EDITORIAL: UAW Stand Up Strike Potential Spark to Launch a New Militant Class-Oriented Trade Union Movement

Originally published in Labor Today

On November 20th of last year, the United Auto Workers (UAW) ratified what many have hailed as an historic contract with the “Big 3” Detroit Automakers. Coming off the heels of a 44-day rolling “Stand Up” strike, that has seen both traditional Business Unionists and self-proclaimed militant unionists sing its praise, while some ultra-left elements have attacked the strike—and contract—as “selling out” the workers. This article aims to give a class-oriented trade unionist perspective of the strike and its aftermath.

In the days leading up to the end of the last contract; UAW President, Shaun Fein, announced that for the first time the union would go on strike at all three automakers at the same time. The UAW would use a new strategy they claimed was in honor of the Flint Sit-Down Strikes that formed the UAW in 1937 called the “Stand Up Strike”. This strategy was hailed by the two main trends in the labor movement as “bold” while ultra-left elements deemed it “phony class-collaboration”, in our view it was neither. The “Stand Up Strike” strategy was one of necessity. The UAW had branched out and organized industries outside of Detroit’s “Big 3” with well over a dozen strikes in the country throughout the year—mostly in higher education. This factor led to the union needing to conserve their strike fund as much as possible making the “Stand Up Strike” a strategic necessity.

The goal of the strike was to keep the automakers guessing on what locations would walk off the job throughout the course of the strike. This had mixed results as the companies caught on to the initial calls to “Stand Up” which were announced around noon on Fridays. The UAW then made the proper adjustments and started to more randomly make the call for locations to “Stand Up” including while at the negotiating table at Ford’s headquarters when they called on the 8700 worker Kentucky Truck Plant to walk off the job after a low-ball offer. This triggered the escalation of the strike to the largest factories of the “Big 3” which ultimately lead to the automakers to cave. This started with Ford, who agreed to terms on October 25th, followed by Stellantis on October 28th and GM on October 30th.

Throughout the course of the strike—and since—Shaun Fein has used a more class-oriented rhetoric than the typical union leader. This combined with an ability to understand the conditions they faced, including withholding the union’s Presidential endorsement which pressured President Biden to uncharacteristically walk a picket line with rank-and-file members, offered a progressive step forward for the labor movement. Even the call for workers at Ford to return to work before contract ratification—a move we would oppose in most cases—was a strategic move that added pressure to Stellantis and GM to agree to similar terms, including Stellantis agreeing to reopen the shuttered Belvidere plant. Of course all the union’s demands were not met; but the contract represented gains unseen in the labor movement for decades.

The UAW used the momentum from the strike to kick off an organizing campaign at the non-unionized auto manufacturers in the U.S. They’ve seen early gains, most notably at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, TN where as of February 6th they had more than 50% on the workers sign union authorization cards. They’ve also seen progress at both Mercedes and Hyundai in Alabama where despite union-busting pressure from the state’s Commerce Secretary they’ve surpassed 30% of the workers sign union authorization cards.

Shaun Fein hasn’t limited his organizing calls to UAW either, upon ratification he called on all unions to align the ending of their contracts with UAW’s (April 30, 2028) to create the potential of a mass National Strike at contract’s end. This call is key for the union’s demand for a 32-hour work week which is virtually unwinnable without a mass movement behind it. This call, if it works, can prove to be a clever circumvention of the Taft-Hartley Act’s ban on a General Strike. Overall, the Stand Up Strike and its results are a positive first step to building a mass class-oriented trade union movement. For this to happen me need the most militant class-oriented trade unionists sections of labor and the working class at large to join the call to cultivate the rank-and-file to a higher class consciousness necessary to fort a mass organizing campaign within all of the working class. We cannot rest on our laurels and stick to the currently organized labor movement; we need to build on this momentum to organize the unorganized. The time is now for workers to stand up and fight for a truly class-oriented trade union movement.