Wins and Losses for United Auto Workers

large crowd of striking workers holding signs

UAW picket line at GM Willow Run Distribution Center in Belleville, Michigan.  Photo credit: White House/Adam Schultz

According to recent surveys, labor unions are overwhelmingly popular with the American public, with the highest rate of support since 1965.  A number of widely-supported strikes in unexpected industries, from teachers and nurses to Starbucks and Amazon workers, primed the pump over the last decade.  The extremely visible and highly successful SAG-AFTRA strike boosted public recognition of the need for strong fighting unions significantly.

The recent UAW strike took union support to an entirely new level.  Although picketing autoworkers were demonized by media talking heads, working class communities were inspired by their spirited and ambitious “Stand Up Strike” campaign against the Big 3 automakers.  New UAW President Shawn Fain did an exceptional job of publicizing their progress with regular livestream updates, and the American public eagerly watched this historic labor victory unfold in real time.

Our small team at JTA does not have the capacity to track every union campaign.  But we have been paying close attention to the recent UAW struggles.  We hope that they will continue to aggressively organize, fight to win, and command attention, adding momentum to the entire movement.

Since the last time we wrote about the UAW, they achieved significant success with the Daimler truck negotiations for factories in North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, and then a huge victory with a decisive vote to unionize the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga.

But they recently saw a surprise defeat to Mercedes-Benz in Alabama.  After a lot of boasting that the UAW had a big win easily in the bag, local workers voted 56-44 against unionization.  To say this was unexpected would be an understatement.  The UAW claimed that 70% of workers had signed union cards, and they expected a slam dunk vote similar to Chattanooga, where they had won with 73%.

There are several lessons to be drawn from this, the main one being why the prediction was so wrong.  UAW leaders openly admitted their mistakes in the organizing process.  They had assumed that momentum from their previous wins would carry this campaign like a wave, and they neglected to do the real organizing that was necessary.  A primarily digital PR campaign led to union cards that were “signed” using QR codes, an easy action that can be done without any real buy-in.  One-on-one conversations about the real struggles and threats inherent in unionization were mostly skipped over.  Therefore, when the bosses fought back hard, many workers quickly folded and decided against taking any risks.

It should be noted that the UAW has claimed that the company engaged in illegal union-busting tactics and they have filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.  Also, very importantly, the workers did receive some real material gains, such as significant raises, an end to the two-tier wage system, and the firing of a CEO who had no interest in improving working conditions.  The UAW sees these as real victories, which never would have happened without their campaign.  And they remind us that it is very common for the first union vote to fail, or even, as was the case at the Volkswagen plant, to fail twice.  The victory in Chattanooga had been decades in the making.

And so, the fight continues, in the auto industry and on other fronts as well.  As a union that actively seeks to organize and expand whenever opportunities present themselves, the UAW includes a large number of grad student workers who have had numerous recent successes.  Now UAW Local 4811 has begun strikes at UCLA, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz, in protest of brutal treatment of Palestinian solidarity activists.

The UAW’s academic workers have pushed the leadership to make statements decrying the genocidal actions of Israel and calling for a ceasefire.  The UAW has not taken more radical and impactful steps such as divestment from Israel, and they have endorsed Biden’s presidential campaign.  Many rank-and-file members are unhappy with what they see as mere lip-service to the cause of human rights.  It remains to be seen how these internal disputes will play out, and if Fain will truly walk the talk of his bottom-up democracy rhetoric.  As we have repeatedly stated, we believe that the Labor movement plays an essential frontline role in the greater fight for social and environmental justice, and we implore all unions to expand their vision above and beyond immediate goals like wages.  At this moment, millions of Americans are looking to the UAW to sharpen the edge of a rapidly growing wave of working class pushback against untenable inequality.  Unions everywhere need to increase their ambitions, and refuse to falter in response to temporary defeats.

Losses and setbacks are always a part of the process.  Don’t mourn – Organize!