October 29, 2023
Any knowledgeable observer of the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) over the past 50 years would have inevitably been forced to note that over recent decades the union’s membership had been dramatically slashed by hostile employers and politicians, that both union activity levels and influence had declined massively, and in many quarters the auto union had been transformed into a particularly virulent company union.
So addled and company-captured was the UAW top leadership that by 2014 a series of federal government criminal investigations and prosecutions grew, expanded, and eventually led to the removal of more than 30 national UAW leaders. The resulting U.S. government-ordered union election which produced Shawn Fain as new President of the UAW in March of this year was an earthquake both inside and outside the union.
Auto union old guarders and employers alike both feared the election of Fain. But by the narrowest margins Fain was elected to the top spot, and in just several months the union is already well into an expanding process of renewal. It is still early, and only time will tell, but the current strike struggle is clearly solid evidence of the new leadership’s intention to restore the union to a serious trade union path.
New Day for UAW
In a union stripped of democratic process for many decades and permeated with the corruption and class-collaboration ideologies of the ruling Administration Caucus, the first time ever “one member, one vote” union leadership election ordered by the federal government has acted as the long overdue conduit for significant change. The union membership is visibly fed up with company union mis-leadership and concessions to the employers of every kind by the old regime. The decades-long job loss and plant closing blackmail imposed on the membership by the auto companies has generated record-breaking profits all at the expense of the living standards of the workforce. The newer and mostly younger workers entering the industry in recent years are particularly disgusted with a union leadership who had sold them out and left them trapped in perpetual second class and frequently impoverished status.
The nearly two-month UAW national strike against the U.S. auto companies now reaches a new phase as the employers are beginning to give way. The Ford company agreed to a tentative settlement on October 26, and Stellantis (Chrysler) conceded on October 28. Bargaining with the General Motors company continues, and a similar settlement looks probable very soon. The rank-and-file membership has enthusiastically welcomed the strike and has rallied to Fain and his new and genuine approaches. Election campaign promises of “change” are now seen and felt. The previously discredited union leadership is now replaced with something far more credible – and worth following. Decades of retreat and surrender have been arrested, and the integrity and spirit of the union is being repaired.
Next Stage of the Struggle
Negotiations with GM are still underway (as this is written, October 29) but it is still unknown so far as how influential the Ford and Stellantis (Chrysler) settlements be with the remaining talks. Many, but not all the stated union goals have been reached at Ford and Stellantis, with some notable exceptions such as the restoration of the full pension system for new hires as well as the reach for a 32-hour week. See the UAW official reports for details of the settlements as well as a status update on GM. Membership ratification processes will now take many weeks, but all indications are that the new agreements are popular among large sections of the rank-and-file.
The UAW selective plant-by-plant strike tactic has proven effective so far, and the spirits of those on strike as well as those awaiting the call to the picket lines by all appearances are high. The union has frequently communicated with the membership from day one of the strike action on September 15, and Fain has also shared a level of detail about the ongoing negotiations unheard of in UAW living memory. Gone apparently is the secrecy that suffocated and discredited previous UAW negotiations, an undemocratic tool that always provided the old union regime with the ability to control negotiations and make all decisions in spite of member wants and needs.
Union Consolidation Required
With the auto strike still underway at GM and with the consolidation of the Fain Administration barely off the ground, it is required to review the need for this process. The Fain leadership group has been in control for barely 6 months; the Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD) slate is likewise still new to the situation. In less than one year UAW activists have won control of the union from the old guard, although just barely in the hotly contested election. The now-ousted Administration Caucus are still to be found throughout the staff and bureaucracy of the union, and fragments of this faction will undoubtedly dig in and regroup for a renewed challenge to recapture control of the union apparatus somewhere down the road. This is a remarkable situation, impossible to imagine just one year ago.
Exposing, cornering, and removing once and for all the discredited elements of the former regime will be no small task. A comprehensive sorting-out is required as some worthwhile elements are to be found among the defeated company union Administration Caucus. It was, it should be noted, a requirement for anyone to move onto the union staff, or to otherwise move up inside the union, to acknowledge the ruling regime and offer assurances of loyalty to it. With the Big 3 strike now looking to be concluding, a renewed and urgent priority for the union becomes the need to further consolidate the position of the current leadership.
It must be remembered that in recent years the greatest defacto sponsor of the Administration Caucus was the employers themselves, who worked tirelessly to protect their “investment” in those union “leaders” loyal more to the companies than to the union membership. While many in the Administration Caucus may make efforts to “get with the new program” if only for preservation of their jobs, the employers will no doubt be inevitably drawn back to play politics and factionalize within the union on a renewed basis. It would be dangerous to presume in any way that this process of disinfecting the cadre of the union is anything other than a life-and-death situation for the Fain forces.
Restoring a sound trade union basis of thinking and operating in the UAW will not come automatically; internal education and re-education at all levels is required, and hopefully will be built-in to the day-to-day functioning of the union itself. For decades any class struggle references or themes in union education and training were suppressed, the proud history of UAW formation and early struggles was mentioned in only the most vague and superficial ways, and any notion of a trade union culture and ideology outside of the imbecilic and self-serving Administration Caucus playbook was absent. An all-out political and union educational campaign is called for.
To fail or refuse to undertake this much needed but difficult work is to invite a regrouping and regeneration of the employer-sponsored company-union elements and may lead directly to a resuscitation of the worst forces of the regime only recently defeated. For interesting and informative reading regarding the class struggle roots of the early auto union see Roger Keeran’s The Communist Party and the Auto Workers’ Union and Phil Bonosky’s Brother Bill McKie: Building the Union at Ford.
Signs of Political Independence
One significant and encouraging accomplishment of the new Fain leadership was his quick dismissal of the Biden regime efforts to interfere in the auto negotiations, and likewise his out-of-hand rejection of the crude attempts by anti-union bigot Trump to insert himself into the fray. This is an early encouraging sign of a more legitimate independent course of political action for the union. The Biden visit to Michigan early in the strike was a barely disguised and ultimately failed attempt to revitalize his flagging re-election campaign and was cynically launched only after Trump had announced his intention to visit Michigan and presumably gather support from working class voters there. While Biden – at least – carried a picket sign with UAW members for a few minutes, the publicity stunt was seen for what it was, and no fanfare or member enthusiasm of any significance resulted from the presidential walk-by. The Trump attempt at piggybacking on the strike and the legitimate demands of the strikers fell completely flat as the deranged Trump failed to connect with the strike in any significant way.
The dueling attempts of Biden and Trump to try to appropriate the union platform at the expense of the striking auto workers have come and gone. UAW President Fain handled both unwanted guests skillfully, and he deftly refused to allow the stunts to derail the strike strategy or hijack the media for more than a few minutes each. Considerable political pressure was brought to bear on Fain, especially by the Biden forces who were seeking the customary union leader bootlicking, with no significant results. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, the obvious public disinterest in either the Biden or Trump visits reflects the deep-seated distrust of these figures from the widely discredited old political order. The working and middle classes have grown weary of the stale rhetoric of both parties, their constant drumbeat of hot button issues, and the fact that living standards continue to be driven down by the corporations who ultimately comprise the funding base of both parties anyway.
Biden departed Michigan quietly to return to his primary preoccupation of funding and expanding U.S. sponsored wars around the globe, and Trump slipped out to return to deal with the multiplying criminal trials now threatening to quash his re-election campaign. What might have been a credible or even relevant effort by one or both politicians to play some meaningful role in the auto strike was never in the cards. Biden and his White House business handlers may yet make an attempt to interfere in the ongoing strike, and must be monitored, but the Trump bandwagon is likely gone for the remainder of the conflict.
Unorganized Auto Companies – a Major Problem
It is certainly premature to discuss the strike as if it is resolved, or even approaching that point, owing to the pending member referendums on the settlements. One must be reminded however that the auto negotiations and strike are persistently overshadowed by the increasing numbers of unorganized auto assembly companies in the U.S. The need by the UAW to address this crisis is not new but is long overdue. The need to seriously confront and organize the unorganized auto companies already here; Nissan, Toyota, Honda, VW, Tesla, BMW, KIA, Hyundai, and Mercedes-Benz, among others – is a life and death problem for the UAW and the new Fain leadership. The auto union likewise finds itself awash in a sea of unorganized auto component and parts manufacturers, in addition to the growing number of electric vehicle (EV) plants.
The U.S. auto and light truck markets also continue to be systematically flooded with massive imports of vehicles largely produced in low-wage countries. While not a new problem, the embattled state of the UAW members at the U.S. Big 3 reflects among other things the dire need for a rational industrial policy for this key industry, an obvious need but with little to no political support in the current environment. Neither Democrats or Republicans seek any conflict with big business on behalf of auto workers or manufacturing workers in general. Long ago both groups were captured by business elements promoting their self-serving religion of so-called “free trade”. But all gains made in the current round of negotiations are ultimately threatened by the continued growth of unorganized and low-wage imported vehicle production, and an immediate shift of all union efforts to these tasks at the conclusion of the strike is warranted and required.
The rapid growth of EV manufacturers also presents a particular problem for the union, as the industry strictly exists at its current scale owing to massive government subsidy and support. Billions of dollars in direct subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory support from all levels of government have enabled this nearly union-free industry to take root and grow. This taxpayer-funded largesse has also been showered on the EV manufacturers with virtually no strings attached so far as lessening their virulent anti-union bigotry, another problem ignored by politicians in both major parties. Virtually all of the auto companies outside of the Big 3 have consistently proven to be rabid opponents of union organization, utilizing all legal and illegal means to crush organizing wherever the UAW has been able to stimulate it.
The Long March to Trade Union Revitalization?
As the internal developments in the auto union and the resulting ongoing strike illustrate, the long road to union revitalization is not straight, predictable, or even certain. New UAW President Shawn Fain has managed to win democratic control of a badly damaged union, beset on all signs by hostile employer and political elements both, facing an uncertain internal union situation, but otherwise blessed with a membership apparently willing to fight back. Facing any one of these major challenges would be enough for any new union president, but the clear progress made so far by Fain and his new direction is evident and to his credit.
One as-yet-unknown factor in the revitalization of the union is the fact that between one quarter and one third of all UAW members are now employed in non-manufacturing workplaces. This gigantic section of the union is to be found in higher education occupations, the public sector, in non-profits, insurance, and in other industries largely removed from the factory legacy of the UAW. New organizing efforts in these non-manufacturing sectors are sure to grow as they present a considerably greater chance of success when compared to manufacturing. As the character of the UAW continues to evolve in this way the new leadership will have to further consider this in their future plans and direction for the revitalized union.
As the auto strike and test of the new UAW leadership and membership plays out, it is worthwhile to look back and seek counsel from legendary labor organizer and strike strategist William Z. Foster. In addition to the auto-specific books already referenced, a must-read volume would be Foster’s American Trade Unionism, his collected works. Available at: American Trade Unionism – International Publishers. Foster’s book deals with many aspects of the situation in auto today; the need for labor to engage in massive new campaigns of organization; to utilize strike struggle more effectively, and the necessity to combat the degenerate elements within the business unions who have led many of the unions to ruin. The current strike struggle of the auto workers and their concurrent efforts to reclaim and inject new energy into their union are to be supported by all, and on all fronts.
-Chris Townsend is a 44-year union member and leader. He is the retired Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and was the Organizing and Field Director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org