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UAW strike was a winning strategy


The victorious six week UAW strike shows why strategy is half the fight. It’s the polar opposite of the lack of strategy of my union, the California Faculty Association, I wrote about in my last column.  

Knowing where and how to strike is critical to beating the boss. UAW struck all three U.S. based automakers for the first time using a “stand-up” strategy of gradually escalating their tactics to disrupt critical weak points, or choke points, of each company. That strategy was designed to replace the sit-down strike pioneered by the UAW in the 1930s but unprotected from firing under the NLRA since the 1939 Supreme Court’s NLRB v. Fansteel Metallurgical Corp. ruling.

Striking all three companies at the same time was a critical part of UAW’s successful strategy. It created three times the disruption and pitted the companies against one another. Companies that refused to make sufficient concessions saw the strike spread to new increasingly valuable assembly and parts distribution centers. Companies that returned with satisfactory proposals saw no further escalation for a week.

Targeting the Big Three automakers at the same time solved problems with some workers striking in one workplace or one employer at a time which severely limits the workers power. Employers can stockpile parts, hire replacement workers or shift production to another location and wait them out.

By not announcing when and where the strike would spread, the companies were vulnerable to disruption by just a relatively small number of the union’s members. By the time all three companies conceded, only 50,000 out of the 146,000 UAW members at the companies had been on strike. 

The UAW kept the bosses guessing by using the CHAOS (Create Havoc Around Our System) strategy that was first used by flight attendants against Alaska airlines in 1993. Because the workers threatened to strike random flights, the company had to send scabs to every plane. In the end they won by striking on only seven flights in two months. 

The UAW clearly did its homework, studied the companies’ weaknesses, and learned from previous strategies and tactics. Once a strategy succeeds we know the boss will adapt in order to defeat it next time. Using the same old tired and predictable strategies and tactics is a recipe for continued defeat. A strategy must be dynamic, developed by the workers themselves who know how work is organized, and implemented in a democratic and transparent way. 

The UAW understood its enemies more than they understood themselves. They developed an escalation strategy to shut down the most profitable facilities. They didn’t just limit their strike to assembly plants but also the parts distribution centers to choke off a significant source of profits intended to cover the loss of auto sales.

Reporting on the three settlements show a resounding victory for the UAW. These include significant wage increases, reductions in tiers, restored COLAs, a reopened plant, electric cars brought under the master agreement, less time for precarious workers to become full-time and permanent, the right to strike over plant closures, and other gains. 

UAW didn’t win the 32-hour workweek at the same pay. Connecting wage increases to productivity increases is our holy grail. Productivity has risen far faster than wages for four decades, meaning that the excess fruits of our labor are going to the owners and shareholders. 

While we can be sure the bosses will study UAW’s success and prepare for the next attack, it is also essential we do the same. UAW President Shawn Fain is already warning that the union is coming for Tesla and other foreign based companies. 

“It’s autoworkers everywhere against corporate greed,” Fain said last month. “Workers at Tesla, Toyota, Honda, and others are not the enemy—they’re the UAW members of the future.”  In fact, the strike inspired about 4,000 workers to strike six Mack Trucks facilities in three states after overwhelmingly voting down a proposed contract.

Fain has gone even further, proposing that all unions line up our contracts to expire on May Day 2028 so we can launch a general strike when their contract expires. According to Fain, “If we’re going to truly take on the billionaire class and rebuild the economy so that it starts to work for the benefit of the many and not the few,” Fain said, “then it’s important that we not only strike, but that we strike together.”

This is not merely a threat but a strategy. The only true power lies in our ability to disrupt entire industries and the U.S. economy if we are going to change this country and turn our planet back from the brink of climate destruction and endless war. 

The UAW strike is yet another in a short but growing list of powerful victories this year. That is only possible since the Unite All Workers for Democracy victory to take over the union less than a year ago. They shoved out the undemocratic faction that ruled the UAW since its founding, was in bed with the bosses, and whose recent top officers are in prison for corruption. 

Other similar union leaders have been forewarned.

Robert Ovetz is editor of “Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle” and the author of “When Workers Shot Back” and, most recently, “We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few. Follow him at @OvetzRobert

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