The current UAW strikes in the US raise issues that cannot be reduced to job security and higher wages. These struggles represent the prospect of workers shaping the social division of labor towards universal goals, argues Matteo Rossi in his contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, highlighting the ways in which the UAW strikes can be seen as part of a climate and class conflict against the capitalist green transition.
“By any means necessary.” On September 15, in announcing the strike against Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, UAW President Shawn Fain quoted no less than Malcolm X to express his union’s intention to go all the way in the current confrontation. This statement matched another one from two weeks later, when Fain, referring to the role of US workers during World War II, said that today it is necessary to “bring the war home”: a war of the working class against the billionaire class, in which the strike is “the vehicle of liberation.” The recourse to the lexicon of class warfare and the quotation from the Black Muslim leader by a white, Christian trade unionist from Indiana are not extemporaneous (and not only because Malcolm X actually worked for a time on the assembly line at Ford in Detroit). In fact, they say a lot about the current moment in the US labor movement. They reveal in particular to what extent a working class made up of women and men, whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians is now, again in Fain’s words, “fed up” and “fired up” by the conditions under which it has been forced to live and work for decades, but no longer afraid to “stand up” and assert its “power” against an economy that exploits and oppresses it and that, with the conversion to electric automobile production, aims to do so even more intensely.
This is why for more than two weeks workers at the Big Three auto companies have been waging a battle over wages and the conditions of their own employment that represents a decisive moment in the new phase of the U.S. class struggle that has opened since before the COVID-19 pandemic. What is at stake in this strike, however, is not just about the auto industry, nor even just about the union, but about the power relations that will define the new regime of accumulation that is currently being introduced in the US. Indeed, the autoworkers’ initiative brings the clash over wages into the core of the ecological transition, to anticipate and counter capital’s attempts to make it an opportunity to consolidate profits by further impoverishing and precarizing the labor force.
The stand-up strike
The UAW strike that began on September 15 is undoubtedly the largest in the auto industry in decades and is for the first time directed simultaneously against all of the Big Three, through a new strategy called a “stand-up strike”(with reference to the “sit-in strikes” of the1930s), involving a gradual extension of the stoppage to an increasing number of plants to maximize the pressure capacity and unpredictability of the damage inflicted on companies. The strike started at three large assembly plants (in Wayne, Michigan, in Toledo, Ohio, and in Wentzville, Missouri). It was extended a week later to 38 small component distribution centers of General Motors and Stellantis in more than twenty states, and after another week to two more Ford and General Motors assembly plants (in Chicago and Lansing, Michigan), according to a heterogeneous strategy that attempts to divide the companies’ front.
In two weeks, it has thus come to involve 43 plants and 25,000 workers, which are still a mere fraction of the nearly 150,000 UAW members employed by the Big Three and who were ready to strike. Simultaneously, beyond the workplaces where the stoppage was formally declared, a kind of low-intensity, spontaneous strike immediately spread to many other plants, with unionized workers beginning to slow down production by refusing to give up their breaks or accept voluntary overtime (which for many, especially young and precarious workers, is a substantial and structural share of their wages). A testament to how today in the US even working eight hours is a form of refusal.
The demands of the workers
The strike’s demands concern on the one hand the wage level, with the request of 40% increases over four years (a percentage equal to that of the CEOs’ salary increases since 2008), protections against inflation with the reintroduction of a Cost Of Living Allowance, the stabilization of new hires after 90 days, the elimination of multiple tiers that allow companies to divide and hierarchize the workforce, as well as a reduction in weekly working hours and improved economic and health benefits for retirees. These demands are primarily aimed at stopping the long series of concessions made by the union itself during the 2008 crisis and undoing its consequences: a socialization of losses that, along with generous aid from the Obama administration, allowed the Big Three to remain in the market.
“You might as well take a gun and shoot yourself in the head,” Shawn Fain is reported to have said of the concessions back then, when he was an unknown union shop floor delegate at a Chrysler plant in Indiana. Predictably, over the following fifteen years the profits of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler (later FCA, then Stellantis) started multiplying again while wages remained stagnant and were progressively eroded by inflation. For the workers on strike today, this trend must finally be reversed.
At the same time, the demands look forward, with requests for economic guarantees and the recognition of the right to strike in case of plant closures or displacement. The demands are therefore anticipating the risks posed by the transition to electric car production, which has been accelerated through subsidies over the past two years by the Inflation Reduction Act sponsored by the Joseph Biden administration. Indeed, the union’s fear is that, on the one hand, the Big Three will try to seize the opportunity of the transition to further mechanize processes, since the production of electric batteries requires fewer components, fewer assembly operations and thus less labor than that of internal combustion engines. Thus, the risk is the expulsion of a share of the workforce and the further precarization of the remainder. On the other hand, there are fears that companies will use the shift to electric vehicles to move much of their production to the U.S. South, where anti-union laws give capital much more leverage, thus allowing the remnants of the Midwest’s stubborn labor core to be wiped out.
Challenging industrial policy disguised as climate policy
In fact, the Big Three themselves are using the transition as a pretext that supposedly prevents them from raising wages, in the attempt to compete with companies like Tesla, which already owns a major part of the market and is already untrammeled by unions. In short, it is the exact opposite of those “high paying union jobs” promised by Joseph Biden in announcing his industrial policy disguised as climate policy. The autoworkers’ struggle, by bringing the strike movement back into the heart of industry, thus poses a decisive challenge within the ecological transition and the relations of production and reproduction that are being reshaped by it. A challenge that concerns first and foremost the level of wages, but which also announces the claim of the US working class to impose its own power within the ecological transition, as well as its refusal to pay the economic and social costs of a productive conversion necessitated by the destructive environmental impact of capital and its profits.
For this reason, the US workers’ strike should concern all those fighting against the climate crisis, and in particular the tens of thousands of activists who, in recent weeks, took to the streets around the world for the global climate strike organized by Fridays for Future and who did so in New York on September 17 to demand an end to fossil fuels. It concerns them because the end of fossil fuels cannot be demanded regardless of its effects on millions of working men and women who are too often treated as remnants of the past to be canceled along with their polluting industries. But it also, and most importantly, concerns them because the workers’ capacity to affect power relations in the transition can fuel the environmental movement itself and its own battle for climate justice.
Indeed, upon the affirmation of the workers’ partisan power depends the possibility of opening a space of struggle capable of making the transition into a battleground and preventing it from merely ushering in a regime of green accumulation characterized by innovative conditions of exploitation. It is certainly true that autoworkers are not fighting against fossil fuels as such, legitimately caring more about their own reproduction than the health of the planet, but it is equally true that, like the climate movement, they are fighting to avoid that the ecological transition, as well as their own future, will be entirely dominated by capital.
Recognizing the fact that these two levels, despite the contradictions that divide them, are part of the same climate class conflict within the transition must therefore be the first step toward a connection between the struggle for the climate and the struggle over wages, between the demand for a solution to the climate crisis and the demand that only those who caused it should pay the cost. Precisely upon the building of this common line-up depends the possibility of struggling as a class within the ecological transition, in the US as well as transnationally.
Ruling class at the picket line
Given the scale of the strike and its geographic location in the heart of the Midwestern electoral battleground, it was perhaps inevitable that it would attract the predatory attention of the presidential campaigns, with Donald Trump immediately announcing a visit to Detroit and Joseph Biden going out of his way to anticipate it. The former, however, held a rally at a non-union company, attempting once again to bend the demands of the working class in a nationalist (anti-China) and anti-environmentalist (anti-Biden) direction, but was sharply rebuffed by the workers and the UAW leadership (despite the rivers of ink written in recent years about the supposed Trumpian turn of the supposedly white working class).
The latter, instead, diligently showed up at a picket line in Michigan (the first time for a sitting president) along with Fain, declaring his support for the workers’ demands against the threat posed by a conversion to electric vehicles that he himself unconditionally subsidized. So, if it is difficult to take seriously Biden’s image as a piquetero (only a few months before he had prevented the railroad workers’ strike by decree), it is nonetheless necessary to acknowledge the forces that compelled him to wear a union cap and wield a megaphone among workers on strike. After all, as Fain himself said later, if the most powerful man in the world showed up at the picket line, it is only because the workers’ solidarity can be a weapon that can challenge this power.
Opening the space for class struggle for the just transition?
In fact, the strike against the Big Three is the culmination of five years of labor and social mobilizations in the U.S. unprecedented in the last half century. A five-year period that began with feminist mobilizations in the aftermath of Trump’s election and with the teachers’ strikes between 2018 and 2019, taking on mass dimensions with the Black Lives Matter riots in the summer of 2020, and then continuing with the multiplication of wage strikes before and after the “striketober”of 2021, but also with less visible forms of refusal such as those of the so-called “great resignation.” Then, this mobilization carried on in the following years, with localized but relevant experiences of struggle in terms of visibility and composition, such as that for the unionization of Amazon’s JFK8 warehouse in Staten Island, or with the wave of unionization and strikes at Starbucks across the country. Finally, in recent months it was further fueled by the massive strike of screenwriters and actors in Hollywood to establish the conditions of the artificial intelligence’s use in film and television productions, which, precisely because of its anticipatory nature and the challenge in terms of power it poses to technological transformations taking place, has several elements of analogy with that of the autoworkers.
While over the past five years, this strike movement has manifested itself in forms that were widespread but often disconnected and intermittent, or barely visible, or difficult to replicate, the autoworkers’ strike represents something new in size, radicality, and strategic centrality for the US productive system. On October 6, three weeks into the strike, Fain announced that General Motors agreed to extend union coverage to factories producing electric batteries. However, it still remains to be seen whether the eventual signing of a new contract will represent the end of this struggle or will lead to new claims, as well as to what extent the UAW will be able to take its battle out beyond the exclusively union level. That is, it remains to be seen whether and to what extent through the strike the US autoworkers will be able to affect the power relations that will define the transformation of US capitalism in the coming years, imposing a partisan power capable of opening the space for class struggle in the transition and for the transition.
Editor’s note: This article, available in Italian on connessioni precarie, is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series. For more content, visit the “Allied Grounds” website. Take a look: https://berlinergazette.de/projects/allied-grounds