By BOB BUSSEL, UO LERC professor emeritus
If the union movement is having a “moment,” the re-emergence of the United Auto Workers (UAW) is a big part of it.
I first encountered the UAW in the early 1970s when I attended a regional auto workers meeting to advocate for the United Farm Workers (UFW). Although I was a hippie kid new to the labor movement, the delegates received me warmly and pledged full support for the UFW’s efforts. That expression of solidarity continued when I became an organizer for the Clothing and Textile Workers Union. During our five-year boycott of the anti-union textile company J. P. Stevens, I counted UAW locals as among our strongest and most steadfast supporters.
The UAW has a proud tradition of solidarity, militancy, and socially engaged unionism. Its epic 1937 sit-down strike at General Motors electrified workers across the country and sparked the rise of industrial unionism. Under the dynamic leadership of Walter Reuther, the UAW helped create a “whole new middle class” (Reuther’s term) by negotiating ground-breaking contracts that improved the lives of auto workers and spread to other segments of the working class. The UAW also insisted that unions fight for both economic and social justice and became a leading voice for labor liberalism in the post-World War II period.
After Reuther’s tragic death in a 1970 plane crash, the UAW’s fortunes shifted dramatically. Hammered by imports and the move of auto production to the American South, especially by foreign-owned companies, the UAW’s membership declined from a peak of 1.5 million in 1979 to under 400,000 currently. These massive membership losses diluted the union’s bargaining strength, and UAW granted major concessions to auto makers during the 2008-2009 industry bailout. Worse yet, 17 top UAW leaders were convicted from 2019 to 2022 on corruption charges, further damaging the union’s reputation as an advocate for the working class.
All this led to the election of Shawn Fain as UAW president early in 2023. An electrician at an Indiana Chrysler plant and later a UAW international staffer, Fain considers Walter Reuther as one of his heroes. Supported by the Unite All Workers for Democracy Caucus, Fain won notice as a critic of concessionary bargaining and has spouted tough rhetoric denouncing “corporate greed” and the “billionaire class” during the union’s first ever simultaneous strike against General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. By refusing the traditional handshake to open bargaining, ceremoniously throwing a management proposal in the trash, and wearing an “Eat the Rich” T-shirt while giving a bargaining update, Fain has framed the strike in explicit class-conscious terms that have resonated with UAW membership and the public. The union has also followed an innovative strategy of keeping the Big Three off balance by gradually increasing the number of workers on strike to ratchet up pressure on the auto makers to improve their offers. The tentative agreements the UAW has reached with Ford, Stellantis, and GM show the success of this strategy.
The auto strike could end up having an enormous impact. The agreements with the Big Three confirm the power of collective action and reinforce Fain’s message that “it’s time for the whole working class to get its fair share.” Equally important, the UAW will be well positioned to lead new organizing campaigns in the private sector, where only 6% of workers are currently represented by unions.
The return of the UAW to its historic seat at the head of the working class is worthy of our excitement. With a rejuvenated UAW leading the way, the union movement has a chance to make this current “moment” “momentous.”