Why are America’s auto workers on strike?

America’s summer of strikes is reaching its crescendo with an industrial dispute in the US auto industry. The legendary United Auto Workers (UAW) union represents some 150,000 workers who build cars for General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (Fiat/Chrysler), and when their contract expired last week union members began striking selected plants. What’s the fight about?

The problems began with the onset of the Great Recession in 2007-2008. The recession tipped GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy, and threatened to do the same with Ford. UAW members agreed to major concessions to enable the companies to survive the downturn, including creating a new, lower-paid tier of workers. Workers hired after the recession receive lower wages than their predecessors and are denied participation in the defined benefit pension benefit enjoyed by generations of UAW members. They were also hesitant to press wage demands on the weakened companies, so even senior workers saw their incomes eroded by inflation.

Now that the automakers have returned to profitability UAW members are demanding not just a substantial raise for all but to bring these lower-tier workers up to the union standard in pay and benefits. The companies have balked, citing competition from foreign transplants – companies like Mercedes, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai produce cars in nonunion US plants with substantially lower wages and benefits. They have also argued that they need to bank profits from this last generation of ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles to build EV production capacity.

This is an important consideration, but there have been troubling signs that the automakers want to use the transition to EVs to reset labor relations in the industry to workers’ disadvantage. They have repeatedly stated that assembling EVs will require fewer workers than ICE vehicles, and have formed legally separate joint ventures with other firms to produce EV batteries – enabling them to escape the UAW national bargaining.

In the twentieth century, the UAW helped define what a good, family-supporting job was. In the twenty-first, the workers who produce our EVs deserve the same. For that reason, it’s essential that the striking auto workers win a fair settlement and recover the ground they’ve lost. Please pray for their success!

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