I was the state leader of the Communist Party of Michigan from 1977-1988. During that time, I followed and commented on the contract negotiations between the UAW and the Big 3. The late 70s marked the beginning of an era of concessionary bargaining by the UAW top leadership. It was not so much a break from the bargaining strategy – Reutherism – of the previous quarter century as an adaptation of that strategy to changing conditions in the auto market and the declining vigor and mounting contradictions of U.S. capitalism.
But that bargaining strategy now appears to be fading into the past. If the current strike is a telling expression of its demise, the election of a new leadership embracing class struggle trade unionism is the motor of this process. Or to put it differently, the election of Shawn Fain and his team and the 180 degree shift in bargaining posture and practice is bringing down the curtain on Reutherism in its recent as well as earlier forms.
And it is all the more remarkable because of the state of the UAW that Fain and the new executive board inherited. It was in about as bad shape as you could imagine: its leadership swimming in a sea of corruption scandals and jail sentences, its members demoralized, and the auto company execs were doing high fives. Less than half of the union’s roughly 250,000 members voted in the first ever direct election of the president and executive board in March of this year. And in the runoff election that quickly followed Fain narrowly prevailed over incumbent president Ray Curry, slightly more than half of the union’s members casting a ballot. What is more, the new executive board of 15 was divided with Fain’s supporters holding a thin majority. Hardly propitious signs!
In short order, though, thanks in part to Curry who upon losing appealed for unity and in part to Fain, who quickly turned the union’s attention and energy to the upcoming negotiations, the mood and spirit shifted. And now – only a few months later – the auto workers are on strike, the leadership is leading the charge, and the demands are, in many ways, radical. No doubt the mood in the suites of the auto executives has shifted too. No longer are they laughing on their way to the bank. More likely, the words out of their mouths are: Holy Shit! What’s happening! I didn’t see this coming!
It doesn’t hurt that the Biden administration is on the side of the union in the current negotiations. One would have to go back to Roosevelt to find a president who is as partisan to labor as Biden.
Of course, if Biden and his team could find a way to dramatize that support for all to see, nothing but good would come from it in. Not least, it would distinguish him from Trump’s demagogic attempt to position himself on the side of the auto workers and manufacturing workers across the Midwest.
It takes no special insight to say that a successful strike in auto will surely give a boost to labor’s resurgence as well as class and democratic struggles going forward, including next year’s elections.
Each of us, in big or small ways, should find a way to give meaning to Solidarity Forever.