the UAW “won’t let one company fall behind and wait for movement at another table.”

In the fourth week of the strike, it’s clear that the three corporations have gone further than they intended to go in meeting the UAW demands. Yet with their escalating strike strategy, the UAW is demanding more.

This innovative strike strategy, dubbed the “Stand Up Strike,” recalls the sitdown strikes of the 1930s. It puts maximum and weekly pressure on the Detroit Three as the UAW chooses which plants to strike, leaving the corporations guessing. With 25,000 workers out of the 150,000 workers out on strike, this obviously conserves the UAW strike fund.

The UAW is turning out a number of short videos where workers tell their story. Workers who signed up for strike updates receive text messages and emails announcing Facebook live events where Fain outlines the state of negotiations and unfolding strike strategy. Those not yet on strike are urged to continue wearing red T-shirts on Wednesdays, talk to their co-workers, organize rallies, refuse all voluntary overtime and report management harassment.

<p<Picket lines, in the words of one striker, are like family reunions with music and cook outs. Many supporters were coming to the picket lines, dropping off food, beverages and wood for the burn barrels. Locals were setting up food pantries. Within the first few days Jeep strikers organized a caravan to the picket lines at Ford's Michigan Assembly an hour away. By the end of the week, caravans were incorporated into the strike strategy.

See articles on the Solidarity website providing updates and discussing issues that are inadequately covered in most media. While wage demands are easy to summarize in percentage terms with the union demanding a 40% increase over a four-year contract while companies stall at around 20%, underlying questions — making all “temporary” workers permanent after 90 working days, eliminating pernicious wage and benefit tiers, restoring cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) stolen more than a decade ago and raising retiree pensions for the first time in 15 years — receive less attention.

Picket lines and caravans continue. Family members and non-striking UAW members and retirees as well as other labor organizations and social movements, including DSA, are flocking to the picket lines. Since in most places the picket line is 24 hours a day, it’s possible for everyone to find a time to join. Unfortunately, there have been a handful of violent incidents. These happen when scab cars and trucks threaten a small picket line. Besides denouncing these acts of violence, strengthening the number of picketers can minimize this aggression.

UNIFOR, representing Canadian autoworkers are negotiating their contract at the same time. They chose a more traditional approach, targeting Ford and negotiating a tentative agreement with little transparency. Details of the contract are similar to what Fain reported Ford offered the UAW. UNIFOR, after a quick informational meeting with Ford workers, announced that the electric vote approved the contract by just 54%. There is a problem, however, because it seems that Ford skilled trades workers voted the contract down. In that case, there should have been a delay while UNIFOR consulted with workers in that unit and gone back to the bargaining table with their concerns. The union leadership claimed they didn’t realize the issue, ratified the contract and moved on to negotiating with GM for a pattern contract. Needless to say, Ford skilled trades workers are protesting.

* * *

AS UAW CONTRACTS with the Detroit Three expire at midnight September 14, it looks like the companies are far from settling. Having raked in over a quarter of a trillion dollars in the last decade, they are balking at newly elected UAW President Shawn Fain’s demand that “Record profits deserve record contracts.”

Wearing “End Tiers” and “No Concessions” T-shirts, hundreds of workers and their families turned out to demonstrate their willingness to fight for a good contract at the rally UAW Region 1 on Sunday, August 20. The short program featured Fain, Region 1 director LaShawn English, and U.S. Congressional representative Haley Stevens.

Fain took on the argument that the UAW has set expectations too high. Why is it okay that CEOs reward themselves with 40% increases in their benefits package but wrong for workers to make such a demand?

Wages have stagnated over a generation, the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) given up during the bailout has not been restored, and a tiered workforce means some workers have drastically fewer wages and benefits. Those issues, along with an end to forced overtime, the right to have both job security and a life beyond the workplace, are essential to win as companies restructure.

Negotiations between the corporations and the UAW traditionally begin with the union president staging highly photographed handshakes with the CEOs of each company. That didn’t happen this year. Instead, President Fain shook hands with workers at Ford, GM and Stellantis plants, listening to workers’ demands and answering questions.

At the same time UAW staff passed out cards and encouraged members to sign up to receive weekly updates by text or email. Since then Fain has been holding short and weekly Facebook Live updates.

In addition to the Facebook Live updates, the UAW’s website and Facebook pages have short videos that include workers’ stories. The latest features a fourth generation Ford worker who describes her experience as a single mom working as a temp for six years in four different plants before becoming fulltime.

This inclusion and transparency is a sea change from how the UAW leadership functioned over the last half century. It used to be that negotiations were walled off from members, and the UAW Communications Department typically issued “no comment” responses to the media’s questions.

In contrast, the newly elected UAW leadership — the first directly elected in a one-person, one vote mail-in ballot — developed a militant No Concessions, No Tiers strategy as the contract deadline rapidly approaches. They have provided a clear list of members’ demands, taken on the companies’ line, encouraged regions and locals to prepare a contract campaign, and through the union’s Organizing Department set up online trainings so that members are empowered to develop actions with co-workers.

Borrowing methods developed during the Teamster contract campaign at UPS, these include having members sign cards in order to receive weekly updates, asking members to wear buttons and red shirts with slogans to work on Wednesdays, encouraging 10-minute parking lot rallies and practice picketing. Whether or not the local leadership is plugged into the campaign, autoworkers are encouraged to be actively involved.

Fain has called for locals to conduct votes to authorize a strike mandate if negotiations are not progressing. He added, “As a union, we have to lead the fight for economic justice — not just for ourselves but for the entire working class” matched the sentiment of the crowd. Clearly the slogan on the UAW website, “Our generation’s defining moment at the Big Three” captures the the mood of autoworkers as September 15 approaches.

September-October 2023, ATC 226


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