Since the start of the pandemic, unions have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. They have made inroads at previously non-union companies, such as Starbucks and Amazon, and won extraordinarily strong contracts for hundreds of thousands of workers. Last year, public approval of unions peaked. highest level since the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.
What unions haven’t had during that period is a truly testing moment on a national scale. Strikes by railroad workers and UPS employees, which had the potential to shake the American economy, were avoided at the last minute. The consequences of the continued strikes by writers and actors have been very concentrated in southeastern california.
The strike by the United Automobile Workers union, whose members walked off the job at three plants on Friday, is shaping up to be such a test. A contract with substantial wage increases and other concessions from all three automakers could announce that unions are an economic force to be reckoned with and accelerate a recent wave of unionization.
But there are also real dangers. A prolonged strike could undermine the three established American automakers (General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, owner of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram) and send the politically crucial Midwest into recession. If the union is seen as overreaching, or settles for a weak deal after a costly strike, public support could deteriorate.
“Right now, the unions are doing fine,” said Michael Lotito, an attorney at Littler Mendelson, a firm that represents management.
“But unions run the risk of not being very calm if there is a five-month strike in Los Angeles and a strike of X months in many other states,” he added.
If the stakes are high for the UAW, that’s in part because the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, has done everything he can to elevate them. During frequent video conferences with members before the strike, Fain has portrayed the negotiations as a broader fight pitting ordinary workers against corporate titans.
“I know we are on the right side of this battle,” he said in a recent video appearance. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves against the have-nots, the billionaire class against everyone else.”
Fain’s framing of the contract campaign in class terms appears to be resonating with its members, thousands of whom have watched the sessions online.
Shunte Sanders-Beasley, a UAW member in Michigan who started working at a Chrysler plant in Indiana in 1999, said she viewed the fight similarly.
“If you go by history, auto workers tend to set the tone,” said Sanders-Beasley, who served as vice president of his local and endorsed Mr. Fain’s campaign for union president last year. “If we can get back some of the concessions we made, I hope it will be a trickle-down effect.”
Exit auto workers strike in 1937, which led GM to recognize the UAW for the first time, helped launch a wave of union organizing in a variety of industries such as steel, oil, textiles and newspapers over the next few years.
Labor activists agreed that the current strike could also ripple through other industries, where workers appear to be paying close attention to last year’s labor actions. “When organizing meetings, they say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,’” said Jaz Brisack, a Workers United organizer who had played a leading role in key role in the Starbucks campaign.
But the flip side is that a strike could inflict collateral damage that creates frustration and hardship among tens of thousands of non-union workers and their communities.
“Small and medium-sized manufacturers across the country that make up the integrated automotive supply chain will be hardest hit by this work stoppage, whether they are union members or not,” said Jay Timmons, executive director of the Association. National manufacturers said in a statement Friday.
Higher wages and profits for rank-and-file workers can be good for the economy. But some argue that the aggressive demands of Fain and other union leaders could deter companies from investing in the United States or make them uncompetitive with foreign rivals.
“Mr. Fain also has to think about this: the long-term financial viability of these three companies,” said John Drake, vice president of transportation, infrastructure and supply chain policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Even those who welcome the union’s aggressive stance say it is fraught with risks. Gene Bruskin, a veteran union leader who helped workers at a Smithfield meat processing plant in North Carolina win, in 2008, one of the biggest organizational victories in decades, he said a long strike could disillusion workers if the union did not meet key demands.
“If the UAW does not make significant progress, particularly on the two-tier issue, its future could be seriously harmed,” Bruskin said, referring to a system in which newer workers earn much less than veteran workers who perform jobs. Similar. jobs.
Bruskin also worries that the union could effectively win the battle and lose the war if auto companies respond by moving more production to Mexico, where they already have a significant presence.
The tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for domestic production of electric vehicles that President Biden has helped ensure should limit that shift and help keep manufacturing jobs in the country. Many automakers are already locating new plants in the United States to take advantage of the funds.
Still, Willy Shih, a manufacturing expert at Harvard Business School, said automakers could adjust their operations in ways that undermine the UAW while continuing to produce cars domestically. Automation is an option, he said, as is locating new plants in loosely unionized Southern states.
Detroit automakers have created joint ventures with foreign battery makers outside the scope of the UAW’s domestic contracts and have tried to locate some of those plants in states like Tennessee and Kentucky. The Union Looking For for workers at those plants to achieve the same wages and labor standards enjoyed by direct employees of the Big Three, but so far it has not been successful.
Given those threats, the union may feel justified in taking a more ambitious stance toward automakers. The main obstacle to moving work to other states will be the UAW’s ability to organize new plants, especially in the South, where it has struggled to gain ground for years. Experts argued that the union would likely increase its chances of attracting members there if it could make big concrete gains.
“The answer is to get strong contact here and use it to organize large groups of auto workers who are not currently unionized,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies labor.
And there are other ways in which being too cautious can pose a greater risk to the union than being too aggressive. Organizers point out that workers often become demoralized when union leaders speak harshly and then quickly settle for a poor deal.
Critics of the previous UAW administration accused him of doing just that before Fain took power this year. “First of all, we would be trying to understand how certain things developed,” Shana Shaw, another former UAW member who backed Mr. Fain, said of the concession contracts auto workers were asked to accept over the years. of the years.
Even Fain’s habit of framing the struggle in broad class terms can prove a strategic advantage. A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of the public supported the autoworkers in the standoff, compared to 19 percent who were more sympathetic to the companies.
The broad public support suggests that auto workers may be operating in a different context than workers in another strike that contributed to workers’ disempowerment: air traffic controllers’ unsuccessful fight against the Reagan administration in early the 1980s, after which private companies. Employers in the sector appeared to feel more comfortable firing and replacing striking employees.
Dr. Eidlin said that while air traffic controllers failed to court allies in the union movement, “the fact that Fain and the UAW are messaging more broadly, really trying to build that broad coalition, speaks of the possibility of a different result.”