One of the major events of 2023 was the United Auto Workers’ strike against Detroit’s Big Three automakers — Ford, Stellantis and General Motors. Picket lines were in place for six weeks and resulted in some of the largest gains the union has seen in decades.
Listen: A look back at the UAW auto strike and what’s next for the union
A new look for the UAW
Coming into contract talks, a lot was different on the union side compared to past negotiations. Most notably was new president Shawn Fain, who became the UAW’s first member-elected president earlier this year.
Barry Eidlin, labor expert and an associate professor of sociology at McGill University, says Fain set a different tone as soon as he was elected.
“Negotiations traditionally have kicked off with the handshake between the union president and the president of the target company,” says Eidlin. “This time, Fain said the handshake we’re going to have with management is when we come to an agreement at the end.”
And even if Fain wanted to shake hands, there was no target company.
Historically, the UAW has picked one Detroit automaker to negotiate with first and used that deal as a template for the other two contracts. But as outgoing agreements were set to expire without new deals in place, Fain rolled out a new strategy.
“Tonight, for the first time in our history, we will strike all three members of the big three at once,” Fain said on Sept. 14, just before the strike officially started.
Fain referred to the new strategy as a “stand up strike.” Initially, it called for picket lines to form at one plant of each car company, with the UAW adding more strike locations based on contract talk progress.
Divide grows between workers and auto companies
Eidlin says the aggressive tactics seemed to catch automakers off guard. It was a level of resistance they weren’t used to getting from the union.
“They didn’t know how to make a case for themselves because they hadn’t had to in so long,” explains Eidlin.
At times, he says it seemed to highlight the gap between workers and Detroit’s automotive brass.
“You have these cartoonishly wild scenarios where the lead negotiator for Stellantis doesn’t even bother showing up to negotiations for the first two weeks,” Eidlin recalls, “because he’s vacationing at his second home in Acapulco.”
Meanwhile, on picket lines, fiery rhetoric from union leaders combined with a level of transparency workers hadn’t seen in the past. Fain frequently took to Facebook Live to give detailed bargaining updates.
The Labor Movement
Big Three negotiations also served as a high-profile temperature check of union sentiment in the U.S. — including drawing interest from politicians. In late September, Joe Biden became the first sitting president to join a UAW picket line.
“You’ve heard me say many times, Wall Street didn’t build the country, the middle class built the country. And unions built the middle class,” Biden said outside a plant in Wayne County
As the weeks went on and new locations were added to the strike, people like Daniel Patterson, a union member of 38 years, were excited to join the picket.
“We out here for not just the memberships in the plant, we out here for the working-class people,” said Patterson in late September. “It’s about time that they start taking from the rich and giving back to the working man.”
The UAW’s ambitious demands
The UAW was making big demands along the way, including 40% wage increases and the return of traditional pensions — something the union lost during the 2008 Great Recession.
Detroit’s car companies routinely called the language dangerous. Speaking from the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge complex in October, Bill Ford Jr. claimed UAW demands would cripple the Dearborn automaker’s ability to invest in the future.
“It’s the absolute lifeblood of our economy and if we lose it, we will lose to the competition,” said Ford, “We’ll lose factories like the one we’re in here today.”
That messaging didn’t resonate with rank-and-file, as union leaders frequently called out the eight-figure salaries of top CEOs. But for some UAW members, like Tracy Pruitt of Local 653, the issue wasn’t necessarily as much about what auto executives earn.
“If you look at Mary Barra’s salary, the market dictated her salary. But now what’s different between us as UAW workers, now we have a chance to reset our market,” said Pruitt.
UAW and Detroit’s Big Three reach new deals
On the 40th day of the strike, the first deal was reached with Ford, followed by two similar contracts with Stellantis and GM.
The terms included 25% wage increases, cost-of-living adjustments and an end to the tiered-wage system. But it did not secure a return to traditional retirement benefits, which was a popular issue among members.
Union members did ratify the contracts, but margins were closer than many expected. Some auto plants voted against the deals entirely, while nearly 55% of General Motors workers approved the agreement.
As voting took place, Fain found himself justifying the tentative deals on Facebook Live.
“There are too many non-union auto workers — and too much power behind the forces of corporate greed to win everything we deserve in one go. That’s why we’re building our strike muscle to go even further in 2028,” Fain said in November.
Despite some negativity, Eidlin says he thinks the UAW won the best automotive contracts negotiated in at least 40 years.
“The fact that there was such dissatisfaction around them — that they passed with these narrow margins — speaks to the degree to which members’ expectations were raised.”
Expanding the UAW’s membership numbers
Since finalizing new contracts with Detroit’s Big Three, the UAW is trying to carry that energy into a new membership push. Fain has stated ambitions of bringing non-union factories belonging to the likes of Toyota, Volkswagen and others under the union’s master contract.
“I think it’s hard to underestimate how important this organizing drive is going to be for the future of the UAW, but also for the future of the U.S. labor movement,” says Eidlin.
In a lot of ways, Eidlin believes the tactic goes against traditional bargaining logic. UAW leadership is hoping to find a pro-labor sentiment across the country — similar to when the union was founded in the 1930s when it gained 350,000 members over a two-year period.