At midnight Monday morning, around 50,000 General Motors workers went on strike. The last GM strike took place in 2007 – a year before the federal government bailed out the auto industry and before the global financial crisis.
Over that decade, GM has increased its profits, making $35 billion in the last three years. Many plants are slated to close, and little of that money has made it into workers’ paychecks. Striking workers want to end pay and benefit divisions between temporary and permanent employees, and increase job security. President Trump, who has praised Midwestern autoworkers to drive up isolationist fervor, tweeted that the United Auto Workers and GM should “make a deal.”
Here are four things to know about the strike and the state of the U.S. labor movement.
Strikes can be painful for workers but tend to produce results.
The decision to strike is one workers take seriously. This collective plan to withhold labor requires committed organizing. Some employees will continue to work, and in doing so, they undermine the potential bargaining success of the strike. Companies try to discourage employees from striking, which helps the company at the bargaining table.
For many workers, a strike means short-term financial hardship with the hope of a better contract to come. In this strike, the union is concerned that there are two tiers of employees – permanent and temporary – performing the same job, but at different levels of pay and benefits. This strike aims to increase new hires’ pay, promote a path to advancing at GM, and increase job security for all employees.
Workers’ strike pay is only $250/week, meaning that workers who have bills, medical needs, or families are struggling. GM cut health insurance for all striking workers, meaning that they now have stopgap coverage from the UAW through a federal program.
So why strike? Because strikes tend to work. A company cannot produce as much with most of its employees away. Many workers emphasize that GM emerged from the auto bailout to make tremendous profits, while workers have been laid off as plants closed.
Currently, GM is losing money that it could have made if cars were produced. Its credit rating has been downgraded. The Steelworkers and Teamsters have honored the UAW strike by refusing to cross picket lines to deliver supplies, compounding the cost for GM to refuse to negotiate.
Strikes are increasing in the U.S.
In the past few years, the U.S. has seen more and larger strikes. Public sector employees – most noticeably teachers – held many of these strikes.
But private sector workers have also been striking more often, including in the airline, hotel, grocery and ride share industries. Each successful strike shows other workers what is possible, inspiring still more. That trend might continue, given a recovery in which the upper tier’s wealth has expanded while workers in the middle and bottom income brackets have stagnated.
When the public supports a strike, unions have more leverage
Gallup has asked since the 1930s whether individuals “approve or disapprove of labor unions.” In 2018, public support for unions had risen to 62 percent – which is roughly the same as it was in 1970, up from a 2008 low of 48 percent. Most people have fairly positive opinions of organized labor, with on average more approving than disapproving over the past decades.
In ongoing research, I’ve gathered polls asking about support for organized labor, breaking that opinion down by state. Attitudes vary by income group; the rich tend to oppose unions while lower- and middle-income people tend to favor them. Opinion also varies by state. In Michigan, with a strong history of labor affiliation, support for unions is strong. And for good reason. In a 2018 academic article, I found that states with higher rates of union membership are also more economically equal, even after accounting for the degree of liberalism of public policy.
Some research suggests that Americans are critical of strikes. But how the news media reports on these strikes influences public opinion. In general, Americans do not dislike organized labor. When news coverage frames strikes as part of a bigger struggle for workers and communities, they are more successful. For example, news coverage of the teachers’ strikes tended to reinforce that teachers are underpaid and cared deeply about their jobs. The UAW has emphasized the unfairness of two-tiered contracts that treat temporary workers differently. That “fairness” frame may invite more positive news coverage.
Of course, no one yet knows what will happen with the UAW and GM. But expect more strikes. Currently, most coverage of the strike has reported on the workers, their grievances, their relationship with a highly profitable GM, and support for the UAW from the general public. Those narratives improve the union’s chances for a successful negotiation.
But that could change. Officials in the UAW have been under investigation, accused of misusing union money. GM has told reporters about some of its concessions emphasizing its willingness to hire some of the temporary workers and invest in the plants. That’s part of a strategy to shape the narrative of the strike. The UAW has not yet said what it considers negotiable, meaning that many members aren’t fully aware of those options either.
Democratic presidential candidates Joe Biden, Michael F. Bennet, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Bill de Blasio, Tulsi Gabbard, Kamala D. Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang have all voiced their support for the strike. With 80,000 Kaiser Permanente workers set to strike on October 14, this won’t be the last strike that catches airtime during the 2020 presidential campaign.
Bucci is an assistant professor of political science at Saint Joseph’s University.