Beyond the Headlines of the 2023 United Auto Workers’ Victory

Reflections for Revolutionaries

By Sheilah Garland-Olaranian

The United Autoworkers’ (UAW) strike of September and October 2023 made headlines for its combativeness and creativity of tactics, and the union won most of its demands against the big three automakers in the United States.  

Several months after UAW members decided to strike to bring their wages and benefits into line with the enormous profits the automakers have enjoyed, it is not too late to gain a better understanding of the role of unions as the economy makes a seismic shift to production based on technology.  

In the early decades of the twentieth century, automobile production grew into sprawling mini-cities replete with hired cops to control the workers and with everything needed to produce the auto – from steel to cloth seats. Owners needed droves of workers to run machines, shovel coal, weld, assemble and carry out highly repetitive activities.  Conditions for workers in auto factories were brutal, but the lure of what seemed like steady work far into the future was appealing.  

The sprawling factories which saw tens of thousands of workers thrown together, taking shifts to keep assembly lines humming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, allowed for a type of socialization that Marx viewed as a necessary step in the development of class consciousness among workers.  The rapidly changing shift from individual craft labor to a specialized division of labor of thousands of workers under one roof laid the groundwork for a worker unity that was the basis for the birth of the United autoworkers Union to be the sole representative of all autoworkers, skilled and unskilled.  

Worker grievances were rooted in the inhumane work conditions in the auto factories, the line speed-ups, indiscriminate terminations and brutal repression of workers using Pinkertons and other thugs and extralegal force to manage and control workers.  

Black workers from the South, who were being thrown off the huge plantations due to mechanized farm production, were streaming into cities in the industrial North as well as moving West to California. Whites from the hills of Virginia, Georgia, the Carolinas joined the industrial workforce along with immigrants from Europe. The working class was being thrown together in a manner that was both rife with racism but which also created the possibility of political organizing.  

All of this was taking place as the Soviet Union was joining the world economic and political stage as a worker utopia that produced a political hysteria within the capitalist world, where capitalists and their representatives feared that workers and nations would align with the socialist camp. The fear of US rulers has fueled decades of brutal repression, oppression, and exploitation around the globe. That exploitation, US exceptionalism, is the basis upon which the US working class has benefitted from the international geo-political policies of the US. 

The brutal working conditions, including line speed-ups, were a source of ongoing labor strife and resulted in many wildcat strikes, especially leading up to the 1930’s and prior to the passage of the Wagner Act (The National Labor Relations Act), in 1935.  The Wagner Act was designed to corral workers into a legal framework of grievances and arbitrations. As the US struggled to recover from the 1929 Stock Market Crash and while poised to enter WWII, US capital needed to quell labor unrest as well as channel the working class into supporting the conversion of the US auto industry into a war production machine.  

The 1936-37 Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike represented a coup for labor and eventually a key step needed for industry to produce with little or no labor disruption.  The organized unity of the workers in the Flint factories had been building for years as revolutionaries from the Communist Party USA as well as from the Congress of Industrial Organizations fought for worker unity. Workers fought for union representation and an end to the crushing line speed-ups. The revolutionaries represented a political consciousness that was decisive in the organizing leading up to the sit-down strike.  

In the words of many workers from the Flint sit-down strike, their fight would not have succeeded had it not been for the presence of political revolutionaries fighting alongside to win their demand for union recognition.  

Indeed, the famous photo of the autoworkers departing the Fisher plant after their victory included Roscoe Van Zandt, a Black sit-downer, holding the American flag, was not by chance. It was a result of the vision of the political consciousness of revolutionaries who were part of that struggle.  

The decisive win of that strike made way for the recognition of the United autoworkers as sole representative of autoworkers. The win proved critical in the years ahead as workers in other industries intensified their organizing efforts resulting in the largest growth of unionization the US had seen. It must be noted that the 1935 Wagner Act left out millions of non-industrial workers in agriculture, domestic and other industries which made it impossible to win things like universal healthcare, education, housing and more. 

Automation came first to heavy industry in the mid twentieth century. According to scholars like Thomas Sugrue, the implementation of new digital technologies did not initially make the automakers more profits, but were rather put in place to discipline workers by replacing human labor with technology at key points of production.

Electronic and computerized technology is being applied in not only industrial settings, but also in finance, accounting, retail, banking, medical, fast food, etc. Among this growing section of unorganized workers are those who were jettisoned from big industry due in large part to new methods of production that are permanently displacing them. UAW membership peaked at 1.5 million in the 1970’s. Today there are 400,000 active UAW members as well as 600,000 retirees. As of 2023, there were 1 million US autoworkers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With Artificial Intelligence achieving advances every year, it is predicted that AI could create trillions of dollars in profits, outstripping the gross domestic product of many countries and contributing to the ongoing and deepening economic crisis of capitalism. The ruling class has no solution to the deepening economic crisis that AI is creating. The crisis of capitalism cannot be resolved within the structure of existing capitalist institutions. A question to perhaps ask is how will the re-energized UAW, and other unions, respond to the growing economic and social crisis of AI and the further application of technology to auto production?  Taking a look at the UAW response in the late 1980’s to the introduction of robotic arms and other forms of technology into auto production could perhaps give a clue.   

UAW contracts of the mid-1980s, demanded a “retooling” of workers by providing tuition and job training in other fields along with providing workers with direct funding (through what was called a job bank) to forestall the inevitable loss of all income. Unfortunately, this may not be a viable recourse given the breadth and depth of the potential impact of AI on human production.   

As robotic and other technologies applied to auto production permanently displaced workers and shuttered factories across the country; offering tuition, transfers and other schemes did very little to deflect the inevitable economic and social pain many autoworkers experienced in the 1980s.  

Revolutionaries must understand the history of our people and our institutions along with understanding our culture, and connect to those practical revolutionary leaders that are being created in response to the crisis of capitalism.   

The 2023 UAW Stand Up Strike 

The 2007-2008 economic meltdown of the capitalist system, The Great Recession, threw millions of workers into poverty. The response of the government was  to bail out “Wall Street, not Main Street.”  Under the presidency of George W. Bush, the government in September 2008, managed to put together a bailout package that passed Congress in less than 20 days.  Part of the package included a demand for concessions from the UAW leadership to guarantee future profitability of the auto industry.  The concessions plunged hundreds of thousands of autoworkers into poverty through a tri-tiered pay scale scheme designed to suppress auto worker wages. The concessions included an end to employer paid pension, along with an end to retiree health benefits paid for by the company. The auto industry spun roughly $4 billion into a health care fund that the UAW would directly manage.   

The pain of these concessions reduced autoworkers to a similar economic position as the millions of other workers being left behind as the capitalist system through government policy and support, once again benefitted the corporations to receive greater and greater profits from workers’ sacrifices.  

The Democrats were quick to ratify outgoing president Bush’s measures to shore up Wall Street. Barack Obama, once elected in November 2008, named a cabinet that included many of the prominent economists who had created the conditions for the Great Recession and would continue to bail out Wall Street through their policy decisions in the subsequent years. 

On the heels of the Great Recession, a jobless recovery and three very difficult years of global pandemic, Shawn Fain, the newly elected leader of the UAW, burst onto the media scene in 2023 as the voice of the beleaguered US working class.  Workers had been told that their sacrifice was needed to save their jobs.  But Fain, in calling for a new strategy that included rolling strikes that would hit all three automakers, gave voice to the class character of the economic crisis. Fain declared that the working class was praised for taking concessions but then decried for demanding living wages.  

As autoworkers were pushed deeper and deeper into poverty, the gall of being called greedy was an affront. Fain declared on a t-shirt that we needed to “eat the rich”, and that their greed was responsible for wrecking the economy. The fact that 75% of Americans supported the strike is a testament to the deeply felt sentiment that this UAW strike represented. 

Role of Revolutionaries Among Organized Workers 

The role of revolutionaries within the auto factories has a long history.  In the 1960’s in Detroit, it was the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement that exposed the duplicity of the autoworker leadership in upholding racist practices guaranteeing a divided working class. Black workers, led by General Gordon Baker and other notable Detroit revolutionaries, exposed the practices of both the union leadership in complicity with the automakers and demanded solidarity among workers that held the promise of building a class unity needed to liberate labor.  

In an interview with Claire McClinton, a former Flint autoworker and leader with the former League of Revolutionary Black Workers, noted that the success of the UAW Stand Up Strike was in large part because the pain of the concessions had been felt across the entirety of the auto industry. Employed, skilled, retired and newly hired, all had reasons to join with the strike which stood to create a successful conclusion.  

The communities that had been decimated by auto factory closings, like the factory in Belvidere, Illinois, were charged up at the prospect of winning a reopening and retooling of that facility. And that victory became part of the pending tentative agreement reached with all three automakers. 

Many progressive and revolutionary groupings within the UAW had been fighting for a one member, one vote structure that would make room for a democratic union. This fight had been waged for over 40 years by the League of Black Revolutionary Workers, New Directions and other progressive groups and caucuses within the UAW.  But it was the charges from the government for RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) violations that led to the one member, one vote policy. It was this scenario that saw the narrow victory of Fain as UAW International President.  

The substance of the UAW Stand Up Strike seems to have been understanding the role of nonunion autoworkers engaged in battery-powered auto production that could fuel future growth of the UAW. The tentative agreement lays the foundation for those workers to be included in the master agreement. 

Additionally, and this is not lost on progressives and revolutionaries, the current tentative agreement is set to expire three years from now on April 30th, 2027, the day before May Day.  

The excitement and energy inspired by the 45-day UAW Stand Up strike shows that a strategy, an understanding of the enemy and an understanding of the history of the movement served to galvanize workers to fight toward a strategically laid-out goal. The public way the strike played out served to expose to the public how the rich really feel about them as workers.  

In almost every speech, Fain connected workers to his very deeply held working-class roots as well as his historical roots to the Social Gospel. His connection of the Stand-Up Strike to biblical history was nothing less than revolutionary. Carrying his grandmother’s Bible and referencing Old and New Testament scripture, Fain told workers that faith is often what leads us to make great strides despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacle before us. Our decisions to fight are often when our backs are against the wall, or the situation seems dire.  In this case the bloated coffers of the big three automakers and their recalcitrant negotiating tactics and dismissal of the autoworkers demands created the perfect storm where a showdown of seemingly biblical proportions was lining up. Social Gospel has a long tradition in this country beginning in the late 19th century as the economy was shifting from a primarily slave/agricultural economy to the beginnings of an industrial economy.  

With unfettered capitalism of the late 19th century creating untold poverty, the demands of Social Gospel are very similar to the demands we see today, from the tradition of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Bishop William J. Barber, II and now, it seems, to the newly minted leader of the UAW, Shawn Fain. These modern-day prophets of the Social Gospel call for capitalism, with its untold wealth, to solve the issues of poverty rather than perpetuate them. 

The disdain the rich hold for the working class is perhaps best captured in a news interview of former Ford Executive, Mark Fields, less than two weeks before a tentative agreement was reached and as the Kentucky Ford workers were surprisingly called to walk out. Fields said, “the UAW demands would bankrupt the company.” He went on to declare, “When you think about how the UAW is thinking about this strike action versus the automakers, the UAW is playing checkers and the automakers are playing chess.”  

Fain was correct in his characterization of the rich owners of the automakers. Those “fat cats” have contempt for workers and would never invite any of us onto their jets, to dinner or for a spin on their yachts! 

As revolutionaries we must understand the history of movements and their importance on the road toward revolution. Union organizing victories have ticked up in recent years but union density and attacks on this organized section of the working class continues as the ruling class opposes any efforts that expose or potentially challenge their power.  Unions, by their origin and position in capitalist economies, were not organized to overthrow their bosses or completely disrupt the capitalist system of production and distribution. This is perhaps what made the battle between this newly reorganized UAW under Fain’s so exciting.   

The battle lines were drawn once the union developed a completely different strategy to strike all big three automakers. The cost of exacting their fair share from these automakers forced the automakers to meet significant aspects of the UAW demands to maintain the relationships which allow production to resume. With the end of this round of hostilities it will be of interest to find that more labor groups will perhaps look at new strategies of engagement.  

History does show us through the Soviet revolution that labor unions played a significant role leading up to seizure of state power. While we are not anywhere near that stage, we must study the organized labor movement and understand their role.   

Unions were organized to reform the system of capitalism. It is important that revolutionaries understand the role of unions within this context. Fighting for reforms is where we are in this beginning epoch of revolution. The recent battle between the UAW and the owners of the auto industry demonstrates that unions could play a key role in developing the class consciousness necessary for class unity. Yet without revolutionary consciousness, these confrontations result in the constant back and forth of the fight for reform.  

As Lenin cautioned a century ago, the conscious revolutionaries cannot simply be an advanced section of the working class, they must also be part of the working class, “closely bound up with it by all the fibers of its being…”

Sheilah Garland-Olaranian grew up in Flint, MI. As a child she walked the picket lines with her father who was a member of the United Autoworkers Union for 35 years. Sheilah has organized across the country, most recently with National Nurses United, organizing Registered Nurses into the union from Nevada to Florida. She is currently a member of the IL Coordinating Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. She has been a board member of the National Welfare Rights Union.

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