This month’s policy briefing focuses on the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) and its tense contract negotiations with Ford, GM and Stellantis. Known as the “Big 3,” these are the three biggest automakers in the nation, with GM and Ford consistently ranked among the top five in the world. Together, they have made at least one-quarter of a trillion dollars in profits over the past decade – and over $21 billion in 2023. As their contracts with the UAW are set to expire on September 14, the union is calling for these record profits to be more broadly shared among auto workers down the line, including with temporary workers and retirees.
With just a few days left, the Big 3’s counter-offers have all fallen short of the UAW’s demands, prompting the union to prepare its nearly 150,000 members to take action against all three corporations. This is a break from how these negotiations have historically occurred: as the contract deadline approached, the UAW would typically target just one of the Big 3, get the best agreement from them and then force the other two to match that agreement. In the process, they would often extend the negotiation deadline a few weeks.
This year, however, under the leadership of newly elected President Shawn Fain, the union is taking on all three automakers at once, calling the September 14 date a “deadline, not a reference point.”
At the Labor Day march in Detroit last week, Fain spoke to workers’ widespread and growing discontent at being excluded from corporate profits and gains. To a crowd of thousands, he said, “Starbucks’ workers organized, but the company bargained in bad faith. We’re facing the same thing right now, with the ‘Big 3’…We’ve watched CEOs rake in millions in salaries, we’ve watched shareholders rake in billions in dividends and we’ve watched workers’ wages and benefits go backwards.”
In fact, the Big 3 have made their profits in part by maintaining a two-tier compensation system for wages and benefits, where lower-tier workers may earn less than half of higher-tier workers. Fain has described this system as the “ultimate divide-and-conquer strategy,” violating the union principle of equal pay for equal work. Railing against both billionaires and poverty wages, he is calling for a united stand, “not just as one union, but as a movement.”
His call for a movement echoes another Labor Day speech, made nearly twenty years ago by General Gordon Baker, a legendary labor leader from Detroit. In the 1960s, Gen was hired at Chrysler Dodge’s main plant and was a member of UAW Local 3. It was there that he co-founded the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), committing his life to building a labor movement for economic and social justice.
In 2004, he described the breadth of this movement, saying: “The labor movement…is all of those who work by the sweat of their brow. Whether you sell mental or physical labor….whether you are paid by the hour or all at once, work part-time, half-time or not at all, if you once used to work and are no longer able to or are now unemployed, if you want to work and can’t get there…all of this represents the scope of the labor movement. The union movement is only an organized portion of the labor movement…when we stand here and talk to each other, we address ourselves from the standpoint of the labor movement.”
Today, this movement includes the UAW, Starbucks and other sectors of organized labor. It includes tens of millions of workers who are earning less than $15 per hour and others who are underpaid, underemployed and even unemployed. It includes the 1.6 million people who are missing from the post-pandemic labor market, two-thirds of whom are women, and one-quarter of whom left because of household care responsibilities. It includes millions of caregivers who contribute at least $1.5 trillion to the economy every year, but whose work remains unpaid and often unrecognized.
If the UAW are able to secure their demands, its impacts will reverberate well beyond their union, to these other sectors of the economy. Indeed, states with higher union density also have greater income and economic protections for all workers, including unemployed people, better access to health care and fewer restrictions on democracy.
The UAW struggle is, therefore, a struggle for us all, giving renewed meaning to the union anthem, “Solidarity, forever.” Read more about their call to action, below.
To support the UAW, visit www.uaw.org.
This briefing was produced in collaboration with the General Baker Institute (GBI), a community-based center for popular education and community engagement in Detroit. GBI has played an important role in emergent and long-term struggles for the right to water, workers’ rights and racial and economic justice. As the UAW has intensified its activity this summer, GBI has been on the ground to track these events and their impacts. To find out more about GBI, visit https://www.generalbakerinstitute.com.
Just days before their contracts with the “Big 3” Detroit automakers expire, UAW President Shawn Fain gave a rousing Labor Day speech in Detroit. Wearing a bright red shirt with the union’s demand to “end tiers,” Fain connected the UAW’s current battle with Ford, GM and Stellantis with a long history of labor struggle.
“Today,” he said, “we’re here to celebrate the heritage and work of all those who came before us…and the work that the working class delivers 365 days a year. Without the work that we do, nothing moves in this country. In our theme song, ‘Solidarity, forever,’ one of my favorite verses says ‘not a wheel would turn…’. That’s due to what we do! We have the power! And it’s time we use that power!”
In August, the union issued its contract demands to the Big 3, which included: eliminating tiers on wages and benefits, increasing wages, restoring cost of living allowances and a pension benefits for all workers, a working family protection program, reinstituting the 32 hour work week, making temporary workers’ permanent, increasing retiree pay and re-establishing retiree medical benefits. Initially, only Ford responded, mainly by rejecting most of the UAW’s demands, while GM and Stellantis refused to bargain, prompting Fain to file unfair labor practice charges against them with the NLRB. In his Labor Day remarks, Fain referenced how this tactic was used by Starbucks, when the $112 billion dollar corporation refused to negotiate in good faith with over 100 newly unionized cafes. At this point, all three corporations have made offers, but they have all fallen far short of the union’s demands.
This is the first time that Fain has led the union in these negotiations. Elected in 2023, he ran on a campaign of “no concessions, no tiers, no corruption,” and challenged the union’s incumbent leadership. Fain won under the new “one-member, one-vote” election model that gave each member an equal vote. As president, he has committed to transparent contract negotiations with the Big 3 to stay true to his campaign platform, issuing regular video updates online. In a recent update, he compared the three offers they’ve received with the UAW’s demands. “I do these updates,” he said, “because our strength as a union is in our membership. Our strength as working people is in our unity. And you all deserve to know what they’re saying about you.”
The window for their negotiations lasts until 11.59 pm on September 14. In the meantime, Fain has described UAW locals as preparing for battle. On the ground, they are handing out picket assignments, planning rallies and organizing kitchens. In a phone call, UAW Local 600 member Steve Noffke said, “the mood of the workers in Detroit is militant, because we know what’s at stake.”
Detroit’s Labor History and a Lesson on Solidarity Forever
The UAW’s efforts are contributing to one of the most active years for labor struggles in decades: over 300,000 workers have gone on strike so far in 2023. It is also carrying forward a long history of labor struggle among auto workers, especially in Detroit, which shaped the US and global economy for nearly a century.
General Gordon Baker was a leading voice in those historic struggles. A member of the UAW, co-founding member of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers (LRBW), he inspired generations of workers, community members and faith leaders to make lifelong commitments to organizing for economic and social justice. Known as Gen by friends and colleagues, he died in 2014, but left behind a powerful legacy to continue building a transformational labor and social justice movement.
On Labor Day 2004, Gen spoke to this task, emphasizing what true “solidarity” means in these times. Like Fain, he referenced “Solidarity, forever,” speaking to a hard lesson he learned about solidarity from the Hamlet factory fire in the early 1990s. The factory produced chicken nuggets in Hamlet, North Carolina. On September 3, 1991, a fire broke out and the owner chained the doors shut so that the workers wouldn’t steal any of the chicken. Twenty five people died in the fire – 13 were white, 12 were Black. Gen’s UAW local went down to Hamlet, in solidarity with those 25 workers and their families.
As he narrated: “When the word spread across the country, we all got angry and upset…we raised money and on May 2nd of 1992, we organized five busloads of workers…and we rode to Hamlet…we marched through the streets that day. When we got to the rally at the park, it was a real spirited rally, but…not a single one of the members of the white families showed up, even though the money was for everybody. And it was a bitter pill for us to swallow. You see, this question of solidarity is not an easy question. It’s got to be fought for!
You see, the factory united them! The process and production of chicken nuggets united them! The fire that broke out in the factory that day united them! The slow hand of death that touched 25 workers united them! But the brothers and sisters in the streets divided them! When we raise our voice and sing solidarity, we’ve got to fight to give it that meaning! The song says, solidarity forever! It don’t say solidarity for 8 hours! It don’t say solidarity until the midnight hour, in case you’re working the second shift! It says solidarity forever! And every time we raise it, and fight for it, we have to fight to give it that meaning!”
Nearly 20 years later, we are still fighting for that meaning – and organizing to unite the tens of millions of people who are suffering under the injustice of an economy that sacrifices the many to benefit the few. Corporate and billionaire wealth has increased dramatically in recent years: between 2020 and 2022, billionaire wealth grew by $1.5 trillion – or more than $2 billion a day. Meanwhile government programs that expanded health care, child care, unemployment insurance and other economic stimulus, as well as access to basic needs like food, housing, and utilities have all come to an end. Although those programs brought poverty and low-income rates down to 112 million people in 2021 – a significant drop from 140 million people in 2018 – those numbers are back on the rise in 2022 and 2023.
THE TIES THAT BIND
It is no surprise, then, that there is widespread public support for both unions and workers in labor disputes against large corporations. And yet, it is unclear what the political response to the UAW’s stance will be, especially given current pressures on the US economy. In 2022, President Biden and Congress intervened to thwart a rail strike when railroad workers’ demand for paid sick leave was removed from negotiations. Although it was averted, the strike could have cost $2 billion a day.
Today, a ten-day UAW strike will cost an estimated $1 billion to the Big 3. It will also impact companies down the supply chain, which will add up quickly. This will certainly heighten scrutiny of Fain’s leadership and the UAW. He has already pushed back against the assertion that workers wages are driving up vehicle prices, putting the responsibility instead on payouts to shareholders. “In the last four years, the price of vehicles went up 30%. Our wages went up 6%. There were billions of dollars in shareholder dividends. So our wages aren’t the problem.”
Regardless of how this unfolds, the union has been strengthened through this struggle. According to Noffke, “I can’t pretend to know what’s going to happen in the days ahead, but what I do know is that Fain has expressed what the workers are feeling. And this is getting their support down the line, and even across party lines, because it’s the economic issues that really tie us together. And this is unanimous.”
Indeed, the real victory is recognizing that the negotiation between the UAW and the Big 3 is not just about the parties involved in these contracts. It is about the right to participate in the decisions that affect our lives. It is about fighting for an economy that works for us all, all the way down the line and throughout our lives. It is about fighting for solidarity, forever, and until we win.
Slider photo credit: Paul Sancya, AP.