Updated Oct 31, 2023 - Economy & Business

UAW nabs its biggest win in decades

Illustration of a raised fist with a sunburst behind it

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

The UAW's historic labor agreements with the Big Three automakers mark a reversal of more than 40 years of waning power for auto unions in the U.S.

The big picture: Coming on the heels of similarly hard-fought agreements for UPS workers and Hollywood writers, the UAW agreements will likely inspire further organizing efforts and fuel the labor resurgence already underway.

  • "This is a shot in the arm," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Experts at the start of the strike said there was no way they could win — but they did, she said.
  • GM on Monday announced it reached a tentative labor agreement with the UAW, following similar deals with Ford and Stellantis.

The background: Autoworkers had been making concessions to U.S. automakers since 1979 when the UAW agreed to pay cuts to help keep Chrysler out of bankruptcy.

  • "This was the beginning of almost two generations of so-called concession bargaining," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Those concessions only intensified in 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis and continued into the 2019 contract, he said.
  • The new contracts, which ended a nearly seven-week strike, "turn that all around."

With his clout rising on the national stage after weeks of labor action, UAW president Shawn Fain touted the agreements as a win for the union and workers across the U.S.

  • "Our union has been through some dark days," he said in a Facebook Live chat over the weekend. "I no longer see a union in decline."

Zoom in: The contracts include an immediate 11% raise, and restoration of the COLA, the cost of living adjustment the union bargained away in 2009.

  • There are massive pay increases for those lowest-paid workers. Temps hired this year will see a 150% wage increase over the four-and-a-half years of the contract.

Crucially, the union won the elimination of a loathed two-tier worker structure — where workers were paid differently for doing the same jobs.

  • Those pay differences between workers fueled a lot of resentment, said Lichtenstein, the UC labor historian.
  • They're part of an overall corporate strategy spanning different industries, that cuts costs and keeps workers apart, he said. Getting rid of them is a way to fuel solidarity.
  • So is setting the 2028 contract expiration for the day before May Day (May 1st, a historic worker solidarity day) and encouraging other unions to do the same.

In the weeds: The unusually long contract term will give the UAW more time to organize U.S. auto workers outside the Big Three, at Tesla and the Japanese automakers, as Axios' Joann Muller reports.

Between the lines: Whether or not they organize, those non-unionized auto workers will likely demand wage increases in light of these new contracts, said Lichtenstein.

  • "Tesla's going to have to raise wages," he said. So are the Japanese automakers with workers in the U.S., as they try to keep pay in line with the Big Three, he added.

What's next: These deals still need to be approved by rank-and-file UAW members.

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