It can be considered very exceptional that within the American auto industry, employees of the “Big Three” — Ford, General Motors and Stellantis — started striking together. The reason for this collective labor protest was the expiry of the collective labor agreement in the night of last Thursday to Friday, without a new contract being concluded. While the industry has approximately 145.000 union members, the United Auto Workers (UAW) took a targeted approach by striking just one critical factory per company. In total, around 13.000 workers are in action, which also caused several supply companies to close their doors.
Shawn Fain, the new president of the UAW, has emerged as a vocal and mediagenic spokesman for the cause in recent weeks. His argument is simple but powerful: While car prices have risen 30 percent in the past four years and the CEOs of these companies treated themselves to a 40 percent pay increase, workers have seen no significant contract improvement since the 2009 banking crisis. Fain therefore states that a 40 percent wage increase over the next four years is only reasonable.
The timing of this strike is also crucial, both for the industry and for the political landscape. On the eve of an election year and with the UAW yet to decide whether to support Biden's re-election campaign, this labor unrest has the potential to be a turning point. For Biden, who has always presented himself as a friend of the union, acting on the side of the striking workers is not without risk, but it does show his willingness to take a stand in a complex and highly flammable labor dispute.
The Stellantis plant in Toledo, Ohio, which produces the popular Jeep models, is the largest and most profitable of the three factories that have begun strikes. The strike comes at a time when the pay gap between management and workers is increasingly coming under the microscope.
Politically, the strike also has potential consequences. The UAW, which has traditionally been an ally of President Joe Biden, has not yet decided whether to support his re-election campaign. Fain has invited the president to attend a strike and, in a surprising twist, Biden has agreed. He will travel to Michigan next Tuesday "in solidarity with the men and women of the UAW." This is seen as the first visit by a sitting US president to a strike picket, a development that will undoubtedly have a political impact, especially if the strike continues and leads to prolonged factory closures.