Auto Workers Rev Their Engines: Standing Up to the Big 3

In a cheeky nod to “The Bachelor,” United Auto Workers (UAW) President Shawn Fain distributed metaphorical roses to major automakers – General Motors, Stellantis, and Ford, signaling not a budding romance, but a cautious nod towards progress in recent negotiations amidst intensifying strikes.

At the brink of widening its striking army, with 5,000 members from GM’s assembly plant in Arlington, Texas, ready to join 25,000 others, the UAW employed both the soft power of symbolism and the hard-hitting impact of collective action. GM, feeling the palpable heat of the potential financial crunch, opted for a groundbreaking concession, agreeing to embed battery manufacturing facilities for electric vehicles into its national union contract.

The Arlington plant, dubbed by many as potentially the world’s most lucrative manufacturing facility, was targeted for a reason. The union was on the brink of severely disrupting production, especially as the plant prepares to pivot towards producing all-electric alternatives, reflecting the global industry trend. UAW Local 276 members, entrenched in the massive 250-acre Arlington plant, have been initiating slow-down actions, like refusing voluntary overtime and creatively stalling production.

And it’s not just a local affair. Across the nation, workers have been voicing their solidarity with their striking comrades, recognizing the collective struggle inherent in the actions taking place. The UAW strike pay had a bump to $500 a week earlier this year, but the resolve of the striking workers is not merely financial – it’s also deeply ideological.

The rose ceremony wasn’t just theatrics. It reflected a dimension of the UAW’s Stand-Up Strike strategy – offering the public a front-row seat to the bargaining process, starkly contrasting with the traditional secret negotiations and silent waitings of the past. This modern approach wasn’t applauded by all, with GM CEO Mary Barra lamenting the UAW’s public strategy, critiquing the intercompany competition it might stoke and how it may eventually serve nonunion competition.

However, far from acting as a deterrent, the UAW’s actions are illuminating the struggles of nonunion auto workers, becoming a beacon for those who feel downtrodden, overlooked, and exploited in the industry. Take the 1,800-worker Toyota engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama; whispers about the strikes and the UAW’s action permeate through hushed conversations, offering an alternative and sparking conversations about collective action.

At its core, Fain argues, it’s not about theatrics but about exercising the sheer power that workers, as a united front of the working class, wield. The ongoing negotiations point toward significant gains, from wage hikes, shortened times to reach top pay, conversions of temp roles to permanent positions, and a unified commitment across automakers to embrace the electric future. However, sticking points linger especially around post-retirement health care and pensions.

In this theater of class war, where roses symbolize progress rather than love and strikes are as strategic as they are impactful, the UAW isn’t merely battling the Big 3. They’re reshaping narratives, sparking conversations, and, perhaps most poignantly, offering an alternative vision of what worker power and union action can look like in the modern age. Fain, clad in a union T-shirt proclaiming “Eat the rich,” elucidates that their strategy is not to inflict harm for its sake but to move, to pressure, to compel those in power to say ‘yes’ when their instinct is to shut doors. The roses might be symbolic, but the progress, the movement, and the impact are all very real.