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Stateside Podcast: UAW rolls out new strike strategy

United Auto Workers members walk a picket line during a strike at the Ford Motor Company Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Paul Sancya/AP
United Auto Workers members walk a picket line during a strike at the Ford Motor Company Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., Friday, Sept. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Today marks a historic first. The United Auto Workers union has called a strike against all three Detroit automakers after rejecting the companies’ most recent contract offers. That’s a departure from the tradition of targeting one of the companies. And it’s also a new kind of strike: The union is calling it a “stand up” strike.

What is a “stand-up strike?”

The term is an homage to the famous 1936-37 Flint sit-down strike against General Motors. The UAW says this strike starts small, and can grow over time. Workers at just three plants so far have been instructed to walk off the job: Final assembly and paint shop workers at Ford’s Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, all of the workers at General Motors’ Wentsville plant in Missouri, and all of the workers at Stellantis’ Toledo Assembly Complex.

Why those three plants?

Labor strategy experts like Susan Schurman are closely watching the UAW’s strategy. She’s a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University.

She notes the union didn’t pick the company’s most profitable plants — the ones that make full-size pickups. Instead, they chose plants that make sporty SUVs in the case of Stellantis and Ford, and midsize pickups and vans at General Motors.

She was expecting something very different.

“I’m fascinated,” she told Michigan Radio. “It’s the first time that the UAW has ever struck all of the Big Three at the same time — it’s a move away from their historic use of what’s called pattern bargaining. I was anticipating they would choose somewhere in the supply chain and close down parts suppliers that would cripple the assembly operations. Instead they’ve chosen an assembly plant in each of the Big Three. It’s fascinating, but I'm pretty convinced that these are pretty smart people and they have a strategy that will emerge.”

What experts say are the pros and cons of a rolling strike

Experts say the strategy could keep the union from depleting its strike fund too quickly. It seems to also be sending a message to the automakers, as in, "We’re not going after the plants that make your highest-profit vehicles — but those could be next." The strategy also makes it much harder for the automakers to plan ahead to protect inventory if they don’t know which plant is going down next.

But the downside — which the union appears to recognize — is it could be harder for the union to maintain solidarity and enthusiasm among workers who are not on strike. UAW President Shawn Fain is urging locals to hold rallies, reach out to coworkers, support workers at striking plants, wear red shirts on the assembly line, and be ready to walk out if their plant is next.

What’s at stake here, for Michigan and the nation?

A number of economists say this kind of plant-by-plant, rolling strike could have a significantly smaller impact on the state and national economy — that is, if it doesn’t end up a full-on walkout at all the plants. Still, Michigan could end up being affected more than other states. That’s because about 70,000 of the UAW’s 150,000 Detroit Three members live and work in Michigan.

Susan Schurman says the strike is taking place at a unique time in union history. There’s the ongoing writers and actors strike in Hollywood; the Teamsters just narrowly avoided a strike; and here in Michigan, about 1,000 Blue Cross Blue Shield workers are on the picket line.

She says for the past 30 years, corporations including the Detroit Three had the leverage in contract talks.

“And in the past several years, I think in part due to the pandemic and the inflation and labor shortage, the leverage has shifted. You can see it all over the country. Unions understand that this is a moment of leverage and they better take advantage of it. And that's what the Teamsters did at UPS, and this is what the UAW is doing now. They’re like, ‘This is our moment.’”

How are the Detroit Three reacting to the strike?

Both Stellantis and General Motors have said in separate statements published Friday that they are disappointed in the union’s strike decision.

Stellantis attributedthe walkout to “UAW leadership’s refusal to engage in a responsible manner to reach a fair agreement in the best interest of our employees, their families and our customers.”

Ford said in a statement Thursday night that the latest counteroffer proposed by the UAW would “double” its UAW-related labor costs, which it said would be “unsustainable.”

What are the union and the companies at odds over? 

UAW President Shawn Fain — the first UAW leader to be directly elected by members — says he wants more than just an end to the concessions that the automakers won in the Great Recession, the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, and the pandemic. He wants union members to share in the dramatic profits garnered by the automakers — about a quarter of a trillion dollars in the past ten years. He also says if the automakers can afford to hike their CEOs’ compensation by 40% in the past four years, they can do the same for the people who labor on the factory floor.

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
Laura is Executive Producer of Stateside. She came to Michigan Public from WDET in Detroit, where she was senior producer on the current events program, Detroit Today.