Log in Subscribe

A few of our stories and columns are now in front of the paywall. We at The Chief-Leader remain committed to independent reporting on labor and civil service. It's been our mission since 1897. You can have a hand in ensuring that our reporting remains relevant in the decades to come. Consider supporting The Chief, which you can do for as little as $3.20 a month.

Wake-up call

Assembly Line Justice


There are two kinds of injunctions: moral injunctions nestled in Biblical behavioral advice, and court injunctions, obtained by bold and shameless employers to thwart their workers' right of self-determination by breaking their strikes.

So far, this coercive measure has not been dared against the United Auto Workers. Not because the bosses of the three affected car manufacturers have scruples, but because they have enough sense not to mess with these members, whose determination is as fail-safe as their cause is just.  If they are drafted into the role of being political footballs, they will make sure they score the decisive touchdown.

Only around 13,000 of 146,000 UAW members are currently on strike. This likely will grow incrementally as grass grows under the feet of the car makers who believe they own the turf. The union is acting in good faith to avert a scenario that could cost the nation billions of dollars.  That is clear. Just as transparent is their determination to right what is wrong is no less transparent.

Top management are fat cats to the point of morbid obesity. The CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Stellantis made between $21 million and $29 million last year. That's more than enough to allow them to order real maple syrup instead of that treacly liquid plastic they serve at diners Over the last decade, their companies made over a quarter trillion dollars in profit in North America.  

Profit is wholesome. Unless and until it goes rogue.

According to labor historian Jeff Schuhrke, the first half of this year grossed the Big Three over $21 billion, and shareholders and the gluttonous cadre of executives grabbed their share. Workers know who put the "gross" in gross profit.

As revealed by Portside.org, the real wages of workers, whose productivity gave this harvest the kiss of possibility, has nosedived by almost one-third over 20 years. Some of these employees, who have contributed their fair measure to the companies' landmark revenue, are eking out less than $16 per hour.

Management sympathizers accuse the UAW of extravagant militancy and reckless indifference to the prosperity of the industry and their own livelihoods. As they would define it, such disregard becomes evident with any quest beyond the perpetuation of subsistence wages. To them, any UAW demand is excessive if it doesn't comport with management's plan to contain workers.

They hyperventilate over what they deem the unrealistic and rapacious greed of their workers. But the workers are the material creators and their clamor for economic justice is materialism at its most spiritual. 

The UAW insists upon returning to the pre-2007 single tier system, when all its workers were eligible for defined-benefit pensions, sound health-care coverage, and maximum salary reached before a laborer reached the age of an adolescent Sequoia tree. Workers hired since the wholesale confiscation of benefits in 2007 have a body of benefits that have been through the wringer of trickery and confiscation and been battered beyond recognition.   

That system amounts to a two-tier level of humanity. The UAW wants a return to equalization. Does that sound fanatical? If that is extremism, bring it on.

They also demand a percentage salary increase for their members that at least matches the 40 percent over 4 years which management has achieved for itself. That figure is often cited by union-busters to illustrate the overkill of worker covetousness, but when it is raised to reference management's gains, it is often more in a context of tribute than rebuke. 

For the last 14 years, the cost-of-living adjustment was suspended because of the "Great Recession" which almost drove automakers into bankruptcy. The UAW at the time made a disastrous decision with perhaps "the best of intentions,” accepting an offer it arguably thought it could not refuse. There's been a lot of water and booty under the bridge since 2009. No longer are they willing to collaborate unilaterally with management by being the sole partner expected to make sacrifices.

Is UAW President Shawn Fain a rabble-rouser for exacting its restoration? His "rabble" are the new royalty, re-imagined as soldiers of economic democracy. 

They are also seeking a 32-hour workweek, which has been proven highly successful within Europe, where it has not only not suffered, but increased for reasons that can be explained by both human psychology and the free-market apparatus. When workers get paid for 40 hours after accomplishing 60 hours-worth of production, management feels they are just doing their job. But were they to be on the clock for only 32 hours, while generating perhaps 50 hours of completed task while being paid for only 40 hours, management scoffs and sloughs off the proposal as wasteful.

Corporations are the most notoriously unpatriotic entities in the U.S. They will sell out the country for a boardroom emolument. They surrender to the tantalization of slave labor overseas and padlock U.S.-based car factories, throwing American workers out of a job and diverting savings into their own pockets. The UAW wants a Working Family Protection Program and employer responsibility.

Profit-sharing is another feature of industrial relations that needs to be more widely embedded and strengthened in this country. According to Schuhrke, a professor at SUNY, the UAW proposes that workers get $2 for every $1 million spent on stock buybacks and special dividends.

The UAW knows that its contracts must catch up with the times and affirmatively anticipate the future all at once. That requires addressing the consequences of electrical vehicle expansion and its effects on their members. 

Workers at EV battery plants are not covered by UAW collective bargaining agreements, making them targets for exploitation. Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic notes that the auto industry is using the technological transition from internal-combustion engines to carbon-free electric vehicles to "mask a second, economic transition" by shifting operations from unionized Northern states to "right-to-work" Southern states, which have lower tax rates and electricity costs.  

More than 65,000 jobs have been created in Dixie as a result.

Because of joint ventures with foreign partners, whose workers are not covered by UAW contracts in the states, the union faces the arduous challenge of making up for lost ground. It is a massive territory heretofore uninhabited by human rights in the workplace. The UAW insists that the car companies legally commit to the protection of their members' jobs throughout and following the conversion to EV production.

The Center for Automotive Research reports that the big carmakers have invested almost $90 billion in manufacturing plants in the last two years. Brookings Metro estimates almost $140 billion of private-sector outlays from manufacturing-related suppliers and firms has been dedicated to EV changeover since President Biden took office.

To Fain's credit, he has been called "frightening" and "belligerent" by all the right people. He has been accused of engaging in "class warfare.” As a UAW member observed, “We need to stop getting left behind and be the working class again, instead of the working poor.”

Henry Ford touted that his Model-T was available in every color, as long as it's black. The UAW is also generous with its options. A choice settlement can be spelled out by negotiation.

As long as it spells Justice.

We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here