The Momentum From the UAW’s Victorious Strike Continues

The following article originally appeared in The American Prospect here.

It was the UAW that more or less invented momentum organizing. In the winter and spring of 1937, the success of the union’s 44-day sit-down occupation of General Motors’ factories in Flint, Michigan—which compelled GM to recognize the union and sign a contract with it—prompted a wave of sit-downs at other business establishments. Workers were plopping themselves down and locking the doors from the inside not just in factories but in department stores and drugstores. The wave only lasted for several months, but fear that the wave could wash over their own factories made Chrysler, U.S. Steel, and other major corporations agree to unionization within weeks of the victory at Flint.

Today, in the wake of the stunning success of the UAW’s strikes at GM, Ford, and Stellantis, it’s still too early to predict that any such wave will engulf the nation’s non-union auto plants. It’s not too early, however, to note that a wave is clearly forming. Today, the UAW announced that 30 percent of the workers at Hyundai’s factory in Montgomery, Alabama, have signed union affiliation cards, joining the 30 percent who’ve recently signed cards at the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and the Volkswagen factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Just as the UAW broke with the past by staging its “Stand Up” strikes with all of the Big Three at once, rather than with each separately, it is now attempting to organize the non-union companies’ factories in one massive effort, building on the momentum of their very well-publicized success in winning landmark contracts at the Big Three. The plan, UAW President Shawn Fain has said, is to announce worker affiliations at the factories when they reach 30 percent of the workforce, to hold public rallies and begin intense organizing when they reach 50 percent, and to file for NLRB recognition elections when they reach 70 percent.

Almost all the non-union factories are in the South, historically a graveyard for union organizing campaigns. Fain’s legendary predecessor Walter Reuther repeatedly urged the AFL-CIO to invest heavily in organizing the South, though after the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which enabled Southern states to pass laws allowing workers represented by unions to cease paying dues, Reuther’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Fain and his fellow UAW leaders believe that their success at GM, Ford, and Stellantis may now have created the kind of momentum that spurred their union to its initial successes in the late 1930s.

With the exception of Tesla, the companies that own all the major non-union auto factories in the U.S. are unionized in their home countries. In Germany, the workers of Volkswagen and Mercedes enjoy the considerable wages and benefits won for them by the nation’s most powerful union, IG Metall, and under the provisions of German law, their representatives fill roughly half the seats on those companies’ governing boards. At the UAW’s national legislative conference in D.C. last month, Fain told me the union is in frequent touch with IG Metall, which itself is engaged in a major organizing campaign at the one non-union auto factory in Germany—which, not surprisingly, is Tesla’s.

If the UAW wave in the States is powerful enough to reach Tesla, and Elon Musk remains opposed, as he has said, to the very “idea of unions,” there remains the tantalizing, if, I suppose, remote possibility of a strike of Tesla workers that reaches from California, Nevada, and Texas all the way to Brandenburg. We’re way overdue, after all, for the workers of the world to unite, even if it takes Elon Musk and a union with momentum behind it to get them there.

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