What does the UAW strike have in common with this year’s wave of labor action? 3 experts explain

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More than 17,000 members of the United Auto Workers have put down their tools in recent days, the first time in 80 years they face a strike against Detroit’s Big Three auto companies together. But the historic labor action is about more than just this contract, experts say. It represents years of pent up demand and a surge of the American working class feeling fed up.

A major player in American union labor, the UAW is only the most recent example in a season defined by strikes – and the heat on corporations hasn’t let up as temperatures outside have begun to fall.

The pandemic, rising costs of living, industry-changing technology and workers’ self-determination are all factors in the UAW strike and others. Autoworkers say their pay has stagnated even as the profits of Detroit’s car companies – and the compensation of their executives – have increased.

WATCH: UAW president discusses Biden joining picket line and union’s demands from automakers

The UAW’s current demands include a 46-percent pay increase; a 4-day work week with overtime pay beyond 32 hours; union representation at new electric battery plants; and the end of employment tiers that created two classes of employees – one older that is better paid and receives more benefits and a second, younger tier that was hired after 2007.

Union leaders have taken a new approach of escalating strikes, signalling the possibility of additional locations and employees if negotiations don’t progress. UAW made its first such move on Friday, expanding strikes at Stellantis and GM to include factories that are part of the companies’ lucrative spare parts business. On Wednesday, the union said it was considering another expansion of the strike.

Striking or threatening to strike has recently helped some workers – like UPS employees, American Airlines pilots and Hollywood screenwriters – get better pay and working terms from their employers. Newer unions in digital media and at Starbucks also staged strikes this summer.

The UAW workers “feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves,” said Lane Windham, a labor historian and associate director of Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. “They feel like they are part of a sort of national wave, an upsurge of labor.”

The PBS NewsHour spoke to three experts about why the UAW is striking and how it fits into the larger labor movement in the United States right now.

These answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Why did the UAW go on strike, and why is it significant?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE, Senior fellow, The Century Foundation: The UAW went on strike because its contract expired and it has a new, hard-charging president, Shawn Fain, who ran on a platform of,“we’re going to end concessions, we’re going to take a tougher stance in negotiations. We’re going to try to claw back some of the things we’ve lost previously.” And this also comes after the pandemic, when so many workers felt put upon, that they worked hard and they weren’t properly rewarded.

So workers feel, in a nutshell: “We work hard. We’re moving backwards while corporate profits are galloping upwards, and we’re not getting our fair share.” And there’s a lot of labor excitement right now. The Teamsters just got a great contract, the airline pilots just won raises of more than 40 percent. There’s a pro-union president. Young Americans are very excited about unions. So how’s the saying go? “If not now, when? If not us, who?”

VEENA DUBAL, University of California, Irvine School of Law: While CEO pay has increased 40 percent over the past four years, workers — the people whose labor creates the central value for [a] company — have not reaped similar benefits. They are striking to increase their wages, to get rid of the multi-tiered system that leaves some workers with lower wages and security, and to ensure that they have a say in the transition to [electric vehicles].

This strike — or rather, escalating simultaneous strikes — is different because of both the energy and intentionality behind it. Unlike previous UAW leadership who were often criticized for “going along” and “settling cheap,” reformist president Shawn Fain and his team are using escalating tactics, public discussions and bold demands to draw attention to the extraordinary inequality between bosses and workers.

LANE WINDHAM, author of “Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide”: These workers, I think, feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They feel like they are part of a sort of national wave, an upsurge of labor.

That’s not to say there haven’t been big strikes lately. There have been, remember? We had in 2018 the Red for Ed strikes. There were also big teacher strikes in 2019. But what we’re seeing now in terms of the numbers who are striking is pretty extraordinary [for recent years]. I think low unemployment also factors into this, because workers know that it’s harder for employers to just replace them. But I think it’s bigger than that.

Beyond the UAW and automakers failing to reach an agreement, were there larger forces leading the union to decide to confront automakers now?

LANE WINDHAM: After the Great Recession of 2008, 2009 … workers took major concessions in order to keep the automakers alive and keep them running. The way the workers see it is, the automakers got bailed out, and they have seen the CEOs do well while they have not really recovered.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: A lot of workers feel they’ve been moving behind, they’re — I’m not supposed to say “pissed off” on PBS, but angry that their wages are falling behind inflation and they’re angry about the two-tier contracts. They’re angry that the starting pay for an UAW worker is just $18 an hour.

WATCH: What’s next for Hollywood after writers and studios reach tentative deal to end strike

So workers just feel it’s time to stand up, and now they have this union leadership who was elected on a platform of, “We’re going to stand up and fight back.”

VEENA DUBAL: In addition to the larger problems of growing economic and racial inequality in this country, the UAW has been emboldened by solidarity from workers across the economy. It’s critical to understand that these escalating strikes are happening at the same time as other historic strikes. Collectively, workers are withholding their labor to change the terms of the bargain — one might even say, the social contract — in the U.S.

Hollywood actors and writers on strike outside Disney studios in California

Signs awaited striking SAG-AFTRA actors and members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) outside Disney Studios in Burbank, California, back in July. Photo by Mike Blake/ Reuters

We’ve seen several major unions go on strike or threaten to do so this year. What do they have in common, and what does it mean that this is happening now?

LANE WINDHAM: Every strike is different. I don’t think we can have a blanket thing and say, “Oh, well, everybody just wants more wages.” Every contract is different. Every industry is different. Every group of workers is different. Having said that, you do see certain very interesting commonalities. The attempt to control technology is extremely important, both [with] electric vehicles and the UAW strike, the artificial intelligence issue at SAG-AFTRA. That is also an issue among the Amazon workers who have been organizing, as well as the Uber and Lyft drivers who have been organizing. The issue is not so much trying to stop technology, as much as workers want to be able to make sure that they continue to have the power as new technology is rolled out. Workers want to have a say in terms of how it impacts them.

Another thing that we’ve seen is, if you step back and look at what’s been happening in the economy over the last 30 years, you’ve seen far more temporary jobs, contingent jobs, contract jobs, the two-tier systems, the part-time jobs. You’re just seeing far more of these sort of “bad jobs”.

VEENA DUBAL: It’s important to note that we are three years after the pandemic shutdowns, when many workers were forced to reexamine their relationship to work. Many people are fed up with working long, hard hours and not being able to make ends meet. The “‘American dream”’ was never available to many groups of people, including women and racial minorities, but increasingly it’s not available to anyone.

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STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The Teamsters and the UAW really have elected a new type of militant leader. They felt that it’s time for a change, and they felt they weren’t feeling enough change with the previous leadership. Sean O’Brien, the head of the Teamsters, came very close to declaring a strike against UPS. Three hundred and forty thousand workers would have been one of the largest strikes in American history. But by threatening UPS so much, they got a great contract. And I think Shawn Fain saw Sean O’Brien mobilize his workers successfully, threaten the companies, threaten UPS very hard to strike, and he decided to do the same thing. And he wants to win a really good contract that could show that the UAW is now a fighting union, no longer on the defensive, but on the offensive.

Sean O’Brien and the Teamsters want very much to unionize Amazon workers. And the best way to persuade Amazon workers to join the Teamsters union is to get a great contract. So the Teamsters got a great contract and now Sean O’Brien and the Teamsters can go to an Amazon warehouse and say, see? If you join us, you can make big gains.

A lot of the labor activity this year has been among workers who are young or who have not historically been organized, for example, Starbucks workers. The UAW is, by contrast, an institution in labor. What should we make of this, particularly knowing that UAW has gone through some structural and leadership changes?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The UAW’s changing. It’s true that the workers involved in the UAW strike are generally older than the Starbucks workers, the Amazon workers, the Trader Joe’s workers, the REI workers seeking to unionize. But this shows that not only young workers are jazzed and think unions are an important tool to fight for a better life for them, but older workers feel that unions are a tool to win a better life, not just for them, but maybe for their kids. Because they think, if my son or daughter is going to go to work in an auto plant, I don’t want them to have a two-tier contract where they have worse wages, worse pensions and worse health coverage. So I think, yes, these older workers are fighting for themselves because they feel they haven’t kept up, but they also are fighting for the next generation.

LANE WINDHAM: I think that [younger] generation, they were children during the Great Recession. They saw that. They saw their parents go through that. They watched it from a visceral place, and add in there that they have grown up with the climate issue, so that they at a very deep level have a strong distrust of our [capitalistic] economic system, of the whole thing. And they also seem to be very collective-minded in some ways. That together means that they are particularly interested in worker organizations and unions. I see it as a function of their larger activism.

Last week, the UAW announced it was expanding the strike to 38 new locations affecting General Motors and Stellantis. For people who don’t follow strikes and labor closely, how typical is this? What does it say about the strike and the UAW right now?

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: The UAW is seeking to turn up the pressure on dealers that do repairs and on consumers who need their cars repaired. Union leaders evidently hope this tactic will get dealers and consumers to press GM and Stellantis to do more to reach a contract. But by making it harder for consumers to get their cars repaired, this move might backfire somewhat by turning some consumers against the UAW.

LANE WINDHAM: While the union has made progress with all the automakers on the two-tier wage structure, they have only won cost of living raises and the right to strike over plant closures at Ford. These remain key issues for the UAW membership, and the union is signaling its determination to make progress on these fronts. In deciding to target auto parts production at GM and Stellantis, rather than core production, the union seems to be highlighting the fragility of the auto makers’ just-in-time supply chain, and showcasing their ability to disrupt it. This is a bold move, and it’s clear that the current leadership is not doing business as usual.

To what degree are these labor actions attributable to worries over new technology, new business and who will benefit – whether it be workers or shareholders?

LANE WINDHAM: I think that is absolutely part of it; however, it’s not everything. There are some reporters who make it out to be like, that is the whole struggle. And those are the same people who talk about the future of work as though it’s going to be that we’re not going to have work, and that technology is the end-all and be-all. And it’s not; it is one absolutely incredibly important part of what’s happening. I think it is a struggle about some very fundamental structures of our workplaces, our work life and how workers are compensated.

READ MORE: As labor movements spread nationwide, White House highlights how administration is helping unions

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: I would say the strike is attributable to several reasons: One, the basic sense that workers aren’t getting their fair share and that the automakers are following in the pattern of much of corporate America that puts focus on maximizing profits, maximizing share price, maximizing help to shareholders, whether through stock buybacks or dividends, and not giving enough to workers. I think that’s the main factor. A secondary factor is that the union sees the transition to technology, the union sees the transition to electric vehicles, it sees several dozen new electric vehicle and electric battery plants being nonunion. So unions worry that these new plants are going to undercut the unionized plants with unionized wages. They’re eager to someday unionize those plants, so partly they want to win a good contract to show these workers you can get great benefits from the union. In these negotiations, the United Auto Workers is also trying to twist the arm of GM, Ford, Stellantis somewhat to somehow agree to make it easier for the workers at the battery plants to unionize.

VEENA DUBAL: While the central concerns of workers in this case and in most other cases are wages and working conditions, the looming threats of automation and the shift to EV production are playing a key role in the UAW’s labor actions. Autoworkers know better than most what happens when business models shift, and they understand that they have to have a say in these changes, to secure their futures and the future of workers more broadly.

U.S. President Joe Biden joins United Auto Workers picket line in Belleville, Michigan

President Joe Biden joined striking members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) on the picket line in Belleville, Michigan, on Tuesday. Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/ Reuters

Union membership has been broadly declining for the past 40 or 50 years. There are also generally fewer strikes compared to 40 years ago and the number of workers who go on strike have been falling for decades. Are we seeing a change in those trends? Or is this an isolated Hot Union Summer?

LANE WINDHAM: Both these things can be true: That union membership is declining, that the number of strikes has been declining, and that we are in an incredible upsurge of interest in labor issues. And it’s not just this summer, like I was saying, we had big strikes in 2018 and 2019. I think that the way that people think about the workplace, about worker issues has been shifting since the Great Recession. We remember Occupy of 2013. Then we had the #MeToo movement, right? I mean, it’s been changing for a while, but the pandemic really reset how we think about work and what workers are willing to accept. This is the question that I think is the interesting one: Why is it that so many people are interested in labor? Polling shows that half of workers say they would vote for a union tomorrow, yet union membership is at the lowest level it’s been in 100 years. How could that be? That, to me, is the fundamental question, because then what it takes you to is a discussion of how labor laws in our society work; in fact, how the entire, you might call it, “employment regime” works in this country, because even when workers say that they want to be part of unions, that they want to engage in collective bargaining, they find that it is very difficult for them to effectively form unions, effectively build power, even when they engage in strike activity.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: On one hand, we have this huge interest in unions, excitement about unions, a huge sense that they are a good, accessible tool to lift up workers, improve workers’ lives. But corporations continue to fight extremely aggressively, as we’re seeing at Starbucks and Amazon, to prevent any significant advances in the United States.

VEENA DUBAL: Today’s strikes are part of a clear shift in public consciousness and collective worker commitment to social, political, and economic change. Studies show that most people in the U.S. support unions and their critical role in economic security. The upward tick in direct actions is likely to continue unless and until companies change their approach to workers’ wages and working conditions. You can’t continue to crush people and expect them to just take it.

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