The GM Strike and the Future of the UAW

The GM Strike and the Future of the UAW

“We need to start acting as a class-conscious organization.”

UAW Local 22 members hold a prayer circle after hearing the news that the UAW-General Motors tentative agreement had been ratified. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

The strike at GM is over, the deal has been ratified, and what have the workers learned? What has the country learned? We picked apart the details, the history, and what remains to fight for with autoworker Sean Crawford from the Flint assembly plant, UAW Local 598, and Ruth Milkman, distinguished professor of sociology at CUNY and author of, among other books, Farewell to the Factory. They discuss the past of the UAW and its future, the questions around plant closures and electric cars, what it would take to really rebuild union strength in manufacturing, and much more. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the interview on the Belabored podcast here.


Sarah Jaffe: Sean, can you tell us about your reaction to the agreement that was passed?

Sean Crawford: It was a good deal for senior workers, but for everybody else it was a bad deal. People got some money up front, especially those with seniority, but for temporary workers, people who work in supplier plants—CCA, GMCH, places like that—or even third-party outsourced workers, they all suffered and continue to suffer under this agreement. Not to mention there’s still a two-tier system, although it has been smoothed out significantly. There was an initial bonus check and that’s all well and good, but as far as preserving equality for the union and really getting us to where we need to be to take collective action again in the spirit of solidarity and really being united as an organization, this deal is a big disappointment to me.

Michelle Chen: So I take it you voted no on the contract?

Crawford: Oh yeah, most definitely. About 43 percent of workers voted no, so it was pretty close. The contract really fell short of making us equal again, which was my deepest hope.

Chen: Was this your first strike with GM?

Crawford: Yes. The last strike at General Motors was back in 2007, and I was hired in 2008. I have been on the picket line many times before, though not for General Motors.

Chen: How was the experience of the strike for you? Did the union do a good job of keeping people engaged and motivated? And do you feel like it ended when it should’ve ended?

Crawford: My personal opinion is that we should have been out as long as it took to get full equality for everybody. So it should have been extended until we were able to eliminate all the different tiers within the union. On a local level, I think UAW Local 598 did a pretty good job. We had Solidarity Sunday events where people were walking in front of the plant holding “Solidarity Forever” banners. A lot of people came out and gave donations of food and time. The Teamsters and the local nurses union were on the picket line. In Flint people from the Fight for $15 and DSA came out as well. So there was really a very strong showing of solidarity and support from the community.

Jaffe: Ruth, I want to ask you to situate this strike in the history of the UAW at GM. Where does this fall in terms of duration, outcomes, and significance in this history?

Ruth Milkman: The last really major strike, which was much more successful, was in 1970. The union won a lot of things that it had been fighting for. The big difference between that period and today is that the industry has been radically transformed. General Motors itself has shed huge numbers of jobs and huge numbers of plants since that time. So that was kind of the last hurrah of the union at its peak strength. It was before the price of oil tripled, and it was before the deunionization that occurred in the United States. The 1970s was the decade in which everything changed—it was the beginning of the long decline of union power and of union density, and of employment in basic industries like automakers. The recent strike was forty days, and that one was even longer, but the main difference was the union was striking then from a position of great strength. Today, unfortunately, that isn’t really the case. It was a strike from a position of weakness. GM is still closing the Lordstown plant, which was one of the issues in this dispute. In 1970, there were no nonunion auto assembly plants in the United States. Now, there are quite a few owned by automakers based in other countries.

Jaffe: There was a pretty significant “No” vote on this contract, and some of the sticking points were these plant closures, as well as the two-tier system. You mentioned that the union is bargaining from a place of relative weakness now, but GM is doing pretty well in this current moment.

Milkman: In terms of profitability, that’s true. They have lost a huge amount of market share over the years. I’m not saying that means that they’re hurting, but GM has a very different place in the U.S. economy than it used to.

Crawford: That being said, for most of my coworkers that I was on the picket line with, the biggest sticking point was all about equality. Those of us who are at top wage are not really looking to make a whole lot more money. We feel we’re fairly compensated. I appreciate what the union has done to get us up to the wage we’re at. I was hired in as a second-tier worker starting at $14 an hour back in 2008, and it took me eight years to get the top wage. Prior to the 2015 agreement, you couldn’t even get the top wage as a second-tier worker. It actually took the Chrysler workers voting down their contract to win us that victory and the ability to get to top wage.

There are a lot of temporary workers who have been doing it for three, four, five, even six years. That’s a disgrace. Now there’s a three-year pathway for temps to become permanent, but that’s only if they don’t get laid off for thirty days or more. And of course they’re at-will employees, meaning General Motors can do it anytime. The union says they can fight it, but they said that the plant closures that we just underwent were illegal. And we see how that ended up. But the strike went on for a long time, people were missing a lot of paychecks, and I think that’s what brought it to an end, unfortunately.

Chen: On the issue of equality, pretty much the entire tiered structure seems to have been preserved. How does that make people feel about their union? Do you think there will be consequences?

Crawford: General Motors is not going to have expanding profits forever. And when we hit a recession, GM is going to come back begging for more concessions. I think this weakens and divides us, unfortunately. A lot of union officials aren’t even willing to talk about it because it’s so obviously embarrassing and against the ideals of what the CIO unions were supposed to stand for historically. You can’t move forward as a group with collective demands and collective power unless you’re on the same level.

A lot of temporary workers are very upset. A lot of second-tier workers are very upset. People were expecting more. But then, at the same time, the UAW’s been undergoing a lot of corruption scandals. So some people were cynical right from the start.

Jaffe: I do want to ask more about the corruption question, but, first, Ruth I would love for to you to talk about the introduction of temps into manufacturing and the way that the tiered system and the temps have been used to divide these plants. Obviously this is not just an issue at GM, but an issue across the entire industry.

Milkman: And not even just this industry, it’s happening in other industries as well. There’s a lot of evidence in the academic literature that having temporary workers or a two- or multi-tier set up is divisive in terms of what it does for morale. It’s not clear to me that it’s worth the savings. If people are really angry and feeling like it’s unfair, it’s not really in GM’s interest because they won’t perform as well. Of course the management doesn’t see it that way. This is a trend worldwide. Many companies are doing it if they can get away with it. They have a very short-term orientation.

It reflects the weakness of the union in this situation. Just structurally, the corruption issues certainly make it even weaker, but even without that General Motors has a lot of the cards. They are likely to continue laying people off and closing plants, especially in economic downturns. One of the things that I learned in doing some reporting on the temps is just how much the companies pay. Per worker they pay these temp agencies almost as much as they pay direct hires. But they don’t want the long-term liability, they want “flexibility.” There are supplementary unemployment benefits and other costs that they escape when they have a group of workers with no rights.

Chen: There had been hope that in this contract there would be some sort of backstop against more plant closures and perhaps bringing jobs back from Mexico. But those things were not really addressed in this contract. Do you feel like the union is helpless in trying to reverse plant closures? Is it inevitable?

Crawford: No, I absolutely don’t think it’s inevitable. I think really the solution strategically is twofold: First we have to expand the reach of the union. The union is a movement where there’s power in numbers, and the company is global, and therefore the labor movement needs to be global in order for us to compete at the same level. The success that the labor movement had in the past was because people were condensed in a similar area and they could develop a culture of solidarity that could collectively push back against corporate greed. Now, because the company is all over the world, we have to have a global culture of solidarity or else we really don’t stand a chance. GM will just move production overseas.

Another thing that I think is worth considering is what we do with these plants as the company abandons them. I’m in part of the country where there are tons of abandoned plants everywhere, at least there were before they were knocked down. We have a golden opportunity here with the progressive wing in our politics pushing ideas like the Green New Deal. You can look back historically and see that, for example, GM actually destroyed an entire immigrant neighborhood to build the Detroit-Hamtramck assembly via eminent domain. And so I look at something like that and think, if they can use eminent domain to take private property for their private profits then just abandon us, we need to have the ability to legally and democratically go in there and take these plants and use them to be the engines of a Green New Deal for our economy. These communities that have been devastated by plant closures can build solar panels and wind turbines and electric buses and all these things. We need the political vision to make that happen and to start developing a narrative about worker control. Workers are the ones that produce wealth that actually allows these companies to become so rich.

Jaffe: At the Lordstown plant, they’re talking about putting a battery plant in the neighborhood, but it would be outside of this contract. Workers there told me: we could run this plant.

Crawford: It’d be incredibly difficult for workers as individuals to save up that kind of money. But with state help, it could be possible.

Milkman: We’ve shifted the conversation into the political arena, which I think is really right, but the elephant in the room is Donald Trump. Trump promised to bring back jobs to the United States from other countries and to keep Lordstown open. Of course none of those promises are being honored. But in a way it points to the fact that there is some political leverage. I don’t completely agree with Sean that there’s necessarily economic leverage. I think the whipsawing is made possible by the overcapacity in the industry worldwide as well as within GM itself. But there are other options, which are political in nature. For example, if the company was given all kinds of benefits when they set up, say, the Hamtramck plant that Sean was talking about, there should be a cost to closing it down, and that’s something the community and the government can impose. So that’s a different kind of organizing. But I think it’s something that the UAW and other unions should be thinking about because the old-fashioned kind of leverage is not what it used to be.

Jaffe: What about workers taking over closed plants?

Milkman: The only places you see that on any significant scale is when a plant or a company is failing and is unprofitable and sometimes workers can get it together to take over in that situation. But they’re at such a disadvantage if the reason it closed was that it wasn’t that viable to begin with. So that’s complicated. I’m not against it, but I think it’s something that has to be approached with a lot of caution and a lot of background research because often it doesn’t work out.

One of the things that I think the public doesn’t really understand about the auto industry is, because all the publicity is about the permanent workers and the assembly plants who get paid pretty well even now and have terrific benefits, that is not true in the auto parts sector, which is what that battery plant would be. Even if those plants are unionized, they have inferior contracts and much lower wages. Plus it’s fewer jobs than Lordstown used to have. So, while it’s probably still better than nothing, it’s not really what everybody wanted.

Crawford: As someone who’s worked in some parts supplier plants before, I can say some of the working conditions in these small plants that supply the shops are a throwback to eighty or ninety years ago. OSHA will come in and fine them, but the fines that OSHA gives are so much less than the cost of replacing the equipment. They just take the fines, and the workers continue to toil away in these super dangerous conditions. You have to see it to believe it. Truly.

Milkman: Yeah. Those are sweatshops in many cases. It’s a very different story.

Jaffe: With the leadership of the union in crisis right now, what can be done to use some of this momentum from the strike to make change within the union?

Crawford: I think you have to start with one member, one vote. We have a delegate system right now, and it’s ridiculous. There’s no real direct accountability. It’s like an electoral college except you only have one party. There’s an administration caucus that rules over the union and has since the McCarthy era because of the Red Scare. There’s really been no kind of real democratic competition or dialogue in the union ever since because they solidified the hold of the administration caucus so thoroughly. Most of the people in the union don’t even know who the higher-ups in the organization are because there’s no campaigning. There are no direct elections. It’s not really a system that keeps the leadership close to the people at the bottom. They spend more time with the corporate executives than they do with the actual workers on the shop floor.

You have to eliminate the middleman and have direct elections within the organization so they are accountable to the membership. If there were direct elections, a lot of the people that are currently in office, who were in cahoots with this corruption, wouldn’t be there. These people are, a lot of times in a lot of ways, worse than management because they undermine the faith in the only organization that workers have to improve their quality of life. They are doing such a disservice to the very spirit and essence of what the organization is supposed to be.

Milkman: It’s interesting because there are some unions that are famous for having a long history of corruption. Everybody talks about Jimmy Hoffa and other cases that are kind of infamous. Historically, the UAW was not among those. So this is a relatively new phenomenon in the UAW. I’m not saying there was zero corruption, but this is on a different scale than we’ve seen before, and I don’t quite know why that is.

There’s a famous book about the 1970 strike called The Company and the Union by a former New York Times reporter, Bill Serrin. One of the things he says is that strikes have a role inside the union as a sort of safety valve. Workers are often frustrated about how they’re treated in the plants, and if they go on strike, they get to express that anger. This is good for the union leadership, he suggested, because it relieves that pressure. As I recall, there wasn’t a lot of advance planning for this strike. I wonder if that was part of what was happening here.

Crawford: You’re talking about catharsis. If anything, it can make the anger more pronounced. People get the opportunity to practice. So I think they need to be careful with that strategy.

Milkman: I don’t have any real evidence that it was their strategy. It just seems like a possibility that it might’ve been part of what leadership was doing.

Crawford: There was really next-to-no preparation ahead of time for this strike. We didn’t even have enough signs on the picket line. There was no education about how to budget and save money for a strike, or what to expect on a strike. None of that happened. But as the contract deadline was approaching, more corruption and scandal bombs kept dropping. It seemed like a last-minute decision. Maybe it was their attempt to say to the membership, “Hey, we’re still a fighting union.”

Milkman: It changes the conversation, too. Before, everybody was talking about the corruption. Now that there’s a strike, you can focus on that.

Chen: In Labor Notes’ early coverage, they speculated that it was the Hail Mary pass of the union brass. They were looking for a win and thought that this might’ve been a convenient way to do it. But it seems rather crass to treat a workforce of 49,000 people as a political ploy.

Jaffe: I’ve been doing a bunch of reporting on Lordstown. One of the things about the Lordstown strikes in the 1970s was that the workers felt very much like the leadership didn’t care about their demands, other than higher wages.

Milkman: Those were wildcat strikes. The famous one, in [1972], was a wildcat strike that wasn’t led by the union leadership. And they had much more leverage at that time.

Crawford: Often, the union leadership will pay lip service to radical ideas. They will pay homage to the Flint sit-down strike. The risks those workers took were really monumental in many ways and gave birth to the labor movement in the 1930s. Unfortunately, a lot of it is just rhetoric. It really does a disservice to the memory of the sit-down strikers, what they risked, and what they were trying to achieve.

Milkman: The other context for this strike is all the other strikes that we’ve seen in the United States in the last couple of years. Everybody knows that this is happening in other sectors, and maybe it would be appealing to workers to be part of that whole trend. Some of those strikes have been pretty successful, and this is something we haven’t seen for a long time in this country. The big numbers are among the teachers, and I really think that’s a different animal than a private-sector strike. But we have a few in the private sector as well, including this one, the hotels strike last year, and some supermarket activity here and there.

Jaffe: And the big strike at Verizon.

Crawford: I think there’s been a rise in class consciousness in the United States, and it gives me a lot of hope for the future. Since the Bernie Sanders campaign, a lot of folks have been jumping on the bandwagon and realizing that, “Hey, you know, we have more in common together than we do separate. So let’s work together towards common goals.” It’s really been a beautiful thing watching the strike wave across the country. It’s inspiring, and I hope it continues because that’s the only mechanism we have to create a better life for ourselves and our families.

Chen: Since the Chicago teachers’ strike and the UAW strike were going on kind of simultaneously, we’ve seen these two narratives unfold in different parts of the workforce. Aside from it being inspiring overall, to see more people out on strike, do you want to draw some key contrasts between them?

Milkman: Besides that it’s public sector versus private sector, which is a pretty important difference, there is another one. In the case of teachers, there’s a third party. It’s not just the teachers and their employer—there’s also the students and the families that are involved in the school. In the auto industry, there’s no equivalent of that. There is the broader public, but you can’t really reproduce the “bargaining for the common good” idea in an auto strike in quite the same way.

I’m more struck by the differences than the similarities. The one exception to that would be what economists call the “multiplier effects.” In Flint, I’m sure, when the plants went down because of the strike, a lot of related businesses were affected in lost business and lost money. So in that sense there is a sort of public constituency that’s directly involved. But it’s really different from thousands and thousands of students who have nowhere to go for the day. The Chicago teachers really did strategize with that in mind and try to make some of their demands benefit the students directly. They reached out to the community. That’s the lesson I think. You can’t win these things without winning over the hearts and minds of the public. And it’s harder for autoworkers. The public perceives that they have it pretty good. They have pensions and great healthcare, and a lot of people don’t have those things. So it’s a much heavier lift in the auto industry.

Crawford: I think the main thing that they have in common is the need for sector-wide bargaining. There’s a ripple effect in the entire economy, and I feel horrible for the people in the parts plants and their loss of income during the strike as well. But that’s why you have to start organizing a class-based movement. It can’t just be about the autoworkers. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons that people have a bad perception of autoworkers sometimes, as if we’re just self-interested. But whole communities are based on these auto plants and these auto supplier jobs. I’m so happy that people like Bernie Sanders have been bringing up the idea of sector-wide bargaining because we’re really all in it together. It doesn’t really make sense to just bargain with one company because they’re all so interrelated and impact one another. Unless we’re fighting with a collective narrative for the whole, it makes it difficult to build the community solidarity and the support necessary to win big, ambitious strikes.

Jaffe: Ruth, I wanted to ask you to talk a little bit about the research you did in Farewell to the Factory. One of the things that you wrote about in that book was that a lot of these workers were happy to take the buyout and get out of the factory to do something else. You mentioned Donald Trump promised to bring these kinds of jobs back. I wondered if you could talk about what’s changed in the time since you wrote that book, in terms of how we think about factory jobs nostalgically with the reality that these jobs are not terribly fun.

Milkman: When I started that project, it was when the industry was just beginning to change and when foreign competition, as they called it, was growing. In 1979, Chrysler went bankrupt, and that was the beginning of the unraveling of the old order. I started my research not long after that. I thought these were really great jobs before I did the research. They pay a lot of money. These were mostly workers who had not had a lot of education. They didn’t have a lot of other great options. Here, they had terrific wages, great benefits, et cetera. When I started the project I thought that taking the buyout was a really dumb idea and that they would never be able to reproduce that in the wider labor market.

And I was wrong. I always said to my students, “It’s good to be wrong because then you learn something.” It’s a long story, but that plant had a very strong dissident faction in the union. They voted against the GM contracts in the early 1980s and so on.

We did a survey of all the people who had taken the buyout in that plant. We asked them, “Why did you take the buyout? Was it because, for example, you didn’t have enough seniority to think your job was going to last? Was it because you were feeling insecure about the future?” The most common answer turned out to be one that we had not anticipated, which was that they really hated working at General Motors. I was completely unprepared for that. Now, I understand.

And no language was too strong. We later did interviews, and if they were black workers, they would say, “It’s like slavery.” Other people would say, “It’s like prison.” Some people said, “My supervisor is a Nazi.” They just really disliked it. That was really powerful for me. What I came to realize was that these are good jobs economically, they pay well, they have great benefits, they have union protection, but the actual day-to-day experience of the job is not very good. That’s why I called the book Farewell to the Factory. These people were like, “Good riddance. I am so glad I’m out of there.”

There are some exceptions, but the white workers did land on their feet, in most cases. They were relatively young, which helps because there’s a lot of age discrimination out there. They were mostly in their thirties. They did not have that much seniority typically. That was one of the reasons they were more likely to take it. Also, they had been laid off and collecting both regular unemployment and supplemental benefits at almost their regular pay for about a year before the buyout was offered. So a lot of them had started other jobs or side businesses. About half of them were self-employed by that time. They loved that. It’s the extreme opposite of working at General Motors on the assembly line. You are your own boss. It wasn’t like they became millionaires, but they did make about the same amount of money on average as they had earned in the plant, admittedly without the benefits.

Almost no one regretted taking the buyout. They were so glad they had done it. So that was a lesson about these factory jobs. The good things about them we could potentially have in other sectors. There’s no reason why working in a department store couldn’t pay $40 an hour with good benefits. It doesn’t, but if you unionize it, that’s possible to imagine. In some countries it’s actually like that.

I feel like the nostalgia is appropriate for union protection, good pay, and benefits, but not really for the jobs themselves. Of course, for that to be true, people do have to have an alternative path. This was in New Jersey, not in Michigan. There’s a lot of other economic activity in New Jersey. It’s not a one-industry situation, and it was also not in the middle of a recession. By the way, the African American workers did not do so well, and they were the only ones I spoke to who regretted it. For them, the regular labor market was much less favorable, although there were very few of them who took it.

Crawford: There is a lot of drudgery, particularly if you have lower seniority. Those jobs are really hard on your body. A lot of people have arthritis. A lot of people have permanent injuries that they have to nurse for the rest of their lives. It’s not even realistic to find a job that you enjoy. Usually, I think the goal is to just find one that doesn’t hurt you. You’ll get arthritis in your twenties doing these assembly line jobs, and sometimes the hours are atrocious, especially with the plants only running one or two shifts.

If they need to increase production, they’ll work you eleven and a half hours, six days a week, doing the same repetitive stuff. It can be really damaging to one’s physical and mental health. Historically, they would say, “Well that’s why we give you the high wages and high benefits, right? To compensate you for doing all this hard stuff on your body.” But now we live in a situation where the second-tier workers aren’t the ones getting those wages and benefits. So you can’t use that same justification. The lowest paid people are the ones doing the hardest jobs.

Milkman: That was always true that the less senior people had it worse, other than pay. In the old days, everybody got paid almost the same. One thing I found in that factory in Jersey was a hierarchy of the jobs everybody wanted, and one of them, which is now outsourced to places like Aramark, was being a janitor. In Linden, New Jersey, you needed to be there for thirty-five years to become a janitor in the General Motors plant. Most Americans think of being a janitor as a really terrible, low-status, stigmatized job. Not in that context, which speaks worlds about what the other jobs were like. You weren’t on the line, it wasn’t that physically difficult, and you could move around.

Crawford: Absolutely. You have a certain amount of freedom. If you’re on an assembly line every second is micro-managed, literally. You can’t take a piss without permission.

Milkman: So many people talked to me about not being able to go to the bathroom without permission and how degrading that was. There’s actually a book about it called Void Where Prohibited. I’ve been doing some research recently on Amazon. The giant Amazon warehouses are like auto factories were before the union. People have huge production quotas, there’s a lot of arbitrary firing, and some of those warehouses are being built in former factories. And even though overall manufacturing worldwide is declining because of automation and so on, in that sector there’s enormous growth.

Jaffe: When I went to Indiana to visit the Carrier plant and the Rexnord plant, both of which were shutting down, on either side of the Carrier plant were a Target distribution center and an Amazon distribution center.

Milkman: Talking about the physical damage this work does to people’s bodies, in those Amazon warehouses they actually have painkiller medicine distributed free on the shop floor. They’re not pretending that these jobs are healthy. It’s right out there.

Crawford: If you go up to medical at a GM plant they do pretty much the same. They say, “Oh you’re hurt, too bad, this is a manufacturing facility. Here’s an Ibuprofen,” and they send you out the door.

Chen: What do you think will happen to the UAW in the aftermath of this strike?

Crawford: I would love for the strike wave to spread, but realistically it remains to be seen. I do think people are getting a greater sense of empowerment, and also a greater sense of cynicism toward their leadership. That might be a recipe for people to finally take ownership of their union and realize it’s our organization, and we can make it into a fighting union again if we so choose. I think that’s what needs to be done in the labor movement if we are going to survive and thrive. We need to start acting as a class-conscious organization and supporting all workers. It’s not just about retaining high wages for the people who have seniority or supporting an undemocratic bureaucracy, but it’s about a class-based movement for all working people. More than anything what I want to see happen is for working people to get justice for their labor and for their families.

Milkman: It does feel like there’s a lot more public sympathy for unions. If you look at the Gallup polls, what they call the “approval level” among the public for labor unions is at an all-time high, so that’s hopeful. At the same time employers have a lot of the cards in these fights, which is part of why it’s been so difficult to organize plants in the South. The union has tried to do that, and it has yet to succeed. I’ve learned the hard way that predicting the future is very hazardous business, so I won’t try and do that, but as much as I love Sean’s vision of what we would like to see happen, there are a lot of challenges involved.

Crawford: You’ve got to work toward it, it doesn’t happen on its own.

Sean Crawford is an autoworker and member of UAW Local 598.

Ruth Milkman is a distinguished professor of sociology at CUNY and author of, among other books, Farewell to the Factory.

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