Oct 20, 2023 - Economy

The UAW's strike success hinges on organizing more workers

Factory workers and UAW union members picket outside the Ford Motor Co. Kentucky Truck Plant on October 14, 2023 in Louisville, Kentucky.

UAW union members picket outside the Ford Motor Co. Kentucky Truck Plant on Oct. 14, in Louisville, Ky. Photo: Michael Swensen/Getty Images

General Motors, Ford and Stellantis are offering striking workers record contracts with huge raises and improved benefits, but after a nearly five-week work stoppage, hard-line union leaders are still holding out for more.

  • It's a risky strategy that will only succeed if the United Auto Workers follow it up with an equally aggressive effort to unionize other automakers.

Why it matters: A successful UAW organizing effort could improve the livelihood of all U.S. autoworkers, including those who work at non-union plants run by Tesla, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai and others.

  • Failure to organize their non-union competitors, however, might cost union jobs by saddling GM, Ford and Stellantis with uncompetitive costs that threaten their survival.

Driving the news: After Ford executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. said earlier this week that the UAW strike was putting the domestic auto industry at risk, union president Shawn Fain responded: "Workers at Tesla, Toyota, Honda and others are not the enemy — they're the UAW members of the future."

  • "Next we're going to organize non-union auto companies like we've never organized before," Fain said during a Friday livestream.

Reality check: The UAW has been trying to organize workers at the so-called U.S. transplants for 40 years — with no success.

  • Its most recent failure came in 2019, when workers at Volkswagen's Chattanooga, Tennessee plant rejected the UAW for the second time.
  • Organizers blamed scare tactics by VW management and anti-union politicians.

Just a few years later, however, the labor movement has entered a new era.

  • More favorable attitudes toward organized labor, a pandemic-emboldened workforce, and a growing wealth gap suggest the UAW's prospects are better than they've been in decades.

What they're saying: "My sense is what the UAW is doing is part of a well-thought-out plan to restore unionization to the auto industry," veteran labor organizer Richard Bensinger tells Axios.

  • "Step one is demonstrating that the union is strong and capable of being equal to the auto companies," explained Bensinger, former national organizing director of the AFL-CIO, who also served as UAW organizing director a decade ago.
  • Step two, he says, is mobilizing a grassroots organizing drive similar to the recent unionization effort at Starbucks (which Bensinger helped lead).

The intrigue: Young labor activists who joined Fain's inner circle from Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign are bringing new energy and tactics to the fight.

  • They're using social media to stay in touch with members and empowering them to take action at the grassroots level, for example, while also keeping Detroit automakers off-balance.
  • "The new leadership of the union is in control of the narrative," Bensinger said. "In my view, they understand this moment in history."

Perhaps the most coveted prize for the UAW would be to organize Toyota's Georgetown, Kentucky plant — a sprawling facility with more than 8,000 employees that the UAW last tried to unionize in the 2000s.

  • Todd Dunn, president of the UAW local that represents workers at Ford's nearby Kentucky Truck Plant, hinted that the union could target Toyota next.
  • A "significant segment" of workers at the Toyota plant "want UAW representation," Dunn told Axios in an interview.

Yes, but: Some workers say they don't need to unionize since their employers tend to raise wages anyway whenever their UAW counterparts get a new contract.

  • "Those workers at non-union plants are rooting for the UAW because it means they're going to see a wage increase," said consultant Dennis Cuneo, a longtime auto industry executive.
  • But, they see striking UAW workers struggling on just $500 a week in union strike pay. "Every day this strike continues, it'll be that much harder for the UAW to organize a non-union plant," he said.

What to watch: When the strike against GM, Ford and Stellantis eventually ends, expect the UAW to shift quickly to organizing — leading boycotts against non-union carmakers, for example, or targeting small-yet-critical suppliers that could disrupt production.

  • Such tactics represent missed opportunities in the failed 2019 unionization drive at Volkswagen, according to a critique penned at the time by labor organizer Chris Brooks.
  • Brooks' current job? Right-hand man to UAW president Shawn Fain.
Go deeper