The United Auto Workers are redefining what is possible for US labor

With radical demands such as a 32-hour workweek, the UAW contract campaign is bringing “class warfare” back to labor negotiations. Workers are set to vote this week on authorizing a potential strike

August 24, 2023 by Natalia Marques
UAW workers strike vote
Apart from shorter workweeks, the UAW wants to restore COLA, end auto plant closures, end to two-tier pay and benefits, regain defined-benefit pension and retiree health insurance, ensure job security, and make all temporary workers permanent employees (Photo: UAW via Twitter)

This week, over 100,000 autoworkers, employed at the three largest car manufacturers in the United States, are heading to the polls to vote to authorize a potential strike. Based on how most strike authorization votes go, and the renewed militancy of their union, the United Auto Workers (UAW), one can make an educated guess that these workers will indeed vote to authorize a work stoppage. Coming off the heels of the massively successful UPS Teamsters contract campaign, auto workers organized under the largest industrial union in the US are fighting for historic demands that could redefine what is possible for the labor movement in the country. The UAW leadership is in the midst of negotiating a contract that will cover 144,000 workers who are employed at the “Big Three” auto manufacturers (Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis). This contract expires on September 14, after which UAW leaders have expressed a complete willingness to strike if the companies do not meet worker demands.

Shawn Fain, who was elected President of the UAW in March of this year, has led the union thus far with unprecedented militancy, calling for radical demands such as a 32-hour workweek and pay raises in conjunction with inflation. He has been mobilizing rank-and-file UAW members to fight for the new contract for the first time in living memory. 

“I’m asking rank-and-file activists all around the country to do everything you can do to get organized in your plant,” Fain said in a Facebook live address to workers on August 15.

Fain is determined to lead the union away from its recent history of concessionary contracts that chipped away at the victories of the militant UAW organizing of the 1930s and 40s. In the wake of the 2008 recession, for example, the UAW leadership at the time gave up the cost of living adjustment (COLA), which tied wage increases to inflation. COLA was a historic demand originally won following the massive 1946 General Motors sit-down strike. 

Now, UAW workers are suffering from the impact of high inflation. Some workers start at USD 18.04 per hour, which is lower than the starting rate in 2007, which was USD 19.60 (adjusted for inflation). 

“We gave up so much over the years to make this company successful and through concessions,” Jesse Ramirez, UAW Local 230 President, told Peoples Dispatch. “And although the company has been successful, they haven’t paid the employees back for that.”

Fain recently filmed a video of himself holding a packet of “company proposals” to the 2023 contract negotiations. “Everything they’re looking for in this document is about concessions,” he says. “I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do with their proposal. I’m gonna file it in its proper place.” Fain then flung the packet into his trash can.

Perhaps one of the most radical demands of this contract campaign is the 32-hour workweek, practically unheard of in modern capitalism. For this demand, Fain claims inspiration from the UAW’s own history of demanding shorter workweeks in the 30s and 40s. Notably, this era was when communist influence in the UAW and in the US labor movement in general was at its highest, shortly before the McCarthyist red scare of the 1950s. 

“We have to work longer and harder just to maintain the same standard of living that we had before,” said Fain in an August 1 Facebook live address. Currently, some autoworkers are forced to work 12 hours each day for seven days a week due to leadership concessions to companies, according to Fain.

Apart from shorter workweeks, the UAW wants to restore COLA, end auto plant closures, end two-tier pay and benefits, regain defined-benefit pension and retiree health insurance, ensure job security, and make all temporary workers permanent employees.

We used to be the industry standard when it came to contract negotiations and raises,” said Ramirez. “Our wages were among the highest in all the industries, and we’re pretty much down towards the bottom again… it’s pretty disheartening to our members. So for our members, that number one thing is raises. They really would like to see a double digit increase in their raises.”

Ramirez also spoke to the unique struggles that workers at his local face, which also mirrors the conditions of big three auto workers nationwide. “We have a tier system, and we actually have three tiers in our building, and that tier system has divided our members,” he said. “We have members who receive full pay, a pension. We have another group of members who receive full pay but no pension. And then we have another group that receives a quarter of the pay and they receive no pension as well.”

Tiered systems have caused divisions between workers across the country. The UPS Teamsters recently eliminated their unpopular 22.4 tier system in their latest contract. UAW workers are hoping to follow in their footsteps and equalize labor across the union. For auto workers, their tiered system was introduced through a UAW concession in the 2007 contract negotiations, which has resulted in high turnover and the creation of an even lower-paid tier of temporary workers. 

UAW’s radical demands have drawn the ire of the capitalist class. Stellantis CEO Mark Stewart, who recently skipped attending negotiations to vacation in Mexico, did manage to pen a letter to UAW leadership, urging “economic realism” in the face of worker demands. He labeled Fain’s tossing of the company contract proposals in the trash as “theatrics.”

Pro-capitalist economic pundit Jim Cramer has expressed growing concern at the new UAW leadership multiple times on television recently, specifically in light of the Teamsters’ UPS contract win. Recently on CNBC, Cramer noted how different Fain is from former leadership who wanted to work “for, with the autos.” The current UAW president, in contrast, is talking about the nature of capitalism, and how it has really hurt workers.” 

“It’s the kind of language where you just say, you know what, we should have built all our [electric vehicles] in Mexico,” he said, referring to the neoliberal economic model that has pushed manufacturing to outside of the US, devastating the industrial working class in the country, as companies seek to exploit lower paid workers in Global South countries such as Mexico. The UAW contract campaign can be seen as a resurgence of the collective power of this downtrodden sector of workers. 

According to Cramer, Fain is promoting “the notion that [shareholders and the rich are] fat cats.”

That’s class warfare. And it’s very shocking to hear class warfare.”