BY REZA JAVADI
IN mid-September, in an unprecedented move, approximately 13,000 employees from three major American automakers launched an unprecedented strike, pointing to both the rise of trade unions and the grim economic outlook of the country.
The United Auto Workers (UAW), representing around 150,000 auto industry workers, launched the strike on September 15 with the aim of compelling the ‘Detroit Three’ – Ford (F.N), General Motors (GM.N), and Chrysler parent Stellantis (STLAM.MI) – to raise wages.
The union’s demands include a 46 per cent salary hike, improved healthcare and retirement benefits, the reinstatement of cost-of-living pay raises, the elimination of wage disparities between veteran and new employees, the restoration of defined pension benefits, and the adoption of a 32-hour workweek with 40 hours of pay.
‘For the first time in our history we will strike all three of the Big Three,’ UAW President Shawn Fain said last month, as the workers formed picket lines, emphasising their readiness to escalate the strike if their conditions remain unmet.
‘If we don’t get better offers and … take care of the members’ needs, we’re going to amp this up even more,’ he added, pointing out that the substantial profits amassed by these companies in recent years provide ‘no excuse’ for failing to resolve salary disputes.
‘We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do. The membership is ready, the membership is fed up,’ he stressed.
On September 22, the union expanded its strikes against GM and Stellantis to 38 facilities across 20 states across the United States but kept its Ford walkout limited to a single plant.
Last Friday, the UAW union, in a statement, decided to escalate its industrial action against the big three US automakers as the labour renaissance in the US entered its third week.
UAW president Fain said another 7,000 workers would be joining the industrial action, joining 25,000 workers who are currently on strike.
‘We are fed up with corporate greed and we are fed up with corporate excess. We are fed up with breaking our bodies for companies that take more and more and give less and less, Fain said.
General Motors CEO Mary Barra claimed there is ‘no real intent to get to an agreement,’ while Ford CEO Jim Farley said the union was holding a deal ‘hostage’ over a dispute on future electric vehicle battery plants.
This is the first time the UAW has gone on strike against all three automakers simultaneously.
Consequently, it stands as one of the most ambitious industrial labour actions in the US in decades, and has garnered substantial support from the majority of Americans.
A Gallup poll conducted just before Labor Day revealed that 75 per cent of respondents expressed sympathy for the union in the dispute with the Big Three.
A recent Morning Consult survey echoed the same sentiment, reporting a 2-1 ratio of support for the UAW. Even the boldest proposals put forth by the union, such as the call for a 32-hour workweek, garnered significantly more support than opposition.
This wave of public support extends beyond the UAW’s strike and encompasses broader strikes occurring across the country.
According to earlier Gallup surveys, approval of labour unions has reached its highest level since 1965. A majority of the public now recognises unions as pivotal in enhancing wages and working conditions.
‘Today’s striking workers may have a stronger hand in their negotiations than they would have had in the past given today’s elevated public support for unions,’ Gallup said in a news release last year.
‘Our union was empowered by the outpouring of support from working families and people who had no personal stake in our strike but told us our message resonated,’ Stephani De Luca, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), was quoted as saying.
The polling and survey data confirm that the general popularity of unions is rising in the US, and that the American people have come to believe that unions benefit both their members and those who aren’t in unions, that labour organisations improve the standing of unionised companies, and that strong unions are good for the US economy.
Meanwhile, many US lawmakers have declared solidarity with the strikers
In the United States, Congress possesses the authority to delay or halt a rail strike under the Railway Labor Act. However, the Taft-Hartley Act introduces a more intricate pathway for Congressional involvement in addressing other labour stoppages.
Democrats have expressed their support for allowing the strikes to continue until workers achieve their rightful demands, without concerns about enforcing a contract on the workers.
Prominent lawmakers such as Senators Bernie Sanders, John Fetterman, Sherrod Brown, and Elizabeth Warren have joined striking workers on the picket lines.
‘They’re talking about the workers hurting the economy. These are executives who make $20 million and $30 million a year. They raise their own pay millions of dollars, yet they continue to deny workers the kind of benefits, health care, retirement and wages they deserve,’ Brown said.
Representative Dan Kildee drew parallels between today’s strikes and the historic 44-day GM strike of 1936, which marked a significant victory for American organised labour. He expressed his support for the current strike. ‘I’m with them all the way,’ he said.
‘I think they understand that history and I think it’s an appropriate sort of corollary to what we’re dealing with right now,’ he added.
Notably, several Republican lawmakers have also taken the side of the strikers, urging manufacturers to address the issue through higher wages.
‘They deserve a raise, they deserve to get paid better and to have better working conditions, and I think the automakers can afford it,’ Senator Josh Hawley said.
Republicans have linked the strike to concerns about inflation, directing jabs at the administration of President Joe Biden for its economic performance.
On the other side, Democrats point out that the Republicans’ words are not being backed up by actions, particularly in the case of the Protecting the Right to Organise Act, a Democratic proposal to reform US labour laws that lack Republican support in the Senate.
‘I don’t know why they do what they do, but I do know they don’t support the PRO Act,’ said Brown. ‘If they want to show they’re pro-labour, they should support the Protecting the Right to Organise Act.’
Former Republican Dick Gephardt, who has served on Ford’s board but also considers himself a lifelong labour union supporter, said he’s looking at Republicans’ ‘actions, not words.
‘They have not been friends of unions,’ he was cited as saying. ‘I think they’re just playing politics.’
Concerning the layoffs and other industrial actions, in response to the UAW’s selective strike at a few Big Three facilities, layoffs have commenced throughout the US, shedding light on the power dynamics between employers and labour rights during critical negotiations for new labour agreements.
Ford Motor Co. temporarily laid off approximately 600 non-striking workers at a Michigan plant, while General Motors Co. has issued warnings about potential layoffs affecting 2,000 non-striking workers at a location in Kansas City.
Both companies claim internal supply chain challenges arising from a shortage of necessary parts required for certain assembly tasks.
The UAW strike is not an isolated event but part of a broader wave of labour actions by US workers.
In recent months, workers from various sectors, including Hollywood writers, nurses, factory workers, and Starbucks baristas, have embarked on strikes to demand higher wages and enhanced benefits, as well as improved working conditions.
The Teamsters union successfully employed the threat of a strike involving 340,000 members at UPS to secure a substantial portion of their demands, including pay raises and the acquisition of new air-conditioned vans.
Just last month, hundreds of United Airlines employees staged protests outside San Francisco International Airport’s Terminal 3 due to stalled negotiations between labour unions and the airline.
This demonstration was part of a nationwide picket organised by the Association of Flight Attendants-Communications Workers of America, representing United Airlines workers.
US Representative Ro Khanna, Deputy Whip of the Progressive Caucus, stood in solidarity with workers striking at San Francisco International Airport.
‘I stand in solidarity with the San Francisco International Airport workers who are on strike after three years without a pay raise… It’s unacceptable that many are being forced to work second jobs due to insufficient pay,’ he said in a statement.
This surge in labour activism stems from years of stagnant wages for lower and middle-income workers, while the wealthiest Americans have seen their wealth reach unprecedented levels.
The US labour movement has experienced a notable increase in major strikes.
According to a strike tracker database from Cornell University, from September 1st of the previous year through to August 31 of this year, there were 70 strikes initiated by unions, involving 100 or more workers participating for more than a week.
This represents a significant uptick, up 40 per cent from the same period a year earlier, and more strikes are looming.
In addition to the ongoing challenges facing the cash-stripped US government, the country is bracing for more potential strikes.
Approximately 75,000 healthcare workers at Kaiser facilities nationwide could go on strike this week, primarily due to concerns about understaffing if an agreement between their unions and Kaiser is not reached on time.
‘Care for Kaiser’s nearly 13 million patients has been deteriorating since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic because there’s just not enough staff,’ said Pamela Reid, an optometrist at Kaiser’s Marlow Heights Medical Center in Maryland.
Workers like Reid are preparing for a three-day strike starting tomorrow (Wednesday) in the hopes of rectifying staffing levels and ultimately improving patient care.
With the increasing number of strikes across the US and hundreds of thousands of workers participating, labour stoppages may indeed become more commonplace in the country.