US and World Politics

U.A.W. Leads a New Surge Forward for the Labor Movement

By Bonnie Weinstein

For decades the American labor movement has relied on class-collaborationist policies like collective bargaining—labor and management supposedly “in partnership,” negotiating a “mutually advantageous” settlement (an impossibility.) And donating union money to capitalist politicians who feign support for workers—usually Democrats—urging their membership to vote for them. They tell their members that these capitalist politicians are “labor friendly.” Yet history has proven that capitalist politicians will say anything to get the vote, yet deliver nothing but austerity for the working class.

This has led to stagnant wages, a vast decline in organized labor, and an utter lack of faith in the independent power of the working-class.

New militant labor actions
on the rise

Workers in the past have had the experience of strikes which, in their minds, are to fight for significant increases in wages and benefits—who are then told by their own labor officials after bargaining “in partnership” with the bosses to vote for contracts that amount to a pittance, if not outright cutbacks, not only in pay and benefits, but in health and safety on the job.

But there is a new upsurge in labor struggles—lead by the U.A.W. strike against the Big 3 auto manufacturers—General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis (Chrysler, Jeep, and Ram vehicles)—and it is spreading because workers are fed-up with record profits going to CEOs, while workers’ pay has not even caught up to the huge increase in the cost of living.

This new U.A.W. leadership is taking control of the gameplan—not participating in “partnership-type” negotiations—but being transparent to their membership about those negotiations. And they are actively coordinating union solidarity between striking workers and those still on the job.

An October 5, 2023, New York Times article by David Streitfeld, titled, “New U.A.W. Chief Has a Nonnegotiable Demand: Eat the Rich,” which is basically a biography of U.A.W. President Shawn Fain, gives us some insight into this strike:

“‘Billionaires in my opinion don’t have a right to exist,’ says Shawn Fain, who is leading the United Automobile Workers in a multifront labor battle against the Big 3 carmakers that has little precedent and is making a lot of noise. In interviews, in speeches and on social media, Mr. Fain hammers the wealthy again and again, making the cause of the union’s 150,000 autoworkers at General Motors, Ford Motor and Stellantis something much broader. ‘There’s a billionaire class, and there’s the rest of us,’ he said at an impromptu news conference outside a Ford plant in Wayne, Michigan, ‘We’re all expected to sit back and take the scraps and live paycheck to paycheck and scrape to get by. We’re second-class citizens.’ … Mr. Fain, 54, has made himself the face of the strike…. On Facebook Live in August, he literally threw away a contract proposal from Stellantis, the automaker that absorbed what was once Chrysler. ‘That’s where it belongs: the trash,’ he explained. … One of his first public acts was to decline the traditional handshake with the automakers at the start of negotiations in July.”

The denial of that hand handshake was a profoundly symbolic gesture underscoring the fundamental fact that bosses and workers are not partners—we are class enemies. Whatever we win in a strike is rightfully won out of the profits the bosses have stolen from us.

Expanding strikes

The tactics of the U.A.W. strike are hitting the bosses where it hurts and setting an example for the entire working class of how to carry out an effective strike.

In an October 11, 2023, article in the New York Times by Neal E. Boudette, titled, “U.A.W. Expands Strike to Ford Plant in Kentucky:”

“The U.A.W. is staging an escalating strike campaign against selected Ford, General Motors and Stellantis plants to press the terms it is demanding in contracts replacing those that expired last month. The union is now on strike at three Ford plants. The others are in Lansing, Michigan, and Chicago. The strike has also shut plants in Missouri and Michigan that are owned by G.M., and one in Ohio owned by Stellantis, the maker of Chrysler, Jeep, and Ram vehicles. U.A.W. workers have also walked off the job at 38 G.M. and Stellantis parts warehouses around the country. Including the workers at the Kentucky plant, nearly 34,000 of the 150,000 U.A.W. members employed by the three companies are on strike. … At Wednesday’s session with Ford, Mr. Fain quickly asked if the company had a comprehensive new offer to put on the table—one with improved salary terms, according to a union official briefed on the matter. When Ford officials said they did not, Mr. Fain replied, ‘This is all you have for us?’ and announced that the strike would be extended to the Kentucky factory, the official said.”

Instead of going behind closed doors and “partnering” around a bargaining table, Shawn Fain shut down another factory.

In an October 13, 2023, New York Times article by Neal E. Boudette, titled, “U.A.W. Says Auto Strikes Will Become More Unpredictable:”

“Four weeks after starting limited strikes against three large automakers, the United Automobile Workers is shifting to a more aggressive strategy, suggesting work stoppages could spread to more plants and possibly go on for some time. In an online video, the union’s president, Shawn Fain, said he would no longer wait to announce expansions of the strikes on Friday, as he has been doing until now. Further actions could come at any time. ‘We’re not messing around,’ Mr. Fain said. ‘The companies are now on notice. If they’re not willing to move, we are going to give them a push.’”

Work to rule1

“Work to rule” means workers take no shortcuts to speed up production like riding a bicycle to get from point A to point B on the plant floor—they walk the distance instead—as well as follow all safety regulations as outlined in their contract. Following all the rules inevitably results in a slow-down of the assembly line, or even a shutdown if work piles up faster than the line can handle. Workers in shops that are still working are practicing “work to rule” in support of those who are out on strike because it is in their interests that the strike is victorious. A victory in this strike is also in the interests of workers in other industries and among unorganized workers. Such on-the-job actions in support of the strike are in the interests of all workers everywhere. And following the rules is not against any law.

The capitalist class has never been our “partner”

The working class can never benefit from being in partnership with the capitalist class because what is in our interests—to share equally in the wealth we produce—is in direct opposition to the capitalists’ self-assumed right to accumulate that wealth for themselves.

Labor to rule

The overwhelming majority of the American working class are in support of the U.A.W. strike and of unions, in general. These new and immensely inspiring strike actions could lead to more militant actions and organizing in the future. Hopefully, it will lead to the realization among masses of workers that we need to organize unions that represent our interests alone—not the interests of the bosses.

And we need to build a party of our own—a party that recognizes that the capitalist class and the political parties they own, and control, will never allow workers a fair share of all the wealth we produce.

Labor’s next giant leap

We need an organization that we own and control, and which is entirely independent of the capitalist class—an organization that can coordinate and organize support for all strike and labor organizing actions. We need to build a labor party in opposition to capitalism and for socialism.

Organized labor has at this moment in history the opportunity to break from the parties of the capitalist class and build a united, powerful, and democratically structured party of labor acting in defense of our right for an equal share of all the fruits of our labor. It’s that simple. And it’s our only hope for survival against relentless capitalist war and apocalypse.

1 See articles, “Slow Walks and Tough Talk: Auto Workers Turn the Screws,” By Keith Brower Brown, and “Workers Will Rule When They Work to Rule,” By Gregg Shotwell, elsewhere in this issue of Socialist Viewpoint.