By Satyaki Chakraborty
The United States is witnessing one of the biggest working class actions in its history as the United Auto Workers (UAW) affiliated workers are on an indefinite strike action from September 15 after the talks with the three top automakers General Motors, Ford and Stellantis failed the previous night. About 13,000 workers are participating demanding among others 40 per cent rise in hourly wages and a 32 hour workweek.
The UAW unions are very powerful in the American labour movement and all the two political parties the Republican party and the Democratic Party try to keep them in good humour taking into account their influence in the labour movement of the country. The present leadership is now left oriented and that has caused worry in the Republican camp as the Presidential polls are scheduled in November 2024 and already campaigning has started.
The UAW strike against the Detroit “Big Three” auto companies is rapidly turning into a political conflict of enormous implications, whose outcome will reverberate into the 2024 presidential election and shape the economic and social terrain upon which a transition to a green economy is grounded. Former President and the Republican candidate Donald Trump is planning to visit the workers pickets in Michigan to give the impression that the Republican presidential aspirant shares the concerns of the striking workers. President Joe Biden has already extended his support to the workers and he is planning to visit the picket before Donald Trump.
The most significant development has been the total support extended to the strikers by the Senator Bernie Sanders who is the head of the Senate Committee on Health, Labour and pensions. Headdressed the workers on September 16 and told them to be united in continuing the strike. He strongly criticized the CEOs of the three auto companies who took more than US$20 million last year as their salary as against the low wages being given to the workers. Sanders said that this strike action would lead to the awakening among the other owners about the need for paying proper wages to the workers.
According to the veterans of the labour movement in the US, the political character of the current walkout now echoes some of the most consequential labour management conflicts of the last century: the UAW strike against General Motors in 1945 and 1946, when the standard of living of the entire postwar working class was at stake; the Memphis Sanitation strike of 1968, which opened the door to the unionization and empowerment of a public sector workforce that was often linked to civil rights organizing; and the tragic strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981, whose destruction at the hands of President Ronald Reagan set the stage for years of labour defeat and demoralization.
They argue that the present mood among the workers is due to a number of factors. First, the UAW is today led by a cohort of militants whose ambitions are expansive and transformative. President Shawn Fain’s rhetoric resembles that of both the legendary Walter Reuther, a social democrat who presided over a collective bargaining regime that doubled the real incomes of US autoworkers, and Bernie Sanders, whose denunciation of the billionaire class has animated a larger slice of the working class than any tribune since Eugene V. Debs. And there seems no doubt that a majority of autoworkers, not to mention millions of other US workers, heartily endorse the new militancy coursing through the veins of a union founded by Communists, Socialists, and Social Gospel Christians eighty-five years ago.
Second, the present strike is becoming political because it coincides with a momentous transformation of the industry itself: a transition to electrical vehicles (EVs) whose production is being subsidized and incentivized by the Biden administration through a multibillion-dollar industrial policy — a policy whose impact on the America that actually makes things made of metal, glass, silicon chips, and plastic has been surpassed only by the mobilization of “manpower” and money that took place at the start of World War II.
In the last decade, there has been widening of inequality in the American industry including auto industry and that has caused big anger among the workers. The UAW president Fain has made clear that if the top auto CEOs have enjoyed a 40 percent boost in their pay during the last four years, then autoworkers should as well. But of more social and political consequence has been the growth of inequalities within the working class, where resentment and conflict can fester, especially in hard times. The UAW wants to “compress” the wages paid to auto workers, both within existing unionized factories and in relation to those EV plants and battery factories yet to be built.
As per the experts, the most important issue on the table — though it is not officially on the table — involves the quest for unionization and Big Three wages at the many battery plants and other EV facilities that are being constructed, many in the South. The companies claim that since many of the battery plants are joint ventures with Korean or Chinese companies, they are not covered by any contract the UAW might negotiate. What’s more, many of these plants will not be in operation for many months, if not years.
Fain and others in the UAW are hopeful that a contract victory can be taken to the non-union workers at Tesla and Toyota, convincing them that militant and democratic unionism is the best pathway to a better life. Given the deplorable state of labour law and the intransigence of management, Fain will also need the active backing of the Biden administration.
Fain has already asserted that he is behind the union in its quest for a big wage increase, but he’s been more equivocal about the unionization of the new battery plants. The administration wants a “just transition” to a green, electrically driven economy, and the billions of dollars in loans, grants, and consumer rebates would seem to give the feds significant leverage in prodding auto companies to accept the unionization of a new set of high-wage jobs. But when the Inflation Reduction Act was passed last year, West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, the crucial Democratic vote, stripped out of the legislation a $4,500 consumer rebate for purchase of EV vehicles produced in unionized factories.
What is of significance is that the Biden administration has started putting pressure on the auto managements as Trump is just waiting to see the course of the strike action and announce the failure of Bidenomics. If the new jobs are inferior to the old, then workers and voters might well reject the whole green transition and that will be a bad omen for the Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden.
UAW leader Fain has still not declared his preference for Presidential candidate though his strong position against Donald Trump is known..: He said recently “Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers. We can’t keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don’t have any understanding of what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by, expecting them to solve the problems of the working class.’ Biden is waiting that his officials’ efforts will lead to a settlement and Fain will officially come out with the support of UAW to him in the presidential elections while Trump is looking for the collapse of the strike to prove Biden useless. The long wait has begun. (IPA Service)