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US auto workers must step strikes up a gear

President Joe Biden has made history by visiting an auto workers’ picket line to outdo Donald Trump. But neither is a friend of workers. The strikers must reverse away from these political games, explains Charlie Kimber
Issue 2875
Auto workers on strike in Kansas City

Auto workers on strike in Kansas City (Picture: UAW)

“The TV is saying this strike has become a fight between president Joe Biden and Donald Trump. I don’t see it like that. I’m much more interested in the contest between strikers and the Big Three.

“But hey, I’m glad they’re noticing us, we’re making headlines everywhere, and our strike has done that.” That’s what United Auto Workers (UAW) union member Kim from Michigan told Socialist Worker last week.

She is one of the workers who have been battling the three giant car firms—Ford, General Motors (GM) and Stellantis—over pay and other issues since 14 September. Workers want real wage rises and to push back the concessions made during the financial crisis of 2008 and at the start of the pandemic. 

It’s a key battle for workers everywhere, and its importance is why Biden and Trump have had to act. Biden visited a picket line in Michigan last week, the first time a US president has ever done so. It was a calculated attempt to pull working class voters away from Trump at next year’s presidential election.

Biden announced the visit after Trump declared he would hold a “pro-worker” rally near Detroit. Biden stood on the picket line as union president Shawn Fain referred to UAW members’ past work building bombers used in the Second World War. Fain said, “Today, the enemy is right here in our own area. It’s corporate greed.

“We’re the people who make this world run. It’s not the billionaire class. It’s not the elite few. It’s not some executive who owns our future. It’s us. These CEOs sit in their offices. They sit in meetings. They make decisions. But we make the product.”

Biden answered “Yes” when asked if he thought auto workers should get the 40 percent pay rise over three years they are demanding. The White House media team initially said he didn’t hear the question, before conceding he did. Biden heads a thoroughly pro-capitalist party of the US ruling class. But he can tell when strikers are popular.

Polls last week showed rising support, with 58 percent of people backing the strikes with just 18 percent against. Those in favour included 72 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of independents and 48 percent of Republicans. Biden’s actions underline how right wing the British Labour Party is. It’s inconceivable that prime minister Keir Starmer would act like this—short of mass working class struggle that threatened to escape union leaders’ control.

But Biden is no friend of militant workers—his speech to the pickets lasted just 87 seconds. Although he castigated the multi-tier wage rates imposed a decade ago, he didn’t mention who had done the imposing. That’s because the culprit was the Barack Obama administration—when Biden was the vice president. Biden also didn’t talk about how he outlawed a rail strike last year.

And he didn’t fool everyone. “Mind your own business,” said Dan Hall, a 66-year-old who’s worked at Ford for nearly 29 years, about both Biden and Trump. “It’s not about them. It’s about us … the only thing they’re here for is votes. ‘See, I supported you!’ No, you didn’t—you came out here. Same thing with Trump,” he told the Huffpost website.

After a brief photo-op with pickets, Biden quickly left for a fundraising event which a gilded elite paid up to $100,000 (£82,000) to attend. It was held at the $33 million (£26.9 million) home of billionaire couple Liz Simons and Mark Heising. Then he headed off to another fundraiser at the San Francisco home of Facebook co-founder Andrew McCollum.

As Biden stroked the rich, former president Trump was doing his own speech at a non-union car accessories plant. He peddled “economic nationalism” and told UAW members the real issue was the move away from fossil fuels.

“I don’t care what you get in the next two weeks or three weeks or five weeks,” he said. “They’re going to be closing up and they’re going to be building those cars in China and other places.” 

He said he backed “American labour, not foreign labour” and wants “a future that puts American dreams over foreign profits.” It’s easy to see through Trump’s claim to be pro-worker. He has clashed at points with big business, but when president he delivered the tax cuts and handouts it wanted.

But he attracts some people on the basis of his racism, his sexism and because the Democrats suck up to the corporations. He won the mainly working class Macomb County, where he spoke last week, by about 11 percentage points in the 2016 election and 8 points in 2020.

Trump prospers when the working class is passive, demoralised and turns in on itself. In those situations people look for scapegoats and individual solutions. Compromising trade union leaders and politicians undermine the collective class momentum that can annihilate Trump and Trumpism. And workers need to be completely independent from Biden and the Democrats to not be tainted by their big business policies.

Not nearly enough acceleration from the UAW

The UAW union announced last Friday that it would call out more workers, bringing the total to around 25,000. But that’s just a small percentage of the 150,000 it could mobilise. As the CNN organisation pointed out, “The union is still not going for the jugular. It is not affecting the supply of GM and Ford’s best-selling vehicles.”

And there was no escalation at all at Stellantis. While the union holds back from using all its strength, bosses and their allies are fighting without restraint. GM last week began hiring scabs to work for as little as £11.95 an hour at strike-hit centres.

What the UAW called a non-union contractor drove through pickets, sped up and injured five people outside a GM depot in Flint, Michigan. A scab driver also hit pickets in Massachusetts, and in California strike-breakers menaced pickets with guns. On Thursday last week UAW leader Shawn Fain denounced GM and Stellantis for “hiring violent scabs”.

He said it was an attack on “all of the working class”. Fain invited everyone to come to the picket lines to show solidarity. But he didn’t call out a single extra striker. There was also a warning from Canada where the Unifor union persuaded workers to call off a dispute with Ford. This could have seen a strike across the whole of North America.

Instead union leaders persuaded workers to swallow a deal that means no real pay rise and little progress on other key issues. Just 54 percent of workers accepted the offer—and some have contested whether the bureaucracy followed union rules over how deals are accepted. All 150,000 UAW auto workers need to be out now to win a victory to inspire people across the US and wider.

Transport workers of the world unite

British car, van and lorry workers, particularly those working for the Big Three, should:

  • Send a message of support to the UAW at individuals, stewards’ committees, plant committees and regional and national bodies
  • Refuse any work connected with the US plants
  • Hold solidarity rallies and meetings in the workplace and outside. Send pictures to the UAW
  • Do a collection for the strikers

It’s scandalous that up until last week the British unions had made no comment on the strike. And they haven’t used their scores of full-time officials in the plants to rally and send solidarity. That’s the poisonous legacy of plants seeing themselves in competition for work and jobs rather than as united against the bosses.

Hollywood writers look at a deal —but it will not win any awards

After 148 days of solid strikes by writers, Hollywood executives have been forced to offer them a deal. On Monday last week, The Writers Guild of America (WGA) reached what it described as a “tentative” agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

In a statement, the guild wrote, “We can say with great pride that this deal is exceptional —with meaningful gains and protections for writers in every section of our membership.” But workers could have won more. The three-year deal will see the minimum weekly pay rate for story and executive story editors rise by 5 percent this year, 4 percent next year and 3.5 percent the year after.

These new rates fall significantly below inflation and won’t make up for the 23 percent pay cut in real terms since 2013. The issue of artificial intelligence (AI) was central to the writers’ fight, but the deal only included very minimal platitudes about restricting its use. Another aspect of the deal being celebrated as a victory is how streaming services now have to pay writers more if the series they worked on is popular.

But the AMPTP has only committed to revealing the viewing figures of series being streamed to the guild under a “confidentiality agreement.” The only way the WGA can pass this information on to members is in an “aggregated form.”

The confidentiality agreement means workers have to trust union bureaucrats and streaming services to give them accurate information about viewing figures—and how much they should be paid. Workers online have stated the deal is a step forward.

WGA member Justin Halpern wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that the deal was “good”. But workers must stay vigilant and be ready to head back to the picket lines. “The deal will be tested over the next three years because that’s what always happens,” Justin added. “It will be poked and prodded by the AMPTP and business affairs and whoever else is trying to make a little more money by spending less.

“So we have to stay aware of changes in the business, which will come. And as they come, we have to adapt the contract to protect ourselves.” The strike was the first organised by the WGA in 15 years. And, for many, there’s been a difference between the last round of strikes and this one.

In 2007 to 2008, workers struck for 100 days to demand higher residual rates for DVD sales. The WGA settled with AMPTP. While the majority of members accepted the deal, some argued workers could have won more. The difference between the strikes then and now is that writers didn’t strike alone.

The actors’ union Sag-Aftra has been out alongside the writers since 14 July and were still on strike as of Friday of last week. They will now be pressured to settle if the WGA deal is accepted. Workers from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSA), the Teamsters union and the striking UAW union have also shown support on the picket lines.

The solidarity shown by other sections of workers forced Hollywood bosses to get around the table and put forward a new offer. But it’s disappointing that a bad deal could be done just as thousands of other workers begin action.

Sophie Squire

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