By Chris Townsend
August 25, 2023
Major labor unrest among several key sections of the organized working class continues this summer. As the 75,000 Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild members remain on strike, the massive 340,000 worker UPS [United Parcel Service] contract with the Teamsters union fell into place even before the expiration in late July. The much awaited and predicted strike action never materialized as the company capitulated on several key issues in the face of a serious strike threat. The final settlement was overwhelmingly accepted by the membership, even though this “catch up” contract still left some key problems unresolved. The situation of the part-time workforce is still less than ideal, although many significant advances for this huge section of the UPS workforce were won. The massive Teamsters union mobilization to drive this settlement was a welcomed sight and it can be credited with most of the progress made in this agreement. For a good recap of the UPS settlement see the balanced and detailed report by labor writer Luis Feliz Leon in Labor Notes: Despite Big Teamster Wins at UPS, Some Expectations Outpace Gains | Labor Notes
Auto Battle Approaches
With the UPS showdown now behind us, the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) contract with the “big three” auto companies – Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis — now looms ahead. The 150,000 UAW members in almost 275 plants and locations across the U.S. have now begun to mobilize towards their September 14th contract expirations. The issues are familiar: badly lagging wages, criminally low pay for perpetually “second tier” workers, overwork and forced overtime, little time off in many plants, perpetual management harassment, and preservation of health and pension benefits, among others. In this round of negotiations the UAW is also led by virtually all new leadership, the result of one-member-one-vote elections forced on the union by the government in the wake of the removal of the previous UAW leadership for widespread theft and corruption.
New UAW President Shawn Fain is leading the campaign to rebuild the shattered leadership of the union, and to prepare the membership for the major battle ahead with the “Big 3” auto barons. Member mobilizations and substantial educational work is now underway across the union, a much-needed antidote to the years of virtually company union “leadership” by the previous union administrations. These efforts are long overdue and will be needed to focus the members on the need to fight – and possibly strike – if necessary. The several decades of concessions granted to these super-profitable companies by the former UAW leadership are astonishing, although not surprising given the business union mindset where member needs are always subordinated to company “partners”. Restoring the fighting capacity and spirit of the UAW members is a daunting task, but there is no question that without this being done there is little chance that gains will be made in the coming negotiations. On August 25, UAW members at the Big 3 voted to authorize a strike if necessary, indicating that support with a whopping 97% margin. For details on this process as we approach the September deadline see: UAW Auto Bargaining Resources | UAW
Mind-Boggling Auto Profits
The three U.S.-based auto companies are experiencing a never-before-seen gorge of profits, the three companies having banked more than $21 billion dollars in profits in just the first six months of this year. Astonishingly, the Big 3 have raked in a quarter of a trillion dollars in profits in the last 20 years. See the UAW video that details this amazing success for the auto bosses; NEW UAW VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS BIG 3’s MASSIVE PROFITS, MAKES CLEAR THEY CAN EASILY AFFORD UNION’S CONTRACT DEMANDS | UAW UAW President Fain, when pressed by a company-friendly media, explained point-blank that “Record profits mean record contracts…” The Big 3 auto corporations are part of the wider trend of super-profitability in many U.S. industries. With labor unions having been repressed or even liquidated over the past 50 years, wages in real terms driven down to levels not seen in decades, with all manner of public subsidies now poured into many industries by national and local governments, and with taxes on corporations reduced or even ended all across the spectrum, it is no wonder that the profit stream has reached flood stage.
Biden’s Destructive Interference
It seems apparent by now – or it should be, based on the facts readily available in several recent labor disputes – that President Joe Biden opposes strike action on principle. His gambit is to ingratiate himself with the microscopic layer of union “leaders” who are spellbound by the attention, then systematically undermine and attempt to sabotage any strike action – or even hard bargaining by unions that are willing to fight back. Evidence of active intervention by Biden in recent strike showdowns on behalf of the workers and union members is non-existent. A few White House press releases have appeared to wish workers a hoped-for “fair” settlement with their belligerent and anti-union employers. Biden does say the word “union”, and praises unions occasionally in general terms, but only in front of union audiences.
The actual Biden record of supporting workers and their unions who are compelled to resort to serious strike threat or action is miserable. By itself this fact demolishes the self-created myth that Biden is somehow the “most pro-union president in U.S. history.” His shameful breaking of the rail workers strike in late 2022; his meddling in the West Coast Longshore negotiations as revealed by the Chamber of Commerce; the recent UPS settlement where Teamsters President Sean O’Brien publicly rebuked Biden and told him to stay out of the negotiations; and now his dangerous pressuring and factionalizing to undermine what may develop into a strike in the auto industry are all alarming acts.
Biden Unwilling To Pressure the Employers
Rather than Biden taking tangible and swift action to rein in the profiteering corporations there are a few words, some well-wishing, followed by active collaboration with the employers. There have been no White House meetings called for Biden to read the riot act to the fabulously wealthy bosses forcing these strike situations. No high level meetings have been called for Biden to mobilize the federal machinery to pressure the corporations. There have been, however, multiple examples of Biden funneling billions of dollars in subsidies to the electric vehicle industry, a virtually unorganized section of the economy that now endangers the jobs of hundreds of thousands UAW members. He has failed utterly to consider the real plight of the workers who are forced out of necessity to the brink of strike action, or to even strike. The considerable presidential power and reach has instead been deployed in all the recent situations to place pressure on the unions involved to slow down, calm down, hold back, and give in to the bosses’ demands that they settle without fixing the dire problems they face. There is no evidence in any of the recent battles that Joe Biden has ever raised his voice to the corporations even one time!
Those in labor and elsewhere who are inclined to want to believe the myth that Biden is “the most pro-union President in U.S. history” must be challenged. Those who promote this myth and use it to enforce political discipline within the unions, demanding unconditional obedience to the Democratic Party, must likewise be exposed, even denounced in some cases. They provide political cover for an administration that has proven itself to side openly and covertly with the employers in situations where strike action is not only justified, but also required. His actions have weakened and short-circuited the momentum of more than half a million union members in the past year, who would have accomplished more, and would have given greater encouragement to the broad working class, if this White House stayed out of the matter. Joe Biden lives in comfort, free from the pressures felt by the rank and file who now toil under dictatorial employers and in intolerable conditions not seen since before labor’s renewal in the 1930’s. Mobilized and energized union members, led by authentic labor leaders will address our plight, and the fuzzy intrigues, interventions and pronouncements of this President are not welcomed.
Chris Townsend is a 44 year union member and leader. He is the retired Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and was the Organizing and Field Director for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU). He may be reached at [email protected]