At midnight on September 15, the UAW began its strike at three plants of the the Big 3 — GM, Ford, and Stellantis. While limited, this strike immediately sent shockwaves across the nation with every bourgeois news outlet turning to cover the strike. Indeed, the strike is proving very popular: 75 percent of Americans side with the UAW in their fight. This strike is part of what some have dubbed a “Hot Labor Summer,” characterized by an averted strike at UPS and the on-going entertainment industry strikes amongst many smaller strikes and labor actions, like Blue Cross Blue Shield workers also represented by the UAW. It’s placed the working class at the center of the national agenda.
It took just twelve hours for Joe Biden to speak to the country about it — a telling sign of the power UAW workers are holding in their hands right now. Biden tried to position himself as a friend to workers, denouncing the record profits of the Big Three which were not “shared” with the workers. And he openly called for concessions from the bosses and tried to position himself as solidly on the side of the UAW workers, and of unions in general. “Record profits,” he intoned, “should be shared by record contracts for the UAW.” He’s trying to be an arbiter that can step into the labor battle and resolve it quickly, and in favor of the workers.
Biden’s speech shows something crucial about the current moment.
The struggle of a stirring U.S. working class is limiting Biden’s and the Democratic Party’s ability to maneuver. The vast public support for the UAW strike — and the on-going Hollywood strikes — combined with Biden’s need to shore up support amongst the industrial working class in the midwest before the 2024 election, means that he has had to take a much more pro-worker stance than he has had to take with past worker actions such as the rail strike he helped break last year. Biden not only had to comment on the strike, but also take the side of the workers.
But on the other hand, his speech also made clear that his primary goal is to bring the strike to a quick end to prevent it from getting any bigger, bolder, more powerful, and more disruptive to the economy. He’s being pushed by the demands of a fragile economy — an economy that he has made central to his reelection campaign. With an uncertain economic recovery from 2020 on the line, Biden also needs this strike to be as short and non-disruptive as possible.
Keeping the Genie Inside the Bottle
Biden has a lot at stake in this fight, and not a lot of space to maneuver.
The Big Three automakers are a manufacturing powerhouse. Together they control about 40 percent of the automotive market in the US. They dominate an industry responsible for about 3 percent of the entire U.S. GDP.
This strike, then, is a threat to the economic victories that Biden is touting in the leadup to next year’s election. Inflation has been decreasing somewhat; the snarled supply lines that made it harder to buy cars and many other things are only now loosening up. But a recovery from these crises is far from certain, something the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out. And this strike could help drive up car prices and snarl supply lines once again.
The strike is also threatening the Democratic Party’s imperialist agenda. Competition with China has been heating up. One key part of it is the U.S. struggle with China over the international market for electric vehicles. Meanwhile, the Big Three and the UAW are wrangling over the companies’ transition to electric vehicle production: will it be paid for on the backs of the workers? A long, disruptive strike at UAW would delay the U.S.’s imperialist competition. This is why — for all his pro-union words — Biden is also supporting non-union electric vehicle production. The UAW strike “collides with Biden’s manufacturing agenda”: the U.S. capitalists are falling far behind China in the sale of electric vehicles. It’s a gap Biden aims to start closing.
There’s another danger to Biden, too.
A successful strike at UAW could embolden many other kinds of workers. As both the UAW strike and the UPS struggle show us: the aspirations of the working class are growing. Workers are increasingly unwilling to settle for less than they deserve. All eyes on the autoworkers now. Their struggle has the potential to ignite many other strikes — and shut down even more flows of capitalist profits.
Biden’s space to maneuver is also limited by the orientation of the Right — including Trump — which is trying to use his electric vehicle policy to pin the plight of the autoworkers on Biden. This “combat for the working class” between Biden and Trumpism will likely be a defining characteristic of the 2024 election. Trump’s strength with sectors of the midwestern industrial working class carried him to victory in 2016 and Biden’s ability to retake some of those crucial states — including Michigan — were key to getting him the win in 2020. Now, with the likely electoral rematch on the horizon, Biden is desperately trying to emerge from the UAW strike with the support of this key sector — he’s even considering visiting the picket line, which would be a first for a sitting president. Indeed, the UAW leadership clearly realizes that it has this power and is currently withholding an endorsement from Biden .
Know Your Enemies
Biden and the Democratic Party leadership have been pushed onto the back foot for the moment — facing down increasingly angry, increasingly militant sectors of the working class. The power of those sectors has meant that Biden is, for now, pushing for a quick resolution, but a resolution that favors the UAW.
And in this task, Biden is trying to outflank Trump — who is also trying to woo the UAW workers with a visit to Detroit. Shawn Fain, president of the UAW, slapped away Trump’s advances. And rightly so. In his term in office Trump was virulently anti-worker, offering huge givebacks to the capitalist class, weakening the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and more.
But we can’t lose sight of the wider context. Biden might think that he — and not Trump — is a champion of labor and unions. But the Democratic Party pays its bills using the overwhelming donations from corporate and financial capital, as Kim Moody, Thomas Ferguson, and many others have shown repeatedly. The party works for the capitalist class.
A few months ago, we got a very clear picture of the priorities of the administration and party. Railway unions had democratically voted to strike, in order to win, among other things, major safety concessions. A railway strike, though, threatened the inflation-addled economy then, too. Biden stepped in, with help from almost his entire party, including AOC. They forced an undemocratic deal on the workers and broke the strike. The disaster of the Palestine, Ohio train derailment happened a few weeks later.
Biden’s strategy this time around looks somewhat different.
The slow start to the UAW strike, with only about 10 percent of the Big Three UAW workers on strike at this point, and the militancy and preparation of the UAW clearly giving them the upper hand for now, has meant Biden stepping in for the sake of the economy by pressuring the Big Three’s bosses.
But Biden is far from the champion of the UAW here. His main priority is the wellbeing of the capitalist economy and the flow of profits; the main threat to be averted is a long and disruptive strike. The interests of the rank-and-file autoworkers are at odds with Biden’s agenda. And that’s because a disruptive strike will help workers escalate their fight to win not only a good contract but to build the rank-and-file power needed to defend their gains, protect their jobs against layoffs, and fight to organize new unions in the non-unionized electric vehicle sector.
Huge dangers lurked inside Biden’s words Friday. He’s playing the champion of the UAW, pushing a part of the capitalist class to give concessions to the workers. But one of those two pays his party’s bills. And Biden has always been clear his goal is to safeguard the imperialist, capitalist economy of the U.S. and the profits that make it run.
The UAW is holding tremendous power in their hands right now — over the economy and even the agenda of imperialism. The UAW is mobilized, angry, and ready to strike to win major concessions from bosses who made huge profits on its workers’ backs. It’s ready to fight. That power is a reality that Biden is forced to acknowledge. All of this means Biden is tied up in contradictions: pressure the bosses of the Big Three for concessions, but drive for a fast end to the strike to keep the capitalist profits flowing.
The UAW’s real power comes from its rank-and-file workers, and their organizing — since they’re the ones that produce all the value that flows out of the plants. That’s the source of the workers’ most powerful weapon right now: the power to put down their tools. This power must be organized from below in order to unlock its true potential. Workers must decide how the strike progresses, without interference from Biden, Trump, or any other capitalist politician — since it’s their lives and livelihoods on the line, and they’re the ones who produce all the bosses’ profits.
Workers can organize together, in strike committees at the factory, and at the regional and even national levels, to ensure that the strike expands and strengthens, that the strike resists all co-optation attempts from politicians, and that no concessionary TA is forced on workers in the future. This is what Biden fears most right now — the power and militancy of the UAW workers. They must be the ones to decide how this strike goes, not Biden. The future is in the rank-and-file’s hands.