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Countdown: 144,000 US autoworkers workers set to strike

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Picture: UAW via Twitter – The UAW has set the tone for these negotiations with a set of militant demands that address the unsupportable conditions US workers. The master contract for 144,000 unionised workers has expired on September 14. Workers are ready to strike the three largest automakers in the nation

By Natalia Marques

At midnight on Thursday, the master contract for 144,000 US autoworkers employed at the three largest car manufacturers (General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis) expired.

Workers have been preparing for months for this moment, using the UPS Teamsters’ historic contract win as inspiration. The United Auto Workers, which represents the 144,000 workers employed at the “Big Three” automakers, has organised grassroots actions such as practice pickets. This year’s contract campaign is the first mobilisation of the rank-and-file union members for contract negotiations in the union’s history.

The Big Three have already rejected key demands such as the cost of living adjustment (raises tied directly to inflation, dubbed COLA). In a September 8 update, UAW President Shawn Fain revealed that Stellantis and Ford proposed lump-sum bonuses that exclude certain workers rather than COLA. Ford’s proposal does tie wage increases to inflation but only when inflation goes up by a very high threshold, which would mean no COLA raises for the next four years.

“That’s not COLA. That’s not even Diet COLA. That’s Coke Zero,” said Fain on September 8.

The companies have only put forward new counter proposals this past weekend, writes Luiz Feliz Leon in Labour Notes, although even these fall far short of what workers want. ”It’s unfortunate the companies have waited until the last moments to get focused on the needs of 150,000 autoworkers, our families, and our communities,” said Fain on Monday.

In 2022, in the first direct election in UAW for top officers, union members elected current President Shawn Fain, who has been trailblazing a path for radical change within the union. Fain is determined to abandon the model of concessions to the Big Three that UAW leadership has pursued for decades and win back the victories of the socialist-influenced UAW of the 1930s and 40s. The UAW’s demands such as a 32-hour workweek, raises tied to inflation, the elimination of tiers which divide workers, and the ending of plant closures, reflect the goals of a new iteration of leadership.

Autoworkers are ready to strike. UAW has US$ 825 million (about R15.7 billion) in its strike fund to make sure that workers can make do without pay. Last month, 97 percent of workers at the Big Three voted to authorise a strike. In two days, this could very well become a reality — the first time autoworkers at all of the “Big Three” strike at once.

A battle for all workers

If they manage to win their demands before September 14 (President Fain has made it clear that backing down from demands is not an option), UAW workers will raise standards for the entire US working class, currently in the depths of economic despair.

If a potential strike is not averted, UAW workers will embark on a battle not only for their set of very radical demands but against some of the most powerful elements of capitalism itself. In a recent report at Truthout, Derek Seidman labelled the Big Three the “three-headed behemoth of big capital.” Seidman’s report reveals the links between the leadership of the largest automakers in the country to some of the most notorious union busting corporations in the country, including Amazon and Walmart, as well as to the tools and masterminds of US imperialism such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the top weapons producers (General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin) that bloat the US military budget.

As Seidman writes, “GM CEO Mary Barra herself served on the board of General Dynamics, the fifth-biggest US defence company, from 2011 to 2017, during which she was compensated in the millions. GM Director Thomas Schoewe currently serves as a director of Northrop Grumman, the third-biggest US defence company. GM Director Wesley G Bush is the former head of Northrop Grumman, serving as CEO until 2018 and chairperson until 2019. Another GM director, Linda R Good, is the retired executive vice president of Information Systems and Global Solutions at Lockheed Martin, the top US defence company.”

In 2022, General Motors CEO Mary Barra made US$ 29 million in total compensation, Ford CEO Jim Farley made over US$ 55 million from 2020 to 2022, and Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares made nearly US$ 23.5 million in 2022.

“Our wages have increased by less than 12 percent since 2007. Adjusted for inflation, Big 3 workers are earning $9/hour LESS than we were 15 years ago,” writes the UAW reform organisation, Unite All Workers for Democracy, in a contract campaign leaflet. “Are you ready to take on the companies and win what we deserve?”

Natalia Marques is a writer at Peoples Dispatch, an organiser, and a graphic designer based in New York City

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch