UAW strike mostly a PR move

Photo Credit: Getty

United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain is making much of the fact that the union is currently engaged in its first-ever strike against three manufacturers simultaneously: Ford, GM, and Stellantis. But this bold move is belied by the fact that it is not a full walkout. Only a fraction of the UAW’s members are actually striking.

“Instead of striking all plants all at once, select locals will be called on to ‘Stand Up’ and walk out on strike,” UAW said. “As time goes on, more locals may be called on to ‘Stand Up’ and join the strike. This gives us maximum leverage and maximum flexibility in our fight to win a fair contract at each of the Big Three automakers.”

Translation: the current UAW strike is mostly a PR move. The claim that this “stand up” approach creates the maximum pressure is bogus. History clearly shows that if a union wants a serious confrontation with the manufacturers, it has all of its members on the picket lines. That creates the most pressure on management to give in to the union’s demands – hence why “solidarity” is such an important concept to the labor movement. The fact that Fain hasn’t ordered that suggests he doesn’t actually want that or doesn’t think the union could sustain it.

It’s probably the latter. News reports have noted that the move is meant in part to help UAW sustain its “strike fund” – money to help members get by during a stoppage – as long as possible. Management is already offering the workers a 20 percent increase in pay. The union is demanding about 35 percent, among other provisions. Once the fund runs out, a 20 percent more offer is going to seem really tempting to the rank and file.

This is Fain’s first big challenge as the UAW’s president, so there’s a lot riding on it for him. He was only narrowly elected president and his two immediate predecessors lost the position because of corruption that involved selling out the rank and file. He has to prove himself as a leader as well as demonstrate that he doesn’t have the too-close relationship with management that the other presidents had. Leading a walk-out that garners headlines but isn’t too costly for his side would be one way to do that.

The risk Fain is running is that a limited walk-out doesn’t put much pressure on management. The three companies’ bigger fear is that the strike might escalate further. The three combined represent just 40 percent of the domestic automobile market. Non-union US-built foreign brands like Toyota and Volkswagen account for the rest. A prolonged strike would give the foreign competition a chance to further enlarge that share. That would be bad for the unions too.

Look for the companies to make a face-saving offer to the union that the union accepts once Fain has decided he has made his point and the strike has gone on long enough.