UAW union will not expand its strike against Detroit automakers, citing major progress in negotiations

Union president Shawn Fain defended his strike strategy on Friday: ‘Our strike is working, but we’re not there yet’

Strike auto workers
Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers union, picketed a General Motors plant in Delta Township, Michigan, last week.REBECCA COOK (REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

True to his Friday appointment, the president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, Shawn Fain, took to social media to announce the latest developments in the strike against the Big Three U.S. automakers: General Motors (GM), Ford and Stellantis. As the walkout enters its third week, Fain announced that the union will not expand its strike, citing major progress in negotiations with the companies.

Across the country, the UAW union has 146,000 members who work in those three companies, 20,000 of which are currently on strike. The unionized workers are seeking increased salaries and pensions, as well as the elimination of the tiered wage system — in which new employees make half ($16 per hour) of incumbent workers — and guarantees for workers at the automakers’ electric vehicle (EV) battery plants.

On Friday, Fain defended his strike strategy as gradual, aggressive if necessary, and strategic in its execution. “We’ve been very careful about how we escalate this strike, and we have designed this strategy to increase pressure on the companies, not to hurt them for its own sake,” he said Friday. “Our strike is working, but we’re not there yet,” he added.

The strike is called Stand Up, an echo of the historic Sit Down strikes of the first half of the last century, which turned the UAW union into one of the most important labor movements in the country. However, Fain has innovated with his conflict management manual with a strategy of selective and gradual pressure. With it, on the one hand, he avoids quickly spending the strike fund with which the union compensates the workers who aren’t working. On the other hand, it keeps companies on tenterhooks. In addition, this strategy has allowed the union to reward and punish companies depending on how the negotiations go each week.

For many workers in the industry, this is their first autoworkers strike in decades. It is also the first time the UAW union has decided to strike at the same time against all the Big Three, albeit gradually and selectively. It is a conflict of workers trying to hold on to the middle class, from which they are being pushed out while the industry’s companies make record profits and pay multimillion-dollar salaries to their top executives.

High inflation is exacerbating labor unrest in the country, which is experiencing a resurgence of the union movement after decades of decline. The latest major strike to get underway is in the healthcare sector. On Wednesday, more than 70,000 Kaiser Permanente workers began a 72-hour protest in seven states to demand better conditions and benefits after the intense sacrifice that the pandemic demanded of them. This is the first negotiation of their contract after the Covid-19 crisis.

The union went on strike three weeks ago, on Sept. 15, when it couldn’t reach agreements on new contracts with the companies. The walkouts started at a General Motors plant in Wentzville (Missouri), which manufactures the GMC Canyon and the Colorado; a Ford plant in Wayne (Michigan), which assembles the Bronco and the Ranger pickup truck; and a Stellantis plant in Toledo (Ohio), which produces the Jeep Gladiator and Wrangler models. In total, they employ some 14,000 workers.

Two weeks ago, Fain added 38 parts distribution centers run by GM and Stellantis across 20 states. Ford was spared the second escalation because talks with the union were progressing at that time.

On Friday of last week, the union leader announced that the walkout would extend to two additional plants, a General Motors (GM) factory in Lansing (Michigan) and a Ford plant in Chicago (Illinois), which together employ 7,000 union workers. In that third round of the strike, it was Stellantis that was saved from being affected by additional shutdowns thanks to a last-minute offer.

Last week, striking autoworkers in Belville, Michigan, received an unusual visit from President Joe Biden, who joined them on the picket line at a GM facility. “Let’s keep going. You deserve what you’ve earned, and you’ve earned a hell of a lot more than you’re getting paid,” the president said, megaphone in hand.

This Thursday, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre also showed support for the Kaiser Permanente workers who are on strike: “The president is always in support of union members striking, number one, but also doing collective bargaining. We know that works, we’ve seen that work, whether it is the UPS strike or the West Port [strike]. We know that when all sides come together in a good faith approach, they can get to a place where union workers are getting their fair pay and fair benefits. Certainly, the president supports that,” she said during a White House press briefing.

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