Now that it’s over, we should take a look back at the UAW strike against the Big Three automakers – and a look forward to what it might mean more broadly.
In recent days, members of the United Auto Workers union officially approved new contracts with General Motors, Ford and Stellantis. But the gains for autoworkers, including nonunion workers, are broader than that. Since the stoppage ended last month, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai all announced raises for their nonunion U.S. factory workers.
Many are calling it “the UAW bump.”
Meanwhile, actors and writers ended their own strikes in Hollywood early this month, after gaining their own concessions from the studios.
Who won these confrontations? Well, the unions got a lot of what they wanted. For instance, the UAW, under the innovative leadership of new president Shawn Fain, won large wage increases and other long-sought concessions, such as larger company contributions to retirement plans and the right to strike over plant closures.
“It’s a fascinating moment in history,” said Julian Dalzell, the Senior Lecturer in the Management department at the Darla Moore School of Business who commented here previously while the strike was under way. “I hesitate to call them victories, but these were substantial gains for the unions.”
He’s particularly impressed by Fain’s strategies, and what he plans to do going forward. The UAW president has reached out to workers, urging them to sign contracts that will expire about the same time as the auto contracts, in the vicinity of 2028.
“We invite unions around the country to align your contract expirations with our own, so that together we can begin to flex our collective muscles,” said Fain. “If we’re going to truly take on the billionaire class and rebuild the economy so that it starts to work for the benefit of the many, it’s important not only that we strike, but that we strike together.”
In other words, related industries representing a much larger swath of the American economy may well be on the line. “If that happens”, says Dalzell, ”it will be very interesting…” and it will be “happening in another election year.” Fain has proposed May Day 2028 as a day of solidarity and for multiple Union contracts to expire. “So we shall see how other unions respond to the call.”
This follows Fain’s aggressive tactics during the strike itself, which Dalzell sees as a sort of “throwback to 1950s unionism.” But it wasn’t just a nod to glory days. In a practical sense, “It was very successful.”
Meanwhile in Hollywood, notes Dalzell, the “amount of increases was similar.” And the unions also got protections against some of the threats posed by artificial intelligence – for instance, the actors got more control over their own likenesses.
Does any of this mean that the industries – labor and management – have successfully dealt with existential threats posed by new technology, from AI to electric vehicles? No. But the unions have shown they have to power to kick the can a good bit down the road from their perspective – for now.
An impressive thing about what’s happened in both Detroit and Hollywood is that these were not industries that were not particularly vulnerable to what Dalzell refers to as “consumer time sensitivity.” The general public might rise up against the oil companies if their gasoline goes up a dollar, and would particularly revolt if all the supermarkets suddenly closed.
But do you really have to buy that new car now? Does it affect the average person’s life if a new movie doesn’t come out until next year, or we see more recycled content on television? And yet unions found other ways to engage public interest – such as the UAW having Senator Bernie Sanders speak at one of their major rallies, and welcoming the first president of the United States in history to walk a picket line – and those industries managed to wrest significant concessions from management.
This labor success is not great news for the companies, specifically in Detroit. Electric cars are coming into their own soon, and Tesla has not only a technological head start, but pays far less for labor – as do the companies that now make their cars in states that are “not very union-friendly” – such as South Carolina.
Meanwhile, with the higher wages, the companies have less money to invest in development or infrastructure that will be needed to build the next generation of vehicles – which could mean fewer jobs in the future for the workers.
But are unions daunted at this moment? Not in Detroit, and not elsewhere, either. Look what happened on Friday: Thousands of Starbucks workers staged a one-day walkout on the company’s much-promoted Red Cup Day.
It didn’t get them new contracts. But it got them some attention at a moment when unions seem to be on something of an upward swing.