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Can the UAW Transform America Again?

By thinking big, Shawn Fain is summoning memories of Walter Reuther and the autoworkers’ union’s finest hour.

The Treaty of Detroit and the negotiations that led up to it established the precedent of pattern bargaining, wherein the UAW would negotiate, sequentially, a single contract with all three major auto companies. This prevented the Big Three from short-changing workers to compete. But as labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein told me, in recent years “the pattern got very ragged.” (Lichtenstein is the author of an excellent 1995 biography of Reuther and, more recently, of A Fabulous Failure, a history of the political economy under President Bill Clinton.)

Fain freshened up the pattern-bargaining model by negotiating with the Big Three simultaneously. That positioned the UAW to strike all three companies at the same time, something that’s never happened before. But Fain is directing the strike to proceed in stages, starting today with three plants and then spreading over time to more, to tighten the noose slowly on recalcitrant management. Fain calls these targeted actions “stand-up strikes” in a nod to the abrupt sit-down strikes that the UAW used to organize the Big Three in the 1930s.

In Lichtenstein’s view, Fain is channeling Reuther in two ways. First, he’s conceived this strike as benefiting a group much larger than the 150,000 autoworkers represented by the UAW. Reuther’s pattern-bargaining model was quickly adopted by the United Steelworkers back when steel was still dominated by a few large American players. Fain is trying to create a model wherein the electric vehicle industry, and especially the makers of the battery cells that power E.V.s, staff their plants with union workers who enjoy the same salary and benefits as the UAW rank and file.

The Big Three have resisted this, citing as their excuse that they’re developing battery cells in joint ventures with foreign companies from South Korea and elsewhere. They can’t, they say, impose a UAW contract on partners that play no role in UAW contract negotiations.

Which brings us to the second way that Fain is channeling Reuther. After World War II, Reuther pressed for higher wages while simultaneously urging the still-extant wartime Office of Price Administration, or OPA, to bar the Big Three from raising prices on automobiles. Management was outraged that a union leader would presume to involve himself in an issue (pricing) in which the union had no direct stake. But the union did have a stake, insofar as UAW workers wanted cars to remain affordable for themselves and the rest of the working class. The emerging European model of labor unions working in collaboration with management and government held no appeal for the Big Three, and the OPA got shut down before Reuther’s plan could be implemented.