UAW strike. Photo: SCott Dexter
UAW strike. Photo: SCott Dexter

Peggy Wang, Massachusetts Teachers Association, Assoc. of Professional Administrators (personal capacity)

After six weeks of selective strikes against the ‘Big 3’ US automakers, the United Auto Workers (UAW) leadership reached tentative agreements (TAs) with Ford, GM, and Stellantis. Union leaders called off picket lines, and approximately 50,000 striking workers returned to their jobs. Now, the 150,000 rank-and-file union members at the three auto companies are voting on the TAs to either approve new contracts or send the negotiating team back to the table and possibly re-start the strike.

The UAW’s rolling strikes against all three automakers began on 15 September with walkouts at three assembly plants. The strike escalated over the following weeks with 38 parts and distribution centres (PDCs) walking out, followed by five more plants across the country.

The strikes included walkouts at the Big 3’s most profitable plants, notably Ford’s Kentucky Truck Plant. The 8,700 workers there generate $48,000 a minute in revenue for Ford, while new hires only earn $37,523 a year. Other large moneymakers the UAW targeted were Stellantis’s Sterling Heights Assembly Plant and GM’s Arlington Texas Assembly Plant. In total, the work stoppage cost the car companies over $5 billion in revenue over six weeks.

The strike made some gains for members compared to the Big 3’s ‘final offer’, but there are still crucial issues left unaddressed. Workers do not get the same benefits and protections for the same work, and electric vehicle (EV) production jobs don’t automatically fall under the national union agreement. More can be won, especially considering the majority of UAW workers didn’t walk out, there was overwhelming public support (by a 4-1 margin) for the strike, and general support for unions is the strongest it has been in 60 years.

The Independent Socialist Group (ISG), the CWI’s co-thinkers in the US, joined picket lines in solidarity with UAW members in their fight for strong contracts, and encourages workers to carefully review and discuss what’s offered.

‘No’ vote

We support a ‘no’ vote on the current TAs. More can be won on pay, on bringing an end to two-tier contracts, and to advance demands for a shorter working week.

The current round of UAW negotiations exhibit recent positive changes. UAW members voted in a new president in March in the union’s first one-member-one-vote election. The new union leadership carried through their promise to lead members out on strike. They bargained and struck against all three companies simultaneously and doubled weekly strike pay from $250 to $500.

But the brutal attacks on auto workers during the 2008-2009 auto bailouts – followed by over a decade of further layoffs, numerous plant closures, and plummeting wages and benefits – have set back UAW members in the auto industry. And they’re not alone: these blows are part of a 50-year trend of decreasing living standards. UAW members can be a crucial part of the fight for US workers to win back what we’ve lost, to make better gains in wages and benefits, and to save jobs. The current TAs are not enough.

The Independent Socialist Group urges UAW members to vote no in order to fight for more concessions from the Big 3 automakers.

The UAW hasn’t thrown its full weight into battle against Ford, GM, and Stellantis. The vast majority of union workers at the Big 3 – 100,000 of them, in fact – were left out of the strikes. These workers laboured under expired contracts and ensured the employers’ profits while their union siblings fought for a better contract by withholding their labour. ISG calls upon the UAW to take an all-out approach and shut down all Big 3 worksites across the country, in an effort to win stronger wage increases and more than the simple restoration of the 2007 contract terms.

The conditions for union workers often set the standard for an industry. Improving union pay and benefits can increase non-union wages as employers try to keep jobs filled and head off organising efforts. Shortly after the strike was called off, Toyota announced a wage increase for its non-union US workforce that nearly matches the offer for UAW members. Clearly companies can immediately pay workers more.

How UAW members can win their demands

The UAW should not take on the major US automakers alone. Ford, GM, and Stellantis are some of the largest corporations in the world, with powerful politicians and the legal system on their side. They received $80 billion in bailouts in 2008-09 under both the Bush and Obama administrations. In the past year, GM received $2.5 billion and Ford $9.2 billion in federal loans to construct non-union EV battery plants.

Autoworkers should take confidence in the overwhelming public support to launch an all-out offensive against the major US auto companies. The union could call for the support of solidarity strikes from other union members, as Tesla mechanics on strike in Sweden are currently doing. Already, the UAW has organised rallies with Sag-Aftra (Screen Actors Guild) members who were on picket lines themselves for four months. It has received support from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, whose 26,000 members authorised a strike in August during their own contract battle. UAW graduate workers that make up one-fourth of UAW membership have walked out for their own much-needed wage gains, most significantly at the University of California last winter. Many members of other unions have also joined the UAW on picket lines the last two months.

UAW President Shawn Fain has described the Big 3 contract battle as larger than just the UAW, as a fight for the broader working class. He has invited other US unions to align their contracts with the UAW’s to aim for a joint strike come 1 May 2028, stating: “If we’re going to truly take on the billionaire class and rebuild the economy so that it starts to work for the benefit of the many and not the few, then it’s important that we not only strike, but that we strike together.” The possibility of a mass coordinated strike – even potentially a general strike – on International Workers’ Day in 2028, holds immense power as a tactic and could unify the labour movement.

But workers can’t wait another four years. Rampant inflation, poverty wages, and housing and food insecurity are major issues today for many workers, including auto workers. Working people should take every opportunity to unite and push for huge gains.

The UAW has enormous potential to re-energise the labour movement and help lead the charge against the capitalist class – not only in words but in action. It needs to unite and fight with other unions for much better contracts and put massive resources into new organising, including winning union drives and first contracts at the non-union car corporations like Tesla, Honda, Nissan, Volkswagen, etc. It will take tactics that have been absent from the labour movement for a long time, such as workplace occupations, solidarity strikes, general strikes, and building a political party for working people. UAW members have shown they can force the Big 3 to make concessions. The union has the power to seize the moment, to demand and fight for more – and they should take it.