After a stand-up strike that stretched six weeks and cost Detroit 3 automakers billions in losses, United Auto Workers members are in the process of voting on four-year union contracts that promise more gains than they’ve seen in decades. But UAW leadership is not resting. UAW President Shawn Fain has declared that non-union automakers like Tesla and Toyota are next in the crosshairs.
IndustryWeek talked with two labor union experts on the UAW’s strategy, how the union landscape has changed and what employers should be thinking about as they map out plans.
We talked with:
- Stephen Silvia, labor relations professor at American University in Washington. He is the author of the 2023 book The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants.
- Bob Bussel, emeritus professor of history and director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center from 2002-2022. Pre-academia, Bussel was a union organizer and representative for textile and farm workers.
The UAW’s big wins with Ford, GM and Stellantis improve its chances of organizing workers at non-union automakers.
Organizing in the South has historically been very difficult, says Bussel, but the winds have changed. “The Big 3 contracts are Exhibit A,” he said. “They got something that really shows, ‘Here’s what a union and a group of organized workers can accomplish.’”
The UAW “can now point to sizable compensation gains that management would not otherwise have granted,” said Silvia.
The UAW is gunning for Tesla.
“My sense is that Sean Fain seems like somebody that is swinging for the fences. He doesn’t just want to get a single, so to speak,” said Bussel.
Silvia notes several reasons that Tesla is vulnerable:
- Stock options have lost value. “At first Tesla was especially difficult to organize because the workers received stock options, which were quite lucrative because Tesla stock kept going up,” Silvia said. But those stock options peaked in 2021, and “have not done well since.”
- Tesla’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) subsidies could be at risk if it does not pay what’s considered a prevailing wage under the IRA. These subsidies from the Department of Energy go to electric vehicle manufacturers with a certain footprint in the U.S.
- The political and social landscape in California, where Tesla’s Fremont plant is based, leans heavily pro-union.
- Musk himself could become a rallying point for the union. “The biggest challenge that the UAW would face in trying to organize Tesla would be the resolute opposition of Elon Musk,” said Silvia. “But they could turn it to their advantage by making Musk—the ultimate tech bro billionaire—an issue. That said, the UAW will only win in any plant if it can convince a majority of employees that unionization brings higher compensation, more job security, greater plant safety and a bigger say in the workplace.”
Momentum: The collective psyche is on labor’s side.
Two-thirds of Americans (67%) now say they approve of labor unions, a percentage that has steadily increased in the past decade.
Bussel sees Fain’s rhetoric in the stand-up strike having a long tail. “He framed the Big Three strike as the working class getting its fair share. That certainly appealed to UAW members, and I have a sense that’s resonating in other places as well.”
When non-union workers say they’re doing fine without a union, “now the UAW can say, ‘Well, hey, look at what we’re getting. And look at all the things we’ve been able to accomplish here,’” Bussel said. “I mean, other workers look at this and go, ‘Well, they did it. We can do it.’”
He adds, “I’ve always thought about organizing as a hope and fear dichotomy where management, usually a lot of their campaign is based on fear and the sense that you don’t know what could happen with the union,” he said. “The arguments don’t really change that much. I just don’t know that those arguments are having quite the same force. … I think the union has more credibility as far as talking about hope, and the employers perhaps have a little less credibility where they are, on the basis of fear.”
Strike while the IRA is hot.
President Joe Biden walked the picket line with the union, but will his administration be voted out in 2024? Now is the time for the union to rack up some more wins.
With more labor-friendly policies than its Republican predecessor, the Biden administration, is “making it harder for companies to engage in illegal behavior that inhibits’ workers’ ability to organize. I think there’s a sense of the favorable circumstances there to take advantage of that,” said Bussel.
This is not quite the 1930s, where the unions said, “President Roosevelt wants you to join a union’ and it had some real force to it,” he qualified. “I’m not sure Biden’s presence has the same impact. But the fact he was out there supporting them … there are factors that are better than the union has had in recent years.”
Under Biden, as mentioned briefly above, the Department of Energy is drafting rules for automakers to qualify for electric vehicle subsidies under the Inflation Reduction Act. Those rules include compensation standards similar to those for regional prevailing wages in construction public works projects under the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act.
With pressure from the UAW, the DOE could deny non-union automakers electric-vehicle subsidies “by asserting that current compensation does not meet the standard set in the rule because it's not at the UAW contract rate,” said Silvia.