“This is our generation’s defining moment,” said United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain, less than two hours before his union would strike all three of the largest automakers in the US at once for the first time in history. “The money is there, the cause is righteous, the world is watching, and the UAW is ready to stand up.”
Midnight Thursday night, 13,000 of the 146,000 UAW members who work at the Big Three walked off the job in three assembly plants in Michigan, Ohio, and Missouri. This partial strike, that could build to be 146,000-strong in gradual waves depending on when an agreement is reached, is part of the UAW’s new strategy—the “stand up” strike.
The UAW describes the stand up strike as “our generation’s answer to the movement that built our union, the Sit-Down Strikes of 1937,” harkening back to the UAW’s militant history in the 30s and 40s that set the standard for the entire US working class by winning demands such as COLA.
While the UAW is not striking at all plants and parts distribution centers at once across the country, “that option is still on the table,” according to the union. “The Stand Up Strike gives our union the ability to escalate all the way up to a national, all-out work stoppage if necessary. It keeps the companies guessing, and builds economic leverage against the Big Three over time if they refuse to negotiate a contract we deserve.”
By not striking at all Big Three locations at once, the UAW ensures that as negotiations continue, they do not give up all their leverage at once. The union can keep escalating, as slowly or as quickly as they want. The stand up strike also ensures a constant cycle of news headlines as new plants and PDCs walk off the job.
“Strikes are the most powerful tool a union has. They are also in many ways the final tool,” wrote David Kamper of the Economic Policy Institute on Twitter. “So, what [the stand up strike] is doing is taking the process of going on strike, and instead of making it a single moment of total conflict, stretching it out. Strike a couple of plants to start. Send the message that you’re willing to go out, but don’t raise the temp so high so fast.”
The scenes outside the GM assembly plant in Wentzville, Missouri, the Stellantis assembly complex in Toledo, Ohio, and the Ford assembly plant in Wayne, Michigan, the three plants chosen to be the first on strike at midnight, were electric. In the middle of the night in Wayne, workers bundled themselves up against the early September chill as they sang about being the “mighty mighty union!”
The stand up strategy has thus far been successful in keeping the companies guessing. Big Three workers have been reporting that their management has been scrambling following fake leaked info claiming that their particular plants were next on the strike list. “Ford pulls all of the completed engines from the plant I work in, calling in hundreds of trucks to take these engines to their final destination because my plant was on some piece of paper as a probable strike target, and it was all for naught,” wrote Ford autoworker Erich Ockuly on Twitter. “I love it!!! This is better than binge watching a tv series…I cannot wait to see what happens next!!! I bet Jim, Mary, and Carlos (the CEO’s for those not following this particular show) are scratching their heads saying ‘WTF?????’”
General Motors worker Danny Bragg in Spring Hill, Tennessee commented on the post saying “Same thing happened.” He implied the possibility of deliberately leaked misinformation as part of the union’s strategy. “They sent 14 truck loads of engines to Wentzville today thinking [Spring Hill] would be a target and now [are] trying to pull them back to unload because [there was] nobody to unload at Wentzville. Brilliant strategy and intentional leaked targets yesterday. I can’t believe some of our own fell for it also as it was put out for the [big three] to bite on.”
CEOs dig their heels in as they drown in wealth
Workers are on strike because fundamentally, the Big Three have turned their backs on demands for higher wages, secure jobs, work-life balance, better retirement pay, and an end to tiers between workers.
“It would take, just somebody like me, 40 hours a week, no overtime, 365 years to make what our CEO made at Stellantis in one year.” said Vicki, a Stellantis autoworker and UAW Local 685 member. Indeed, the worker to CEO salary ratio at Stellantis is 365 to 1, at Ford it is 281 to 1, and at GM it is 362 to 1.
The Big Three have also been spending generously on stock buybacks to compensate shareholders. “Right up to our contract deadline, Stellantis just can’t help themselves, announcing they’re executing ANOTHER $500 million on stock buybacks,” announced the UAW yesterday, “If they’ve got money for Wall Street, they sure as hell have money for the workers who make this industry run.”
And yet when it comes to meeting workers’ demands, the Big Three CEOs seem to always be short on cash. Following the start of UAW’s work stoppage, GM CEO Mary Barra expressed frustration about the strike to CNN. A reporter asked her about GM’s unwillingness to deliver on worker demands of a 40% pay increase over four years: “If you’re getting a 32% pay increase over four years, and you’re offering 20% to employees right now, do you think that’s fair?”
Barra pointed to, “what [GM has] been doing of sharing in the profitability when the company does well, I think we’ve got a very compelling offer on the table, and that’s the focus I have right now.”
Barra’s claims about the company’s “profit sharing” seem trivial given the fact that “[autoworkers’] wages have increased by less than 12% since 2007” as one Unite All Workers for Democracy (the UAW’s worker-run reform organization) leaflet claims. “Adjusted for inflation, Big 3 workers are earning $9/hour LESS than we were 15 years ago.”