Auto workers in the United States have started strikes that could transform the balance of class forces in the country.
Workers began action at the “Big Three” auto companies—General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis (previously Fiat, Chrysler and PSA) on Friday. But instead of mobilising all 150,000 of its members, the United Auto Workers (UAW) union leaders called out only 13,000 at three plants.
Strikers responded with immense enthusiasm when they were asked to walk out. They poured out of a GM site in Wentzville, Missouri, a Stellantis centre in Toledo, Ohio; and a Ford assembly location in Wayne, Michigan.
Chanting slogans such as “No deal, no wheels”, “Union strong”, and “End tiers” pickets gathered outside the plants and some then marched in Detroit.
A UAW spokesperson told Socialist Worker, “Our people are standing up because they know this fight is our generation’s defining moment. It’s a battle not just at the Big Three, but across the entire working class.
“We will stand up for ourselves. We will stand up for our families.”
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 medical coverage is also worse than previously recruited workers—a huge issue in a country with no proper public health service..
Kim Forschim, a worker at the GM Wentzville site, told Labor Notes, “What really gets me is how the news talks like we get $60 or $70 (£48-£55) an hour.
“None of us make that. We get $32 (£26) an hour if we’re lucky. New temps get $16 (£13) an hour and no raises, no vacation, no sick days. It’s hard to live like that.”
There’s plenty of money to pay more. Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis — have made a quarter of a trillion dollars (£200 million) in profit in the last four years, spent £4 billion in stock buybacks to boost shareholders, and their top bosses’ pay has soared by 40 percent.
Bosses have threatened that along strike will see them move jobs to Mexico came up. Pickets discussed that on Friday, and in many places they saw Mexican workers as part of a united struggle rather than competitors.
Striker Jennifer Ryan said, “Did you see that video the Mexican workers made supporting us? They’ve got a new union and it’s awesome.”
But the union’s strategy leaves the initiative with the bosses. It means those still in work are continuing after the expiry of their present contract. It means under the law they have to tread very carefully and follow management demands.
And bosses can decide to lay off workers who will not automatically receive wage or strike pay. Ford has already axed 600 workers at the Michigan Assembly Plant that went on strike blaming “knock-on effects” from other workers at the factory walking out.
And partial action won’t squeeze bosses hard enough. The bosses’ Wall Street Journal newspaper noted, “The action could have been more disruptive, and some analysts were surprised the union didn’t target the more lucrative, full-size pickup truck factories or critical parts plants, both of which could have dealt a more sizable blow.”
President Joe Biden is trying to balance between bosses and workers—but he won’t back the UAW’s full claim.
He sent two aides including acting labour secretary Julie Su to Detroit to help move along negotiations and urged both sides to restart talks.
Biden said that “no one wants a strike” but he believed “record corporate profits should be shared by record contracts for the UAW”.
But he added, “The companies have made some significant offers. But I believe that should go further.”
The UAW is trying to say its present “stand up” strikes run in the tradition of the “sit-down” strikes of 1936-7. But there is a gulf between the two.
The 1930s strikes were militant working class resistance with socialist militants centrally involved that swept the country and changed the way unions organised. They were direct confrontations between workers and the corporations.
Strikers and those left still at work have to push the UAW to take the gloves off now.
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