Since the start of the pandemic, unions have been experiencing something of a renaissance. They have moved into previously non-union companies like Starbucks and Amazon, winning unusually strong contracts for hundreds of thousands of workers. Last year, public support for unions reached its highest level since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency.
What the unions have not experienced during this time is a real gut check at the national level. Strikes by railroad workers and UPS workers that could rock the U.S. economy were averted at the last minute. The fallout from the ongoing writers’ and actors’ strikes was heavily concentrated in Southern California.
The strike by the United Automobile Workers, whose members walked off their jobs at three plants on Friday, is likely to be such a test. A deal with significant wage increases and other concessions from the three automakers could make organized labor an economic force to be reckoned with and could accelerate the recent wave of organizing.
But there are also real pitfalls. A prolonged strike could undermine the three incumbent U.S. automakers – General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, Jeep and Ram – and plunge the politically important Midwest into recession. If the union is perceived to be going too far, or if it settles for a weak deal after a costly disruption, public support could decline.
“Right now the unions are cool,” said Michael Lotito, an attorney at Littler Mendelson, a firm that represents management.
“But unions are in danger of not being particularly cool when there is a five-month strike in LA and an X-month strike in how many other states,” he added.
If the stakes are high for the UAW, it’s partly because the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, has gone out of his way to raise it. In frequent video meetings with members before the strike, Mr. Fain portrayed the negotiations as a broader struggle pitting rank-and-file workers against corporate titans.
“I know we are on the right side of this fight,” he said in a recent video appearance. “It is a fight of the working class against the haves, of the haves against the have-nots, of the billionaire class against everyone else.”
Mr. Fain’s framing of the treaty campaign in class terms appears to have resonated with his members, thousands of whom have watched the online sessions.
Shunte Sanders-Beasley, a UAW member in Michigan who began working at a Chrysler plant in Indiana in 1999, said she sees the struggle similarly.
“If you follow history, autoworkers tend to call the shots,” said Ms. Sanders-Beasley, who served as vice president of her local chapter and supported Mr. Fain’s campaign for the union’s presidency last year. “If we can win back some of the concessions we made, I hope there will be a trickle-down effect.”
A successful autoworker strike in 1937, which led GM to recognize the UAW for the first time, helped spark a wave of unionization over the next few years in diverse industries such as steel, oil, textiles and newspapers.
Labor activists agreed that the current strike could have repercussions in other industries where workers appear to be closely following last year’s industrial action. “When they organize meetings, they say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,'” said Jaz Brisack, an organizer with Workers United who played a key role in the Starbucks campaign.
The downside, however, is that the strike could cause collateral damage, leading to frustration and distress among tens of thousands of non-union workers and their communities.
“The small and medium-sized manufacturers across the country that make up the automotive sector’s integrated supply chain will feel the brunt of this work stoppage, whether they are a union shop or not,” said Jay Timmons, executive director of the National Association of Manufacturers said in a statement on Friday.
Higher wages and gains for ordinary workers can have a positive impact on the economy. But some argue that the aggressive demands of Mr. Fain and other union leaders could deter companies from investing in the United States or make them competitive against foreign rivals.
“Mr. Fain also needs 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 longtime union official who helped workers at a Smithfield meatpacking plant in North Carolina win one of the biggest union victories in decades in 2008, said he strongly supports the strike and the goals of Mr. Fain and the union to rally the working class.
But he said a long strike could disillusion workers if the union cannot meet key demands.
“If the UAW fails to achieve meaningful success, particularly in the two-tier sector, its future could be seriously damaged,” Mr. Bruskin said, pointing to a system in which newer workers are paid far less than experienced workers who receive similar benefits provide jobs.
Mr. Bruskin also feared that if the auto companies responded by moving more production to Mexico, where they already have a significant presence, the union might actually win the fight and lose the war.
The tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for domestic electric vehicle production that President Biden has helped provide should limit this shift and help preserve manufacturing jobs at home. Many car manufacturers are already building new plants in the USA to benefit from the subsidies.
Still, Willy Shih, a manufacturing expert at Harvard Business School, said automakers could adjust their operations to undercut the UAW while continuing to produce cars domestically. Automation is an option, he said, as is locating new plants in lightly unionized Southern states.
Detroit automakers have formed joint ventures with foreign battery makers that are outside the reach of the UAW’s national contracts and have sought to locate some of those plants in states such as Tennessee and Kentucky. The union is trying to bring workers in these plants up to the same wage and work standards enjoyed by direct employees of the Big Three, but so far it has not succeeded.
Given these threats, the union may feel justified in taking a more ambitious stance toward automakers. The main criterion for moving work to other states will be the UAW’s ability to establish new plants, particularly in the South, where it has struggled to gain a foothold for years. Experts argued that the union would likely increase its chances of gaining members there if it could show large, concrete gains.
“The answer is to gain a strong contact here and use it to organize huge groups of autoworkers who are not currently unionized,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies labor busy.
And there are other reasons why being too cautious poses a greater risk to the union than being too aggressive. Organizers point out that workers are often demoralized when union leaders talk tough and then quickly settle for a subpar deal.
Critics of the previous UAW administration accused it of doing just that before Mr. Fain took power this year. “We would try to understand how certain things happened in the first place,” Shana Shaw, another longtime UAW member who supported Mr. Fain, said of the concessional contracts autoworkers have been forced to accept over the years.
Even Mr. Fain’s habit of framing the struggle in broad class terms could prove a strategic advantage. A recent Gallup poll found that 75 percent of the population supported auto workers in the showdown, compared to 19 percent who were more sympathetic to the companies.
The broad public support suggests that autoworkers may be operating in a different context than workers in another strike that famously contributed to workers’ loss of power: the unsuccessful fight by air traffic controllers against the Reagan administration in the early 1980s, after which private strikes took place. Employers in this sector appeared more comfortable firing and replacing striking workers.
Dr. Eidlin said that while air traffic controllers had failed to court allies in the labor movement, “the fact that Fain and the UAW are broadening their messages and really trying to build this broad coalition suggests the possibility of a different outcome.”