The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

The 2023 UAW Strikes:
The Bureaucracy Reinforced

Mar 5, 2024

In 2023, the auto industry seemed poised for a strike. There had been an important UAW strike at GM in 2019, led by the old leadership. And the media talked about the change in the union’s top leadership as a kind of earthquake, unsettling the bureaucracy, promising a more combative union. Some of the new officers were using a more radical language. The UAW’s new president, Shawn Fain, spoke of the need for the whole “working class” to move, and he hinted at the possibility of a strike which could take down all three of the Detroit auto companies at once.

It was enough—in a country that has seen very few major strikes for more than a quarter of a century—to bring the attention of the media and economic commentators to the possibility of a strike that would push the three companies to the wall, and perhaps upset the economy.

We had little contact with most of this far-flung industry. But among the workers where we were, essentially in Michigan, many seemed to be fed up. “Two-tier”—which had been one of the issues in the 2019 strike—continued to be a red flag. New workers who did the same work but were paid less were upset. Older workers were bothered by all the tiers—the original “two-tier,” as well as temporary and part-time. Many of them called it unfair, and worried it would come back on them when they were retired.

Among the workers we knew, few were really pushing for a strike—but quite a few seemed to hope the leadership would call one. The strike, when it came, was impelled by the leadership, especially the new ones who had just taken office.

The 2023 UAW strike of the Detroit Three did not have the anticipated impact. It didn’t even impact company profits—it was only a blip on their final earnings report for the year, issued in February. Either right before or right after, executives of Stellantis, GM and Ford delivered higher dividends and stock buybacks. And the “independent” suppliers, who had been predicting catastrophe, did remarkably well.

Certainly, the UAW was no longer the powerhouse it had once been. Representing 80% of all auto workers in 1979, it could not even claim 20% of the industry’s workers in 2023. The three Detroit companies had been shrinking for decades, ceding market share to German, Japanese and Korean companies, and spinning off their own parts plants. And, with no other perspective than keeping the relationship it once had with the three companies, the UAW shrank right along with them.

But, despite the apparent fragmentation of the industry, it was still highly centralized. (The Detroit Three still account for 60% of sales. And they still play the major role in organizing the so-called “independent parts plants.”) With 145,000 workers at the Detroit Three, the UAW certainly had a cohesive force that might have stamped its signature on the situation.

But the 2023 strike did not set off a social explosion. In fact, the strike, even at the Detroit Three, was severely limited. And the grip of the bureaucracy on the union was unchanged, perhaps reinforced, even if some of the names of people leading the union may have changed.

“A New Way of Striking”—Respecting the Same Old Rules of the Game

The media called the 2023 auto strike, “a new way of striking.” On the day the strike began, Fain announced that the UAW would be on strike against all three companies at once—which made a big splash in the media.

If they had really done that, it would have removed the malignant division the old bureaucrats had fastened on the workers ever since the union was formed in the 1930s. The UAW brought workers out by company, one company at a time—even while the companies helped each other out, and even though the major companies shared almost exactly the same contract and consulted with each other before and during negotiations. They also shared the same stockholders—at least at Ford and GM, where three of their top four owners were the same Wall Street “investment” firms.

The Fain leadership did not really remove that division. Instead they introduced a new division into the ranks. The workers at the three companies would formally strike simultaneously (that is, the union let all three contracts expire). But only a few workers were actually on the picket line, the rest were going in to work, working without a contract, collecting a paycheck.

This “new way of striking” made clear from the beginning that the union wasn’t going to do anything to call in question the profitability of the Detroit Three. In week one, only one plant at each company was called out. None of the three was the company’s big money-maker. And none of the three were key plants that might have shut down other plants. Making this point explicit, Fain excluded the Body and Stamping departments from the strike call at Ford’s Wayne complex. Including them could have shut down other assembly plants.

That set the pattern. Over the six weeks of the strike, Ford had three plants called out; GM had four, Stellantis, two—for a total of nine struck plants. But the three companies have 74 fully functioning production facilities.1 GM and Stellantis had 38 parts depots called out—but almost all were quite small and, with a few exceptions, didn’t involve parts going to production, only to dealers, most of which had stocked up ahead, and other repair shops.

Each week, there was speculation about which plant would be called, but as often as not, one of the companies was excused. Interference with actual production was minimal. The companies’ saleable inventory remained intact, with the exception of a few well-publicized, low-volume models. The most profitable big truck plants were not called out until the end, at the point it seemed pretty obvious the negotiators had worked out a contract.

A Strike Organized to Keep the Workers at Arm’s Length

The strike was organized bureaucratically from beginning to end, just as earlier strikes had been. Even the decision to call the strike was made by the bureaucracy, not by the workers.

Yes, workers had voted, several weeks before the strike deadline, to authorize UAW leaders to call a strike. But it was a vote that committed workers to nothing. That point was made explicit when local leaders reassured workers that they weren’t really deciding to strike; the vote was only a formality, needed—to use Fain’s words—“to turbocharge the power of the negotiators.”

It was the usual vote taken by the unions before a strike—a pretense at democracy. But it decides nothing, leaving everything in the hands of the bureaucrats to decide as the contract runs out.

There were no meetings before the strike began in which the workers—or their delegates—discussed and thrashed out what they wanted. In fact, the Bargaining Convention in March was organized in the usual formal way with one long general resolution, with no specifics, no priorities, and no way for the delegates to enter into a real discussion of what needed to be taken up. Everything was still left in the hands of the bureaucrats to decide.

Fain had just taken office. So, yes, he had little time. But it was certainly possible to say to all the delegates, we are tossing out the old agenda. It’s up to you to bring up the concerns of the workers you represent. None of that. Just the same old platitudes, which don’t end up in the final contract. After March, there was no meeting to decide whether there would be a strike, and if so, over what issues. Nowhere did workers—or their delegates—discuss this “new way of striking”; nowhere were workers involved in the decision to strike only a very few plants. They might have agreed with it—and maybe not—if they had been involved in the discussion, but they weren’t.

Without meetings, there was no way real information was conveyed to the workers, that is, no way for the workers to question, challenge or propose.

Fain had a weekly appearance on Facebook. He started out by attacking the attitude of company executives, pointed out big profits. Then he gave a shout-out to workers at other companies or industries who had started strikes, or might soon do so. Finally came the only real information in these speeches, as far as the workers were concerned: that is, which new plants, if any, would be struck. It seemed a bit like the 10:59 p.m. Power Ball drawing.

Everything about this strike was decided without direct involvement from the workers whose very lives were impacted. Even some presidents of local unions seemed cut out of the decision when their plant was called on to strike.

There was nothing new about that. It was the usual way that the old UAW bureaucracy had carried out its strikes.

But the “new,” “radical” leadership went further. As much as possible, they suppressed the one possibility for workers to congregate that had existed before, that is, the once-a-week turnout at local halls, when workers showed up to get their “strike pay” checks. It was only a technical thing, spread over a number of hours. And it may have fallen off in some locals, given how long it had been since most auto workers had been called out on strike.

But, where it had existed, it had given workers who wanted to organize themselves a chance to see each other, to pass on information, perhaps even organize to do something together, despite the bureaucrats’ hold.

Strike “pay” was sent via direct deposit to strikers’ bank accounts. It may have been more “efficient,” but it also cut out the last remaining chance for workers to congregate, and it wasn’t replaced by another one.

The atomization of the workers was complete.

A Strike Organized for the Media and Not for the Street

Fain’s weekly Facebook speeches were aired on local and even national media, conveying the sense that the strike was really rock-and-rolling.

But, at the plants, it wasn’t. All during the strike, most workers found themselves on the sidelines—as spectators. Even in the very last week, when the largest number of workers were on picket lines, only about one-quarter or a little more had been called to join the strike.

Picketing was a formality. Just as in earlier strikes, run by the old bureaucracy, the activity of most workers was limited to picket “duty” of four to six hours, one time a week. Some workers on their own came more often, wanting to do more. And small locals required more hours. But limited picketing schedules meant that workers had very reduced contact with each other—and when they did, it was only with a few dozen others, during their once-a-week turn on the picket line.

In those facilities where supplies and parts were being trucked in or out, the lines were a symbolic barrier, nothing more. At the beginning, a Teamster driver might turn around and drive away. But, for the most part, trucks waited for some period, only to be waved in by “picket captains,” who ordered the strikers to take down the line. The new bureaucrats were very careful to prevent any “incidents” from happening on the lines.

There was no attempt to organize massive lines surrounding the plants, no picket lines that carried out marches to other plants, trying to draw in other workers. Just a few dozens walking around in circles at each isolated plant gate.

There were no mass demonstrations, no attempt to call on the 145,000 workers to make a show of strength. Nothing was done to reinforce among the ranks an awareness of their own power. The new bureaucracy even turned its back on the Detroit Labor Day parade. They did not use the parade to mass auto workers in a show of force, directed toward workers from other unions. Fain took his place at the front of the parade—but the ranks weren’t there. There had been no co-ordinated systematic attempt to get them there.

The apparatus did call a rally in front of the Detroit Auto Show. Maybe two thousand showed up, mostly union officials, new staff, Democratic Party officials, and leftists from all over. It was a publicity stunt, timed to finish before the well-clad bourgeois showed up for their strolling cocktails. The demonstration featured as speakers—in addition to Fain—Bernie Sanders, Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow in her gala costume, and any other Democrat who could squeeze onto the stage.

A month later, there was a rally in Chicago, featuring Fain again and more Democratic party speakers and Chicago Teachers Union leaders and activists. Another month passed, and Biden came to join Fain on a picket line—just long enough to make a speech for the nightly news and get back to his plane.

So much for the “big, regular mobilizations,” which Fain’s new staff had promised before the fight. Maybe, having just taken over the leadership of the union, Fain wasn’t in a position really to change the functioning. But he didn’t call for anything, didn’t ask the locals that might have done so to bring the ranks out, other than the few “practice picketing” sessions, and most of those were before the strike began. “Practice pickets” might have given the news media a few photo ops, but they offered the workers no way to bring their forces together for a fight.

This was not a “new way of striking,” it was simply a new set of clothes for the old atomized way of organizing a strike. It’s the public-relations-for-the-media version, giving Fain the spotlight, strengthening his position inside the bureaucracy, and reinforcing the bureaucracy’s hold on the workers.

Selling the Contract

When the contracts were finally announced, the new UAW apparatus directed striking workers to return to work as soon as the companies called—before the workers had a chance to see what was in the newly negotiated contract, much less vote on whether they would ratify it.

The new leadership of the union apparently considered the workers’ ratification vote a bothersome formality.

Even as the workers who had been on strike were sent back to work, the media went into overdrive, pulling out all stops to sell the contracts, using the same rhetoric Fain’s new Communication Department spewed out: “Historic!” “Record contract!” “The end of two-tier!” “No one thought Fain could do it!”

Nonetheless, votes to reject the contract began to come in from some big important plants. Fain and others in his apparatus had to set up an unscheduled Facebook talk, to explain why some of the demands they had listed as non-negotiable had been negotiated away. The new UAW vice president for GM suggested that the No votes meant workers didn’t understand how negotiations work.

Maybe not. But quite a few did understand that the contract was not what the bureaucracy and its media auxiliary were claiming it was. And this realization really began to hit at Stellantis especially, after workers got back to work. (See other text on what the new contracts included—and what they did not.) At Ford and Stellantis, which voted first, the no-vote was over 30%. At GM, where workers had been through a company-wide strike four years ago, and voted last this time, the production workers came very close to rejecting the contract, separated by only a few points.

Bureaucratic Disdain or Calculation: Disaster for Blue Cross Workers

The UAW leadership also called a strike at Blue Cross of Michigan in the same period. The way it was organized was a damning indictment of this new, “radical” leadership. The B.C. contract ended August 31, but top union negotiators kept extending the old contract, issuing reassuring statements: “We are on the verge of finishing up the new contract.” Then, without advance notice, Blue Cross workers received a text at 7 p.m. on September 12, ordering them to show up for picket duty at 6 a.m. next morning. Actually, they were ordered to report to a nearby local cemetery, where buses were said to be standing ready to take them down to the lines—except not enough buses were there, they were late and the name given for the cemetery was wrong.

Maybe it simply shows the bureaucrats’ disdain for the workers. But delaying for two weeks, only to pull the Blue Cross workers into a completely disorganized strike on the eve of the auto contract expiration, the bureaucrats appeared to be maneuvering, making a last-minute calculation aimed at threatening the auto companies, showing that the new leadership was ready for a strike.

The B.C. strike lasted for ten weeks. There was no communication before the strike, no explanation of why people were on strike, and the strike itself seemed to be an afterthought, with no thought of simple strike organization.

Most of the strikers were women, working to support kids, struggling to get them to childcare, taking home lower pay than in auto. By contrast to auto, every worker was called out, for every one of those ten weeks. It’s not that women with kids can’t carry out big fights. The even longer strikes at B.C. in 1987 and 1993 show how determined women workers can be, despite the big hardships they face on strike—when there are militants alongside of them, encouraging the strikers to take matters in their own hands.

In 2023, the B.C. workers were able to push themselves forward a little bit. Some of them demanded to know why they were on strike, or why it was organized so badly. Their voices on the picket line, caught by the media, forced a meeting, where some of them, hearing the others, gained confidence to bring their own questions and problems forward. Two women who had run on Fain’s slate went to the meeting to apologize for the way it was run. But nothing changed.

Once the strike had been going a few weeks, Fain issued a statement that the union wanted to deal with the problem of “tiers” at Blue Cross—in other words, the new auto bureaucrats didn’t even know how Blue Cross work was structured, or how workers were paid. When the strike was finally over, Fain’s office announced they had gotten rid of tiers. No, they hadn’t, but they did mess up the way people had been paid before.

The strike wore on the workers’ morale, especially after they got back to work only to discover they had to cough up some money to cover arrangements the bureaucracy forgot to make and didn’t tell them about, or even lied about. The workers owed income tax on strike pay; they owed the company money for co-insurance the union was supposed to pick up during the strike, but didn’t. And they didn’t get the new rate of pay for a week that they had been promised. Workers at B.C. certainly will remember that. And those workers who pushed themselves forward may recognize that they did stand up to the bureaucracy running their union.

The Faces in the Apparatus Changed, but Bureaucratic Control Continued

On taking office, Fain quickly purged three departments in the old UAW apparatus, Communications, Legal and Organizing and brought in his own apparatus. Some of that usually happens when the leadership changes. But there was something notable about the new staff: Fain’s new staff had not worked their way up from the shop floor in the auto plants, nor from the other industries represented by the UAW, except the universities. They were people out of the middle class, former students—the kind of people the SEIU had turned to in its organizing attempts.

Pushing social media, they were divorced from the workers in the plants, divorced from elected representatives in the locals, divorced from the workers’ daily concerns. This staff had no organic links with the plants, nor even with the locals, that might have let them have a bare idea of what the workers were thinking.

How could they have had? They had been parachuted in from the milieus surrounding Bernie Sanders, from the staffs of so-called non-profits working to support the Democratic Party, liberal law firms in parts of the country disconnected from the auto industry, and organizers from the SEIU, the union which perfected the no-shutdown-made-for-the-media strike. Fain’s new director of Communications had earlier served Sanders and then Ocasio-Cortez as their “union co-ordinator.”

They felt no responsibility toward their fellow workers on the shop floor. They hadn’t ever been there.

Fain said he brought them in because he wanted a “fresh” view on matters.

In fact, it wasn’t “fresh” at all. His new staff had the perspective that all bureaucracies have, believing everything can be organized from the top down, which is exactly what they did in this strike, even more than the old apparatus had done. But they did bring something new in with them—the assumption that they could funnel essential strike information through social media, getting rid of the necessity for mass meetings and the workers’ own capacity to organize many different means of communication and reinforcement.

Organizing the Unorganized in a Lifeless Shell

Almost as soon as the contracts were signed, Fain made a big announcement: the “new UAW” was going to organize the unorganized auto plants, taking on 13 non-union companies at once. 2

The UAW website was reorganized to provide a place where workers at each of the 13 companies could sign a union card electronically. Make a few clicks on a website, and they’re union members, each person separately, on isolated computers or cellphones. Just like ordering from Amazon.

When 30% of the workers in a company click on UAW, according to the bureaucratic scheme, Fain will announce it. When 50% of them do, Fain promises to visit them for a rally. When the clickers reach 70%, the UAW will ask the company to recognize the union, and if it doesn’t, the UAW will petition for an NLRB conducted election.

It’s a well-worn pattern used by the SEIU to organize workers into new unions, treating the workers as auxiliaries, whose main contribution is their signature, and perhaps their vote.

Just as in the strike, the new bureaucrats depend on social media and announcements to the bourgeois media to create the sense that “organizing” is going on. Fain, of course, brags about the wage increases in the new UAW contracts, as though plants in the non-union South haven’t more or less kept up with UAW wages before. But organizers—other than a few staff people—aren’t being sent. Apparently, the staff didn’t think about sending workers who just came through the strike as organizers. Sharing common experiences with their fellow workers in the South, they might best counter the lies thrown out against unions—by telling the truth about their own strike, good and bad.

If some of the companies were to decide to recognize a union just through card check, what would the workers have? Dependent on the “good will” of the company, they would be starting from zero. The card check shortcut wouldn’t relieve them of the necessity to organize to get a contract.

The worst thing about this new plan to organize is that it ties workers to the procedures the government has set up for recognizing a union. It creates the illusion that government is in the workers’ corner, thereby disarming them. And it ties them to that debilitating idea that the workers can have no union unless the government authorizes it.

Reforms Are Possible—Via Revolutionary Action

Going forward, the issue will be: has this strike helped to re-fasten the bureaucrats’ hold over the workers, adding to their demoralization? Or, rather, will a growing awareness of what has been fastened on them in this contract shake them?

That depends on something other than Fain.

Fain’s goals, which he was open about when he ran, were to transform the union by rooting out corruption, and to improve the workers’ situation by reinstating some of the concessions given up over the years, and especially, two-tier. He always discussed a possible strike in terms of the contract he intended to negotiate, keeping the workers in reserve as a force with which to threaten the companies, if they were recalcitrant.

The problem is, it’s no longer possible, and has not been for a long time, to win such reforms in this way. To eliminate corruption in the unions means to fight against all the bureaucratic barriers thrown up against the activity of the workers. It’s no longer possible to reinstate a standard of living associated with a time before imperialism was mired in economic crises, without shaking capitalism to its very roots. To accomplish both of Fain’s aims requires the conscious self-activity of the workers. That would have meant to work for as democratic an organization of the strike as possible. It would have meant trying to enable the workers to take the fight as far as they were ready to go.

But that’s the exact opposite of what Fain and his new staff did.

Fain, of course, is not the only union activist who restricts himself to the reform of capitalism, believing it is possible, without holding a broader political view of what the working class would have to do to achieve such reforms. (And despite his borrowed, “eat-the-rich” T-shirt, Fain shows no broader view beyond what seems possible within the framework of this society.) The union oppositions, just like the bureaucracies they oppose, are filled with such people.

The real problem is not the existence of Fain, nor people like him in the unions. It’s the fact that there is a lack of communist militants in the working class and in the unions.

In 1848, Marx and Engels, in the Communist Manifesto, writing about what the new communists should do, said: “Thus they fight for the attainment of the immediate ends, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they represent and take care of the future of the movement.” This was written at a time when Marx and Engels believed that the highpoint of capitalism was behind them, that capitalism’s decline could only produce deeper crises, more poverty, and greater discipline imposed on the working class. In fact, the period of capitalist expansion was still in front of them, as they soon recognized. But what is interesting about what they wrote in 1848 is that they already saw that the working class can defend itself in the present only if it is in the same process taking care of the future, i.e., for them, there was a necessary reciprocity between reform and revolution.

The global situation makes that view many times more necessary today. We are far past the brief anomalous situation after World War II, when American capitalism could alleviate the misery of part of the working class only because the catastrophe of the war had ground up its competitors, giving the U.S. a little extra fat. We aren’t there any more—although we do see the catastrophe of a new global war looming.

Already in 1940, looking at the vast mobilization of American workers that formed the CIO just a few years earlier, Trotsky wrote that the trade unions “can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

Trotsky addressed his words to the communist militants of his day, during the crisis of the 1930s, with war approaching, when the CIO was still a fresh creation. He saw in 1940 that if the unions did not carry out their fights, keeping in mind the aim of working class revolution, they could only end up subordinating and disciplining the workers. Not only would they stand in the way of revolution, they would not bring about lasting reforms.

The situation we are in today is like the one Trotsky discussed, but magnified many times over. The globe is engulfed in wars, the approach of which has made itself felt even in Europe, and soon will do in the U.S. The economy has been in a crisis for more than half a century, one from which the capitalists, whose system created it, cannot get out of. The situation confronting working people is one of unending disaster.

In the midst of catastrophes, the idea that a union, with a somewhat more combative stance, can reform the situation is a dangerous illusion. It’s in the bourgeoisie’s interest that this illusion be fastened on the workers.

The real problem is not Fain and people like him, although they work to “subordinate and discipline” the workers—whether consciously or not, it doesn’t matter. They will be free to do that until there are enough communist militants in the working class, with the weight needed to contest with them.

1 The various facilities are listed on the website. To find the facilities for GM, for example, go to Ratification Vote Tracker.

2 The 13 are the companies that compete with the Detroit Three. Left out of this plan are the “independent” parts plants, the part of the industry whose particularly low wages maintain profits at the Detroit Three.