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On September 15, the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike against the Big Three automakers: General Motors (GM), Ford, and Stellantis. It was the first time in history that workers had gone on strike against all three companies at the same time. The strike ended 41 days later, on October 25, when the union signed a tentative agreement (TA) with Ford, followed by TAs with GM and Stellantis.
The UAW won big: Workers gained improvements to wages, bonuses, and benefits, as well as the elimination of certain wage tiers. The strike wasn’t just a victory for autoworkers — it was a victory for the whole working class.
The UAW strike was a product of the huge shift in class consciousness and the labor struggles that have taken place over the last several years, including the 2018 teachers strikes, the 2020 uprising against police violence, and the “hot labor summer” of 2023 which saw members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) go on strike. The UAW strike was also a response to decades of a neoliberal offensive that has decimated working conditions and workers’ power. Autoworkers made enormous concessions following the 2008 economic crisis and U.S. government bailouts to the industry.
The rise of UAW president Shawn Fain must also be seen in this context. During the strike, he used combative rhetoric, speaking against inequality, exploitation, and the ways in which corporations privatize profits and socialize losses. Fain emphasized that workers make the economy run, and that workers at other auto companies and international workers aren’t enemies or competitors. His election as UAW president was made possible because of the fight that rank-and-file members of the union made for a more democratic union, and his militancy is a reflection of the changing consciousness within the working class.
Although the UAW strike was a victory, it did have some limitations, and workers didn’t win every demand that they put forward. It was overwhelmingly a top-down strike, tightly controlled by the bureaucratic leadership, and workers weren’t part of the decision-making process. For example, workers weren’t told in advance that their factory would be going on strike, nor did they have an opportunity to discuss the TA before returning to work.
In this way, the union leadership prevents the self-organization of its members, and blunts the full power of the rank and file. The union is also still tied to the Democratic Party. However, despite Democrats like President Biden posturing as friends of the working class and labor movement, at the end of the day, the Democratic Party is the political representation of the bosses, not the workers.
On this episode, we interview James Hoff, a member of the Left Voice editorial board and PSC-CUNY member, and Tristan Taylor, a Left Voice member and native Detroiter whose family migrated from the South to work in the auto factories. In addition to digging into how the UAW won, what this victory means, and the strike’s — and the UAW bureaucracy’s — shortcomings, we also explore what the tasks are for the future and what lessons we can learn from this historic moment.
As Tristan and James explain, unions need to break free from both the ideological and structural chains of the Democratic Party and the state, and empower rank-and-file members. We need self-organization of the labor movement to build the power to really challenge the bosses and the capitalist system. We need to use the power of labor to wage political struggles for the whole working class and to build a working-class party that fights for socialism.
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