UAW's Innovative Strike Against the 'Big Three' Leads to Groundbreaking Contracts
By Erika Thi Patterson
“Record profits mean record contracts!” was the chant heard across the country as thousands of United Auto Workers (UAW) members embarked on a historic strike against Ford, GM, and Stellantis two months ago.
After a month of escalating innovative strike tactics, the UAW reached landmark tentative agreements with the “Big Three” automakers on October 30th. And now that the majority of members have voted to ratify all three contracts, over 145,000 auto workers will see immediate wage gains, improved working conditions and benefits, enhanced job security, and a seat at the table to ensure the transition to EVs doesn’t leave workers behind.
Why workers needed to strike
For decades, auto workers watched their wages stagnate, working conditions decline, and job security erode as automakers pocketed millions of dollars in public subsidies to remake an auto sector that was unsafe, non-union, and reliant upon temporary workers. Then in 2008, auto workers were forced into major concessions on wages, pensions, healthcare, and the right to strike when the Big Three CEOs insisted that these cuts were necessary to save auto workers’ own jobs.
As workers enabled the Big Three to achieve soaring profits once again, they continued to suffer under Great Recession-era austerity measures. From 2013 to 2022, the automakers collectively raked in $250 billion of profit, and in the last four years alone, workers watched CEO pay at Ford, GM, and Stellantis shoot up by 40%.
Why these negotiations were different
After years of exploitation by the Big Three, workers stood ready to challenge the automakers’ corporate greed in this round of contract negotiations. Under the leadership of Shawn Fain, the newly-elected head of UAW, auto workers led with audacious contract demands, including double-digit pay increases, a 32-hour work week, an end to a tiered-wage system that paid new workers less than incumbent ones, the restoration of cost-of-living adjustments, and demands to include supply chain workers at battery production plants in the final contracts.
When the Big Three refused to meet UAW’s demands, the union went on strike against all three automakers simultaneously for the first time in history. UAW deployed a strategy of gradually and unpredictably expanding the strike, which kept workers in the headlines and left the companies guessing about which plant would strike next. This gave UAW the maximum leverage and flexibility to escalate all the way up to a national, all-out work stoppage.
What workers won
While the strike expanded to 44 plants, it never came to an all-out shutdown. Workers ultimately secured record contracts that restored many of the concessions from 2008 and enshrined improved standards for workers throughout the entire auto sector. Here are a few of the remarkable gains from the groundbreaking contracts:
- A 25% wage increase, including an 11% bump in the first year and restoration of cost-of-living adjustments.
- An end to wage tiers that divided auto workers into upper and lower pay classes.
- The conversion of thousands of “temporary” workers to full employee status.
- The right to strike over plant closures at all three automakers, which will provide the UAW with critical leverage against the Big Three shifting jobs to anti-union states and overseas.
- Reopening the Belvidere Assembly Plant — one of the only Big Three plants ever reopened after a closure.
- The right to organize at EV battery production plants.
A lasting legacy
The UAW strike of 2023 will go down in labor movement history for auto workers’ bold demands, brilliant strategy, and impact on the industry. We’re already seeing ripple effects, with Tesla and Toyota attempting to placate their own non-unionized workers with wage hikes after the strike. Auto workers proved the EV transition doesn’t have to come at the expense of workers and the strike reminded us that when we take collective action to challenge corporate greed, we can win big.
In the wake of UAW’s monumental win, the climate movement and labor movement must continue building on the partnerships forged during this strike to win bigger and bolder demands for workers, communities, and our climate.