When United Auto Workers (UAW) president Shawn Fain settled the 46-day strike against the Big Three automakers in late October, he claimed: “We have begun to turn the tide in that class war—for the American working class.” But every sign tells the opposite story. The reaction of union members to the supposedly “historic” contract was mixed—it was not full of givebacks like every other contract for decades and brought temporary relief for some on the bottom. But it fell far short of a 40 percent pay raise, ending tiers, restoring full pensions and everything else that workers desperately need. The UAW has announced a massive organizing drive, and many non-union auto workers are looking to join. The mood of workers across industries remains full of anxiety over rising costs and the direction things are headed. The bosses, having escaped the strike largely unscathed, have already begun a retaliatory offensive against the union.
Going into the contract battle, the union had the upper hand: with cracks in the U.S.-dominated world order and an extremely unpopular government, the opportunity was ripe for auto workers—who stand at the heart of the economy—to improve the situation for the working class as a whole. Biden and the bosses have been desperately trying to stave off a crisis, while people are being ruined by inflation and massive debt. Given the widespread disgust with Biden, the last thing he wanted was a major labor battle to drop his approval rating even further. It wasn’t crazy to think that workers could win their demands. But Fain’s strategy was not up to the task. Rather than wage the strike as the fundamental clash of class interests that it was, Fain only sought to get a “fair share” for workers without causing the bosses or Biden too much trouble, especially in the lead-up to the elections.
So, the strike ran up against the wall of what the bosses were willing to cough up without their hold on the industry and society at large being challenged. And the union remains vulnerable to the current counterattack. The UAW needed to follow an entirely different course to really win the strike and strengthen its position. We called for a general strike in Detroit to end tiers, reindustrialize the country and fight for black liberation. We aimed to show that the labor movement must take up the cause of black liberation to improve conditions for all workers. This requires a revolutionary leadership willing to go beyond the bounds of capitalism. Fain’s narrow trade unionism confines workers to the arena of economic struggle, within which none of the problems facing the working class can be resolved. Workers need a strategy that can unite all the struggles of the oppressed to beat back the bosses’ attacks, organize all the unorganized workers and prepare for the other battles ahead.
The strike settlement wasn’t an easy sell for the UAW tops because so much more is badly needed and everyone knows the bosses have the money. At the same time, Fain’s “stand up” strategy exhausted and demoralized many workers, especially those hanging on by a thread, who felt compelled to accept what was on offer when their leadership told them there was nothing more that could be done. Now Fain spins the deal, and even workers’ dissatisfaction with it, as a step forward. He has convinced many that it wasn’t possible to win it all in one go and that the deal puts workers on a (slow) march toward progress. But whether now, or in 2028, if workers don’t have a leadership willing to land a serious blow against the bosses and their government, their struggle will be undermined. Who knows what 2028 will look like, but Fain’s strategy of avoiding a major confrontation will be no better then.
Organizing, Class Independence and Black Liberation
Coming off the strike, Fain announced one of the largest organizing drives in decades. This massive endeavor, if successful, will greatly strengthen the union. Every previous organizing drive has been derailed by the bosses’ pitting of one section of the workforce against another, especially along racial lines. Fain recognizes the problem of the bosses’ “divide and rule” schemes and says that this time the UAW will organize differently. However, his narrow trade unionism ensures he will only reinforce those divisions and stand in the way of the kind of fight necessary to unite the multiracial working class. In order to advance the interests of the working class at all—be it abolishing tiers, successfully organizing or reindustrializing this country—labor must take up the fight for black freedom.
During the strike, Fain avoided the essential question of black oppression and today avoids talking about anything other than economics when it comes to the organizing drive. But ignoring black oppression—the elephant in the room—when trying to organize auto only plays into the bosses’ hands and will undermine the campaign, just like it undermined the strike. Fain’s narrow perspective of struggling for the crumbs that the capitalists offer means that the fight to improve conditions for black workers is necessarily viewed as coming at the expense of white workers.
By not taking up the fight for black equality, it leaves the bosses with a mighty weapon to drive down the conditions of all workers and makes black workers believe that they cannot wage a united fight with white workers. Only when it is understood that workers and black struggle go forward together or fall back separately and share common enemies—the bosses and their capitalist system—does it become not only possible but necessary to take up the cause of black liberation.
The material basis of black oppression is segregation, which the entire auto industry is built on. The very reason that the South is not unionized is because labor leaders refuse to fight black oppression head on. Anti-union forces in the South make a practice of whipping up racist reaction against the UAW by portraying it as a force that will leave white workers worse off. The “open shop” South should be reason enough for any decent trade unionist to fight for black liberation. But there’s plenty more.
Fain is not preparing the organizing drive with class-struggle methods but instead looks to the Democratic Party as an ally. He is already sowing illusions in the bosses’ government. He begs Congress to be on the union’s side and acts like Biden’s NLRB is “pro-labor.” What’s the NLRB done for Starbucks or Amazon workers? Tangled them in endless legal battles and left most unrecognized and all without contracts. Fain presents the bosses’ government as a neutral actor instead of a tool of class domination.
Because Fain is pro-capitalist, he wants to help the automakers remain competitive, seeks the help of the “pro-labor” politicians and doesn’t think the union has to take up the fight to end black oppression. This is a recipe for defeat and missed opportunities. At bottom, his strategy is the reason the tide was not turned, the strike demands were not met and the working class is not in a better position than it was before. His strategy, flowing from his political perspective, is an obstacle to the battles ahead.
What the working class needs—be it decent wages, quality health care, housing or better conditions on the job—cannot be achieved while trying to avoid disruption of the capitalists and their economy. To defend the current contract and fight back against the bosses’ attacks requires a class independent strategy.
Defend the Gains!
The strike wasn’t the slam dunk victory for labor that a lot of the liberal media and the left like to pretend it was. But it wasn’t a crushing defeat either. This strike did not change the playing field for the working class, but it did gain some things for some workers. The contract is better than what came before, but that’s a pretty low bar.
For some, strike bonuses made it possible to go from sleeping in their cars to having a roof over their heads or to finally be able to buy a new car. Others saw their wages increase from $23 to $34 an hour, which certainly helps when you’re just getting by.
On the other hand, for many, the honeymoon Fain promised is over before it even began. Some workers report that, since ratification, everything is worse on the job. In the Flint parts center, GM declared an “emergency situation” requiring everyone to work eight hours a day, seven days a week, with no exceptions. On any day, the company can force a ten-hour shift without notice. Wage increases are good, but the exhausting overwork makes it impossible to have a life or even sleep. In Chicago, workers reported that the exhausting work pace at Ford hasn’t improved since the strike. Shifts are so long that they are barely able to see their families. One worker told us that he feels like a boxer who gets to go to the corner after each round, trying to gather himself for the next.
Many senior workers think that the union should have held out longer, perceiving the contract as mostly benefiting new hires. GM workers are angry that Fain gave up on pensions and post-retirement medical coverage for those hired since 2007. All this is a far cry from workers winning back what’s been lost.
Furthermore, Stellantis has announced that it will lay off a couple thousand UAW members in Toledo and Detroit. Many temps expecting to be hired into permanent positions were instead fired. Ford has already cut hundreds of jobs at its biggest plant, in Louisville. And GM is promising to increase stock buybacks and dividends for investors by achieving “efficiency,” “productivity” and “cost savings” in the plants—i.e., speedup and layoffs. Meanwhile, the world economy teeters on the brink of recession. You can be sure that the bosses will continue to roll back and undermine every gain.
Fain’s only plan is to meet with the bosses to ensure the layoffs comply with the contract. It is necessary for workers to organize a fightback to force them to restore all jobs. A struggle against the bosses’ “right” to call the shots would not only stop the layoffs but also make the bosses think twice before further trampling on the contract, while strengthening the union’s ability to win more of what workers need. This requires a strategy far broader than Fain’s that points the way forward for the working class and oppressed.
Fight for Class-Struggle Leadership
The bosses have launched their counteroffensive. Workers need a new leadership to prepare a successful defense and push the organizing drive to victory. Militant class-struggle caucuses must be built in the UAW, based on the understanding that the only way out of misery is to defeat the bosses and their government. The aim must be to oust Fain and the other bureaucrats and take leadership of the union. Here are some elements of program to do that:
For union control of hiring and scheduling! No tiers! Full-time work for all who want it at the highest UAW scale! In order to combat rampant speedup and overtime, workers must fight for control of the workplace. There is absolutely no reason that anyone should be working grueling shifts. The bosses should not have the right to tell the people who actually do all the work, when and how long their shifts should be. There needs to be union programs for hiring and upgrading that extend to the black population of Detroit and beyond, to ensure that black people aren’t jobless or left to fill the worse jobs. A union plan to spread out the work with no loss in pay would also reassure white and higher seniority workers that this would not come at their expense. In fact, this fight is a way for the union to cut through the racial divide and strengthen itself.
Rebuild the strike fund—no more excuses! No layoffs! Organize the unorganized! Fain said that it was important that the union won the right to strike against plant closures. Well, we need to strike against the layoffs! To successfully organize the non-union automakers is also going to require strike action and hard struggle. If Fain’s excuse was that bringing out the full force of the UAW during the recent strike would have depleted the fund, start rebuilding it now. Workers should demand an accounting and fight for a massive fund-raising drive to build a big enough fund for an all-out strike. No more six-figure salaries for the bureaucrats, and no more donations to the Democrats!
For union control of health and safety! Work in auto is backbreaking, and speedup only makes it more dangerous. Workers know what’s safe and what they need. They should shut down production when they think conditions are unsafe.
For labor action to defend Palestine! The UAW organizes workers in the military defense industry that is supplying the Gaza genocide. Organize to shut down production! No weapons to Israel! The UAW recently passed a resolution asking for Biden to broker a cease-fire in Gaza. The labor movement has the power to play a crucial role in ending the carnage and advancing the fight for Palestinian liberation. But in order to be effective, actions to do this must be carried out in total opposition to the Democratic Party butchers of the Palestinians and based on the understanding that the only way forward for workers and the oppressed—from Gaza to Detroit—is to defeat the bosses and their government.
To qualitatively improve our situation requires a break from the narrow trade unionism of Fain. For a revolutionary leadership to fight for the interests of the entire working class on the road to workers power! For a multiracial workers party that fights for a workers government!