The United Autoworkers are preparing for a strike that could begin as early as Sept. 15 after the latest offers from U.S. automakers were dismissed out of hand by the UAW’s radical president, Shawn Fain.
Fain — part clown, part radical revolutionary — ran on a platform of restoring concessions made by workers during the 2009 recession, raising wages by 46% over four years, and ending the two-tiered employment system that benefits employees who’ve been with a company for a long time with better pay and benefits than newly hired workers.
“What we’ve seen is the new president of the UAW taking an offer from the automakers and throwing it in a wastebasket on social media. That gives it a different dimension,” said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Indeed, Fain’s preferred method of communication with his members is short videos on Facebook and Instagram. And he’s fond of quoting a radical UAW leader from the early days, Walter Reuther.
His speeches are often peppered with quotes from Walter Reuther, the legendary 1940s union boss who was regarded as a reform-minded intellectual, and he counts civil-rights activist John Lewis and college-basketball coach John Wooden among his influences.
But when asked who his role model is, he hesitated for a moment.
“I am who I am,” he replied. “I was raised to be my own person.”
The Big Three’s share of the U.S. auto market has fallen from 67% in 1999 to 39% today. Labor costs per employee — including wages, benefits, and “statutory costs,” which comprise state and federal unemployment taxes and Social Security — are $66. There is little doubt there’s a connection between the two.
The automakers have proposed “pay increases for their workers ranging from 9 per cent to 14.5 per cent, with one-time payments that range from $10,500 to $12,000. Ford and GM also offered lump sum payments equal to 6 per cent of wages,” according to the Financial Times.
Also for our VIPs: You’re Not Going to Believe How Big a Raise the Auto Workers Are Demanding
Though the prospect of a strike is near certainty, how that strike proceeds could be up to Joe Biden — the “most pro-union president” in American history.
Fain said on Wednesday that Biden will need “to pick a side”. Michigan is a critical battleground state that voted for former President Donald Trump in 2016 and Biden four years later. It also has a seat in the finely balanced US Senate up for grabs in 2024. If Biden sides against the union it could discourage the state’s conservative-leaning Democrats from voting, Kosnoski said, as well as depress youth turnout nationwide.
Biden’s standing with labour is stronger than former Democratic presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. If the UAW secures a good deal for members and Biden supports it, he could benefit, said Susan Demas, a former Democratic strategist who is now editor of the non-profit news site Michigan Advance. So far the UAW has withheld its endorsement in the presidential race.
The president’s “role right now is to make sure that all parties stay at the table and keep talking,” said John Drake, Vice President of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Supply Chain Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The UAW can say that the president doesn’t have any business being involved in negotiations. But there are huge national implications of these negotiations going south, and the president absolutely has a role to play in these negotiations.”
If the strike goes on long enough, the temptation for Biden will be overwhelming to directly intervene in the negotiations. Presidents routinely intervene in labor disputes, but only when the impact of a strike directly threatens the economy. Otherwise, a president’s powers are limited.
“This whole thing is going to be a mess,” said John Truscott, a Republican strategist in Michigan. “President Biden has to be very careful in how he approaches this. He has been very supportive of labor, but if this stretches out, he’s going to own it as far as the economic impact.”
A radical union president and impossible union demands? This may be one of the longest, most economically damaging strikes in a long time.