the picket line

The UAW Takes on the Billionaire Class

Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

When autoworkers walked out of three assembly plants on Thursday at midnight, they made history. For the first time, the United Autoworkers are striking at once Detroit’s Big Three: Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, the parent of Chrysler. They’re seeking general wage increases in addition to higher cost-of-living allowances, an end to wage tiers, pension increases, the restoration of pensions for new hires, and “a 32-hour week with 40 hours of pay,” the Associated Press reported. In doing so they plan to end concessions made during the 2008 recession to help automakers survive — and build back their own power as workers. As Jacobin’s Alex Press recently explained, the Big Three have posted around a quarter of a trillion dollars in profit over the last ten years while CEO pay has risen by 40 percent over the same decade. Adjusted for inflation, autoworker wages over the same period have declined by 30 percent.

Now workers have started a reckoning. The strikes are targeted, which means that some are on strike while others are still working on an expired contract. The picket lines are at plants in Missouri (GM), Michigan (Ford), and Ohio (Stellantis). Others are organizing their colleagues and waiting to hear if they, too, will be called on to strike. Today’s Stand Up Strike, as the union calls it, throws the Big Three off-balance while reducing the burn rate on the union’s $850 million strike fund, which is estimated to last 11 weeks if all workers walked off the job. For autoworkers, the tactic has special resonance. In a video posted on Wednesday, UAW president Shawn Fain invoked the 1937 sitdown strikes in Flint, Michigan, which formed the union and inspired a national strike wave. “We are once again returning to our roots and reclaiming our tradition of holding the line for working people against unchecked corporate power,” he said.

What happens next will have ramifications far beyond the UAW. At rallies and in remarks to the press, Fain has been clear: If the union strikes, it strikes for workers everywhere. “I’ve been told throughout this thing that we’ve set expectations too high. You’re damn right we have, because our members have high expectations, and record profits deserve record contracts,” he said at one rally. “As a union, we have to lead the fight for economic justice — not just for ourselves but for the entire working class.” They’re fighting for new industry standards that could become a rallying cry for others. Public support for unions hit a record high last year, and the nation’s youngest adults are more pro-union than their elders were at the same age. Public opinion also favors the UAW, a Morning Consult poll shows. After a “hot labor summer” marked by an ongoing dual Hollywood strike and a near-strike by Teamsters at UPS, working Americans are ready for a fight. Autoworkers are prepared to deliver.

Autoworkers chose a militant leader in Fain. The former Chrysler electrician became the union’s first directly elected president earlier this year and ran on a reform slate that promised members “no concessions, no corruption, no tiers.” (The latter refers to a wage structure that pays newer workers a lot less than veterans.) Now is the time to make good. Fain’s task is difficult: He leads the union as the auto industry transitions toward electric vehicles. The UAW “is sounding the alarm that the government-subsidized push for electrification is being used to undermine the kinds of wages and working conditions for which its members have long fought,” wrote Kate Aronoff for The New Republic. To cut labor costs, Aronoff writes, some manufacturers have moved “electric-car production either abroad or in less union-friendly states.” Senator Joe Manchin, she added, killed “a proposed bonus” in the Inflation Reduction Act to “tax credits for consumers who bought union-made EVs.”

As Aronoff notes, some right-wing voices have put forward a “jobs-versus-the-environment framing that pits workers’ demands against climate goals.” On X, Senator J.D. Vance said he was “rooting for the autoworkers across our country demanding higher wages and an end to political leadership’s green war on their industry.” Earlier, he attacked UAW leadership for endorsing Joe Biden in 2020. (The union is withholding another endorsement of Biden for now, citing concerns over the EV transition.) At the National Review, Noah Rothman recently wrote that if the White House “is forced to choose between the demands of autoworkers and the highly subsidized greening of the American economy, it will choose the latter.”

Conservative misdirection ignores Fain and the workers he represents. The correct framing isn’t jobs versus the environment, or the union versus Biden, but rather workers versus the ruling class. “My mother retired from Ford in 2004, and her top pay was $28 an hour. Our top pay is $31.77,” Lynda Jackson, the recording secretary of UAW Local 7, told LaborNotes. “So in 20 years, the top pay only rose about $4. We need to be moving with the times. The cost of these vehicles is constantly going up, but our pay isn’t.” In a Wednesday speech, Fain said he was “at peace” if a strike occurred. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich; the haves versus the have-nots; the billionaire class against everybody else,” he said.

In the same speech, Fain spoke of his own religious convictions and of a world still to come. “In the kingdom of God, no one hoards all the wealth while everyone else suffers and starves,” he said. “In the kingdom of God, no one puts themselves in a position of total domination over the entire community. In the kingdom of God, no one forces others to perform endless backbreaking work just to feed their families or put a roof over their heads. That world is not the kingdom of God; that world is hell.” The kingdom of God is not here yet. It is a promise, a goal. Workers can raise themselves up out of hell, and build a new order. The UAW is fighting for that world, strike by strike, plant by plant. Their struggle belongs to all.

The UAW Takes on the Billionaire Class