Workers are Organizing, Striking and Winning Better Contracts

by John M Repp             

 The United Autoworkers (UAW) strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (formerly Chrysler), began on September 15, 2023. The UAW had made some changes to its method of electing leadership in the last few years. Instead of union locals electing delegates and then the delegates electing the leadership at a national convention, they instituted a direct election of leaders.  They also changed how they approach a new contract. In years past, the UAW would strike just one of the big three automakers. This year they struck a single factory belonging to each of the three. As the strike went longer more factories were added to increase the pressure. If one of the big three started to concede but the other two did not, the next week, the UAW would strike another factory of the non-conceding company. By this method, they played the companies off against one another.

The workers were also kept informed of the day-by-day talks at the bargaining table. Unlike in the past when the workers only learned what was happening as negotiations were concluded. The UAW also got the battery plants of the companies to be union plants.

 Since 1979, the UAW has had to give concessions to the auto companies. However, this year, they won big. More money for wages was not the only issue. Companies in the last 40 years introduced two tier-systems, so that new workers would have to work many years, up to eight, to step up to the highest wages levels. The tier-systems were not completely eliminated, but the step up time was made much less for new hires.

The current economic situation has to be considered when looking at the success of the union movement. The economy was strong, and labor was in great demand. Workers had been told during the pandemic that they were essential. Many now actually believe that they are essential. Paul Krugman wrote that one-fourth of the wage gap spread that developed since 1979, was recovered with the new contract. He meant not the wealth gap, but the wage gap, the distance between the highest wages and the lowest wages in a factory or company.

When President Biden visited a picket line of the UAW, it made national news. It was the first time a sitting President had ever visited a picket line. Trump visited a non-union factory in the same week. Another unique feature of the UAW position was their call to other labor unions to have their contracts end on May 1, 2028. The idea was that if a number of unions end their contracts at the same time, they all can put tremendous pressure on the corporate sector to concede some of the great gains they have made over the last 40 years.

UPS Teamster drivers also got a new contract and good raises. Very important for them, they will get worker protection from high heat; their trucks will be airconditioned. SAG-AFTRA, the actors union, and Writers Guild of America both struck, and both got good contracts with some regulations of studios using artificial intelligence for crowd scenes for example. More than 75,000 health-care workers walked off the job at Kaiser-Permanente. As of October 2023, there have been 312 strikes involving 453,000 workers this year compared to 43,700 over the same period two years ago.

Some of the newly formed labor unions are struggling, like the Amazon Labor Union and Starbucks Workers United, because their companies are refusing to come to the negotiating table.

Addendum: On November 29, 2023, General Motors announced a $10,000,000,000 (ten billion dollar) stock buyback. During the UAW strike they claimed they could not pay workers more than what was in the new contract. Stock buybacks started in the 1980’s and have been one of the ways the 1% have gotten so wealthy in the last 40 years. Forbes magazine once said, stock buybacks occur when corporations have money “they don’t need”. General Motors is also cutting back on its plan to manufacture all-electric vehicles.