The 2023 UAW Strike: A Turning Point in Labor History?

How transformative was the strike that the United Auto Workers concluded in November 2023, when it shut down factories at Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis, which now incorporates Chrysler? The UAW has been in existence for nearly 90 years, during which three contests with capital have defined the character of the union and–because of its vanguard role–the expectations and standards for millions of other workers. Should we add last Fall’s brilliantly led and highly successful “stand-up” strike to that list?

The great sit-down strikes of 1937 founded the UAW and ensured that, for more than a decade, shop militancy and leftwing politics would define a union representing upwards of a million workers in America’s most important industry. A second highly consequential contest with capital began in the fall of 1945, when the UAW struck General Motors. That fight, which was not really over until 1950 when GM and the union signed a contract that Fortune Magazine dubbed “The Treaty of Detroit,” made certain that for the next third of a century the real income of the nation’s entire industrial working-class would steadily advance. The wage and benefit patterns established by the UAW in Detroit, by the Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, and often by other large and powerful unions like the Teamsters and construction trades, quickly spread to other industries and occupations, whether union or not. Such “pattern bargaining” did not extend to everyone, certainly not to many of those labor-intensive industries, including apparel, textiles, health care, retail sales, and food processing, employing lots of white women, African-Americans, and Latinos, but it protected the living standards of millions of white male workers and their families.

All that ended after 1979 when foreign competition and sky-high interest rates sent the auto industry into a tailspin. The near bankruptcy of Chrysler and the “concession bargaining” demanded by both government and management led to income stagnation, two-tier wage structures, the end of pattern bargaining, and a sharp decline of union numbers and power. The UAW, which had once enrolled a million and a half members in the 1970s, shrank to less than 400,000 working members in the 21st century. Union defeat bred leadership timidity, an ideology of “jointness” between labor and management, and–by the second decade of the 21st century—embezzlement, bribery and cover-ups by 11 high-ranking union officials, including two UAW presidents, Dennis Williams and Gary Jones.  Together, these officials stole more than $1.5 million in dues money and took $3.5 million in illegal payments from auto executives. All of this made the organization of the foreign-owned “transplants” in the South, including Toyota, Nissan, and VW, all the harder.

For decades UAW militants and reformers had sought to renew the union. Auto work is hard and shop floor management authoritarian, breeding rebels and radicals with each set of new hires and each new generation of auto workers. But an undemocratic UAW structure made certain that their voices and votes would remain constrained.  The system arose out of the bitter factionalism that had been a hallmark of UAW internal democracy in the 1930s and 1940s. When Walter Reuther and his caucus won complete control of the union in 1947, the new president declared the UAW “the vanguard in America,” but like some other vanguard parties and organizations, Stalinist or not, its internal life became highly regimented. “Teamwork in the leadership, solidarity in the ranks,” was a slogan the Reuther leadership deployed to signal the end of union factionalism. In practice that meant Reuther’s “Administration caucus” mobilized the paid union staff to make sure that local union officials and convention delegates voted for only those officers and policies chosen in advance by the top leadership. Loyalists were rewarded with cushy jobs within the union apparatus; dissidents who managed to win office were targeted for defeat, the fate of regional directors Panfilo Campja in the 1950s and Jerry Tucker—founder of the New Directions Caucus–a quarter century later. A “flower fund,” to which all staff and officers had to contribute, helped sustain caucus control. Thus, Reuther and his successors were elected and re-elected by upwards of 99% of the vote.

Reuther was a progressive who railed against the auto industry’s “gold plated sweatshops.” Some of his successors could sound equally radical, including Douglas Fraser, who denounced capital’s “one-sided class war.  But over the decades, leadership rhetoric and practice became increasingly accommodative, so much so that even Victor Reuther, Walter’s brother, ended his days an outspoken critic of UAW leadership. The outright corruption that so tarnished the UAW’s reputation in recent years arose organically out of the ideology that saw labor and management as partners, with the hundreds of millions of dollars from the companies pouring into training and jointness programs that offered plenty of opportunity for California junkets, expensive dinners, and sweetheart contract deals.

A democratic opening finally came during and after the Justice Department’s prosecution of these corruptionists. By this point, in 2021 a new reform movement, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), had begun to agitate for direct election of top UAW officers. As Jane Slaughter, the longtime Labor Notes editor has pointed out, UAWD was but the latest iteration of the decades-long rank and file reform efforts that emerged out of a union culture that still bore the imprint of its creation in the radical 1930s. UAWD took a page from a parallel reform effort in the Teamsters, where in the late 1980s the Manhattan District Attorney, one Rudolph Giulliani,  had been persuaded by Teamsters for a Democratic Union that eradication of endemic corruption in that union would require, not merely government supervision–which largely failed during the 1950s and 1960s when Jimmy Hoffa led the union–but open and fair elections of top officers by the entire Teamster membership.

That process proved radically transformative in the UAW. In 2021 the membership voted to hold direct elections, and the next year six candidates, running against Administration office-holders, were swept into office. Among the new regional directors was Brandon Mancilla, a 28-year-old history grad student at Harvard, leader of the academic union there. With Mike Miller, a former UCLA graduate student, also elected to the executive board (but not part of the reform slate), the UAW has become increasingly successful organizing workers in academe, museums, and other cultural and scientific institutions. Another young militant, Daniel Vicente, a machine operator from Pottstown, Pennsylvania, leaped to the UAW executive board straight from the factory floor. And the victorious UAWD slate also included two African-American women, Margaret Mock, the new Secretary-Treasurer and Lashawn English, a veteran unionist elected director of a Detroit region. The presidency was decided in a 2023 runoff, between incumbent Ray Curry, an African-American who argued for the virtues of experience,  and Shawn Fain, who had got his start as an electrician in a Kokomo Chrysler factory early in the 1990s. Fain supported the UAWD, but he had already made a name for himself inside the union, in 2009, when he vigorously opposed the UAW contract concessions endorsed by top leadership.

Fain and the other reformers were not brought to power on a tidal wave of enthusiasm. Throughout the electioneering, both for the referendum and the selection of the new executive board, the old guard tried to downplay the challenge, so turnout was low. In the runoff, Fain beat Curry by only a few hundred votes.  With upwards of 20 percent of all UAW members now academic workers–most pro-Fain, they might well have provided the winning margin.

Fain and his team got off to a running start right after the court-appointed monitor certified the election results in March 2023. They had but months to build the movement needed to make a reality of their campaign slogan “No Corruption, No Concessions, No Tiers.”  Fain put a new cohort of energetic labor militants on his staff, some of whom had been writers for Labor Notes or influenced by its conferences, workshops and publications seeking to put “the movement back in the labor movement.” Fain toured the country to mobilize support for a major confrontation with the corporations and explained the negotiation progress – or lack thereof – in a series of social media videos, a big break from the “no comment” secretiveness characteristic of earlier bargaining rounds.

It also seems as if Fain and his allies successfully used the summer mobilization and the subsequent strike to consolidate their leadership within the union. Although old guard figures like Chuck Browning, head of the Ford Department, might well have sought to undermine his presidency, Fain was careful to share credit for any negotiating progress with his erstwhile opponents. Unlike Reuther, who faced 18 months of divisive conflict on the UAW executive board after his narrow 1946 victory, Fain has become immensely popular.

One reason for this is that Fain developed a rhetorical voice that grew in strength, radicalism, and self-confidence. From Walter Reuther, Fain channeled the vision of the UAW as an institution setting the pace and purpose of a newly empowered working class; with Bernie Sanders, he denounced the billionaire class. In a highly symbolic rebuff, Fain absented himself at the formal start of negotiations when UAW leaders and company officials offer an across-the-table handshake for the press. Instead, Fain turned up at factory gates, pressing the flesh with the UAW membership. On the eve of the strike, which began on September 15, CNN’s Jake Tapper asked if Fain was fearful of wrecking the economy. Fain shot back in a response that soon went viral, “It’s not that we’re gonna wreck the economy, we’re gonna wreck their economy, the economy that only works for the billionaire class.”

And Fain deployed the social gospel in a skillful fashion. Raised in a Protestant family, he declares that the UAW can “move mountains” when workers have faith in their power and righteousness. He denounced the greed and arrogance of corporate chieftains with the outrage of a prophet, declaring that “In the kingdom of God, no one hoards all the wealth….no one puts themselves in a position of total domination over the entire community…That world is not the kingdom of God; that world is hell.” Meanwhile Fain unleashed a measure of populist resentment toward the union’s cosmopolitan adversaries, as in one speech where he told UAW members that CEOs at the big auto companies would never want to have dinner with their blue-collar employees or offer them a ride on their corporate jets.

Strikes, however, are not won by militant rhetoric. In a dramatic break from a 77-year bargaining tradition, the UAW did not choose just one company to strike and thereby set the “pattern” that others would follow. Instead, the union hit selected, high-profit plants at all three Detroit-based companies, ratcheting up the number of factories and parts depots on strike according to the progress – or lack of progress – in negotiations.

Fain and his team called this the “stand-up strike,” in homage to the sit-downs of 86 years ago. The strike and bargaining strategy had three advantages: it kept the conflict in a suspenseful news cycle as each new factory was shuttered; it preserved the UAW strike fund because only a minority of all workers would be out of work; and it applied a diverse set of pressures to all three corporations, in some instances generating last-minute concessions just before the UAW was scheduled to announce which new facility would be struck. That tactic recognized that pattern bargaining had been gravely weakened even within the unionized portion of the industry, now employing far less than half of all autoworkers. If the UAW had shut down just one company, it was no longer certain that the others would follow suit, not to mention non-union Toyota or Honda.

But more important than this innovative strike tactic, the 2023 UAW walkout was of a fundamentally political character, which is why it has been rightly compared to the UAW strike against General Motors in 1945 and 1946. In that postwar moment, Reuther led a massive walkout demanding wage increases without any increase in the price of cars, “purchasing power for prosperity.” This meant that the government’s Office of Price Administration, an effective and popular agency, would continue to maintain price ceilings on steel, cars, meat and other products, while wages advanced. Power and income would shift from capital to labor. This was a program endorsed by much of the New Deal, even elements of the postwar Truman Administration.

Auto executives labeled Reuther a socialist, with George Romney, father of Mitt, calling him “the most dangerous man in Detroit because no one is more skillful in bringing about the revolution without seeming to disturb the existing forms of society.”

The UAW did not win all that it wanted in the post-war strikes, but those ambitious confrontations set the stage for a doubling of working-class living standards over the next three decades. Indeed, it was General Motors that first proposed COLA, a cost-of-living allowance, in the 1948 bargaining round, a mechanism Reuther initially disdained because he still sought government price controls that would protect the income of the entire working class. A five-year contract in 1950, the famous “Treaty of Detroit,” codified the new regime, which pattern bargaining soon extended to millions of other workers.

At stake in the recent UAW strike was not just a wage hike big enough to compensate for the 20 percent drop in real wages during the previous two decades. Nor an elimination of the tiers that had generated so much pay inequality and resentment among workers doing precisely the same jobs. Of equal importance was the entire “green transition,” the auto industry shift to production of electrical vehicles. The Detroit Big Three, as well as all the nonunion companies, wanted the new generation of battery plants – the majority slated to be built in the South – to pay wages substantially lower than those mandated in the standard UAW contract. Virtually all the battery plants and some additional facilities were to be joint ventures with Korean or Chinese firms and thus excluded from contact coverage.

The UAW saw this as a disaster, and so  did the most progressive elements of the Biden Administration. The trillion-dollar Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) offered billions to the auto companies in loan guarantees and outright grants to advance the green transition. Although legislative compromises deprived those administering the IRA of the capacity to actually require companies to unionize the new facilities, Biden clearly wanted the UAW to get a strong contract to that end, and he became the first sitting president in US history to actually show up on a picket line. His presence outside a GM distribution center in Michigan was intended not only to curry favor among Midwest industrial workers but also to counter the argument put forward by Donald Trump and other Republicans: that a green industrial policy was a recipe for low wages and lost jobs.

Just as the Reutherite UAW struck GM to sustain working-class living standards in the transition from war to peace, so too has the Fain-led UAW taken a major step toward ensuring that Biden’s green transition will also stimulate the generation of thousands of new, well-paid jobs. Both GM and Stellantis agreed that new battery plants would come under the master UAW contract; and Ford agreed to card-check unionization of the new electric vehicle facilities it would build. Also, the union won important leverage to ensure that plant closures will no longer be at the sole discretion of management: the UAW will now have the right to strike an entire company to prevent the shuttering of a single production facility.

Indeed, at the conclusion of its strike against Stellantis, the UAW won guarantees that Belvidere Assembly, located in the small Illinois city of Belvedere , will reopen after management closed it in February 2023.  Stellantis  also agreed to place a new battery plant in Belvidere, adding some 5,000 additional jobs. This is an absolute first in the industry, making clear that investment decisions are not  management’s  alone.

Money-wise the contract reached between the UAW and the three Detroit-based automakers was a radically progressive achievement. There were no concessions, no trade-offs, no employer takebacks, a feature of bargaining for more than 40 years, especially during the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s and that following the 2008 bankruptcy of General Motors and Chrysler. Instead, auto workers restored the cost-of-living (COLA) provisions stripped from their contract during the Great Recession of 2008 and won a 25 % wage increase over the four-and-a-half  year life of the contract, a nominal wage increase that will probably grow to well above 30 % once COLA adjustments kick in. That is a healthy wage boost, but far more spectacular and of far great organizing consequence are the wage increases and status improvements secured for second tier workers and the many temps and parts depot employees consigned to inferior pay and benefit schedules. For thousands of them, the regularization of their employment status will generate extraordinary pay raises, in some cases upward of 150 percent – in months, not years! The one group of dissatisfied auto workers were those of high seniority, whose health and retirement benefits were but modestly improved. So there was a substantial vote against ratification of the agreement, with 45 percent voting no at General Motors and upwards of a third of the union membership also against at Ford and Stellantis.

Fain proudly announced that all the new auto contracts will expire on the eve of May Day 2028–the world-wide working-class holiday– and he invited other unions to also link their contract expirations to that date. General strike, anyone? That might be a flight of syndicalist fantasy, but hardly less ambitious was the Fain prediction that “When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it won’t just be with the Big Three. It will be with the Big Five or Big Six.”

The re-unionization of the automobile industry is of existential import to the UAW. Today, the UAW represents just 150,000 workers in a vehicle manufacturing sector whose employees top more than a million. Unlike steel, apparel, and consumer electronics, where imports and supply-chain offshoring radically slashed union membership, the losses at the UAW were not a product of industry collapse. For almost every job lost when a unionized factory closed its doors in the North, another was created in the South or among the 3,500 largely non-union auto parts factories employing 350,000 lower-paid workers. So today, the once dominant Big Three produce only 40% of the country’s cars; the other 60% are built by non-union workers at BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Nissan, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Rivan, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo.

For decades the UAW has lost NLRB elections when it tried to organize some of these companies: in 1989 and 2001 at Nissan’s Smyrna, Tennessee assembly plant; in 2017 at the same company’s Canton, Mississippi facility; and in 2014 and 2019 at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga. Intimidation by both factory managers and regional politicians proved a potent obstacle to organization, but an even greater disincentive were the poor contracts negotiated by the UAW in Detroit. Why pay union dues to an organization that could not demonstrate its worth?

Now all that has changed. Within days of the UAW contact settlement, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Subaru and other “transplants” announced that they would raise wages in line with the new standards won by the union. Fain called this the “UAW bump,” a tangible demonstration of union power. Indeed, even before the successful conclusion of the strike, UAW staffers reported that thousands of unsolicited enrollment cards had been mailed to the union’s Solidarity House headquarters. In response, the UAW has chosen a broad-front organizing strategy, seeking to target not just the workers at a single factory, but at all of them and all at once. In practice, this has meant that the UAW would rely much more heavily than in the past on the self-organization of workers themselves, pouring resources and outside organizers into a unionization campaign only after 30 percent of the workforce have signed union enrollment cards. At this writing organizing committees have gone public at Volkswagen, where 3,800 work and at Mercedes-Benz, employer of 6,000.  The 7,800 workers at Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky factory complex and the 5,000 at the Rivian electric vehicle plant in Bloomington, Illinois are not far behind.

It’s a gamble, but with a giant payoff.  Almost all of these non-union auto factories are located in right-to-work states, where the local political class has been uniformly hostile. And for good reason, because the establishment of a vigorous union beachhead will not only raise the general wage level and spark organization at numerous other worksites, but it will begin to shift the politics of a working-class that for generations has been insulated from the liberating, consciousness transforming experience engendered by a militant and democratic trade union. Should the UAW succeed, then its 2023 work stoppage will stand with the great strikes of 1937 and 1946 as a social and political achievement of epic proportions.

Author Biography

Nelson Lichtenstein’s latest book is A Fabulous Failure: the Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism.


1 thought on “The 2023 UAW Strike: A Turning Point in Labor History?

  • Terrific article, Nelson. Super historical perspective on the ups and downs of union organizing and influence in the distribution on income. See you later.

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