What We Can Learn from the UAW Agreements

By Lulit Shewan

On September 15, the United Auto Workers made history by igniting an unprecedented simultaneous strike against the formidable Big Three automakers. Over 45,000 autoworkers went on strike for 46 days before securing sweeping agreements with all three auto giants. The ratification of this historic deal is the culmination of the UAW’s intense and dedicated collective efforts. Following a successful summer of strikes, the UAW has shown labor movements across the country that the tide is indeed turning. 

The UAW’s newly elected leadership, chosen by members after the success of the union’s “One Member, One Vote” grassroots movement, sought to improve working conditions through significant contract changes. The new contracts are projected to result in top wages, which are currently set at $32/hour, receiving a substantial increase of over 25 percent by April 2028. Starting wages, which currently average $16.67/hour, will also see a 68 percent boost. This increase is structured as an initial 11 percent pay boost upon ratification, followed by three annual raises of 3 percent each, and a final 5 percent increase. The restoration of cost-of-living adjustments, suspended in 2009, can increase to 30 percent over the contract’s life. This is a key win for autoworkers who have seen their average wages steadily fall 19.3 percent since the 2008 recession.  

The union’s success follows a recent run of labor victories. In August, UPS averted what would have been a historically large strike when more than 300,000 drivers and warehouse employees represented by the Teamsters agreed to higher wages and protections for workers like air-conditioning in delivery trucks. In September, the Writers Guild of America ended its five-month strike against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers with a new contract that included significant gains for writers. Artists, sanitation workers, health care workers, and more members of the working class are among those who have joined an overarching U.S. labor effort to contest excessive corporate profit-seeking.

The UAW’s achievement can undoubtedly be credited to its aggressive and unwavering strike tactics. Led by president Shawn Fain, the UAW used a “rolling strike” approach in which autoworkers in factories across the United States walked off the job on different days and without warning, an approach that the UAW claimed would give the union the ability to gradually escalate the strike with the threat of an all-out work stoppage. The union also relied on several hard-bargaining strategies such as bold demands, credible threats, and maintaining unpredictably of strikes at the plants of all three companies. 

While Big Three executives said the union’s demands were too unrealistic, workers simply wanted a fair return on their work and sacrifice within the auto industry. They were not willing to accept the status quo, where the top executives and shareholders reaped the reward of high profit while workers faced stagnant wages, unsafe working conditions, and uncertain challenges around automation, electrification, and globalization, all of which threaten the industry and displace workers. And union members were also unwilling to let the Big Three exploit the growing use of temporary workers, who are paid less, receive fewer benefits, and have no job security. The union’s goals speak to the importance of prioritizing a future of work where worker-centered contracts are the priority, and strikes are not the only means for executive leadership to understand the rights to which their employees should be entitled. 

The UAW’s Big Three contracts have all been recently ratified, marking a pivotal moment in the history of labor movements not just for autoworkers, but for the entire working class. These agreements have the power to provide significant advancements for job quality in the auto industry and serve as a catalyst for change amid the elevated momentum and wins of the labor movement. The UAW is now hoping to use this success to organize other automakers’ plants and related industries. Union leaders are planning to channel increasing public support, a tight labor market, and the success of the strike to organize non-union automakers. There are high hopes that the significant wage and benefit gains in these agreements will fuel efforts to organize auto workers across the country, who work in an industry with a long history of labor violations and anti-union efforts. 

This year has seen a significant increase in labor activism and a genuine desire to extend the power of unions to all workers who can benefit from them. The UAW has also been diligent about organizing graduate students and can be one of the leaders of a newly unionized generation of Americans. Since October, the UAW deal has already begun setting new industry standards for non-union auto plants, an effort that is expected to continue. The victory of the Stand-Up Strike is inspiring on its own, but more thrilling is the conviction that this achievement is just the beginning of a much larger battle. The pendulum can only swing away from inequality if it gets a solid, collective push.