Revitalized UAW Connects Labor Militancy and a Just Transition

The United Auto Worker’s strike this past fall demonstrated a revitalization of the American labor movements. The new UAW contract and their future plans illustrate the role they plan to play in a just climate transition.

UAW’s strength in the first ever simultaneous labor action on the Detroit Three automakers demonstrated the growing political strength of the American working class. American Capital thought that deindustrialization would outmaneuver this power, as James Boggs’ lamented in his writings, but even today we are not fully de-industrialized. The thunderous waves of thousands of striking auto and healthcare workers show us so–waves felt in Canada as well. These workers make a force Capital must continue to reckon with: the strike is a weapon.

Both Biden and Trump’s visits to the Michigan strike were strong testament’s to the power held by organized labor and the threats that strikes pose. In this display, both 2024 presidential front runners of America’s twin parties attempted to recapitulate the indignation felt by workers nationally into their campaigns. Whether or not the support they showed is genuine, it’s nothing short of the political establishment finding it necessary to vie for working-class power, lest this power learn to walk upright on its own. 

And learn it must; in recent years we’ve seen both the revival of long-standing unions like the UAW and union drives launched in uncharted territory: in megacorporations like Amazon, Starbucks, Google, Apple. The UAW strike was unique in its daring demands, supported by more than strong rhetoric but a militant strategy to boot. It’s no wonder that Ford’s CEO, Jim Farley, described the power of the strike using language such as “knife’s edge” and being “held hostage.” However, we should be clear about where this power comes from. A striking Stellantis temp. reminded me that UAW workers identify with the new reform leadership because they see the talking points of their own situated struggle. 

Decades of corruption did not dissipate overnight. This has been a multigenerational struggle against austerity and corruption. Three acts within recent UAW history serve as a prelude to this strike. A 2021 referendum required the direct election of top leadership. In 2022 prior to the election, UC graduate students with the UAW won annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) in the largest U.S. higher education strike ever. Then in March of this year, Shawn Fain on the top of the UAW Members United slate was elected president in a runoff. As mentioned, this set the stage for an invigorated and unpredictable round of contract bargaining. I imagine all Farley’s of the world find this invigorated militant unionism as threatening to their class indeed.

An explicit demand of all implicated automakers was greater flexibility with their U.S. labor force. But how much more flexibility can workers take before they are torn asunder by overwork, exploitative scheduling, or the threat of job loss? How is that, despite consistent government bailout since the Great Recession, seemingly lucrative companies cannot afford flexibility on the part of their ‘employees’? GM CEO Mary Barra claimed that  “It’s clear that there is no real intent to get to an agreement” during the strike. But as tentative agreements have been ratified with the three automakers, it’s clear for the rest of us that companies like GM are always more concerned with frantically bolstering their balance sheets than reaching a fair agreement when checked by union strength. Clearly, strikes work.

Perhaps it’s a result of the pandemic, which laid bare our shared corporeal reality, that the majority of Americans confidently supported the striking autoworkers. Despite being caught in a seemingly endless whirlwind of commodities, we’re beginning to peel back the financial veil obscuring our essential labor. Recognizing that each Ford Bronco, Jeep Wrangler or Chevrolet Colorado you see on the road is meticulously and dangerously assembled by people only hoping to eke out a living for themselves and their families. The ability of the Stand Up strike to reinstate cost-of-living adjustments (COLA), eliminating some tiers, winning the right to strike over plant closures, among numerous other wins is quite the starting point. The strike was escalating in more ways than one. Not only did this strategy put true national pressure on automakers, but the barometer of what collective labor in the U.S. can achieve has risen dramatically.

The electric vehicle (EV) transition has been the more divisive issue nationally. EV battery manufacturing facilities, a key first step in automakers’ move to electric vehicles, were eventually brought into the master agreement with GM. Meaning that the UAW will be able to represent workers at these plants. But the path towards a just green transition remains fraught. It remains the hardest challenge to fundamentally address. The history of energy technologies and capital can help shed light here. When technological change is promised as a way to improve working conditions, it’s a promise as empty as Trump’s when he claims a strong America can better protect workers than militant unionism. Both are lies utilized in order to subjugate labor to the volatile shifting needs of a blood-sucking decadent system. Tears, sweat, and blood power American cars and will continue to do so.

 A just green transition remains the goal. It’s clear that this can’t be one that negatively ramps up production for U.S. auto workers in blind technological-optimism. The strike has put a check on this. An open letter to the Detroit Three from labor and climate activists penned during the strike closes with, “you can either do right by the workers who have sacrificed to keep your companies profitable, or you can face a united labor, environmental, and climate movement standing in solidarity, ready to fight side by side with UAW workers in winning their demands.”

However, a green transition cannot be truly just if it externalizes the ecological and economic effects of this transition onto workers in the Global South either, a process that only deepens ecological damage on the global scale. If our transition can’t meet these standards it will continue to be the case that, “the greening of the Global North is not transforming the planet sustainably, but rather strengthening the robbery-mining processes of lithium and copper,” to quote the ecosocialist Kohei Saito. Climate and labor are not forces at odds though, as some may have us believe. In Saito’s words, “What is needed is precisely global cooperation and coordination for the sake of collective survival on this finite planet without a Plan B.”

At the end of November, UAW announced that autoworkers at over a dozen major non-unionized automakers throughout the US had begun simultaneous unionization drives in order to join UAW. This includes workers at Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers. UAW seeks to unionize 150,000 more workers through this initiative, which could effectively double the 145,000 members currently covered by the Big Three deal. This is a bold next step for the American labor movement and, alongside the success of the Detroit Three strike, shows the potential for a just green transition led by our revitalized labor movement.