On November 12, 1936, three welders at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, sat down on the job. They were protesting deadly working conditions, below-subsistence wages, and relentless anti-union intimidation tactics, including an illegal network of spies so extensive that GM even spied on its own spies. The welders were fired, but in response, seven hundred more workers sat down on the job. What followed was a wave of sit-down strikes at GM, which led to a $25 million wage increase and recognition of the United Auto Workers (UAW).
Current UAW president Shawn Fain—elected in March as a reform candidate after years of corruption and concessions at the union—evoked this past when he announced a “stand-up strike” on September 14. “In the spirit of the sit-down strike,” he said, “the stand-up strike will keep the companies guessing.” In practice, this means workers are striking strategically at select plants of the “Big Three” major car manufacturers, GM, Ford, and Stellantis—the first time there have been walkouts at all three simultaneously. Fain’s hope is that this limited strike can target vulnerable points in the automakers’ production system while reducing the burden on UAW’s strike fund. That said, an all-out work stoppage remains on the table.
The UAW’s central grievances revolve around concessions the union made to car companies in 2008 in order to ease their financial difficulties and facilitate a taxpayer-funded bailout. These concessions amounted to billions in reduced labor costs and included layoffs; benefit reductions; and wage cuts, freezes, and tiers, which mean newer workers make less. As a result, since 2003, autoworkers’ inflation-adjusted average hourly wage is down by 30 percent. In addition to regular cost-of-living adjustments and an end to tiers, the UAW is asking for a 36 percent pay increase over four years (down from an initial ask of 46 percent).