OPINION: The Auto Workers strike is bigger than GM


Successful strikes beget more strikes. When nearly 50,000 General Motors workers walked out at 11:59 p.m. Sept. 15, it was just the latest in the largest burst of strikes in decades. Last year’s victorious teachers’ strike in West Virginia was the initial spark, helping inspire statewide walkouts in Oklahoma and Arizona as well as strikes in Kentucky, Colorado and Los Angeles.

The GM strikers could taste Labor’s newfound successes and momentum.

The teachers’ unions felt unusually robust public support, as parents and students marched with them. Union leaders and union members felt a new boldness from the surge of good will. This helped inspire a strike last fall by 7,700 Marriott workers in eight cities, and those workers trumpeted a message that resonated far beyond their industry: that their pay increases were not nearly keeping up with soaring housing costs, so they could not survive on one job.

The hotel workers’ success in turn helped inspire the strike by 30,000 Stop & Shop workers in New England in April. Union leaders there were surprised by the deep community support the grocery workers received — supermarket cashiers have never been as beloved as public-school teachers. Politicians stepped up, too. Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren marched alongside them. The GM strikers are no doubt counting on similar political backing.

The strong public opinion behind these strikes can be tied to Americans’ widespread dismay with wage stagnation and income inequality, even as corporate profits are flying high. While job numbers and economic growth are strong, many Americans are barely getting by: 40 percent of households say they don’t have the money to pay an unanticipated $400 expense, according to a recent report from the Federal Reserve Board.

All this might help explain why a recent Gallup poll found that public approval for unions has climbed to 64 percent, up from 48 percent a decade ago and near its highest level in 50 years. An MIT study last year found that nearly 50 percent of nonunion workers say they would vote to join a union if they could, up from 32 percent in 1995.

From the moment the GM walkout started, union leaders said the strike was bigger than just GM.

“Today, we stand strong and say with one voice, we are standing up for our members and for the fundamental rights of working-class people in this nation,” Terry Dittes, a United Auto Workers vice president, said.

The autoworkers are taking a page from the teachers, who made it clear that they were striking not just because they were tired of pay freezes but also to help their students, by increasing education budgets, reducing class sizes and replacing obsolete textbooks.

With many Americans angry about factories moving overseas, the autoworkers union also wants GM to reopen its giant plant in Lordstown, Ohio. The company closed the plant because demand for Chevy Cruzes had declined, even as it has kept open its plant in Mexico that makes the same car. And with many workers upset about the increased instability and precariousness of their jobs, the union is also pressing GM to stop using so many temps — they represent seven percent of the company’s work force and make just $15 an hour.

Donald Trump won the 2016 election partly because many workers thought the system was rigged against them. That sentiment is also fueling the GM strike.

The company had $8.1 billion in profits worldwide last year and $35 billion in North America over the last three years, so workers are resentful that the company nonetheless wants to close plants — especially when union members made major concessions, like creating a two-tier wage structure at some plants, to help lift the company out of bankruptcy.

But General Motors insists that it has already made a generous offer, saying it offered to add 5,400 jobs and make more than $7 billion in new investments in plants in the United States.

“We have negotiated in good faith and with a sense of urgency,” GM said. “Our goal remains to build a strong future for our employees and our business.”

GM strikes have often been signal events in American history. The 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike by 2,000 workers led to the unionization of General Motors, then the world’s largest automaker, and in turn spurred a wave of mass unionization across the country.

The 113-day strike by 175,000 G.M. workers in 1945-46 led to an agreement, known as the Treaty of Detroit, that provided breakthroughs on wages, health coverage and pensions, and became a model for other unions and corporations.

In 1970, when the UAW was near its peak membership, 400,000 of its members went on strike for two months against GM, which was still one of the world’s largest companies. The union emerged victorious, winning a significant pay increase.

Both GM and the autoworkers union are diminished. GM is about half the size of Volkswagen, and the union has shrunk from a peak of 1.5 million members to just over 430,000.

But with so many workers feeling unfairly squeezed by their employers, and Labor leaders emboldened by recent successes, more strikes look likely.

(Steven Greenhouse, who was the labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times for 19 years, is the author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor.”)


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