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The UAW Strike Is the Most Important in Decades

One of the most ambitious and combative labor struggles in decades, the UAW strike reflects the growing power of the U.S. working class in a period of increasing political crisis.

Daniel Alfonso

October 2, 2023
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The autoworkers’ strike is the most important of its kind in decades. Striking at all of the Big Three is historic in and of itself, but it goes deeper than that. The strike is defined by how it has put the working class center stage, with significant implications for the bipartisan regime and class struggle in the coming period. To fully understand this strike, we must understand its political context.

A Crisis of the American Regime

As we have discussed elsewhere, the United States faces an “organic crisis,” one that is tied to the economic crash of 2008. For Gramsci, an organic crisis may arise out of the failure of a significant political initiative of the ruling class. The 2008 crisis signified a greater crisis of neoliberalism itself. To get out of the Great Recession, the Obama administration bailed out large corporations and banks; meanwhile, working-class people lost their homes and were forced to pay for the crisis. The Obama administration attacked unions, privatized public entities, and gave handouts to big corporations. While the economy did not tumble into a depression, the foundations were set for a crisis of hegemony, as well as for further economic crises.

Different sectors of the population responded to the crisis in different ways and with different rhythms. The birther movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party were part of the first responses to that crisis. In 2014, in response to the brutal murder of Michael Brown, thousands of protesters took to the streets in Ferguson, Missouri, to demand justice for Brown. The massive anger expressed in the uprising in Ferguson made clear that the politics of the Obama administration did not meet their aspirations.

The primaries for the 2016 presidential election opened an intense period in U.S. politics. Trump bulldozed through the GOP primaries, destroying his opponents and overcoming the low expectations of his campaign. Trump’s popularity was and still is an expression of the crisis that the system of neoliberalism faces; he speaks directly to the anger produced by the worsened living conditions of the middle and working classes, blaming immigrants as well as the political establishment.

At the same time, Bernie Sanders sparked enthusiasm by denouncing the “billionaire class” and defending Medicare Care for All, in addition to promising to take steps to end student debt and make public universities free. The enthusiasm surrounding his campaign was so intense and widespread, that when it was coupled with frustration with “politics as usual” embodied in neoliberal enthusiast Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party had to move its great machinery to guarantee Clinton’s victory in the primaries. Clinton lost to Trump by a slim margin in Rust Belt states. Michigan, the heart of this UAW strike, was among them. Though it seemed surreal just a couple of years before the election, Trump became president. Trump upended the GOP by appealing directly to those who were frustrated with several decades of neoliberalism and the deindustrialization that occurred as a result. Trumpism played into the prejudices of sectors of the working class, the middle class, and the bourgeoisie in order to blame oppressed sectors for the crisis of neoliberalism, defending finance capital and forming a close relationship with right-wing militias. All these processes revealed, in one way or another, the deep challenges that U.S. imperialism and the bipartisan regime have faced since the 2008 crash.

As the United States struggled to maintain its hegemony in the world order, new challengers emerged. The crisis of neoliberalism catapulted China to the position of being the main threat to U.S. imperialism. China had extraordinary growth for decades before 2008, but the crash showed a snapshot of an unstable West: important banks went under in the heart of capitalism as Chinese GDP continued to grow at 7-8 percent each year. China was not severely hit by the 2008 crash, which allowed it to develop more ambitious politics toward African and Latin American countries and to establish competitive advantages in important industries, such as in manufacturing microchips and lithium batteries — a vital component of electric vehicles.

In the years since the 2008 crash, a bipartisan consensus has developed on the question of strategic competition with China and a more hawkish approach to foreign policy toward it. The Biden administration, however, is at the forefront of the green transition and reindustrialization in the United States as part of this strategic competition with China. Trump, on the other hand, is centering his campaign on expanding fossil fuels, blaming green energy for the poor working conditions of Big Three workers.

This strike takes place in a challenging industrial transition to so-called green energy, which poses a crossroads for the working class: it can adapt to the practices of the likes of Elon Musk, who justifies brutal working conditions as a challenge to China; it can also fight for a seat at the table in this transition, negotiating better terms with a permanent defensive strategy. But there’s also a third possible way: the working class can take the means of production in its own hands and orchestrate a transition to green energy that truly benefits the planet, the working class, and all of the exploited and oppressed.

January 6 revealed the weakness of the bipartisan regime. After the invasion of the Capitol, 147 Republican congresspeople did not certify Biden as president. A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll released six days after the election revealed that about half of Republican voters believed that Biden had stolen the election. At the same time, the response of the bipartisan regime, from AOC to Mike Pence, was to close ranks in a “defense of democracy.” The Democratic Party and the bipartisan regime were able to stabilize national politics for a few months, but at the cost of deepening further crises in the medium term. The “Bonapartization” of the judiciary is a strong example. The judiciary, always an institution of the bourgeoisie, now has a much more explicitly partisan role, siding either with the Democrats or with the GOP. It even tests the waters of rising above either party, carving a space for its own initiative in the bipartisan regime.

Class Struggle in a Regime in Crisis

The most widespread and intense moment of class struggle after 2008 was the 2020 Black Lives Matter Movement, in which millions of people took to the streets to fight racism and to demand that the police be abolished, among several other demands. Small but important sectors of the working class organized in their workplaces for the demands of the movement, like dockworkers who stopped work in solidarity with the protests. Naturally, the vast majority of those who took to the streets in 2020 were workers. Their strength, however, was not felt as such. The locus of the struggle was the street, and there was no clear connection to the workplace and the strength that arises out of organizing the ranks of the working class. For the vast majority of the movement, such concerns were not a part of the horizon. Despite those who saw in BLM nothing but its shortcomings and downplayed the importance of movements that do not put forward “bread-and-butter” demands, the fight against oppression led by Black people — in tandem with all kinds of moments of class struggle around the world in different historical moments — helped revive the labor movement. This, combined with a shift in consciousness as a result of the pandemic, has created the strongest labor movement the U.S. has seen in decades.

The working class has been an actor with increasing presence in national politics. Over the last few years, we’ve seen an uptick in strikes, from the Red State Revolt in 2018, the 2019 UAW strike — to Striketober, the new labor generation, the fight to unionize Amazon workers, Starbucks fight to unionize their workplace. This year we had a hot labor summer that could turn into a fall with strong winds of class struggle. Hollywood actors are still on strike, and the Hollywood writers’ strike lasted 148 days until reaching a TA that includes pay increases, a 26 percent increase in base residuals (with increased pay if the show becomes a hit), and, very importantly, AI will be barred from replacing writers. Meanwhile, UPS workers mobilized against poor working conditions, for better wages, against tiers among other demands. While the UPS Teamsters’ TA had significant problems and did not challenge the deep division between warehouse workers and drivers, it was a much better contract than the last one, and it came about as a result of the pressure of UPS workers.

Higher Aspirations of the Working Class

Shawn Fain, member and one of the leaders of UAWD, was voted into the presidency of UAW as the result of higher expectations of autoworkers and anger at the concessions of previous years. Workers grew tired of years of concessions given under the leadership of the Administration Caucus. Autoworkers fought for the leadership to be decided on the basis of one person, one vote (much more democratic than how presidents are elected in the U.S. via the Electoral College), and they wanted a leadership that would fight the poor working conditions and the existence of several tiers that divide their ranks, temporary workers who are never fully admitted to the companies. Fain responded to this rank-and-file pressure, positioning the UAWD as a clear leader of autoworkers, as an example to advanced workers nationwide, and as a potential leader of other sectors of the working class.

The demands are very progressive. They include a 40 percent wage increase over the course of the contract (the same amount bosses’ wage increased over the last few years), the end of tiers, the incorporation of temporary workers as full-time workers, a 32-hour workweek with a 40-hour pay, and the right to strike in case a plant is set to close. The 40 percent wage increase was a starting point, and as of this writing the union was discussing a mid-30s figure. The demand for a 32-hour workweek with 40 hour pay, perhaps the most ambitious, expresses the high aspirations of workers and has put “work-life balance” on the map for millions of other workers.

Moreover, their demands and this strike show that workers see and feel that the transition to electric vehicles has nothing in store for them except further attacks. The so-called “most pro-union president in history” has been giving massive handouts to the auto industry to build non-union, low wage EV plants. Even more significantly, autoworkers do not have any guarantees that they will keep their jobs if plants close down. In that sense, this strike is the first battle in what will be a struggle for the labor conditions of car manufacturing.

The political and ideological setting of this strike is almost an inverted mirror of the neoliberal years. On September 15, the first day of the strike, every news network covered Fain’s speech. It set the tone of the news cycle. In what has now been circulating widely online, a CNN interviewer asked the CEO of GM if the company’s offer was fair, given that she had had a 40 percent wage increase. The CEO had nothing to say and could only divert and pivot the conversation. Fain has been saying that the union is not disrupting the economy; it’s disrupting their economy, the economy of the “billionaire class.”

Another way of seeing this new moment in the labor movement is understanding that the period of just fighting for better wages ise over. The Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012 was a clear precursor of a labor movement with wider horizons emerging from the crisis of neoliberalism. There is an increasing shift that explores the hegemonic potential of the working class, such as the attack on tiers in several strikes over the last years, the fight for “the common good” waged by teachers in Chicago in 2012, and in West Virginia and Oklahoma in 2018. At the height of neoliberalism, negotiations and strikes were mostly restricted to better wages and the administration of concessions in order to keep jobs — precisely what happened with autoworkers.

The Dynamic of the Strike So Far

The strike began on September 15— the first time in history that all three plants went on strike at the same time. The union began the strike by stopping the three plants, one from each of the Big Three. This put the union in control of the rhythms of the strike. Popular support for the strike must be repeatedly won, and this tactic highlights that the companies are the unreasonable ones who are “imposing” the strike. It also ensures that the strike remains in national news weekly, with the bosses, workers, and population at large tuning in to see if the strike will expand and where.

A week after the strike began, the union expanded the strike to 38 more plants and distribution centers at GM and Stellantis, totaling 18,000 workers on strike. At that time, negotiations had advanced with Ford. Sparing the latter and escalating on GM and Stellantis signals that the union will reward companies that put better counteroffers on the table. Last Friday, the strike was expanded in Ford and GM, adding 7,000 workers to the strike. Not Ford but Stellantis was spared as negotiations made progress, according to Fain’s livestream.

One of the most astute aspects of the union’s strategy is combining strong and progressive demands, sharp criticism of the Big Three and their profits via a defensive position while highlighting that the companies have made record profits and workers have made incredible sacrifices over the last 15 to 20 years. Yet had the union maintained this defensive position amid a standstill in negotiations, the strike would have weakened.

The strategy has significant challenges. The bosses have been retaliating since day one, laying off thousands of workers and intensifying shop floor harassment). While morale remains high, especially after the strike was expanded, the strike’s top-down nature leaves open space for demoralization. At the beginning of the strike, for example, workers expressed frustration over not knowing which plants were going out on strike and why. The expansion of the strike imposes new challenges, mainly owing to the companies’ retaliation and to the geographic extension of the strike. Coordinating a strike of this magnitude requires strong political effort to unite the different ranks of autoworkers, as well as organizing extensive community and national popular support. The longer the strike, the harder it will become.

As Left Voice has been saying, this strike needs to be organized from below. Rank-and-file workers know best how to win over the community and engage them with the strike, as well as the relation of forces inside a plant (who supports and doesn’t support the strike), how far workers are willing to go, what the shortcomings of the strike are, etc. To meet the bosses’ offensive, the union must put its energy into organizing shop floor and local strike committees, with the participation of laid-off workers, in which workers can discuss the strike and next steps. These strike committees can chart a path forward for expanding the strike to other plants, as well as organizing a fight against the layoffs, using the creativity and deep understanding of auto production that these workers have, many after over a decade of assembling parts for the Big Three. These committees can elect representatives to regional committees to express their positions and further coordinate the strike, in an effort to form a national strike committee with close and dynamic ties to the rank and file, where their voices will be heard and the politics decided in workers’ democracy “from below.”

A New Phenomenon in the Labor Movement: A Combative, Reformist Labor Bureaucracy

Propelled by these higher aspirations of the working class, coupled with the challenge faced by the traditional union bureaucracy to respond and adapt, a new reformist union bureaucracy is emerging. This includes figures like Sara Nelson and Sean O’Brien, who organized a “strike ready” campaign at UPS. UAWD, for now, is its most acute expression, embodied by Shawn Fain. This is a combative leadership, with progressive demands and skillful tactics, one that relies on working-class support. This is a far cry from the business unionism that characterized the neoliberal era; while business unionism is all about class conciliation, Fain often highlights the class line. Rather than bargaining by shaking hands with the CEOs, Fain shook hands with the workers. Rather than talk about the need for workers to act responsibly and consider the effects on the economy, he says that it’s not “our” economy, it’s the billionaire’s economy.

It is, however, still a bureaucracy. This strike, from the preparations up to everyday affairs, the decision to escalate or not — where and when — are organized and decided from above without significant participation of workers. While Fain, like O’Brien, has been providing updates to workers, that isn’t the same as rank-and-file participation and input. The latter would look like rank-and-file assemblies, discussions, and decision-making. This is not merely an organizational issue; it is related to a broader strategy: to win as much as possible within the boundaries of the bipartisan regime, keeping workers’ political horizon immersed in it.

This union bureaucracy is sending a clear message to the Democratic Party: either they deliver more to the working class and learn from 2016, or its problems will only increase. Fain has not endorsed Biden thus far, but has lauded his appearance at the picket line last week, in contrast to strong criticism of Trump’s comments on the strike and his visit to a nonunion factory last Wednesday. The union is likely to endorse Biden, but in another stark difference from other elections, they seek to do it on their own terms.

The Strike and Realignment

The bipartisan regime was forced to act directly in class struggle in the recent past. In December, Congress forced rail workers to accept the TA; the Biden administration was directly involved in UPS negotiations, but Biden kept his distance as much as possible. That was impossible in this strike. The administration was forced to address the nation; Biden said workers “deserve their fair share” and the Big Three “have to do better.” High-ranking government staff were sent to be directly involved in the strike to find a way out of it as soon as possible. That was not enough. Trump decided to skip yet another primary debate and address workers in Detroit on Wednesday, and Biden had to respond by joining a picket on Tuesday. If we were to take a photograph of the organic crisis at this moment, it would be a montage of Trump addressing workers, Biden in front of a picket line, with quotes from both candidates discussing their policies on EVs and workers with their fists up supporting the strike. As all players are well aware, the 2024 election is in large part being decided now. Whoever comes on top of the winning side is in much better shape to win decisive states next November. Such is yet another way in which the working class finds itself at the center stage of national politics.

Realignment is, in part, a consequence of the experience of wider sections of the population in light of one or a series of significant events. In the 1930s, the Democratic Party united ranks with the emerging industrial union bureaucracy to improve the relation of forces in the regime to pass the New Deal and defend capitalism. The party of Roosevelt was much more appealing to the working class, the New Deal and the preparations for World War II further united the Democrats and the union bureaucracy. The Dixiecrats remained in the Democratic Party until the civil rights movement changed that, with the Dixiecrats joining the GOP in the infamous “southern strategy.” Those were all processes of “realignment.” During neoliberalism, the Democratic Party lost ground with working-class voters and has increasingly focused on middle-class suburban votes. It would be quite a challenge to avoid that with the intense attacks on workers’ lives orchestrated by the Democrats, including the bailout handed to the Big Three themselves. Trump took advantage of this dealignment and positioned the GOP in significantly better terms with the working class than its previous leaders. His win in 2016 is directly related to the frustration of workers in battleground states. Over the last several years, Jacobin and the DSA, which has swollen its ranks since 2016, have tried to steer the Democratic Party back to the working class, which in their opinion can be done if only the party would focus on bread-and-butter “class-wide” demands. The emergence and the development of a left union bureaucracy significantly strengthens this strategy. It allows its defense in combative terms, focusing on class activism — a move already in motion on the pages of Jacobin.

We may be in a period of a more combative strain of reformism, or “socialism” social-democratic style. Their overall strategic goal, however, is to channel workers’ frustration and militancy into the Democratic Party, forcing the party to take on social-democratic demands that would pave the way to “socialism” (a.k.a. a welfare state) and in this process turn the Democratic Party into a party that represents the interests of the working class. The problem with this politics is its utopianism. As the leadership of the Democratic Party knows quite well, this is the party of finance capital, a cornerstone of this putrid bipartisan regime, which represents the imperialist interests of a large swath of the American bourgeoisie. 

A UAW victory is a victory for the working class as a whole. But if the reformists’ strategy prevails — if the strike is used to bring back workers who have gone astray from the Democratic Party and keep those who haven’t yet left it — the working class will be unprepared for the battles to come. If the strike instead does not put its faith in the bipartisan regime and mobilizes the rank and file as agents of their own destiny, it would be a significant step toward political and organizational independence. There’s nothing to gain from an alliance with the Democratic Party or Trumpism. The future depends on workers trusting their own forces and unleashing their political creativity, uniting in class struggle.

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Daniel Alfonso

Daniel is a member of Left Voice.

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