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Autoworkers and Labor Movement Take a Risk with Strike Action

Since the start of the pandemic, labor unions have experienced a resurgence, making progress in organizing previously nonunion companies and securing strong contracts for workers. Public approval for unions has reached its highest level in years. However, unions have yet to face a major national test. Strikes by railroad workers and UPS employees were narrowly avoided, while the strikes in the entertainment industry were mainly localized in Southern California.

Now, the United Automobile Workers (UAW) strike is presenting a significant challenge for the labor movement. If a contract is reached with substantial wage increases and concessions from automakers, it could solidify organized labor as a powerful economic force and fuel further organizing efforts. However, there are risks involved. A prolonged strike could harm the established automakers and impact the Midwest economy, a politically crucial region. If the union is seen as overreaching or settles for a weak deal after an expensive strike, public support may wane.

Michael Lotito, a lawyer representing management, acknowledges that unions are currently viewed favorably but warns of the potential consequences if strikes become more frequent and lengthy. The UAW’s new president, Shawn Fain, has framed the negotiations as a battle between ordinary workers and corporate giants, resonating with union members who see it as an opportunity to regain past concessions. History has shown that successful autoworker strikes in the past have triggered waves of union organizing in various industries.

However, the strike could also have collateral damage, affecting nonunion workers and their communities. Small and medium-sized manufacturers in the automotive supply chain, whether unionized or not, would bear the brunt of the work stoppage. Some argue that the aggressive demands of the UAW and other unions could discourage businesses from investing in the United States or make them less competitive internationally. The long-term financial viability of the automakers is also a concern.

While some see the union’s aggressive stance as necessary, others worry that a failure to achieve significant gains could harm the UAW’s future. The union may win the battle but lose the war if the response from automakers is to shift more production to Mexico or adopt automation and establish plants in nonunionized Southern states. The federal subsidies for domestic production of electric vehicles secured by President Biden may help limit this shift, but adjustments in operations are still possible.

The UAW faces challenges in bringing workers at joint ventures with foreign battery makers up to the same pay and labor standards as direct employees of the Big Three automakers. The union’s ability to organize new plants, especially in the South, will be a crucial factor in preventing work from being shifted to other states. Winning a strong contract and using it to organize nonunion workers in the industry would increase the union’s chances of success.

Being too cautious can also pose risks for the union. Disillusioned workers may lose faith if union leaders talk tough but settle for subpar deals. The previous UAW administration was criticized for accepting concessionary contracts, leading to support for Shawn Fain’s leadership. Framing the fight in broad class terms has been strategically advantageous, with a Gallup poll showing widespread public support for the autoworkers compared to the companies. This public support could contribute to a different outcome than the air traffic controllers’ strike in the 1980s.

In conclusion, the current UAW strike represents a significant challenge and opportunity for the labor movement. It has the potential to solidify organized labor’s power and inspire further organizing efforts. However, there are risks involved, including potential harm to the automakers and the Midwest economy. The union’s aggressive stance could also have consequences for business investment and competitiveness. The outcome of the strike will depend on various factors, including public support, the union’s ability to organize new plants, and the terms of the contract reached.

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