United Auto Workers Outsmarted the Bosses, Amid Widespread Popular Support

As my American readers are no doubt aware, the “big three” auto companies have been refusing to negotiate with United Auto Workers (UAW) in good faith, and so UAW declared a strike. The important backstory here is that until the 2008 crash, auto workers were guaranteed an annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to their pay. This was a hard-won victory, and it meant that the workers could expect a consistent standard of living for their work, despite inflation. In 2008, the big auto companies were in danger of going out of business, and so in addition to the government bailout, the workers agreed to a temporary suspension of their COLA – making a sacrifice for the good of everyone. Since then, the auto companies have refused to restore the adjustment, and have created a new “employment track” in which new workers will never get the same benefits or pensions as older workers. All this, despite making record profits, and spending billions on stock buy-backs, which are basically direct transfers of cash to shareholders. The 40% raise that the UAW is asking for (and that the CEOs are saying is so unreasonable) would move workers’ wages to where they would have been had COLA been in place since 2008. The money is absolutely there, and anyone claiming this would bankrupt the companies is lying.

And so, the union decided to strike, and they have made a couple brilliant tactical moves.

The first, which I initially didn’t understand, was to only strike at some factories, at first. I think when I first heard about this, it was framed as being a bit feeble, when the goal is to force auto makers to realize how much they need their workers to choose to work for them. The reality is that this was a strategic move to conserve resources. As I’ve said before, a strike is a siege. It’s the workers trying to “starve out” the bosses, by hurting production and thus profit, while the bosses try to literally starve out the workers, and force them to give up their demands to avoid homelessness and starvation. In any siege, it’s a question of who can make their resources last longer, and strike funds exist to help workers pay their bills while on strike. Only striking at select factories allows them to extend their strike fund, and gives them room to increase the pressure as time goes on.

The second move – and I love this one – was to mislead the companies as to which locations would be striking. The UAW didn’t say which plants would be striking, and the companies tried to guess, and to preemptively shut down those plants by having their parts shipped elsewhere, and shifting the production schedule. Basically, they tried to dodge the strike. What happened instead, was that they inadvertently shut down several of their own plants, because the workers know more about car production than the bosses. Not only did the UAW extend their strike fund, they managed to trick the companies into effectively striking against themselves:

Brandon Mancilla, a director for the UAW’s Region 9A, which spans New England and the Northeast, told The Intercept that the auto manufacturers are creating more problems for themselves than they would have faced had they come to an agreement with the union before the contracts for its 150,000 workers expired last week. “Instead of bargaining in good faith and understanding our demands and meeting us at the table,” Mancilla said, “these companies are conducting strikes on themselves.”

The UAW did not announce the plants where it intended to hold work stoppages until just before the strike deadline last Thursday night. The targeted facilities — GM’s Wentzville Assembly Center outside St. Louis, Stellantis’s Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio, and two divisions of Ford’s Michigan plant — were not among those that workers reported companies making preparations at. So far, some 13,000 workers are on the picket line, affecting the production of classic American cars like the Jeep Wrangler and the Ford Bronco, with more to follow if the union’s contract negotiations are not concluded by week’s end.

In the run up to the strike, UAW members at auto plants from Georgia to Tennessee to Ohio took to Facebook and Twitter to share accounts of partial plant closures and faulty information from plant managers leading to chaos on shop floors across the country.

Scott Houldieson, a worker at the Ford assembly plant in Chicago, told The Intercept that company bosses seemed to have no idea where planned strikes were going to take place. “Our local plant management started emptying out vehicles from paint ovens and dip tanks. If they leave cars in there, they get ruined so they start emptying those out and preparing to shut the ovens down. So that’s what was happening here because they thought that our plant was going to be one that was called out,” Houldieson said. “The plant chairman was telling me that ours was the one they were going to strike.”

Houldieson said that other automakers had transferred parts from plants elsewhere in the country, including one in Tennessee. “At GM in Spring Hill, they loaded engines to send to Wentzville because they thought Spring Hill would be the target. Turns out Wentzville was where they struck, so there was a lot of disinformation out there that really put the company on their heels,” he added.

In other words, the company had moved product from a plant that was not striking and to one that did. (The GM spokesperson said that “there’s been no work interruption at Spring Hill as a result of the Wentzville strike.”)

Stellantis admitted that it was caught off guard and took preparations at plants that were not ultimately affected by the strike actions.

There are a number of ways in which the class war can be seen as a literal war. It’s also a very one-sided war. I’ve talked before about how lives are taken to further the interests of the capitalist class, but it doesn’t go the other way. The working class are the only ones whose lives are at risk, almost entirely because workers are allowed to keep so little of the wealth they generate. That means that every move that extends limited resources is a very real victory. Everything I hear from UAW president Shawn Fain indicates that he has a similar view on the nature of this conflict, and so he’s going to use any trick or stratagem that will bring the union closer to victory.

For all my talk of “the class war”, I want to be clear that this strike is not a revolution. The UAW is not trying to take over ownership and management of auto companies, nor do they have the power to do so. It is, however, an important moment in the current labor movement. Support for unions and strikes is incredibly high right now, and if the UAW, and SAG-AFTRA, and the WGA manage to win their strikes, it will be proof of the effectiveness and usefulness of organizing. It will be proof that putting time, money, and effort into unions, is a worthwhile investment.

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, while I always knew pro-union people, and grew up listening to old labor songs, I also was aware of a general hatred of unions, both among conservatives, and in mass media. They were portrayed as corrupt, and largely ineffective – a burden on workers and bosses alike. I think it’s fair to say that every institution has the potential for corruption, and it should be obvious that the corporations tend to be entirely corrupt, pretty much by design. That’s also why I think the “time and effort” part of investing in unions is important. From what I can tell, democracy is something that requires constant maintenance and improvement, especially in the presence of massive wealth inequality. Unions are not, and never will be perfect – no institution or system can be – but how good they are seems to be far more under workers’ control than are the companies for which they work.

The current support for unions and for these three big strikes is something of a victory all by itself, and I’m hopeful that winning these strikes will solidify that support, and show Americans the good that can come from collective action. Political participation in the US tends to be pretty low. There are a number of reasons for that, but I think one big one is the belief that there’s not really any point in participating. It’s just a waste of limited free time, all to elect someone who’s just going to keep serving the rich. I think when people say that politics don’t matter, it’s less that they don’t think the things done by politicians matter, and more that they don’t believe anything they do can actually affect what the government does. It’s a very understandable reaction to the world as it has been throughout my life.

Obviously, I also think that it’s a misguided reaction. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. My big hope from these strikes, in addition to the ways in which they stand to make life better for millions of people, is that they will convince more people that the problem isn’t with political participation. It’s with the kinds of participation that were offered to them as the only options. There are other ways to fight for change that have nothing to do with elections and political parties, and that are much harder for the rich and powerful to corrupt, and turn to their own ends. Collective action isn’t a panacea, but I think it offers a real chance at a better world.


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