July 25, 2024

The United Auto Workers union, also known as UAW, has notified workers in three of its factories to strike because they were unable to reach an agreement on new agreements with each of Detroit’s largest automakers. The contract expires at 11:59 p.m. on September. 14, 2023. The union was in the middle of the night and published a strike announcement on its site.

The strike could force General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis – the multinational company that manufactures Chrysler, Jeep, Ram, and Dodge vehicles in North America – to halt certain of their activities. “Tonight for the first time in our history we will strike all three of the Big Three at once,” UAW President Shawn Fain announced about two hours prior to the negotiations deadline was over without a final agreement. The union is seeking better wages, better benefits, and assurances that a huge number of employees will be employed at the carmakers’ expanding number of electric-car factories.

The Conversation U.S. asked Joshua Murray, a sociologist who studies the auto industry and its employees, to comment on the UAW’s strategy and discuss why this strike is significant.

  • How significant is it that this strike has a direct impact on the three Detroit automakers?

Up to now, it was the case that until now, UAW has always been on strike against one company at a time. In recent years, the majority of workers employed by the automaker had quit from work. This was the case during the most recent UAW strike. In the year 2019, 48,000 General Motors autoworkers resisted work for 40 consecutive days. The UAW employed the same strategy to win strike action against GM in 1970 and 2007.

The fact that a strike is being held against some important plants isn’t in line with current UAW policies; it’s still an idea that has its roots in the history of the union. UAW president Shawn Fain has invoked the 1936-37 strike, also called”the Great Flint Sit-Down Strike which saw workers target what they called General Motors’ ” mother plants.”

The workers took over the factories by sitting at their workstations at the close of the day, refusing to quit their jobs. At the time that the strike was over, GM was able to sign an agreement for the first time with UAW. The union gained a large number of new members. Also, the pay of autoworkers increased dramatically during the years following.

The Flint strike proved that strategically focusing on certain factories could increase the strain on companies by reducing the number of employees who are affected and the length of time that affected workers have to be forced to work.

The UAW’s adoption of an approach similar to that used in the past will lessen the likelihood of the union running out of its $825 million strike fund and has to be able to pay $500 per week to each UAW employee who leaves work.

Fain calls the new strategy a ” stand-up strike.”

“This strategy will keep the companies guessing,” he stated in live-streamed remarks just before the strike officially started. “It will give our national negotiators maximum leverage and flexibility in bargaining.”

While the strike is currently taking place in a handful of plants, the union may stop production at any point later. “If we need to go all out, we will,” Fain declared. “Everything is on the table.”

More than 13,000 UAW employees working at three locations including the GM production plant in Wentzville, Missouri; a Stellantis assembly plant located in Toledo, Ohio; and a Ford facility situated in Wayne, Michigan – are the first ones to be involved in this protest.

Sit-down strikers’ lounge in a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in 1937. Dick Shelton/U.S. Farm Security Administration via Library of Congress, CC BY

  • What is your definition of the term “success” or “failure” for the UAW’s strategy for change?

To comprehend the reasons why unions chose this method over a complete work stoppage, it’s essential to understand the nature of strikes and the factors that make them effective.

In the book ” Wrecked: How the American Automobile Industry Destroyed Its Capacity to Compete,” sociologist Michael Schwartz and I analyzed the evolution of the production and labor relations throughout both the U.S. and Japanese auto industries to comprehend the decline in Detroit’s Big Three automakers. Through this course of our research, we discovered how to determine the level of success in the previous strikes.

A strike is basically an unending playing game between management and workers. The workers threaten the viability of the business by securing their jobs by not receiving their paychecks, which can stop production. Companies can defend themselves against strike-related disruptions by stocking up their stocks to maintain sales. Workers can protect themselves with the funds they have earned from their strike.

Generally speaking, strikes are successful when they impact the bottom line of a company enough that the company’s executives think it’s financially prudent to concede to the demands of workers.

Strikes fail if workers don’t create enough disruption to get the employer to give in before the strike funds are exhausted. Also, they die if workers are willing to compromise without securing a contract that is in accordance with their requirements, potentially ending up worse in the end than if they’d never left the workplace.

Fain, the new UAW President, in March 2023, and the rest of his leadership team appear to be aware of the importance of astonishment to management and choosing strategic targets in a way that a lot of members of their previous leaders didn’t. The UAW will eventually achieve more success from this strike than it’s experienced in the past.

  • Could this strike be significant historically?

There is no doubt about it. It is not true that Ford workers went on strike within the U.S. in 1978. Chrysler workers are currently working for Stellantis and last went on strike in 2007. Also, U.S. autoworkers are targeting GM, Ford, and Stellantis at the same time. This is the first time the union has done so in its long history of 88 years.

It’s still unclear what the significance of this event historically will be.

If UAW’s “stand-up” strike strategy succeeds, I’m sure that other labor leaders will follow suit, which could increase the influence other workers have in contract negotiations as well as strikes.


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