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Strike is a high-risk gamble for autoworkers and the labor movement

Since the beginning of the pandemic, labor unions have enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance. They have taken on formerly non-union companies like Starbucks and Amazon and won abnormally strong contracts For hundreds of thousands of workers. Last year, public acceptance of unions reached its peak highest level Since Lyndon Johnson became president.

What unions haven’t had during that period is a true gut-checking moment at the national level. Strikes by railroad workers and UPS workers, which had the potential to shake the US economy postponed at the last minute, This is the adverse effect of the ongoing strikes of writers and actors. highly concentrated In Southern California,

The strike by the United Automobile Workers, whose members walked off the job at three plants on Friday, is shaping up to be one such test. An agreement with substantial wage increases and other concessions from the three automakers could declare organized labor as an economic force and accelerate a recent wave of organizing.

But there are real disadvantages too. A prolonged strike could weaken three established U.S. automakers – General Motors, Ford and Stellantis, which owns Chrysler, Jeep and Ram – and send the politically crucial Midwest into recession. If the union is seen as overreaching, or if it settles for a weak deal after an expensive standoff, public support could deteriorate.

“Right now, the unions are quiet,” said Michael Lotito, an attorney with Littler Mendelson, the firm representing management.

“But if you have a five-month strike in L.A. and X-month strikes in how many other states, there’s a risk that the unions won’t be very quiet,” he said.

If the stakes seem high for the UAW, it’s partly because the union’s new president, Sean Fenn, has gone out of his way to elevate them. During frequent video meetings with members ahead of the strike, Mr. Fenn has portrayed the negotiations as a broader struggle pitting ordinary workers against corporate titans.

“I know we are on the right side in this fight,” he said. Recent Video Appearance, “It’s a fight of the working class against the rich, the rich against the poor, the billionaire class against everyone else.”

Mr. Fenn’s framing of the contract campaign in a classroom context appears to be resonating with his members, thousands of whom have watched the online sessions.

Shunte Sanders-Beasley, a UAW member in Michigan who started working at a Chrysler plant in Indiana in 1999, said she had seen the fight similarly.

“If you follow history, autoworkers set the tone,” said Ms. Sanders-Beasley, who has served as vice president About his local and supported Mr Fenn’s campaign for union president last year. “If we can get back some of the concessions we made, I hope it will gradually have an impact.”

a successful auto workers strike In 1937, which led to GM recognizing the UAW for the first time, it helped trigger wave of union organizing Over the next few years in various industries such as steel, oil, textiles and newspapers.

Labor activists agreed that the current strike could also impact other industries, where workers are paying close attention to labor activities over the past year. “In organizing meetings, they say, ‘If they can do it, we can do it,'” said Jazz Brisac, an organizer with Workers United who played a role. major role In the Starbucks campaign.

But the flip side is that the strike could cause collateral damage that would cause frustration and hardship to thousands of non-union workers and their communities.

“Small and medium-sized manufacturers across the country who make up the automotive sector’s integrated supply chain will bear the brunt of this work stoppage, whether they are union shops or not,” said Jay Timmons, chief executive of the National Association of Automobile Manufacturers. The manufacturers said in a statement Friday.

Higher wages and benefits for ordinary workers could be good for the economy. But some argue that the aggressive demands of Mr. Fain and other labor leaders could discourage businesses from investing in the United States or make them uncompetitive with foreign rivals.

“Mr. Fain also has to think about this – the long-term financial viability of these three companies,” said John Drake, vice president of transportation, infrastructure and supply chain policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Even those who welcome the aggressive stance of the Sangh say that it is fraught with risk. Gene Bruskin, a longtime union official who helped workers at a Smithfield meat-processing plant in North Carolina in 2008, one of largest organized victory Over the decades, it was said that a prolonged strike could lead to disillusioned workers if the union did not meet key demands.

“If the UAW fails to make any significant gains, especially on two-tier things, their future could be seriously damaged,” Mr. Bruskin said, referring to a system in which new employees are required to perform similarly. are paid much less than experienced workers. Jobs.

Mr. Bruskin was also concerned that the union could effectively win the battle and lose the war if auto companies responded by moving more production to Mexico, where they already have a significant presence.

President Biden commits tens of billions of dollars in federal subsidies for domestic production of electric vehicles has helped secure That should limit change and help keep manufacturing operations at home. Many automakers are already setting up new plants in the United States to take advantage of the money.

Still, Harvard Business School manufacturing expert Willie Shih said automakers could adjust their operations in ways to reduce UAWs while continuing to produce cars domestically. Automation is an option, he said, as well as setting up new plants in lightly unionized Southern states.

Detroit automakers have formed joint ventures with foreign battery makers outside the reach of the UAW’s national contracts and have sought to locate some of those plants in states such as Tennessee and Kentucky. Organization is seeking to bring workers in those plants to the same wages and labor standards that direct employees of the Big Three enjoy, but it has not succeeded so far.

Given those threats, the union may find it appropriate to take a more ambivalent approach toward automakers. The primary check on shifting work to other states will be UAW’s ability to organize new plants, especially in the South, where it has struggled to gain a foothold for years. Experts argued that if the union could point to larger concrete benefits it would be more likely to attract members.

“The answer is to win a strong contact here and use it to organize the vast groups of autoworkers who are currently non-union,” said Barry Eidlin, a sociologist at McGill University in Montreal who studies labor.

And there are other ways in which being overly cautious could be a greater risk to the union than being overly aggressive. Organizers say workers often become demoralized when union leaders talk tough and then quickly settle for a poor deal.

Critics of the previous UAW administration accused him of doing so before Mr. Fenn took office this year. “We’re trying to understand how certain things got passed in the first place,” said Shana Shaw, another longtime UAW member who supports Mr. Fenn, about the concession contracts autoworkers have had to accept for years. Was asked for.

Even Mr Fenn’s habit of framing the fight in broad class terms could prove a strategic advantage. recently Gallup poll found that 75 percent of the public supported autoworkers in the demonstration, while 19 percent expressed more sympathy for the companies.

The widespread public support suggests that autoworkers are operating in a different context from workers in another strike that famously contributed to the loss of power for labor: air traffic controllers against the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. Following the unsuccessful fight, private sector employers appeared to have become more comfortable firing and replacing striking workers.

Dr. Eidlin said that while air traffic controllers failed to court allies in the labor movement, “the fact is that Fenn and the UAW are sending the message more broadly, really trying to build that broader coalition. “, suggests the possibility of a different outcome.”

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