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Has the American working class awakened?
After Starbucks and UPS employees, Massachusetts nurses, Minneapolis and Brookline teachers, and proletarians from dozens of other companies, it was the turn of the automobile workers.
It has not been 88 years since the three big American car companies (the so-called Big Three), General Motors, Ford and Stellantis (the French-Italian multinational that brought together the PSA and FCA brands), were simultaneously hit by a workers' strike. At midnight on 14 September, the collective contracts expired, for which the UAW (United Automobile Workers) has for months been asking the Big Three's top management to negotiate with demands that the trade union itself considers «ambitious»: an average wage increase of 40% over four years, less gruelling shifts, a reduction in the working week, the elimination of different levels of contracts, and improved pension and health insurance.
The UAW represents a significant proportion of Big Three workers (145,000 workers are unionised in total) but the strike initially affected around 18,000 workers, just over 10% of their membership. The UAW began this strike by shutting down one plant at each of the Big Three's plants. In the case of GM, this was the Wentzville, Missouri plant, which, with 3,600 employees, produces the CMC Canyon and Colorado models. In the case of Stellantis, the target was a complex in Toledo, Ohio, which, with 5,600 employees, makes the Jeep Gladiator and Wrangler. In the case of Ford, strike action began in Wayne, Michigan, where the Bronco and Ranger pickups are built, specifically by shutting down the assembly and paint lines, and where 3,300 workers are employed. The models in question are the flagship models of the three carmakers (1). Initially, the possibility of extending the strike to other plants and to distribution centres and spare parts stores was announced if negotiations with the Big Three were to be drawn out without results. And indeed, on September 29, the UAW, seeing that overall negotiations were not progressing (the Big Three were offering an average raise of 20% over four and a half years), announced an extension of the strike after it had already hit 38 distribution centers and parts stores operated by GM and Stellantis; this extension has not yet affected Ford, because with that company, according to UAW chief Shawn Fain – who took office in March of this year – «negotiations are moving», albeit «too slowly».
This strike, although affecting a small number of workers, has nonetheless made the news, not least because it has become part of a two-year period of labour unrest in many sectors: the decision of the workers to force the UAW to call a strike and threaten to extend it to all other production lines has in any case alarmed the car companies, which for years have been used to «dialogue» with the UAW in order to avoid strikes, and essentially to subordinate workers to the company's basic demands. Since the 2008–2009 crisis, auto workers have been subjugated by unions to keep factories running, to tougher working conditions, the introduction of a new precarious workforce, wage freezes and, over time, a lack of wages to keep up with the rising cost of living. Then came the pandemic, another social crisis with declining car sales and continually stagnant wages. But since the end of the lockdown and the pandemic, sales have rocketed, car companies have started to make billions of dollars in profits again, but wages have virtually stagnated, with inflation weakening them more and more.
The expiry of collective contracts was a unique opportunity to go into battle against harsh working conditions and huge social inequalities. Just to give you an idea: Ford's profits in 2022 were $3.5 billion, GM's were $4.7 billion and Stellantis' were €11 billion, while the Big Three's combined profits in the first half of 2023 alone were $23 billion (and have reached $250 billion over the past 10 years); meanwhile, the increase in CEO remuneration for the Big Three has increased by an average of 40% from 2019 to the present (2). The news that the CEOs of car companies are receiving astronomical remuneration thanks to the massive profits made by the car companies since 2019 has caused real resentment among workers. For example, the CEOs of GM and Stellantis are receiving bonuses equivalent to 350 times the average worker's wage. On the other hand, it is hardly surprising that, in capitalist society, these people are overpaid for their work, which consists of running companies with the aim of maximising profits and, consequently, minimising production costs so that they can stack up against and beat the competition. The production costs, which for the proletariat mean wage restrictions, increased work pace, longer working days, restrictions on all social benefits such as health insurance, pensions, etc. Well, it is these aspects that have forced the workers to go to the struggle: for higher wages, for less exhausting shifts, for a reduction in the number of hours worked per week, for improved pension and health insurance, and for greater job security. The strike proclamation states: «We work 60, 70, 80 hours a week just to make ends meet. That is not life. It's time for a change.» (3) Under pressure from the worker base, the UAW could not help but speak out loudly, especially after the recent change in leadership. Among the demands made, of course, the most stirring was a 40% wage increase over four years; as for this demand, the car companies initially proposed 10% over four and a half years; then Ford and GM proposed 20% and Stellantis 17.5%. The trade union in turn backed down and demanded a 36% increase. But the carmakers consider other demands too onerous for themselves. In the Sole24ore article already linked, we read that the UAW «wants, first of all, the elimination of the two levels of contracts borne out of the 2007 crisis, a watershed moment of significant concessions by the union. Many workers hired since then are receiving much lower starting wages and face an eight-year period to reach the maximum pay of $32.32 an hour. So far, companies have offered to shorten this period to reach the wage cap to about four years». The UAW also wants «a return to traditional company-run defined benefit pension plans for employees after 2007. And meaningful wage indexation to inflation, which is currently suspended for everyone. Demands also include a 32-hour work week, more paid time off for family-related absences, improved health protection, increased profit-sharing, an end to the use of temporary and non-guaranteed labour, and the equal establishment of collective contracts for joint venture plants producing electric vehicles.» This list of demands illustrates the extent to which workers have been driven to capitulation by the same union over the last forty years – according to the so-called «liberal» experts themselves – and have thus plummeted into unsustainable living and working conditions.
We are in the campaign period for the 2024 presidential election, and US President Joe Biden, struggling for support, did not think twice: he went to Wayne, Michigan, to express his «solidarity» to the striking workers. When a high representative of the bourgeois ruling class sets out to express his «solidarity» to striking workers – a strike that, according to Sole24ore, costs the economy $5.6 billion every ten days, and in the industrial heartland of the country, with consequent effects on suppliers and consumers – nothing good can be expected. According to the media, Biden had already spoken to the Big Three and asked them to meet the union's demands, given the extraordinary profits accumulated over the past decade; however, his interventions were of little use, and so the current White House administration decided to take a theatrical move: on Tuesday, September 26, Biden appeared in Wayne among workers on the picket line at a GM parts distribution plant and, megaphone in hand, spoke to them, saying, «Companies are making huge profits and they need to share them with workers. You deserve a significant raise» (4). Words that are undoubtedly pure election propaganda, but the same principle works in reverse, in times when companies accumulate huge losses instead of huge profits, and thus justify that also proletarians are falling into worse conditions, because the recession had hit the whole economy...
Not even 24 hours have passed, and here comes Trump to make his election rally speech in a non-unionised factory on the outskirts of Detroit: «I'm here to defend the working class, to fight the corrupt political class, to protect the results of labour made in the USA and the American dream from foreign products». The transition to electric cars, dominated by China, now looms as a major enemy of American auto workers. To them, Trump's message is that it doesn't matter if the strike leads to a favourable collective contract in negotiations with Ford, General Motors and Stellantis, because in any case «within two years you will lose your jobs». Trump's recipe is, of course, the same as always: «American production, made with American skilled hands and using American supplies» (5). And so Trump touched another sore spot in the situation; if Biden points the finger at the super profits of car manufacturers, then Trump points the finger at China and its current dominance in the field of electric cars. Neither of them, of course, has come up with a concrete solution to the problems that are plaguing workers: one says that they have the right to demand a wage increase because the profits of the car companies have rocketed, the other says that their defence is to protect everything that is made in America, no matter what industry. The real difficulty for workers is that they still believe that their struggle can only have a positive outcome if it is championed by a union that will actually turn its back on them at the first hint of economic recession, or by politicians – let alone even the «President and former President of the United States» – who have physically traveled to show… their campaign speeches!
Nevertheless, the fact that American workers of the three largest car companies went on strike together for the first time for common goals and also in defense of the precarious workers hired in the last decade is extremely positive. It is the first step in a struggle that could potentially actually awaken the entire American working class. A struggle that, in turn, has already been anticipated by other sectors of the economy, such as Amazon, Kellog's, Starbucks, the hotel industry in California, nurses at Kaiser Permanente, longshoremen on the West Coast, teachers in Minneapolis and Brookline, and even Hollywood writers and screenwriters who have been on strike since May 1 of this year; sectors where proletarians have been plagued and are plagued by both a lack of union organisation and a lack of tradition of struggle.
Workers' struggles in America have always had one age-old handicap, and that is the belief that tug-of-war with the bosses only serves to achieve «victory» today, while as for the future... that remains to be seen. But the material facts related to bourgeois relations of production and ownership will sooner or later confront even the American working class not only with glaring social inequalities – which have always existed in America and are far deeper than in other industrial countries – but with the permanent need to go beyond the immediate struggle, the struggle within enterprises, beyond the limits set for a century by the politics of collaboration between the classes, for which negotiation, bargaining, regulation by contracts are important, as if there were no alternative outside this society, a society based on capitalist profit and wage labour; as if society could only be a huge market in which one sells and buys, in which one «makes a profit» or «loses» in business, and in which the very life of every single human being is at stake in a perpetual roulette.
Long, rough and difficult is the road that will lead to the emancipation of the proletarians from the condition of wage-labourers, that is to say, the masses destined to be slaughtered in factories with shifts of 60 to 80 hours a week and starvation wages, or to be slaughtered in the wars that the bourgeois ruling classes of each country will sooner or later declare in order to continue to dominate their own country or to subject other countries to their domination. It is a long, cruel and difficult road, but a vital one, because the development of capitalism in America and in the world inevitably leads to general war, of which the earlier wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria were only a kind of preparation, just like the war in Ukraine, for which billions were allocated for armaments, ammunition and funding, without sending American soldiers, but whose negative consequences in terms of working and living conditions still affect all proletarians.
They said the workers' struggle is dead… It will be reborn again and with more vigor than ever before.
(1) «Il Sole 24 ore», 15 September 2023.
(2) Panorama.it, 18 September 2023, «Il malessere dietro gli scioperi del mondo auto negli USA».
(3) https://www.wired.it/article/auto-sciopero-stati-uniti-stellantis-ford-general-motors («Lo storico sciopero nell'industria dell'auto negli Stati Uniti»).
(4) «Il Sole 24 ore», 26 September 2023.
(5) 28/09/2023 - https://www.rainews.it/articoli/2023/09/trump-svolta-biden-su-auto-elettriche-favorira-la-cina-e-cancellera-migliaia-di-posti-di-lavoro-c8729b1f-8efc-4129-b106- 9ec8b2a5f5d4.html
29 September 2023
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