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

Will United Auto Workers Take on the Bosses?

Sep 4, 2023

The United Auto Workers (UAW) union contract with GM, Ford and Stellantis expires on September 15. The demands the union put on the table—40% raises, eliminating tiers, restoring Cost of Living Allowance (COLA), restoring pensions and retiree health care—has excited a lot of workers. But getting these demands is not the same as what you really need.

The auto bosses have decades of experience in increasing their profits by taking from auto workers. Yes, the money pieces on the table are the flash and dazzle. But the real prize for the bosses comes in everyday production and in the everyday exploitation of the workers.

What has made the auto bosses rich, what has stoked their superprofits, has been their ability to get more work out of every worker for the cheapest wage possible and to get rid of the rest.

For decades, the UAW has made the biggest concession by accepting to work under excessive speedup of assembly plant workers. This alone has eliminated many thousands of jobs. As well, the auto companies have eliminated hundreds of thousands more jobs through the spinoffs of parts plants, plant closures and outsourcing. Today hundreds of thousands of auto workers produce the vehicle parts at low-paid, mostly non-union workplaces.

There is no proposal on the table to reintegrate all these workers back into the auto contract.

Auto workers’ attention is being directed toward the money that may be added to wages and benefits. And there is attention to equal pay for equal work, meaning getting rid of tiers.

Will the bosses pay for the demands set out by UAW President Fain and his team? In fact, they could well deliver on most of these demands just by rearranging the distribution of the pot of money the companies use to pay wages and benefits.

By the end of this current contract, a vast majority of auto workers will already be at top pay. The auto companies have the money to grant COLA, put all workers in first tier, and get rid of the temp system that workers hate. They could do that by moving around the money they currently pay auto workers. For example, the companies could negotiate a different formula for profit-sharing and reduce the various bonuses they currently pay and use that money for raises and COLA. By doing that, the bosses would be addressing the major issues that Fain has put on the table. They could also negotiate a longer contract, spread out the money over a longer contract, rather than a 4-year contract, which means any raises are less than they seem.

Maybe bigger wage increases and COLA will satisfy more auto workers. But a higher pay rate only helps for as long as you have a job. And it doesn’t guarantee a comfortable life.

The three auto companies and the Wall Street firms who own them have been busy formulating plans for the redesign of the auto industry in the future. This redesign includes a strategy of producing fewer vehicles, to phase out production of ordinary, everyday vehicles in favor of larger, high cost vehicles. They have told us already that this requires fewer workers.

And what about electric vehicle production? They already told us that the transition to electric will eliminate jobs in engine and transmission plants. And while the bosses are holding out the promise that there will be jobs in battery plants and that these jobs may even be union jobs, these jobs are not the same, or in the same location. These jobs currently are much lower paid with no way for any laid off auto workers to move into them.

But what about the overloaded jobs and the killing speedup? What about the terrible work schedules? What about the reduced break time? The working conditions in the auto plants are horrible.

To protect ourselves, to protect our jobs, is going to take a real fight. While some monetary gains may be made at a bargaining table, the real fight is a fight in the street. Workers have a choice in how far a fight can go, and how large and how militant it is.

If auto workers decide to take on the bosses, we need many more forces. It matters that we see that we are truly only the end of the car production line. It matters that we draw into the fight other workers, those who produce pieces and parts of vehicles—and the materials that go into the vehicle, like steel and aluminum.

Quite simply, UAW auto workers, by themselves, in our reduced numbers, don’t have the power we need to pull ourselves up out of the hole we have been put in.

The current UAW auto workers, plus all the parts plant workers, plus all the auto workers at the non-union transplant companies, could fight side-by-side and pull even more behind them. Auto workers have the numbers and the history of militancy that can start a fight and lead others to join them. With Wall Street plotting and scheming to take us on, we need the power of the working class united.