How Will UAW Strike of the Big Three Automakers Play Out?

By Tim Murphy - Skoler Abbott P.C.

September 19, 2023

Thirteen thousand auto workers  – represented by the United Auto Workers (UAW) – went on strike September 15th at plants in Michigan, Ohio and Missouri after rejecting contract offers from the Big Three automakers, Ford, GM, and Stellantis NV (formerly Chrysler).

New President Shawn Fain called the strike after characterizing the contract offers by the Big Three – reportedly including wage increases of 20% over four years a “no-go”. The UAW initially sought aggressive 40% pay increases over four years and a 32-hour work week, citing inflation and record company profits as justification.

While there is nothing unprecedented about an UAW strike of the Big Three, there are two novel aspects of this one. First, this is a partial strike. Only three plants were struck idling just 13,000 of the approximately 146,000 UAW-represented auto workers. Second, the strikers are employed by each of the Big Three: GM operates the struck Wentzville Assembly Plant in Missouri, Stellantis N.V. runs the Toledo Assembly Complex in Ohio, and the struck Michigan Assembly Plant outside Detroit is Ford’s. These UAW tactics are new as past strikes have targeted just one automaker at a time with all of that automaker’s plants being struck at once.  

The UAW’s tactics leave more than 130,000 UAW members working under expired contracts at the three companies. (Federal labor law requires that employers retain the status quo under expired contracts, preventing them from changing workers’ pay or working conditions until a new contract is reached.) This gives the UAW flexibility to strike more plants as negotiations proceed and also allows it to preserve its strike fund.

At the same time, the UAW has opted to take on all three automakers simultaneously for the first time. The automakers have options too. They have laid off non-striking UAW members due to supply chain issues and may choose to lock out UAW workers or replace them because of the effects of operating without a new contract. It’s a high stakes game whose ripple effects may threaten the greater economy. Time will tell if the UAW’s tactics pay off.

The UAW’s aggressiveness reflects a spike in labor activism, as American workers, spurred by tight labor markets and impacted by inflation, press for better pay and benefits.

Finally, the most interesting backstory here to me is how will this strike and its eventual settlement position the Big Three and their UAW-represented workers to cope with the biggest disruption to the vehicle market in decades: the transition to electric vehicles. Will the Big Three and their workers be left (further) behind non-Union Tesla and non-Union foreign EV manufacturers because of labor costs? Will US taxpayers be bailing out the Big Three again in 2033 because of decisions made at the bargaining table in 2023? Time will tell.

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