Editor’s note: Robert Bruno is a professor of labor and employment relations at the Urbana campus of the University of Illinois and the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago. Bruno, an expert in labor history and politics, spoke with News Bureau business and law editor Phil Ciciora about why more than 47,000 auto workers went on strike against General Motors Co.
How much of this strike is the United Auto Workers trying to get back what its members lost in the Great Recession?
The UAW has been looking for a way to return to its old glory for some time. The auto industry was at death’s doorstep in 2008, and the Obama administration’s industry bailout plan did reinvigorate it, but at the same time it required the UAW to make some concessions.
This is a proud, iconic union that, in some respects, helped build the industrial middle class in the Midwest. If you were to point to a single event, the midde class was built on the union’s successful 1937 Flint, Michigan, sit-down strike. That may be the most important labor dispute in U.S. history. The UAW became a really powerful labor union, and it grew to be a central force in U.S. politics.
But since globalization began to shutter plants in the U.S. and the industry went into crisis, the UAW has been struggling to regain its primacy as a defender of working-class interests. The union has been trying to find its footing with new workers. The last two contracts it signed were approved under great duress during the Great Recession. The membership viewed these as difficult concessions that seemed to blame the workers for the industry’s plight. Membership admitted that they were making a sacrifice for the industry, and they were bitter pills for them to swallow.
But at the same time, the union was putting a down payment on the industry’s survival – and that bill was eventually going to come due. And now that the industry and GM are relatively healthy with significant profits, there’s a renewed sense of grievance. Workers feel like they’ve been taken advantage of and that they’ve been scapegoated for the auto industry’s woes. And when a company can financially afford to pay for a more lucrative contract, all of that is enough cause and justification for the UAW to throw down the gauntlet.
Do you foresee this strike as being a long, protracted battle?
There seems to be a commitment on both sides to a more drawn-out fight. They’re talking, which is good, but there are some very important issues at hand that are worth struggling over.
Compensation issues are the big items, and always will be, but the cost of health care has been at the forefront of most strikes over the last decade, no matter the industry. Due to the rising cost of health care, workers aren’t able to realize any real pay increases. Wages in the industry are actually lower than pre-Great Recession levels, and when the employer tries to pass on additional medical costs to workers, it really cuts against any pay increase the company is willing to provide.
GM also got government tax dollars in the 2008 auto bailout. So workers paid into the company as taxpayers. And then GM got a huge tax break through the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which was another gift from taxpayers to the industry. Companies that were the beneficiaries of the tax cut made promises that they were going to take that money and invest it in pay increases and job development. Little or none of that happened.
Instead, you have GM asking workers to carry a larger percent of the health care burden. It’s not hard to see why the UAW would oppose the contract offers that GM has put on the table. Under these conditions, more was expected, and the feeling among workers is that GM could certainly pony up more.
The rank-and-file union members are pretty worked up, and they expect their leadership to do better, so there’s internal pressure within UAW for a big return. They understood why leadership settled for less during hard times, but GM is a profitable company right now, and it got there on the backs of its workers and taxpayers.
All of that means there’s little motivation for UAW to settle for something less than what it wants.
Is this strike inspired by successful labor actions of recent note such as the teacher walkouts and strikes by hotel and health care workers?
While strike totals are up considerably the last couple of years, I don’t think we have evidence that it’s part of a broader movement of workers willing to going on strike.
There’s been a number of high-profile strikes recently with large workforces in different industries. It’s hard to really pinpoint because it’s always industry-specific, and unions have to draw on their own capacity to wage a strike. They have to know what the power relationships and dynamics are.
But knowing that other large unions are able to go out and get good wage increases – it’s possible that it inspired other unions in other industries. It certainly has in the past. Historically, there have been times where there was a large mass movement of workers who went on strike. After World War II, you had about 4 million workers on strike, and they were all taking advantage of the same economic conditions and the same pent-up demand for better working conditions.