UAW strike. Photo: Flickr/Scott Dexter UAW strike. Photo: Flickr/Scott Dexter

A surge in strike action in the US shows a labour movement that’s fighting back, argues Kate O’Neil

While battles over Trump’s impeachment rage on in Washington and the Democratic primary contest continues its protracted tour around the country, a new force is now quaking below the political surface in America: that of an emboldened labour movement.  

For the past month, nearly 50,000 auto workers at General Motors have been on strike for a fair contract, the longest strike in the history of the auto industry. United Auto Workers (UAW) union members are hoping to win higher wages and better health coverage, improvements in job security, and a commitment to create more jobs in the United States.

The strike’s demands have resonated with working people on both sides of the country’s official political fault line. Auto manufacturing and auto strikes hold a special place in the heart of the American working class. In the 1930s, important wildcat and sit-down strikes built the foundation for the modern labour movement. In the post-war years, a job at GM was seen as the apotheosis of blue-collar employment. With relatively high wages, good benefits and a job for life, many working-class families viewed it as a pathway to the middle class.

But since the 1970s, this perception has gradually eroded. Many assembly lines have now been moved overseas, especially to Mexico and China, where more GM cars are now produced than in the US. Just last year GM stopped production in plants in three states, putting 14,000 jobs on the line. Pay, conditions and job security have appreciably worsened since 2007, when the UAW agreed to take over the employee pension scheme and conceded to a two-tier hiring system. One striker from Kentucky described the precarious conditions thus:

Some of these assembly plants have had temporary employees on their rolls for almost seven years. They make just over half of what legacy employees of UAW GM make. They have very few benefits…They have three unpaid vacation days a year, and they have to be preapproved…For any two minor shop rule violations, they can be dismissed, which means being late or anything else.

Like other manufacturers, GM has argued that these changes were necessary to maintain competitiveness in a global economy and has cried poverty to extract decades of concessionary contracts from the UAW. Sadly, the UAW leadership has a long history of acquiescence to this mantra, subscribing to a hand-shaking ‘business model’ of unionism, which has recently evolved into a series of corruption scandals.

While the UAW leadership has gotten used to selling bad deals to their members to help ‘save GM’, this argument can hardly be made now. After recovering from bankruptcy in 2013 with the help of a $50 billion government bailout, GM has become a lucrative business. It made $35 billion in profits over the past three years and this year awarded nearly $22 million to its CEO. It also paid nothing in federal income taxes in 2018. The UAW has rightly highlighted these facts to argue not only that GM can afford a raise wages for their workers, but that, having accepted wage and benefit cuts to save the company since 2007, their workers most certainly have earned one. Furthermore, the union reasons, since it was US taxpayers who bailed out the company in 2008, GM should feel obliged to create more jobs for people living in the US.

The strike so far has cost GM $2 billion, enough to ‘bring GM to its knees’, according to the Bank of America, and it looks like a tentative agreement is close to being reached in Detroit. As the left-wing Labor Notes argues, however, it will be important for workers to remain on strike while they ratify the deal, in order to maintain the leverage they have gained in the past month. The UAW leadership has traditionally ordered members back to work before voting.

A win for the UAW would likely reverberate across the auto industry, as the agreement reached at GM would set a ‘contract pattern’ for workers at Ford and Chrysler, who are also currently in contract negotiations with the UAW. There is also every reason to believe that a victory could inspire union combativity in other sectors. Indeed, strikes in the US are on the uptick. 2018 saw the largest number of workers on strike since the 1980s, and support for unions is also at a near fifty-year high.

But the after-shocks of the strike, whatever the outcome, are sure to be felt beyond the workplace. The union’s call for returning jobs to the US has real appeal to many working class people who voted for Trump in 2016. This is especially the case in the upper Midwest, the historical centre of the car industry, where GM production is most concentrated and where several ‘swing states’ were key to Trump’s victory. As such, the strike presents an opportunity to expose Trump’s hypocrisy on workers’ rights. While claiming to stand for American blue-collar workers, he has virulently opposed labour unions. Furthermore, a white worker watching coverage of the very UAW multiracial picket lines, ‘standing up for American workers’ like themselves, may begin to question the racist assumptions about Blacks that underpin much of Trump’s phoney populism.

If the GM strike lasts just a few more days, it could overlap with another major strike just a short drive from Motown. The 25,000-strong Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), whose watershed 2012 strike and ‘social justice’ organising model has inspired teacher strikes throughout the countrysince, is poised to walk out again this Thursday for a fair contract.

Like the auto workers, the teachers are taking the offensive after years of attacks and setbacks. And like the UAW, the CTU represents a very racially diverse membership that is appealing to the broader public for support.

In 2012, a new pro-business Democratic mayor, named Rahm Emmanuel, came into office with guns cocked, ready for a duel with the teachers union.  He demanded a smorgasbord of neoliberal concessions teachers had been forced to swallow for years, such as a longer working day, tying teacher pay to test scores and further school privatisation. The union’s seven-day strike gained mass popular support in the city and around the country and was able to beat back most of Rahm’s key demands.

Most famously, the union won promises on a range of social demands aimed at levelling the playing field for children of colour and children in poverty. These included the hiring of more teachers to lower class sizes and more support staff such as librarians, social workers, nurses and counsellors to provide ‘wrap around services’ in poor, Black and Latino communities. But promises were not enough, and Chicago schools still suffer from chronic understaffing and high class sizes.

This time around, the context is more favourable, and the left-wing-led CTU intends to push the envelope as far they can. A new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was elected this spring on a progressive platform which highlighted full and equal funding for Chicago public schools, including a nurse and social worker in every school. At the same time, the state of Illinois has set aside $1 billion for Chicago Public Schools—more than enough to pay the bill for this over the life of a multi-year contract. Lightfoot has agreed to sign off on a reasonable pay and benefits package for teachers, but she has refused to make more than verbal commitments on school staffing. The city’s school board is not required to negotiate on issues beyond the purview of employee pay and conditions, but it may if it chooses.

Rather than leave social justice in the ‘safe hands’ of a progressive politician, the CTU is demanding Lightfoot and the school board ‘put it in writing’ and include staffing increases and class size limits in a contract with the union. They have been preparing members for a strike for months and are also strengthening their hand by planning coordinated strike action with 9,000 school support staff and park district workers in a sister union, SEIU Local 73.

Jesse Sharkey, the President of the CTU, recently explained how his union is taking advantage of the current moment.

The money’s there for this. There’s political will. There’s also a Red for Ed movement, a wave of teacher strikes…from West Virginia all the way across the country, Arizona, Los Angeles. And so, we feel like this is our best opportunity in a generation to actually deliver these improvements.

If the CTU succeeds in winning their demands, whether they strike or not, it will be the first time in a generation a teachers union has gone on the offensive and used its muscle to reverse austerity and the social injustice that it reinforces. Moreover, the links the CTU is forging with sister unions can lay the groundwork for more powerful ‘all-out’ sector-based strikes in education and beyond.

How these fights will register on the Richter is not yet known. But it is clear that the labour movement of 2019 in America has more and more to offer those who want to take on the status quo politics of austerity and the creeping divisive politics of the far-right.