The U.S. auto workers’ strike, which has lasted for nearly a month, has caused losses to the country’s economy of approximately US$5.5 billion, but there are no signs of stopping yet. On October 11, 8,700 autoworkers at Ford’s Kentucky truck plant went on strike, and the United Auto Workers (UAW) strike action against Ford and other three major automakers continued to escalate.
At the end of September this year, at the scene of a strike by auto workers in Michigan, a historic scene appeared: US President Biden appeared in the strike team wearing a UAW hat and became the first A US president who personally participated in the strike.
Eric Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and an expert on American labor history, pointed out: “This is absolutely an unprecedented move. No sitting president has ever personally participated in a strike before. Presidents have always Rather than being directly involved in the strike, they prefer to take on the role of mediator.”
Against the Big Three
The organizer of the ongoing U.S. auto workers’ strike is the UAW, and its opponents are the “three giants” of the U.S. automobile industry: General Motors, Ford Motor and Stratis (the owner of Chrysler). The labor contracts signed by the UAW and the three companies in 2019 expired on September 14 this year. Due to differences between labor and management on many issues such as wages, vacations, and cost-of-living adjustments, the UAW decided to start a strike on September 15.
The UAW believes that workers’ salaries are currently far behind inflation, but in recent years, company CEO salaries have increased by double-digit percentages—according to its statistics, from 2019 From 2022 to 2022, the CEOs of General Motors, Ford and Stratis will have salary increases of 34%, 21% and 77% respectively, with annual salaries exceeding US$20 million. In recent years, the profits of the Big Three have increased significantly, and a lot of money has been used to pay dividends and buy back stocks. However, workers have not received enough benefits, which makes the UAW psychologically unbalanced.
The Big Three are still far from the UAW’s demands on core issues such as salary increases.
Specifically, the UAW currently has three main demands. First, it demanded a 40% salary increase over four years (a compromise later reduced to 36%). The current hourly wage for full-time workers in the Big Three is about $18 to $32, depending on qualifications and skills. Each person can also receive tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses every year; the hourly wage for temporary workers is about $16 to $19, no bonus.
Secondly, the UAW demands to improve workers’ retirement benefits. It requires that all full-time workers hired after 2007 have access to a “401(k) retirement plan account” (an investment plan jointly paid by the employer and the employee for employees’ post-retirement life security), into which the company contributes the worker’s basic salary 6.4%. The union also wants the company to restore workers’ defined-benefit pensions and pay for workers’ medical expenses in retirement.
At the same time, the union also demanded a reduction in working hours. The UAW requires companies to implement a 32-hour work week, but still pay wages based on 40 hours; if the company closes the factory, it must continue to pay workers to perform “social services”; in addition, it must terminate the graded reward system because of this The system makes wages and benefits worse for new workers.
Initially, the UAW arranged for 13,000 people to go on strike. Since the Big Three never agreed to their demands, the scale of the strike gradually expanded. More than 25,000 people have joined the strike. There are more than 140,000 UAW members working in the Big Three, which means one-sixth of them are on strike. If the stalemate persists, the UAW threatens to launch more worker strikes in the future.
At present, the three giants have made some limited concessions.
Ford made its latest statement, promising to raise the salary of full-time workers by “at least 20%”, cancel the graded wage system to put workers in the same wage grade, and convert temporary workers into regular workers within 90 days. In addition, Ford is willing to contribute 6.4% of workers’ working hours to workers’ 401(k) accounts, and promises that for every hour workers work, the company will use one dollar to pay for workers’ retirement medical expenses.
But Ford did not agree to restore workers’ fixed pensions and have the company pay for workers’ post-retirement medical insurance. Ford was initially unwilling to promise that new energy or battery factories could provide the same wages and benefits as current factories. However, they later relented and were willing to include the treatment issues of new energy vehicle manufacturers within the scope of the agreement with the UAW.
GM also agreed to some of the requests. For example, workers will receive a 20% salary increase during the contract period, a 10% salary increase in the first year, and a 20% increase in the starting salary of temporary workers.
However, GM does not agree to implement a system of adjusting wages according to changes in workers’ living costs, convert temporary workers into regular workers, etc., nor does it agree to allow workers to strike due to factory closures in the future.
Strantis accepted a 20% salary increase during the contract period, and set a condition that if the workers stopped striking and reached an agreement, they would immediately honor the 10% salary increase. The company also promised to contribute 6% to 401(k) accounts and increase the starting wage for temporary workers by 20% (to $20 an hour).
Although the three giants have “cut their flesh”, they are still far from the UAW’s demands on core issues such as salary increases. It is expected that the UAW will have difficulty getting enough satisfaction to stop the strike in the foreseeable future.
“Deteriorated” trade unions re-prove themselves
There are several reasons why the UAW has such a tough attitude this time. Most importantly, unions must justify their existence to workers.
At the beginning of the last century, American labor unions were deeply influenced by left-wing revolutionary ideas and some grand political ideals. But starting in the 1940s, those in power in the United States used various means to gradually get rid of revolutionary ideas in labor unions.
The U.S. Congress first passed the Smith Act, which criminalized “inciting subversion of the U.S. government” and required all non-U.S. citizens to register with the government. Subsequently, the U.S. government invoked this act to prosecute 144 leaders of the American Communist Party and successfully convicted hundreds of them.
A few years later, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, which required union leaders to sign an oath promising that they would never join or support any group trying to violently overthrow the U.S. government. In one year, more than 81,000 leaders of 120 unions across the United States signed the oath.
Since then, American labor unions have gradually become pawns of the ruling class and short-sighted interest groups. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the two presidents of the largest truck driver union in the United States, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Dave Baker and Jimmy Hoffa, were deeply involved in corruption. Misappropriating the pension funds of union members to invest in casinos and engaging in other organized criminal activities.
In 1950, U.S. manufacturing employees accounted for 32% of total employment. Today, this proportion has dropped to less than 10%.
The protagonist of this article, the UAW, is also deeply involved in corruption. Just two years ago, a U.S. Justice Department investigation found that the union’s two former presidents embezzled $1.5 million in union dues, that a former vice president and two other executives received $2 million in kickbacks from contractors, and that two union members Former vice chairman received $3.5 million in bribes from Fiat Chrysler executives.
Last year, the treasurer of a branch of the union was sentenced to 57 months in prison for embezzling US$2.1 million in union funds and money laundering. In the end, at least 16 UAW leaders and car company executives were convicted.
This spring, as various union scandals were winding down, former Chrysler electrician Sean Fein announced his fight against corruption, concessions and tiered pay structures. He ran for election and ultimately won by a narrow margin and was elected as the new chairman.
After Fein took office, he adopted a more transparent and combative approach in contract negotiations. Unlike past closed-door negotiations between the two parties, this time the UAW publicly released its demands at the beginning of the negotiations. Before the strike, the leadership of the union met with a number of ordinary union members working in the factories owned by the Big Three and announced their preparations to strike. Unions also effectively use social networks to promote their positions and gain greater public support.
The most important point is that this is the first time in the union’s 80-year history that it has launched a strike against the three giants at the same time, abandoning the previous practice of targeting a company. The advantage of starting a war with three companies at the same time is that it allows the employers to compete with each other. Whoever meets the union’s conditions first will gain the advantage of being the first to resume production.
All for votes
In addition to the disgraceful history of the union in recent years, which has forced them to fight hard, the current political environment also provides the union with confidence. The presidential election will be held next year, and candidates from both parties are now trying to win as many votes as possible.
Although Biden has always praised himself as the “most pro-union and most pro-worker president in the history of the United States,” his actions are really lackluster. In December, Biden also signed a bill to prevent railroad workers from striking. The move not only angered railroad unions but also left many other blue-collar voters feeling betrayed.
Before appearing at the site of the auto workers’ strike, Biden verbally supported the strike and privately offered to send two government personnel to help the UAW, but was publicly rejected by union chairman Fein.
Considering that Trump has already made a high-profile statement that he will go to Detroit to meet hundreds of workers during the second debate of the Republican primary, Biden overcame Trump for the limelight, and at the same time After taking off the label of “betraying the workers”, he finally had no choice but to walk from behind the scenes to the front of the stage, and even participated in the strike himself.
On Labor Day last month (the United States celebrates Labor Day on the first Monday in September), Biden also told reporters in Philadelphia that he did not expect the UAW to visit later this month. A strike was launched against the Big Three. As a result, I was slapped in the face ten days later. It can be seen that the White House’s prediction and preparation for this matter were seriously insufficient. From a certain perspective, Biden’s personal participation in the strike reflects the current Biden administration’s helplessness.
Not everyone in the Democratic Party is happy to see Biden personally supporting the strike. Steven Ratner, head of the Obama administration’s auto industry task force, resented the move. He believes that the president should remain neutral on these issues. It is impossible for the three giants to meet all the conditions proposed by the UAW. If the strike lasts for too long, it will cause damage to the economy. Biden’s platform means that no matter which party the outcome of the matter is, If damage is caused, he will bear the consequences.
For the UAW and workers, even if they prevail in this negotiation, their future is still very slim in the long run.
Employers cannot afford to offend unions, but they can afford to avoid them. In recent years, more and more automakers have chosen to build factories abroad because they are unwilling to bear the high labor costs in the United States or provoke powerful labor unions.
Coupled with the popularity of automation, the impact of new energy, and the shift of the U.S. economy to rely on finance and high technology, this has resulted in a massive outflow of manufacturing jobs in the United States. Data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 1950, U.S. manufacturing employees accounted for 32% of total employment. Today, this proportion has dropped to less than 10%.
Today, the once bustling industrial heartland of the Great Lakes region of the northern United States has become the “Rust Belt”, with dozens of cities falling into a vicious cycle of economic recession, government deficits, population decline, drug epidemics and law and order breakdown. cycle. Trump, who vowed to bring manufacturing back, failed, and Biden, who claims to be “pro-union,” will only make the problem worse. In the future, neither the Democratic Party nor the Republican Party will be able to reverse the general trend of hollowing out the U.S. manufacturing industry, nor can it save the sinking Rust Belt workers.