Editorial: Auto workers strike the Big Three

September 30, 2023

On Sept. 14, downtown Detroit was the setting for capitalism’s contradictions. On Day 1 of the United Auto Workers’ Union (UAW) “stand-up” strike against all Big Three automobile manufacturers, union members rallied outside the North American International Auto Show Charity Preview gala. The companies call the union demand for up to 46% wage increases, a 32-hour work week, and an end to the tiered wage system “outrageous.” What they do not think is outrageous are the 21%-35% salary increases just for their CEO’s and the $21 billions in profits the three companies raked in last year. They want us to forget their decades of demanding—and getting—painful concessions from the workers, which slashed 20% from their paychecks in the last two decades, when inflation is taken into account.


The contradictions exist on a more basic level than workers side-by-side with those in glamourous gowns and tuxes. The cost and labor (albeit temporary jobs) of staging the auto show could probably pay for art and music programs in more than one cash-strapped elementary school for a year. The capital poured into the concept cars and trucks, each costing from $100,000 to $300,000, dwarfs even the admirable $120 million raised for charities over the years of the show. Would the charities be so vital to children if more of their parents had jobs with good wages, healthcare and other benefits?

The “outrageous” worker demands and the union strike strategy to target all “Big Three” companies reflect significant change from the strike against GM in 2019.[1] UAW President Shawn Fain is the first to be directly elected by the membership and was backed by Unite All Workers for Democracy. “This is not just for the auto workers; it’s for the entire working class,” Fain told reporters at the rally. The militancy of the new union leadership reflects the rank-and-file’s gathering anger and militancy, and their hope in the wake of successful strikes in other sectors.

One young worker at the Michigan Assembly plant expressed the spirit of the strikers when he said, “It is an honor to be chosen” as one of the striking plants.

Besides wage increases and a 32-hour work week, workers on picket lines, whether full-time, supplemental, or “temporary,” all insist that the tier system must go.


A new broad approach to labor as a whole, beyond specific workplaces, is reflected in the “Summer of Strikes,” recent better contract agreements, and the “labor shortage.” Several major industries have won wage settlements of 22% to 48% since 2022: UPS part-time workers, Delta Airlines pilots, American Airlines pilots, and West Coast dockworkers. Labor unity across union lines has been seen in the Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strike, and some Teamsters will not be crossing autoworker picket lines. The Detroit Public Schools Community District settled with several unions—not just the teachers—with the highest percent hourly wage increase for the food service workers from $15 to $17.29. But this new militancy is as much about the future as the past.

Permanent auto workers now earn $29 to $32 per hour; supplemental workers average $21 and temporary workers begin at $15.59 and spend years in low-tier positions, doing the same jobs as permanent workers. But electric vehicle (EV) production may require fewer employees at the assembly plants, since they will no longer build combustion engines. And at all but one of the new EV battery plants, most of which are joint ventures with automakers, are non-union.

The Lordstown, Ohio, long-vacant GM plant was retooled and reopened in 2022 as an EV battery plant, Ultium Cells. The factory’s former GM workers got non-union jobs at $15 to $20 per hour and few benefits. One worker expressed their safety concerns, saying OSHA doesn’t even regulate some of the chemicals used. As a result, the workers became the first to unionize a U.S. EV plant and are currently in contract negotiations with the UAW.[2]

Auto workers, along with those in many other kinds of employment, recognize that rapidly emerging artificial intelligence (AI) will have major consequences for their lives. Workers wonder what jobs will be available to them and their children as whole fields of employment continue to disappear.

Self-driving vehicles are expected to proliferate in the trucking industry while drones are being introduced into delivery services like DoorDash, FedEx and UPS. ChatGPT impacts teachers coping with widespread student dependence on the app to turn in work that has bypassed the children’s own thinking and learning.


All this shows that we are at a crossroads, where either the working class will push back the capitalist offensive with their own counteroffensive, or the capitalist class will keep taking more and more for themselves and keep driving down the conditions of life and labor for the working class and everyone but the richest and most powerful.

In order to be sustainable in world capitalism, employers demand more of workers while paying them less—especially healthcare, teaching and childcare workers. This burns workers out. Working conditions alienate people from the joys and satisfactions they could experience in professions they love.

Support the UAW struggle for decent working conditions and fair pay! This is a fight for the future—for all of us! We applaud and encourage worker solidarity among individual unions and the unorganized, as a necessary step for creating a society that makes it possible for people to become free and whole.

[1] Walking out of key plants on the union’s timetable as a way to keep management guessing is an echo of the 1936-37 Sit-down Strike at the Chevy No. 9 Plant in Flint, Mich., that forced GM to bargain at the birth of the UAW.

[2] The Lordstown plant in rural Ohio was the site of a “notorious” strike in 1972. The plant was a world away from urban Black radical caucuses in the UAW, yet the Lordstown workers quickly developed their own brand of labor militancy that has not been forgotten. (See “Nixon’s Phase II war plan for America: Inflation, racism, unemployment, speed-up,” May 1972 News & Letters, p. 1, and “British strikers bring Tories to heel; U.S. worker revolt spreads,” Aug.-Sept. 1972 News & Letters, p. 4.)

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