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Strike Is a High-Stakes Gamble for Autoworkers and the Labor Movement


Since the start of the pandemic, labor unions have enjoyed something of a renaissance. They have made inroads into previously nonunion companies like Starbucks and Amazon, and won unusually strong contracts for hundreds of thousands of workers. Last year, public approval for unions reached its highest level since the Lyndon Johnson presidency.

What unions haven’t had during that stretch is a true gut-check moment on a national scale. Strikes by railroad workers and UPS employees, which had the potential to rattle the U.S. economy, were averted at the last minute. The fallout from the continuing writers’ and actors’ strikes has been heavily concentrated in Southern California.

The strike by the United Automobile Workers, whose members walked off the job at three plants on Friday, is shaping up to be such a test. A contract with substantial wage increases and other concessions from the three automakers could announce organized labor as an economic force to be reckoned with and accelerate a recent wave of organizing.

But there are also real pitfalls. A prolonged strike could undermine the three established U.S. automakers — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, Jeep and Ram — and send the politically crucial Midwest into recession. If the union is seen as overreaching, or if it settles for a weak deal after a costly stoppage, public support could sour.

“Right now, unions are cool,” said Michael Lotito, a lawyer at Littler Mendelson, a firm representing management.

“But unions have a risk of not being very cool if you have a five-month strike in L.A and an X-month strike in how many other states,” he added.

If the stakes seem high for the U.A.W., that’s partly because the union’s new president, Shawn Fain, has gone out of his way to elevate them. During frequent video meetings with members before the strike, Mr. Fain has portrayed the negotiations as a broader struggle pitting ordinary workers against corporate titans.

“I know that we’re on the right side in this battle,” he said in a recent video appearance. “It’s a battle of the working class against the rich, the haves versus the have-nots, the billionaire class against everybody else.”

Mr. Fain’s framing of the contract campaign in class terms appears to be resonating with his members, thousands of whom have watched the online sessions.

But he said a long strike could disillusion workers if the union came up short on key demands.

“If the U.A.W. fails to make any significant gains, particularly on the two-tier stuff, their future could be seriously harmed,” said Mr. Bruskin, referring to a system in which newer workers are paid far less than veteran workers who perform similar jobs.

Mr. Bruskin also worried that the union could effectively win the battle and lose the war if the auto companies respond by shifting more production to Mexico, where they already have a significant presence.

The Detroit automakers have created joint ventures with foreign battery makers outside the reach of the U.A.W.’s national contracts and have sought to locate some of those plants in states like Tennessee and Kentucky. The union is seeking to bring workers at those plants up to the same pay and labor standards that direct employees of the Big Three enjoy, but it has not succeeded so far.

Given those threats, the union may feel justified in taking a more ambitious posture toward the automakers. The primary check on shifting work to other states will be the U.A.W.’s ability to organize new plants, especially in the South, where it has struggled to gain traction for years. Experts argued that the union would likely increase its chances of attracting members there if it could point to large concrete gains.

“The answer is winning a strong contact here and using it to organize huge groups of autoworkers who are currently nonunion,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies labor.

And there are other ways in which being too cautious may be a bigger 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 U.A.W. administration accused it of doing just that before Mr. Fain took over this year. “We’d be trying to make sense of how certain things passed in the first place,” Shana Shaw, another longtime U.A.W. member who backed Mr. Fain, said of the concessionary contracts autoworkers were asked to accept over the years.



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