For decades in the US, unions have atrophied while inequality has soared. The UAW strike may be a sign of changing times.
For the first time ever, last week a sitting United States president, Joe Biden, joined a picket-line of striking car workers in Detroit, amplifying their demands for better pay and conditions. For decades, the idea of the world’s most powerful politician courting so directly the support of unionised workers—his re-election challenge little over a year ahead—would have been unimaginable.
As this high-level political attention indicates, the dispute between the unions and the ‘big three’ US car manufacturers based in and around Detroit—Ford, General Motors and Stellantis—could have wider significance. In a remarkable shift from recent decades, polls show two-thirds of Americans now support trade unions. A successful strike could be a harbinger of change in the industrialised world and the beginning of a serious, working-class-led fightback against rampant inequality.
The leader of the United Auto Workers (UAW), Shawn Fain, and his members have spotlighted the ever-expanding gap between the rewards reaped by the big three’s bosses and the privation faced by workers on their companies’ assembly lines. This gap began to widen exponentially with the financial crash of 2008.
To avoid the threatened collapse of the car companies—their competitiveness weakened by decades of cumulative mismanagement—and the ensuing mass unemployment, these businesses were able (as with the big banks) to secure massive bailouts from the government. Having done so, they drastically cut the pay and conditions of workers, particularly new ones not offered pre-existing contracts. Subsequently, the current trio of chief executives boosted their own annual compensation packages by 40 per cent or more, to totals of $20-30 million.
The taxpayer-catalysed recovery has allowed these corporations to make record profits over recent years—reflected in dividends and share buybacks—but none of this has been shared with the workforce that sacrificed to save them. Many car-factory workers have been forced to take second jobs to survive financially, though with so many empty and derelict properties Detroit is not one of the more expensive US cities.
These experiences, emblematic of the wider issue of inequality, will resonate with workers in other industries and countries, including in the United Kingdom and other market-fundamentalist areas of the industrialised world. In perhaps a more civilised future, historians and their readers may well look back on this Great Gatsby-like era of extreme inequality and be horrified at how it slowly became ‘normal’.
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It is no coincidence that Detroit finds itself at the heart of the fightback. As its well-documented decline graphically illustrates, no US city has been so badly affected by the age of inequality. But, over its history, no city has been at the forefront either of so many positive, indeed dramatic, societal shifts.
Detroit has a strong claim to being the cradle of modern industry. It was there Henry Ford effectively invented mass manufacturing through the assembly line. It was there too that workers, led by union organisers such as Walter Reuther, were in the forefront of fighting successfully for fair wages and conditions—literally so, in the face of the vicious organised violence Ford inflicted on them via his notorious ‘Service Department’. The precedent the Detroit car workers set inspired many others to follow.
The collective power and influence the workers earned brought them relatively secure and comfortable lives in exchange for their tough labour. Most on all sides came to recognise the benefits of a well-paid and satisfied workforce. This settlement persisted for successive decades in the second half of the 20th century, with everyone benefiting from a mass market in which workers could afford to buy the products they made.
The beginning of the end of this era came when ideologically driven political leaders, such as Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, set about destroying workers’ rights in the 1980s. Their ‘success’ ushered in an era of ever-exacerbating economic inequality, social breakdown and political polarisation.
Bringing back solidarity
By his highly symbolic action in joining the Detroit workers’ picket line, Biden seems to be identifying part of his role in history as attempting to put an end to the dangerous populism which has become a defining feature of the age. Incoherent spasms of anger, such as ‘Brexit’ in the UK and the ressentiment stoked in the US by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, have at least in part been put down to inequality. Pinning these (ultimately failed) populist outbreaks solely on the ‘left behind’—without recognising the implicitly patronising tone or the many comfortably-off supporters of these movements—is simplistic and misleading. Yet the despair caused by inequality has undoubtedly been a factor.
Last week Biden also warned that Trump, his likely once-again adversary, was a threat to democracy. For the sake of democracy, as well as a better life for working people, it is to be hoped Biden’s backing helps the Detroit car workers succeed.
It would be magnificently in keeping with their history if they were in the vanguard of bringing back solidarity, as a more productive and successful avenue than the dead-end of populism, to bring this era of exploitation and extreme inequality to a close.
Paul Knott started his working life on Hull docks in the north-east of England but eventually became a UK diplomat. His book, The Accidental Diplomat, covers his two decades in the Foreign Office and he is now a foreign-policy commentator.