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

UAW Strike:
Contract Negotiations—Handcuffs on the Workers

Oct 2, 2023

The following are excerpts from a presentation given by Gary Walkowicz at the SPARK meeting on September 24. A video of the entire presentation is linked on the SPARK website: 2023-09-24

On September 15, the UAW leadership called a strike against the Big Three auto companies—Ford, GM, and Stellantis. They shut down one assembly plant at each company. A week later, the union leaders did not strike any more assembly or parts plants; they only called out the parts distribution centers at GM and Stellantis, which did not have an impact on any vehicle production.

UAW autoworkers today have every reason to make a fight against our corporate bosses. We have a lot to fight for … because we have lost a lot. Up through the early 1970s, autoworkers had gained an adequate standard of living. It was better than what their parents had and opened the door for a better future for their children. Autoworkers gained these things by waging many, many strikes against the auto companies, starting with the sit-down strikes. In the time period after World War II, the American capitalists had become the dominant military and economic power in the world. So when autoworkers did strike for better wages and benefits, the auto corporations gave up a little. Autoworkers also pulled other workers up with them. The higher pay in auto meant that people wanted to get jobs at the Big Three. The jobs were hard, but autoworkers at least had a somewhat tolerable standard of living. Not anymore.

After decades of concessions, the standard of living for autoworkers has been drastically reduced. Higher seniority workers have fallen way behind. From 2007 up to today, autoworkers’ hourly wages, when adjusted for inflation, have gone down by 30%. Second-tier workers, those hired after 2007, start out at half pay, with fewer benefits and no pension. Today, many of the new hires in auto have to work a second job just to survive. It’s shocking how far auto wages have fallen. And autoworkers have lost even more when it comes to jobs and working conditions.

Demands to Gain Back

When the current contract negotiations started, the new leadership in the UAW said they wanted to gain back what had been lost. They put their monetary demands on the table—a 46% wage increase over the life of the contract and the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments. The UAW leaders demanded an end to tiers and temporary workers—bringing every worker up to full pay. They demanded pensions and retiree health care for all the workers who don’t have them, over 60% of the workforce. And they demanded higher pensions for the workers who do have them.

Certainly, autoworkers deserve every damn penny of those demands. In fact, we need much more than that because those demands don’t even make up for all the concessions that were taken from us.

We can see that some of the money they took from us has gone into the pockets of CEOs like Mary Barra and Jim Farley. They are now paid over 20 million dollars a year. They got a 40% raise. But most of the money stolen from us is not so obvious; it has gone to the people behind the scenes, to the people that we don’t see—the Wall Street capitalists who own the auto companies. They are making billions and billions off our labor.

The media, who are also owned by big corporations and Wall Street, have been crying and lying about the union leaders’ demands.

Companies Have the Money

A more realistic estimate by Deutsche Bank said that all of the UAW’s contract demands would cost about 5 billion dollars a year. Hell, Ford alone paid out that much money to their stockholders in dividends this year. GM gave their stockholders more than 14 billion dollars in stock buybacks. They have plenty of money, more than plenty. The Big Three made 250 billion dollars of profit in the last decade. If the workers get more of that money and the stockholders get less, so what? We deserve it. It should be our money. Workers’ labor and blood and sweat produced every penny of those profits, and we produced every penny of those stock buybacks and dividends.

It is possible that the auto companies will offer some raises in the face of this strike. But raises alone, even raises that might seem big, are not going to give autoworkers the lives they deserve. Because raises alone would not even touch the biggest thing that has been taken from autoworkers—the hundreds of thousands of jobs that have been taken away. Raises don’t help you if you don’t have a job or if your kids won’t be able to get a job or be able to have what you had.

What has really made the auto bosses rich and made workers’ lives poorer is that the companies have been cutting jobs and getting much more work out of many fewer workers.

Jobs Taken Away

In 1979, there were 450,000 UAW workers at GM alone. Adding Ford and Chrysler, there were almost a million workers at the Big Three. Today, there are only 145,000 UAW workers at the three companies combined. Where did all the jobs go? A lot of the jobs were taken away through speed-up. Many hundreds of thousands more jobs were taken away by outsourcing. UAW members at Ford, GM, and Chrysler used to make many of the parts for the cars and trucks. Then, the Big Three set up subsidiaries to outsource the work, spinning off the parts plants to Delphi, Visteon, and Acustar. Then they broke up the subsidiaries and they moved the work to other companies, to other auto part suppliers. Every time the work moved, the workers got paid less and less money. That was the bosses’ goal. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of workers in the auto industry working at these supplier plants; some of them are unionized, and many are not. But they all work for poverty wages. In Michigan alone, there are about one thousand auto supplier plants that are not part of the Big Three. Many of them are producing parts that were once made by Ford, GM, and Chrysler workers. These low-paid workers are the 3rd tier, the 4th tier, and the 5th tier of auto workers.

And today, auto companies are openly planning to eliminate more jobs as they transition to building electric vehicles. Right now, those jobs in battery plants pay a lot less than full-pay auto jobs. Even after the UAW leaders negotiated a raise at the GM joint-venture battery plant in Ohio, those workers are still making $12 an hour less than full pay at GM. What we are seeing now is the beginning of the next round of outsourcing jobs and creating lower pay tiers.

On top of the transition to electric vehicles, there is another threat to autoworkers’ jobs. The Big Three auto companies have made it clear that they want to sell only high-priced vehicles in the future—trucks, SUVs, and luxury vehicles. Ford, for example, is planning to stop building almost all their car lines. Ford CEO Jim Farley admitted that the company is planning for a future where fewer people will be able to afford to buy a vehicle. In the future that the auto bosses are planning, not only will autoworkers not be able to afford to buy what they build, and there will also be fewer vehicles produced, which would mean fewer jobs. This is how the auto companies are planning to increase their profits even more, at our expense. This is the future they are planning for us.

Working Conditions Are Worse

Another way the auto companies have increased their profits is by imposing horrible working conditions in the plants. Working in an auto plant was never easy, but in the last few decades, things have gotten much worse. Every year, year after year, the company eliminates jobs and adds the work to the remaining workers. That’s the speed-up we talked about. Today every worker is doing the work of 2 or 3 or 4 workers. On top of working harder and harder, autoworkers have had their break time reduced. The result of the speed-up and less break time means that every day, autoworkers go home exhausted. It means autoworkers end up with broken bodies—they have carpal tunnel and other repetitive motion injuries; they have shoulders that need rotator cuff surgery and damaged knees.

The auto bosses also have increased their profits by implementing insane work schedules in the auto plants—having people work 10 hours, 10.7 hours, and 12 hours a day. The companies have people working mandatory overtime, working 6 and 7 days a week for months at a time. Then there are the people who are forced to work split shifts, working day shift and night shift in the same week. Working exhausting jobs and exhausting schedules will take years off your life. That’s what they want us to sacrifice so that more money will go to Wall Street.

We need wages that provide a decent standard of living. We need decent working conditions that don’t cripple and exhaust us. And we need to have a job and keep a job! And we need jobs that will be there for our children, jobs for the next generation. Right now, we have none of those things. And even if the auto companies met the UAW leaders’ money demands, that would not improve working conditions in the plants or get back the jobs that have been lost.

The loss of jobs, the horrible working conditions, the reduced pay—these are all the result of autoworkers and their union not resisting the war that the bosses waged on us. From 1976 to 2019, the UAW did not wage a single major companywide strike against the auto companies.

A Fight Starts

In 2019, the old UAW leadership called a strike against GM—this was the first show of resistance in 43 years. But it was only at one company. Today, the new leadership of the UAW has called another strike—at all three companies, but so far, it has engaged only about 25,000 workers out of the 145,000 UAW autoworkers. At this point, fewer auto workers are on strike than in 2019. So far, the autoworkers called out on strike have been used by the UAW leaders as a negotiating tool and a scare tactic to get the auto companies to give up some money.

Autoworkers certainly have more power than they have used so far. Autoworkers can fight for more than some small raises. Autoworkers can fight for more jobs, better working conditions, and a comfortable standard of living.

But that would require a different fight than the one proposed by either the old UAW leaders or the new UAW leaders.

People will say that the UAW workers at the Big Three can’t do it by themselves. That’s right, we can’t do it by ourselves. But UAW workers don’t have to stand alone. First of all, we have to use all of our forces—145,000 Ford, GM, and Stellantis workers together to make a fight, not just a few of us.

Then we have to pull in all those hundreds of thousands of workers from the auto industry who work in all those parts plants, workers who are even more underpaid and more exploited. There are also all the autoworkers at the non-union transplant auto companies who have their own reasons to fight for more.

And for every job in auto, there are six more jobs connected to it, workers in steel, rubber, plastics, and transportation. This is a big part of the working class.

The whole working class has the power to make a fight in every factory and every workplace. They can fight everywhere—inside the factory, outside the workplace, and in the streets.

People will say this kind of fight can’t happen. Well, in 1936 and 1937 and again in 1945, strikes by autoworkers spread throughout the working class. Other workers came out, not just to support autoworkers, but to join them by making their own fight. That’s why those strikes accomplished so much.

This time, we do not have to stop.