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UAW: The Contract Fight of Their Lives 

With ambitious demands on the table and billions of dollars on the line for the Big Three, the UAW contract struggle is shaping up to be one of the most important and unprecedented labor actions in years.

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Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

For many months, workers in the auto industry have been engaged in a heated contract battle that is almost certain to lead to a strike at several auto manufacturers beginning this evening. The plan for this strike was laid out by the United Auto Workers’ (UAW) new president, Shawn Fain, on a Facebook livestream event on Wednesday evening, which was attended by more than 30,000 viewers. In that event, Fain described the terrible conditions that auto workers have been facing and explained the union’s plans for what they are calling a “stand up strike.”

The president laid out pretty compellingly and clearly the current economic situation that rank and file workers at UAW face. The Big Three automakers —  Ford, General Motors (GM), and Stellantis — have made a quarter trillion dollars in profit in the last four years, authorized $5 billion in stock buybacks, and their CEOs’ compensation has increased by 40 percent.

The statistics also show how much the working class has lost due to decades of compromise and neoliberalism, while those in charge of the Big Three are making record profits. To combat the harsh conditions of the working class, the union put forward a list of demands for this contract fight including an end to the two-tier system and supplemental workers (permanent temps), double-digit pay raises, reinstitution of wages to keep up with inflation (COLA, a system that was lost during the 2008 economic crash). The UAW is also demanding full employment and benefits for all workers after 90 days including pensions and retiree benefits, the right to strike over plant closures, and, most radically of all, a 32-hour work week. These demands express an increase in class consciousness and anger within the UAW, an anger already expressed in the 2019 GM Strike that was ultimately betrayed by the old union bureaucracy. The workers want all the concessions that the bureaucracy gave up —and more. 

Yet the strategy unveiled at the Facebook press conference doesn’t match the boldness and militancy that has been on display throughout this contract campaign. Instead, it has the potential to hold back the full force of the union that will surely be needed if it wants to win its just demands.  

The strike plan laid out by Fain received a less-than-stellar response and even downright anger from some sectors of the rank and file. His plan of action is to do limited strikes on the Big Three plant locations. If the companies don’t give into the demands, the union will steadily increase the pressure.

While it’s certainly the case that strategic strikes at important plants that make engines or transmissions will eventually halt all production, it fragments the united power of the union and workers’ desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another. In addition, doing a limited strike without a contract allows those still working to be under the pressure of potential loss of benefits such as healthcare coverage during the duration of the strike. This pressure, combined with isolation from the workers on strike, could harm the union’s overall strategy.

Let us be clear: Our criticism of this tactic does not take away the full support we have for the strike, even a “strategic” strike.

It seemed even from his demeanor that Fain was under a lot of pressure. No doubt some of that pressure was coming from the White House, where the Biden administration is concerned about the impact the strike would have on the economy and Biden’s re-election campaign. Others have pointed to the limits of the strike fund and the need for the union to save some of it for the long haul. Yet, these pressures should not lead to splintering the power of taking all workers out at the same time. 

To make up for the limits of the strike fund, the UAW will have to rely on the solidarity of the labor movement, which has expressed solidarity in the past. All workers’ futures are on the line in this struggle; UAW winning their demands would change the balance of forces and put the labor movement in a position of going on the offensive against the bosses. 

More than anything, rank-and-file workers have to get more organized to ensure that the UAW is in the strongest place possible to withstand whatever management throws their way. To win the crucial demand of “Equal Pay for Equal Work” and defeat the divisions imposed by the bosses on workers, the rank and file must intentionally organize itself so that workers rely on each other to carry the strike forward, instead of relying on the union leadership to carry all the weight and organize the strike. UAW workers can begin taking up self-organization by connecting and building with those already on strike, such as fellow UAW workers at Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Workers at Ford, GM, and Stellantis are struggling and living paycheck to paycheck, and these demands would not only improve the livelihoods of themselves and their families, but would raise the bar for other workers in other industries as well. This is a fight not only for the auto workers but for the working class as a whole, and on Thursday night at 11:59pm, the workers will make their voices heard.  

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