A Prospect newsletter about big ideas
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UAW Strikes at Select Plants
The ‘Stand Up Strike’ is intended to keep the Big Three automakers off-balance.
At midnight, the United Auto Workers began targeted work stoppages at plants across the United States.

The "Stand Up Strike," as the union is calling it, is modeled on strikes in the 1930s, when GM workers occupied plants to protest inequality. The UAW plans to selectively picket production sites of Ford, Stellantis, and GM, gradually escalating pressure and keeping the Big Three automakers uncertain of their next steps.

Reached on Thursday afternoon at a hardware store in northwest Indiana, where he was purchasing wooden sticks for picket signs, Scott Houldieson, a worker at a Ford assembly plant in Chicago, told the Prospect he believes the stand-up strike is "a brilliant strategy."

"It keeps the company off guard, and it doesn’t deplete our strike fund," he said. The UAW strike fund is estimated at $825 million, enough for three months of $500 weekly payments to workers if all plants were on strike simultaneously.

"We’re not extending the contracts. We are working under expired contracts, in the places where we’ll continue to work," Houldieson explained. "That’s going to allow us to take other plants out at a moment’s notice."

As of Friday morning, GM Wentzville Assembly Local 2250, Stellantis Toledo Assembly Local 12, and Ford Michigan Final Assembly and Paint Local 900 plants were on strike. The closures were announced by UAW president Shawn Fain on Thursday night. "If we need to go all out, we will," Fain said. "Everything is on the table."

The day before, business news host Jim Cramer told viewers that the Big Three automakers still have a "nuclear option": They could revive threats to move plant operations overseas. As recently as December, the automaker Stellantis shuttered a U.S. plant—and automakers have used the threat of more outsourcing as leverage in negotiations.

The strike could reverberate far beyond the auto sector. With pro-union sentiment running high, other labor unions have thrown their support behind the autoworkers, pledging to join the picket lines.

Teamsters President Sean O’Brien announced yesterday that his union would not cross the UAW picket line, and Teamsters in the carhaul industry told the Detroit Free Press that drivers delivering Big Three vehicles will hold off, in solidarity with the UAW.
Later on Friday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will join Fain and the UAW in Detroit for a rally.

Rising corporate profits have lent credibility to workers’ demands. UPS’s profit margins could be squeezed, an executive lamented to The Wall Street Journal, after a new contract ratified in August by the Teamsters raised drivers’ pay. With annual gross profits up by as much as 50 percent at GM compared with 2019, autoworkers are hoping to score a similar victory.

"They pretend the sky will fall if we get our fair share of the quarter of a trillion dollars the Big Three have made over the past decade," Fain said on a Wednesday livestream, referring to the Big Three.

Business analysts at the Anderson Economic Group have warned that a ten-day strike could reduce U.S. GDP by as much as $5.6 billion, with a particularly devastating impact on the economy of Michigan. However, the Prospect reported earlier that AEG’s listed clients include GM and Ford. (That figure refers to a full strike, as opposed to the sit-down strike strategy the union has adopted instead.)

The potential economic damage has caught the attention of the White House. Yesterday, The Washington Post reported that behind closed doors, the administration was considering options to extend "favorable loans" for small supplier firms in the industry that serve the Big Three with auto parts and other materials, as well as grants for workers.

Aside from the immediate negotiations, there’s a bigger looming concern: the future of American manufacturing jobs. As the Prospect previously reported, the UAW is trying to avert a future in which the switch to electric vehicles accelerates the demise of unionized auto work.

Former President Donald Trump has tried to capitalize on that threat, saying earlier this week, "There’s no such thing as a ‘fair transition’ to all electric cars. For the American Autoworker, that’s a transition to Hell. Nothing is more important than terminating this job-crushing mandate."

The Big Three have set up electric-vehicle (EV) battery plants as joint ventures (JVs), or partnerships with electronics manufacturers such as South Korea’s SK, rather than wholly owned plants. That setup allows the companies to insist that the new plants are separate, non-union entities, exempt from the UAW’s agreement.

The UAW calls that a "legal fiction," but it is a fiction that still sharply constrains how much the union can ask on behalf of EV workers. It cannot seek commitments that JV battery plants will be unionized, for example, in exchange for other items in the master agreement.

But there’s precedent for folding JV workers into UAW master agreements. As Fain told the Prospect last month, "When I worked for Chrysler, there was a joint venture with ZF at the Marysville [Michigan] axle plant. They were covered by the national agreement. The employees were leased to ZF but they were Chrysler employees."

Still, the UAW has other points of leverage. It has expressed outrage as the Department of Energy has sprayed federal funding at battery plants without attaching labor standards. And—so far—it has withheld a re-election endorsement for President Biden.
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