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Top One Magazine

What the pending UAW-Big 3 deals mean for workers, Biden and the economy

Labor movement consequences

Labor strategists, on both the worker and management sides, have been for weeks dissecting the UAW’s novel “Stand Up Strike” strategy — in which the union would periodically select a subset of targets with minimal notice to maximize pressure on the companies while conserving its war chest — for lessons that could be applied to other labor standoffs.

There are several factors unique to the UAW and the Big Three that could make the tactics difficult to apply elsewhere, even in other heavily unionized sectors. For instance, there are not many other industries where a union could play three large competitors off one another simultaneously, and not all businesses’ operations are as highly interconnected as auto plants — where a stoppage at one can quickly upend work at several others, multiplying the pain.

But the autoworkers’ success lends credence to activists who have advocated for new and more aggressive approaches to contract battles as a way to reinvigorate the labor movement.

The UAW’s tentative agreements come in the wake of the Teamsters’ deal with UPS that similarly saw the union win large pay increases and claw back some concessions made in previous contracts. Like the UAW, the Teamsters had recently elected a brash new president who argued that previous leaders had been too pliant in high-stakes negotiations.

Public support for labor unions has been at, or near, record highs for several years. However, union membership as a share of the overall workforce continues to wane, and organized labor is still seeking ways to reconcile those conflicting trends and reverse its decline.

View from the White House

Biden showed unprecedented support for the union during the strike: He took the essentially unheard-of step of joining workers at the picket line in September, after Fain called for his support. Biden’s alignment with the union means the relatively favorable deals now could be seen as a boon to his handling of economic issues for the working class.

“Today’s historic agreement is yet another piece of good economic news showing something I’ve always believed,” Biden said Monday. “Worker power, worker power is critical to building an economy from the middle out and the bottom up, and so is economic growth.”

There are still pieces left to fall into place, beyond just needing the contracts ratified. The union still hasn’t endorsed Biden in his reelection bid, making it an outlier among large labor groups after the AFL-CIO delivered its earliest-ever endorsement in favor of Biden. And with the contract details on the EV issue still not clear, particularly at GM and Stellantis, there’s still the possibility of a clash down the road between the union and the president, who has spent significant domestic political capital backing that very transition.

What’s next for UAW?

Part of the UAW’s ferocity at the bargaining table was done with an eye toward its future. Landing strong deals with the Big Three would give officials something to tout to non-unionized workers, demonstrating their ability to deliver on promises of better pay and job security.

In recent years, the UAW has been dealt a number of stinging losses in various attempts at organizing other car manufacturers, particularly in the South where “right-to-work” laws hamstring unions.

The UAW over time has evolved greatly, with roughly half of its membership coming from outside the car industry, including such disparate workplaces as hospitals, universities and casinos.

As the center of gravity for the domestic car industry continues to expand beyond just Michigan and its other traditional homes in the Midwest, the UAW’s ability to organize will be key to its continued survival, particularly as new facilities come online to produce electric vehicles.

“We demanded a longer contract because one of our biggest goals coming out of this historic contract victory is to organize like we’ve never organized before,” Fain said Sunday on Facebook Live, referring to the contract’s 4.5-year duration, six months longer than the union’s last agreement. “When we return to the bargaining table in 2028 it won’t just be with the Big Three, but with the Big Five or Big Six.”

At the same time, other U.S. car companies and foreign automakers may become even more resistant to unionization campaigns. These companies already have lower labor costs than the Big Three, and that gap is expected to widen if the tentative agreements are ratified.

Some, like Tesla, which has already faced accusations of illegal anti-union actions, may dig in their heels even more rather than give up those competitive advantages over the Big Three.

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