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Auto Workers Poised For Historic Strike Against 'Big Three' Automakers

U.S. auto workers are poised to launch what could be a never-before-seen simultaneous strike against the “Big Three.”

The United Auto Workers union’s contracts with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis ― owner of the historic Chrysler brands ― are set to expire at midnight Friday morning, and both sides remain far apart on several key issues. The union’s president, Shawn Fain, has said repeatedly that workers are prepared to strike any company where they haven’t secured a satisfactory deal.

The prospect of walking out at the three companies at the same time marks a departure from past negotiating strategy for the UAW, which has 150,000 members employed under the trio of contracts. It also raises both the political and economic stakes of a showdown in a major manufacturing sector that is now shifting toward electric vehicles.

Given the limited time left and the militant tone of the union’s leadership, many observers believe a work stoppage of some kind looks increasingly likely.

“The gap is too far and the amount of territory they have to cover … is simply too vast for them to have a chance of reaching an agreement by Sept. 14, unless there is some major breakthrough,” said Marick Masters, a business professor at Wayne State University in Detroit.

What such a strike might look like remains to be seen.

The gap is too far and the amount of territory they have to cover is simply too vast.Marick Masters, Wayne State University

For decades, the UAW took a “target company” approach to bargaining with the Big Three: The union would choose one company ― in general, the one that seemed most profitable and amenable to its demands ― and try to bargain the best deal possible. Then, having set a standard for the industry, they could model the other two contracts off of that one.

“What you had was pattern bargaining,” explained Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who wrote a biography of longtime UAW President Walter Reuther. “The settlement at one company would then pretty much automatically go to the other two.”

Fain, a reformer candidate who was elected to the union’s top position earlier this year, has ditched the “target company” approach, at least formally. He has insisted that the union will bargain with any willing company until the deadline, and that strikes remain on the table for any company without a settled contract. (In a symbol of his more confrontational approach, Fain also dispensed with the ceremonial handshake with auto executives that used to kick off talks.)

UAW President Shawn Fain speaking to members last month. The labor leader has spoken about the Big Three negotiations in terms of class struggle.
UAW President Shawn Fain speaking to members last month. The labor leader has spoken about the Big Three negotiations in terms of class struggle.

UAW President Shawn Fain speaking to members last month. The labor leader has spoken about the Big Three negotiations in terms of class struggle.

The union leader has said again and again that Sept. 14 is “a deadline, not a reference point.”

Lichtenstein said there are logical reasons for this shift in strategy. The UAW’s footprint in the U.S. auto sector has shrunk with the growth of foreign-owned “transplants” like Toyota, Nissan and Honda, as well as Texas-based Tesla, which is not unionized. Lichtenstein said the industry’s evolution has changed the calculus for pattern bargaining.

“Pattern bargaining has eroded, and not just within the Big Three,” he said. “We now have a huge nonunion [auto] sector … and furthermore, it’s not certain today that if you did strike one company that that pattern would go to the others.”

The union’s less predictable approach could keep the companies off balance. It also helps the union frame the negotiations as a bigger industrywide fight at a critical time: Auto companies are enjoying juicy profits, and moving toward the production of electric vehicles that may or may not be built with well-paid union labor. The union is now making its most public case for a “just transition” throughout the sector.

More broadly, Fain has cast the contract fight as a class struggle between workers who have lost ground and executives with soaring pay packages. The union’s opening demands may seem audacious ― raises totaling 46% over four years, the return of cost-of-living increases, elimination of tiered compensation, the restoration of defined-benefit pension plans for all ― but as Bloomberg recently noted, auto workers’ real wages have dropped 30% over the last two decades.

Fain said Friday on Facebook Live that it has become “harder and harder” for working people to “see a future for ourselves in this economy.”

“Auto workers have been on the front lines of that,” he said, with an overflowing wastebasket behind him labeled “Big Three Proposals.” “For the past several decades, we’ve been relentlessly under attack. Our plants have been closed. Families torn apart. Our standard of living has dropped like a rock.”

A concurrent strike at all three companies ― something that has never occurred before, according to the UAW’s archivist ― would also turn the work stoppage into a major political story.

“The idea of a strike against all of them seems more efficacious,” Lichtenstein said.

The idea of a strike against all of them seems more efficacious.Nelson Lichtenstein, University of California, Santa Barbara

Coordinating multiple strikes at different companies is a much heavier lift than, say, striking only at General Motors, as the union did for six weeks in 2019. A large simultaneous strike would also deplete the union’s strike fund quicker. Workers would rely on the $825 million fund to support them through a work stoppage with $500-per-week payments, well below what a typical UAW member earns in a production or assembly plant.

“I’m not certain how much resolve there is in the union to endure a long strike,” Masters said. “Most of these workers have probably not been through a significant strike if they go to all three.”

Given the costs and risks of all three workforces striking entirely at once, the union could adopt a strategy of smaller, targeted work stoppages that disrupt production but still keep many workers employed. Lichtenstein likened that approach to the UAW’s successful tool-and-die strikes of 1939, which hit only certain facilities but had major downstream effects for General Motors.

With all options on the table, the union has been trying to mobilize workers at plants around the country through practice pickets and online town halls. Todd Dunn, the president of UAW Local 862, said his union spent the recent weeks preparing its members at Ford’s Louisville assembly plant and Kentucky truck plant for the possibility of a strike. Dunn said that “being prepared across the board is what’s key right now.”

“In my 28 years, this is the most dialed-in we’ve been,” he said.