Misplaced Enthusiasm: On the Auto Strike in the USA

We share here the translation of a document on the conclusion of the recent UAW autoworkers' strikes, written by a comrade from our sister organization in Italy. You can read the leaflet that we prepared for the struggle here. Like the UPS struggle, on which we wrote here, this is another struggle taking place in a key industry for capital in the US as it prepares to go to war. The current administration has continued in its predecessor's attempts to shore up crucial domestic industries, this time decorating investments for war-preparedness with "green" glitter. The IRA, which the article mentions, is a clear example. The UAW strike is also another instance in which, faced with attacks on its living standards in the form of inflation most recently (but really going back 50 years, particularly in the auto-industry), the working class is reaching out to respond in an elemental form, its consciousness still inhibited by the unions which have dominated this and other struggles. For us internationalists, we have to increase our efforts to bring our perspective to these struggles, tying today's decline in living standards to the preparation for tomorrow's war, and affirming that the stakes have never been higher for the class to renew its initiative, take control of its own struggles, and ultimately for the class to construct its own party, before it is too late.

An agreement that has broken the grip of the business norms that crushed wages, in the name of productivity and profitability, and which restores autonomous dignity to wages.

The auto workers and the UAW have taken down Ford, General Motors and Stellantis. Whoopee!

These are the enthusiastic opinions of the so-called grassroots unions(1). It is also shared by the traditional union federations(2), and by a large part of the so-called radical-reformist left. If such enthusiasm were justified, it would mean that we should draw a line under our analysis of the present historical phase, as a structural crisis forcing the bourgeoisie to take and not to give, within the narrow limits granted by capital to economic action of the working class, or put simply, trade unionism. It would mean that the union, would now be free to ignore capitalist norms and return to being the defender of the interests of the proletariat, not only now, but also in the future and, for the most radical of this Left, fulfil the role of its favoured instrument in the birth and development of class consciousness. We, grey theoreticians of communism, would thus have been sensationally proven wrong, and there would be nothing left for us to do but pack our bags and go home. But is it really like that?

To retreat in order to advance better, was often stated by someone who today would certainly be qualified as a "super theoretician", so we too, albeit humbly, take a step back to take a look at the strike called by the UAW (United Auto Workers) in the historic “Big Three” (but once much larger) US car manufacturers: Ford, GM, Stellantis (which includes the Chrysler brand, which went bankrupt and was acquired for a pittance by Marchionne's Fiat)). The strike, which began in mid-September and ended at the end of October, approved by 97% of the workers, seemingly had ambitious aims. The main demands, although with some variations between companies and production sites, included: 1) a 40% wage increase, 2) reintroduction of the COLA(3), 3) elimination of the two levels, imposed in 2009, where those on the first level, the newly hired workers, get a significantly lower salary than the "old" ones, and have to wait eight years before "enjoying" the full salary, 4) reduction of the working week to 32 hours, 5) restoration of pension benefits and healthcare costs paid by the company, in force before the 2009 agreements, promoted by Obama. At the same time as those binding agreements (for the workforce), the US President granted generous financial aid to the "Big Three", mostly in the form of loans, on particularly advantageous terms. The final cherry on the cake, cooked by the expert hands of the bosses, government and unions, was that the working class (i.e. the UAW) undertook not to strike for a certain number of years, to give companies the opportunity to recover and make America great again. It was clear that the greatness of America was and is based – as for any other state, for that matter – on squeezing the working conditions, and therefore living standards, of the working class, "called upon" to bow their heads even more, to pull a cart that has become even heavier than it already was.

But the sacrifices of the workers, although not decisive, have brought some results, as from 2013 to 2022 company profits grew by 92%, said to be worth $250 billion. In the wake of these results, managers’ salaries rose 40%, ensuring corporate "benefits" of various types and generous dividends went to shareholders. So the money is there, say the reformists, including those who claim to be revolutionaries; of course there are, but what they don’t see is that that money must be directed to other purposes, today more than ever irreconcilable with any trickle down theory. In part, only in part, they are reinvested in production – in simple terms, the real economy – the rest increases the parasitic forms, so to speak, of the appropriation of surplus value: the abnormal increase in the income of managers/owners, and financial speculation. The reason is always the same, even if it may appear paradoxical: although the extortion of surplus value, i.e. exploitation, has been intensified in every way, it is not enough to make systematic productive investments sufficiently lucrative, in terms of the rate of profit. This obviously applies to capital as a whole, because there are several exceptions (which confirm the rule), although even the "exceptions" benefit in one way or another from state aid, a crutch of which capital everywhere cannot do without. Since we are talking about the automotive sector, it is easy to refer to the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act) plan launched by Biden last year, which, together with other programmes, provides substantial incentives and support for the so-called green transition of the automotive industry in the USA.

Before continuing the discussion, it is worth pointing out some things about wages, given that we are talking about "fabulous" increases.

Wages are closely linked to the conditions of the capitalist economy, which, it goes without saying, establish the limits of wage bargaining itself. It is clear, however, that if the class does not fight or its struggles are led by the union, whose first concern is not to upset the process of accumulation, capital is in a good position to push the level of wages ever lower, even below the value of labour power, below what are, so to speak, the "normal" conditions of exploitation. In practice, this is what has been happening in recent decades and what has happened, in particular, for logistics warehouse workers, where intense trade union conflict – met with careful state repression – has re-established, in many companies, an "average" rate of exploitation, that complies with national employment contracts or even improves on them, given that they are always reducing wages. It is the fall in the rate of profit that imposes the worsening of the general conditions of the working class, which is the main way to try to re-establish an adequate rate of profit.

That being said, should we just look at these struggles with disdain? Certainly not, especially given the generous determination of the workers in these warehouses; it's just a matter of seeing them for what they are, without misleading triumphalism.

But let's go back to the mountain of money that entered the coffers of the "Big Three": what remains, after the (feeble) investments and the "remunerations" of the bosses (shareholders, managers, CEOs: owners and agents of the capital), can be redistributed – not without a struggle! - to those who produce that wealth, but without even remotely affecting the compatibility of capital and the company in particular.

In fact, faced with union demands, the employers offered a 21-23% increase and some other "benefits". In short, as per ordinary trade union practice, the buyer and seller of the commodity, labour power, discussed and ultimately agreed on the "right" price. The point, however, is that the seller, that is, his representative (with a billion quotation marks) has more in common with the interests of the buyer than of those who he should represent. Metaphors aside, the results of six weeks of workers' mobilisations are far from the triumph that the aforementioned "leftists" believe they will see. No reduction in working hours, the reintroduction of a weaker COLA compared to the one before 2009, maintenance of the two levels, even if the transition from one to the other was reduced from eight to three years, the continuation of temporary and precarious work, and it is obvious that this is the case, given the structural nature they have in the labour market. Furthermore, the restoration of pension and health benefits paid by the company was rejected, which means accepting indirect and deferred salary theft: it is only thanks to this theft that the increase in wages was financed. Finally, wage increases for the highest category of the second level to 40 dollars per hour, but in the last tranche of 2028, which corresponds to an increase between 25 and 30%; for temporary workers and those in the first level, average increases of 68%. An excellent result, apparently, but 25-30% is not that far from the bosses' counter-offer and if the bosses "launched" that apparently very high initial proposal, it means that their margins for a concession were wider, as in fact ultimately occurred. Secondly, but not least, the salaries of new hires in force before the October agreement – around 17 dollars an hour – only allow minimum levels of existence and that with great difficulty (if one remains healthy and there are no unforeseen events): a few years ago, before the inflationary flare-up, worker mobilisations in the restaurant sector were demanding a minimum wage of 15 dollars. Third, the 40 dollars an hour are, in real terms, lower than those of 1976 and it is already good (so to speak) if they recover what the workers' wages have lost in particular in the last twenty years, that is, 30% of their purchasing power(4); all of this, hoping that inflation will ease and remain low between now and 2028. In short, the conditions of the American auto working class – as indeed of wage labour everywhere – have sunk so low, with the fundamental “assistance” of the union, that corporate profits have soared above the average, let's say so, which allowed the concession of a partial and obviously insufficient recovery of the ground lost in recent decades. Far from a workers' victory: it's the usual employer-union "package"! It is no coincidence that it aroused the anger of a large minority of workers: if at Stellantis and Ford the contract was approved with around 69% saying yes, at GM it was passed with more difficulty (almost 55%) and in seven out of eleven establishments it was rejected(5), where the average age, like the qualification, is higher and the pension closer, a pension also impoverished by this "victorious" agreement.

For completeness of documentation, we add that a "Rank and File Committee" (a struggle, strike committee) of GM in Flint, Michigan, has accused the UAW of having packaged the approval with the usual system of deception, fraud and threats during the votes. We don't know if the committee is a real workers' expression or just a political projection of the Trotskyist site/group from which we took some information, just as we cannot comment on the committee's denunciation of the fraudulent conduct of the union, even if this would not surprise us. However, there is another aspect that makes us denounce the way in which the UAW organised and directed the strike. In fact, the union practised the "stand-up strike", the chessboard strike; this mode of struggle can in some cases be an adequate initial tactic, but only as a prologue to the entry into the battle of the entire workers' army involved, otherwise it risks being a negative "sly trick", in political (and also immediately practical) terms. The value of the strike, beyond the "material" results achieved, lies above all in the possibility of giving birth to – and developing – class unity and consciousness, something that the UAW, consistently with its nature, prevented from the start. It limited the struggle, allowing many factories to continue producing, that is, to extort surplus value, strengthening the company, while weakening the strength of the proletariat. Not only that: as everyone knows, it even allowed Biden – obviously just for electoral reasons – to show up on a workers' picket line; it is the same Biden who last year, anticipating the odious Salvini(6), resorted to a 1926 law to nip the railway workers' strike in the bud. Bourgeois politicians sometimes like to dress up as workers, to fool them better; in these parts it was Berlusconi who put on the suit of a worker-president in his performances as an anti-worker comedian. But this is part of the normality of bourgeois politicking and the working class has many false friends, certainly not least of them being the more or less "official" trade unions.

However, it is not or should not be normal for "alternative" trade unionists and part-time internationalists to rejoice in a struggle that has not only been, overall, a loser, but has not advanced class consciousness an inch. Indeed, to be precise, and to borrow a famous phrase, it has been one step forward and two or three steps back. On the other hand, it is certainly not from the union - "traditional" or "combative" - that the proletariat can acquire class consciousness and innervate a coherently anti-capitalist perspective to its struggles, on the contrary: only the active presence of the revolutionary organisation, the party, can make him make this qualitative political leap…

Battaglia Comunista


PS In mid-December, Stellantis announced the "temporary" layoff, in February 2024, of almost 4,000 workers, mostly temporary, but who had been working for three or four years in the Toledo and Detroit plants. The contract had promised them that no jobs would be affected...

(1) Respectively, G. Cremaschi in Il Fatto Quotidiano of 5 November 2023 and from the SiCobas website on 6 November.

(2) The traditional unions in Italy are divided into three confederations which originally supported one of main parliamentary parties (CIGL (Communist), CISL (Christian Democrats) and UIL (Socialists) but today none of those parties exist.

(3) Cost of Living Adjustment – A kind of sliding scale which, however, naturally did not cover the entire increase in the cost of living.

(4) We took these data from an American Trotskyist site, wsws.org , and from Alex N. Press, The sense of the UAW struggle, in Jacobin Italia, 16 September 2023.

(5) Sharon Smith, United States: after four decades of defeats, the return of victorious trade union struggles, 22 November 2023. This Trotskyist site, unlike the American one, fully embraces the theory of workers' "victory": the mysteries of Trotskyism…

(6) Boss of the right wing party la Lega which is part of the current right wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni. Salvini is now Deputy Prime Minister plus Minister for Infrastructure, which includes transport. In this role he has been trying to block and/or limit the duration of transport strikes: from 24 hours or to 4, or get the strikes called off. He's already done it three or four timesRecently, he also reduced a general strike called by CGIL and UIL, because it was a "territorial" general strike, that is, first in the North, then in the South and finally in Central Italy. The strike guarantee body, an institutional body, agreed with him and so the length of the transport strike was halved. However Salvini does everything in compliance with the law: in fact, in 1990, the unions signed an agreement with the government, which is now law, which severely limits strikes in public services. The CGIL and UIL are now complaining about this but it's their own fault. Biden blocking last year’s strike by railway workers in the US, just set a precedent for what Salvini has been doing since July. And the British Tory government is now working out how to bring in similar laws (which if Labour get in they will not repeal).

Monday, December 25, 2023