About 150,000 U.S. auto workers are set to strike. It’s a battle that would define a new readiness to fight on pay and to take back concessions made during the 2008 financial crash and the pandemic.
But union leaders were looking for a compromise right up to the last minute. One danger is a deal like the one at UPS recently. Union leaders halted a potential major strike that would have electrified the working class in exchange for minor gains and big retreats.
Another threat is unions holding only “targeted” action that involves only a small minority of workers.
The strikes are due at the “Big Three” auto companies—General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (previously Fiat, Chrysler and PSA).
Shawn Fain, the recently-elected “reform” president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, has said a strike could begin at any of the three firms that don’t reach an agreement by the time its contract with the union expires at 5am British time on Friday.
Strikes would hit hard. Estimates from one consulting firm suggest a ten-day strike at Stellantis alone could cost the US. economy over $1 billion. It would also be popular.
A poll this week showed those surveyed would support a UAW strike by two to one. That’s because it chimes with millions of US workers who are fed up with soaring profits while they are told to sacrifice and to suffer crippling health charges because their insurance coverage is so thin.
The union has called for a 40 percent pay increase at the Big Three over four years and a 32-hour work week with no reduced pay. It also wants the abolition of the multi-tier workforce imposed by bosses and pushed by president Barack Obama when the banking crisis hit.
Currently, UAW workers who were hired after 2007 don’t receive guaranteed pensions. Their health coverage is worse than previously recruited workers too.
Though top-level assembly workers earn £26 an hour, temporary workers—who may have worked at that level for a long time—start at a pitiful £13.50.
The UAW says it wants temporary workers to become permanent workers after 90 days, with full benefits and profit sharing. Under the 2019 contracts that are about to expire, it takes two years for a temporary employee to become permanent.
There is plenty of money for more pay. Over the past decade the auto firms have recorded profits of almost £200 billion—£16 billion of it in the last six months.
The bosses have tried to weaken the move for strikes by threatening plant closures, moving production to Mexico, and mass job cuts as electric vehicle production expands.
The UAW has talked tough in response. “Our union,” Fain has said, “isn’t going to stand by while they replace oil barons with battery barons.”
But at the same time union leaders are making deals.
Industry media Automotive News reported, “Days before it’s threatening to strike the Detroit 3, the UAW has reduced its demand for pay raises over the next four years to the mid-30 percent range, according to people familiar with the offer.” It said this “marks a willingness by the union to compromise on one of its top demands.”
And in a video released on Wednesday, the union disgracefully used the history of the insurgent sit-down strikes of 1936-7 to say that today’s new method of struggle involves only targeted strikes at a minority of plants. What the UAW call a “stand up strike” is in reality a “stand down” one for most workers.
In a Facebook live broadcast, Fain told workers, “You will strike only if called by national leadership to do so. If your local is not called, you are to keep working. This is extremely important.”
But, as a worker at Stellantis’s stamping plant in Sterling Heights, Michigan, told Labor Notes website, “If midnight comes and goes and we are all still at work, many may feel let down, and may lose interest in collective action, or trust in the new leadership.”
The strike has to go ahead and be all out and indefinite. And the Big Three’s workers across the world, including in Britain, should prepare now to deliver solidarity.
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