Impending UAW Strike Caps off Hot Labor Summer

AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File
United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain walks in the Labor Day parade in Detroit, Monday, Sept. 4, 2023.

The threat of a UAW strike at the stroke of midnight tonight caps off a summer of feverish labor activism.

This year has already been one of the biggest strike years in recent history. More than 353,000 workers in the United States have walked off the job to demand higher wages, according to Bloomberg Law’s database of work stoppages, including 180,000 Hollywood actors and screenwriters who have been on strike for months, the largest work stoppage since 1997.

Up to an additional 150,000 workers at the Big Three Detroit automakers could walk off the job on Friday. While some progress has been made in negotiations, the union and the automakers – Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis – are still far apart on many issues from wages and benefits to auto plant closures. A strike, that targets all three of the companies’ plants for the first time in U.S. history, is looking increasingly likely.

“We have repeatedly told the companies from Day One, Sept. 14 is a deadline not a reference point,” Shawn Fain, president of the United Auto Workers, said in a live-streamed event Wednesday that received almost 30,000 views on Facebook. “Unfortunately, the companies chose to squander the time we gave them,” he said.

A UAW strike would be the latest sign that the nation’s labor movement is having a resurgence in organizing, strike activity and general popularity, which union leaders hope will translate into membership gains. This summer, American workers across a variety of sectors have rallied to demand better pay from major U.S. employers, fueled by a tight labor market that gave workers more leverage.

What’s different about this summer is that the demands workers are making have tended to be bolder – and less concessionary – than in the past.

In July, 340,000 UPS employees negotiated one of the strongest contracts in UPS history, which included a promise to abolish a two-tier pay system for delivery drivers. Citing the UPS contract, the UAW is also demanding an end to their two-tier system that pays newer employees worse than veteran employees.

“There is a contagion factor here,” said Eric Blanc, professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “When workers see other workers fight back and win, that tends to spread, and spread quickly. Autoworkers are looking at [UPS employees] who were able to win a great contract just by threatening to go on strike. They also see Hollywood actors who have gone out en masse.”

Workers have fought for better wages that have not kept up with inflation for workers across industries, with autoworkers seeking a boost of more than 30 percent over 4 years. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, actors and screenwriters are demanding bigger royalty payments that they receive as shows get watched and re-watched.

Striking workers have also prioritized increased staffing levels amid labor shortages, paid time off, and job security guarantees as new technologies, such as those fueling electric vehicles and artificial intelligence, threaten jobs. Last year, railroad workers threatened to shut down the country’s railroads over a contract deal that did not include paid sick days; similarly, the UAW is demanding increased paid time off so workers can spend more time with their families, as well as a four-day workweek.

Rabecca Stricker, who earns a little under $18 an hour as a temporary worker at a Jeep factory in Toledo, said there has been a shift in mind-set among workers in many industries since the pandemic.

“Especially post covid, people are realizing that the bigger higher-ups, the moguls and millionaires, the billionaires, are getting way more than what they are giving,” Stricker said. “I know UAW is in the forefront now because of how close our contract is [to expiration] but it’s not just us. It’s way bigger than us.”

While union membership numbers have plummeted over the past three decades, support for unions has grown since the Great Recession, with popular opinion now running higher than it has since the 1960s, according to a national survey. Workers are organizing at an elevated rate and winning at previously unthinkable companies such as Starbucks, Apple and Amazon. A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll of workers found that half of workers in nonunion positions say they would support a union forming in their workplace.

President Biden’s policies have helped foster an environment ripe for labor organizing. A key outcome of the president’s economic agenda, now described as ‘Bidenomics,’ has been a hot economy that created an abundance of job openings. The elevated demand for workers has led to an increase in labor activism, because workers know they can more easily find new employment if they face retaliation.

The autoworkers’ strike could be the most economically disruptive yet of the summer, although not the largest. More than 170,000 actors have been on strike since mid-July, along with screenwriters, effectively shutting down Hollywood. Workers have also gone on strike this summer at coffee shops, locomotive plants, bookstores, legal clinics, hotels, and a beer factory. In addition, 85,000 health care workers in seven states and Washington, D.C. could strike as soon as Oct. 1.

Some business leaders have taken note of the increased labor activity, logging frustration with how it is affecting businesses that are in a period of recalibration to new technologies and a post-pandemic world.

John Drake, vice president of transportation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a recent note that the labor confrontations “impose significant challenges on a business community already grappling with growing geopolitical challenges, labor shortages, and ongoing supply chain disruptions that began during covid.”

As the popularity of unions has grown in recent years, the labor movement itself also appears to be undergoing a makeover. Members of the UAW and the Teamsters, two of the more prominent unions in the country, recently ended decades of establishment-favored leadership, by electing labor activists who have taken an adversarial approach to contract negotiations with fiery speeches and efforts to mobilize membership toward strikes.

This year, Fain, a small-town electrician from Indiana, won a tight race to lead the UAW in part by condemning what he called the greed of auto executives and criticizing past union leadership for cozying up to big business. Fain has made clear that this contract is not just about the future of jobs at the Big Three automakers, but across the industry and beyond.

“This isn’t just our fight, it’s the working class’s fight,” Fain bellowed on a recent Facebook Live event.

Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor history professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said this is a big divergence from past UAW leaders who used “a rhetoric of partnership” with companies during contract negotiations. Fain, Lichtenstein said, has “adopted the Bernie [Sanders] vibe,” railing against the wealth inequality between workers and executives.

Indeed, Fain is planning to join Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt.), a longtime supporter of the union, at a UAW rally in Detroit Friday evening.

Despite this summer’s heightened activism, the labor movement faces strong head winds. Union membership in the United States fell to a record low in 2022 – despite an uptick in union organizing. The UAW itself continues to grapple with weaker union participation in the auto industry, because of the decades-long decline of manufacturing, the arrival of nonunion European and Japanese auto manufacturers in the South, and the advent of nonunion EV companies, such as Tesla.

Meanwhile, historic union victories at Starbucks, Amazon, and Trader Joe’s have yet to translate into material gains for workers, who have struggled to secure union contracts.

As unions look for new members to make up their losses, their membership, too, is starting to take on a different look. The most successful union efforts this year, including at the UAW, are taking place in higher education, where thousands of graduate students have organized after being barred from doing so under the Trump administration.

Graduate students at Columbia University, Harvard University, and the University of Southern California have all recently voted to join the United Auto Workers. And while autoworkers and graduate students make for unlikely bedfellows, this new coalition of white- and blue-collar workers could be the future of a revived U.S. labor movement.

“The strategy is basically that unions like the UAW understand that they need millions more workers to have leverage and power that they used to have,” said Blanc, the Rutgers labor studies professor. “Different spectra of the working class are finding a way to organize together and that’s promising for the future of organized labor.”