Approximately 13,000 auto workers went on strike Friday across the big three automakers on Friday. The 13,000, among the ranks of the 146,000 in the United Auto Workers (UAW), walked away after the UAW and the three automakers, Ford, GM, and Stellantis, failed to come to an agreement in contract negotiations.
It marks the first time in the UAW’s 88-year history that the union targeted the big three automakers simultaneously. The union’s demands are steep. They want a 36 percent wage increase over four years, a reduction in the work week to 32 hours with 40-hour pay, increased time off, a benefit pension, and a restoration of cost of living adjustments.
Some of these demands, like getting paid for 40 hours of work for a 32-hour work week, are downright insane. Of course, these items are the ones that workers might be more willing to capitulate on. Whether or not the union bosses are willing to is another thing, but that still seems to me like the most likely item to go in future negotiations.
Others are more sensible. When the union and auto manufacturers reconcile, there likely will certainly be an increase in wages—though probably not to the tune of more than 35 percent. A sizable wage increase could go a long way in bridging some of the gap between worker productivity and hourly compensation in the auto industry; a gap that has opened like a chasm since the early 1970s across the U.S. economy. The auto manufacturers, to their credit, seem to recognize this to a certain extent. Prior to the strike, GM and Ford offered 20 percent wage hikes, and Stellantis offered 17.5 percent.
Furthermore, restoring cost of living adjustments in an economy with relatively high levels of inflation, and no sign of political will from the current administration to pair back rising prices, is also reasonable. Ford has reportedly offered cost of living adjustments via bonuses to the tune of $12,000 over the span of the contract, with $6,000 dispersed to full-time workers in the first year.
For the past few years, the right has been starkly divided on issues of labor. Both sides of the debate, however, recognize that the current system is broken. The laws that govern how workers collectively bargain with employers are antiquated and sclerotic—a product of the New Deal almost a century ago. What’s unfolding with the UAW now is indicative of just that.
The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, the major piece of legislation underpinning the current system, which provided strong advantages for workers in the decades after its passage, forbids labor organizations composed of both management and workers in Section 8 (a) (2). This provision made sense at the time, given the employer’s known use of company-controlled unions to upend workers’ efforts to bargain; however, Section 8 (a) (2) continues to be an impediment to workers’ ability to productively bargain.
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We’ve seen this in the recent past with the same union in question. At a Volkswagen plant based in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 2014, the German auto manufacturer wanted to implement the “work council” model common in the company’s home country. But Section 8 (a) (2) of the NLRA forbade such an arrangement by mandating control of collective bargaining efforts be in the hands of a labor union. In turn, this hands over trust-like control of labor to unions like the UAW. Labor is a market, too, and just as trust-like control of one industry leads to corruption and disruption, the same can be said for labor.
Empowered in this way, labor unions go on to become impediments to other collective bargaining arrangements that can result in better benefits for the average worker. Rather than having a single union control labor across an entire industry, as the UAW is showing it is capable now by striking against the big three, broad-based models that foster cooperation between workers and industry representatives can place worker’s desires, and not the political desires of a union, front and center.
There will be slings and arrows hurled at conservatives for supporting the autoworkers. But the truth is that American workers have been put in a situation of dealing with the devil they know rather than the devil they don’t because Republicans have failed to think critically about these issues for nearly a century.