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Eight and Skate

The age of optimism that lasted in the US from the 1940s to the 1970s looked, basically, like a car.

Beginning in the 1980s, the union negotiated a series of concessionary contracts, giving back victories it had won during its heroic age and dividing workers into tiers. Under these plans, employees hired after a certain point can never attain the same terms as more senior workers—fragmenting the workers and corroding the principle of industrial unionism on which the UAW was founded. Autoworkers’ real wages are down 19 percent from 2008. UAW membership became a less appealing prospect for the nonunion autoworkers concentrated in so-called “transplant” factories in the South owned by foreign automakers, who have been happy to underscore this uncertainty with brutal antiunion campaigns. If you buy a BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Volkswagen, or Volvo in the United States, it was probably assembled in the low-wage, right-to-work South (or similar right-to-work, low-wage markets like Indiana), where the UAW has repeatedly failed badly in its attempts to organize. This unorganized pool of labor poses an increasingly dire threat to the union as a whole.

In the 1970s, during the initial phase of this half-century of crisis, rank-and-file democracy movements started emerging within the union. Starting in 1979 they were supported by the independent organization Labor Notes, whose publication, also called Labor Notes, has been indispensable in strike coverage. In 2021 the latest of these movements, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), won a referendum to change the procedure for electing the executive board and top officers from an indirect one based on delegates to a direct one that gives each member one vote.

Earlier this year, UAWD got one of its own, Shawn Fain, elected president on a platform of renewed militancy—the first time an insurgent has ever captured the union’s leadership. Fain, whose grandfathers were both UAW members—one from 1937 onward—began as an electrician at a plant in Indiana in 1994, and his victory was firmly rooted in the autoworker base. But the reform movement has also depended on the energy of the union’s growing contingent of graduate workers, who have energetically raised money and organized members. In this sense, today’s UAW is both a renewal of an old tradition and a new creation. You can hear it in Fain’s rhetoric, which sounds in one moment like Bernie Sanders (“the billionaire class against everyone else”) and in another like something older. “In the Kingdom of God,” he said in a speech earlier this month, “no one forces others to perform endless backbreaking work just to feed their families or put a roof over their heads.”