The largest industrial union in the US enters auto industry negotiations with a pledge to take on CEOs

Union contracts for 144,000 auto workers expire in September, after which they could potentially strike for gains rolled back during deindustrialization

July 31, 2023 by Natalia Marques
UAW President Shawn Fain broke with tradition by shaking hands with rank and file members, not auto execs, as contract negotiations opened (Photo: UAW)

On September 14, union contracts will expire for 144,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) who work at the “Big Three” auto giants Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis. Contract negotiations between the UAW and the three megacorporations already kicked off this month. With a new, militant, and democratic leadership at the helm of the nation’s largest industrial union, this upcoming contract campaign could prove to be just as historic as the UPS Teamsters’ recent contract fight, or even more.

It is clear that the major economic players are already taking note. CNBC Host Jim Cramer and notable pro-capitalist economic pundit recently lamented UPS Teamsters’ historic agreement with UPS that raises living standards and sets the bar high for all workers. To Cramer, the real concern is the decrease in value of UPS stock, as “people see that maybe the Teamsters got the best of them.” Cramer quickly pivoted to worrying about the upcoming UAW negotiations with Ford and GM. “[UAW President] Shawn Fain reminds me of the 1930s UAW, which we don’t want,” he said.

Fain was elected as president on March 25 of this year in UAW’s first ever direct election for top officers in the history of the union. He has made it clear that in these negotiations, unlike previous ones, the union plans to take on the three largest auto manufacturers in the country in a way unheard of since the communist-influenced UAW of the 1930s.

“The Big Three is our strike target,” Fain said on July 11, days before negotiations opened. “They’ve made a quarter of a trillion dollars in North American profits over the last ten years, and they can afford to make things right for our members.”

Indeed, the Big Three auto companies have recorded USD 250 billion in profits in the last four years. Their profits are directly tied to the lowering standard of living of the average auto worker. Workers report that over the years, the amount of time they are expected to complete the same amount of work has shrunk as bosses try to squeeze out as much productivity as possible. As a result, workers endure increasing repetitive motion injuries. Companies also find every way imaginable to pay some workers less for the same amount of work, such as hiring temporary workers and working with non-union companies.

This is what today’s UAW is fighting to end. As auto manufacturers transition to electric vehicles, companies are making sure that auto workers working on electric cars are left out of existing union agreements and benefits. Auto corporations are not training longtime workers in the manufacturing of electric vehicles. Instead, they are outsourcing work to subsidiary or non-union companies. As Keith Brower Brown writes in Labor Notes, “GM Subsystems is a wholly owned subsidiary of GM—a legal shell to evade its main union contracts. Under a UAW contract signed last year, Subsystems workers start at $18.50 an hour, compared to about $31 an hour for first-tier workers under UAW’s GM master agreement.” Fain is determined to end this practice, and bring all electric vehicle, battery, and subsidiary workers under the union’s master agreements.

The union is also focused on winning back the victories that the UAW had lost over the years of top-down leadership that was willing to give concessionary gifts to the auto companies. In 2007, the UAW bargained a contract that introduced tiers, in which new hires got half the pay. A tiered system created high turnover, which the companies exploited by hiring temporary workers with even less benefits and pay. Now, these super-exploited temp workers currently make only USD 16.67 per hour. Notably, this was around the same as the starting pay for a UPS part-timers before their big TA victory this week (the starting wage will now be USD 21 per hour if the TA is ratified). According to Labor Notes, “despite working full-time, [auto temps] are not eligible for raises, profit sharing, or retirement benefits and get between two and five paid days off a year.”

A 2009 contract bargained by UAW leadership at the time suspended the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in the Big Three contracts. COLA is a demand that the UAW had pioneered in the 1940s, and was a victory of the 1946 General Motors strike, in which UAW workers used a tactic that they had developed called the “sit down” strike. In a sit down, workers occupy the factories instead of picketing outside of them to ensure that scab labor cannot infiltrate and no work can get done. Workers won COLA, which tied their wages to the cost-of-living index of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This provision was extended to the Big Three manufacturers in the 1970s. But in the wake of the 2008 recession, UAW allowed COLA to be suspended in a major concessionary loss to the automotive industry.

Shawn Fain and the new leadership of the UAW, alongside rank and file workers, are determined to win these victories back. To signal his intentions, Fain, a member of the UAW reform cause Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) went about opening this year’s contract negotiations a little differently. In recent history, UAW leadership has kicked off Big Three negotiations with the “handshake ceremony,” in which top officers shake hands with auto industry executives. Instead, on July 12, Fain and new UAW leaders held “members’ handshake” ceremonies with rank and file workers at three Michigan auto plants. “I’m not shaking hands with any CEOs until they do right by our members,” said Fain the day before.