The age of optimism that lasted in the US from the 1940s to the 1970s looked, basically, like a car. In his classic study Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974), the former metalworker and Marxist theorist Harry Braverman wrote that “the term ‘working class,’ properly understood, never precisely delineated a specified body of people.” What we call a “class” is always in flux: old jobs disappear, new ones emerge, different populations are mobilized or discharged, workers assert themselves in new ways, and bosses grind labor’s face with new techniques, all as part of what Braverman called an “ongoing social process.” Even so, he continued, “to most people’s minds” the working class “represented for a long time a fairly well-defined part of the population of capitalist countries.” For four decades, the readiest image for that part of the population had been the autoworker.
So central were the automobile and its manufacture to the structure and image of American society that scholars often gloss the whole period as “Fordism,” the way a historian of Russia might refer to the period between 1917 and 1991 as “communism.” Fordism’s foundations were laid with the invention of the assembly line and the implementation of Henry Ford’s $5 day in the 1910s, followed by the development at General Motors of modern marketing techniques in the 1920s. In turn, the relationship between labor and capital that underpinned the postwar economic boom found its clearest expression in the relationship between the United Auto Workers, founded in 1935, and the big domestic automakers, which were winnowed over the decades down to the Big Three: Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler (now Stellantis).
Autoworkers won the UAW’s first contract in the breakthrough sit-down strikes of 1936–1937. These actions—in which striking union members occupied and held plants as opposed to picketing outside them—electrified the country; the occupations of GM plants in Flint, Michigan, remain some of the most hallowed episodes in American labor history. They were the decisive breakthrough for the then-brand-new industrial union movement, vindicating its hypothesis that all workers in an industry should be united in a single union rather than divided by skill and occupation, like plumbers and electricians and carpenters are at a building site.
As the UAW became institutionalized over the course of the 1940s, the elements of Fordism locked into place: for labor, relative economic security and mass consumption; for management, more predictable labor relations and secure control over the process of production, enabling longer-term planning. This arrangement came together gradually and contentiously during the war and in the immediate postwar period. It was consummated in a 1950 contract nicknamed “the treaty of Detroit,” which set aside workers’ hopes for shorter workdays or more power over conditions on the shop floor in return for health and retirement benefits and an improved cost-of-living adjustment. As Daniel Bell observed at the time, GM “paid a billion for peace but it got a bargain.” From the 1940s to the 1960s, every Democratic presidential nominee launched his general election campaign in Detroit’s Cadillac Square, ritually reconsecrating the treaty’s significance for society at large.
Inclusive capitalist prosperity—this was the myth of this midcentury moment, the legacy of the treaty of Detroit. For the right, it meant that what was good for General Motors was good for America. For the left, it stood for the belief that the interests of the working class were those of society as a whole. Either way, autoworkers’ strikes meant something for everybody.
Because of the wide social implications of the union and its actions, the UAW had a leadership function beyond its narrow remit, and its legendary president Walter Reuther often stood at the left edge of American liberalism, pointing toward the future. The Port Huron Statement, the founding manifesto of the 1960s student left, was drafted at the union’s lakeside retreat, which the young radicals from the University of Michigan borrowed for their meeting. The union provided crucial support to the civil rights movement, helping organize the 1963 March on Washington. (As a paid-up part of the liberal establishment, however, its record on racial justice was far from unblemished. Locally, black workers at auto plants were trapped in the worst and most insecure jobs—an issue on which the union moved with pained reluctance. Nationally, Reuther played the part of liberalism’s heavy when the civil rights insurgency became too destabilizing; he threatened, for example, to cut funding to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference unless the integrationist Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party gave up its claim as the legitimate delegation to the 1964 Democratic National Convention.) Then, in the late 1960s, after years of marching in pro-war lockstep with the Democratic Party leadership, the UAW finally helped break organized labor’s consensus in favor of the Vietnam War.
The UAW never left the ideological mainstream, but its militancy and broad democratic vision were enough to make Walter Reuther and his brother Victor the targets over the years of, variously, a brutal beating, an attempted armed abduction, two shootings (leaving Walter without full use of his right arm and Victor without his right eye), and an attempted bombing. J. Edgar Hoover, who ran a lengthy campaign of harassment against Reuther, declined to investigate the attacks, despite a Senate resolution requesting him to do so. In 1970, after Reuther came out against the war, he died in a plane crash along with his wife, a friend, a bodyguard and the two pilots. He had survived a crash under similar circumstances a year and a half earlier: it has always seemed likely to me that this was another of the assassinations of these years.
The last two decades of the twentieth century and the first of our own threw a wrecking ball through the UAW’s heroic image. Intensifying global competition brought the Big Three to their knees (from which the federal government repeatedly pulled them back up, most famously in the 2009 bailouts), automation ate away at the number of available jobs, and UAW membership declined from its peak of 1.5 million in the 1970s to more than 400,000 today, which includes a significant proportion outside its core jurisdiction. (About 100,000 members, for example, are graduate student workers.) The union’s leadership devolved into an increasingly complacent and corrupt clique. No one would have tried to kill Dennis Williams or Gary Jones, the UAW’s presidents from 2014 to 2019, who recently spent nine months each in federal prison for embezzlement.
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.”
At midnight last Friday, after a 97 percent authorization vote, the UAW launched its strike. Breaking with a long tradition of striking one company at a time as an example to the others, this marks the first time the union has struck Ford, GM, and Stellantis all together. To adapt to the scale of that challenge, it introduced a new tactic it’s calling the “stand-up strike,” a reference to the sit-downs of 1937: it began with striking one plant from each of the Big Three and threatening to call for more plants to “stand up” as needed. Last week about 13,000 workers, 9 percent of the total Big Three union workforce, went out. Yesterday they were joined by workers at thirty-eight parts distribution centers for GM and Stellantis, many of whom are stuck in lower wage tiers. (Fain reported progress at the bargaining table with Ford.)
It is no easy task to get a union back in fighting form after a generational retreat, much less to reverse decades of economic losses and claim new ground. The stand-up strike is a way for the union to take on the entire industry while rationing its resources—a guerrilla strategy. It also generates chaos for the employers, which do not know which plants will be idled next and cannot anticipate where to move equipment and supplies. Presumably this dynamic will continue as the strike ratchets up unpredictably. At some plants still in operation, workers are refusing voluntary overtime to give an extra kick to management and in preparation to join the strike—a program they are calling “eight and skate.”
The strike capitalizes on the tight labor market, the built-up frustration of workers who sweated it out through a deadly pandemic and the erosion of their real wages by inflation, and the fact that the Big Three are again highly profitable, earning a quarter trillion dollars in profits over the last decade. Now workers aim to get what’s theirs. The UAW’s demands include a 40 percent pay increase over four years, the elimination of the unequal tier structure, the restoration of retiree benefits for all workers, the reinstatement of the cost-of-living adjustment surrendered in the 2009 auto bailout episode, a thirty-two-hour workweek, and the right to strike against plant closures.
The union is also positioning itself to organize the emerging electric-vehicle and battery industry. Industry observers generally expect that EVs, with fewer moving parts than internal combustion vehicles, will require fewer autoworkers to produce—posing a potential threat to union members’ livelihood. But in principle the union embraces the EV transition, which it hopes to make into a source of widespread economic security—a promise on which “Bidenomics” has not yet delivered. A provision to direct Department of Energy subsidies to consumers who buy EVs made at union plants was stripped out of the Inflation Reduction Act at Joe Manchin’s behest, but subsidies for unionized EV production can still be pursued, albeit in a weaker form, through administrative discretion. Notably, unlike most of organized labor, the UAW has so far held back from endorsing Joe Biden’s reelection, waiting for his administration to subject the automakers to greater pressure.
The EV issue is the thorniest of the dispute, since it is tied to Biden’s signature policy achievement and implicates the long-term direction of the industry. It is also the point where the interests of autoworkers most clearly converge with those of our society in general. The vision of a green transition that raises rather than erodes working-class living standards—an idea that often goes under the name of a “Green New Deal”—has suffered over the last decade for lack of a clear constituency. Socialists and left-leaning environmentalists have argued for it convincingly in the abstract, but its social base was always hypothetical: the idea was that even blue-collar workers in polluting industries could support it; but they didn’t, not yet. The program of green transition was never going to win mass popular enthusiasm in the abstract: it is bound to emerge instead only in fights over particular jobs, neighborhoods, water systems—concrete situations, like those a contract specifies.
The strike has so far earned wide popular backing. It polls at large majority support and has the endorsements not just of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but of a bipartisan range of politicians, from Biden and the traditionally mute Barack Obama to Republicans operating under the delusion that the union is fighting against electrification. Donald Trump plans to swing through Detroit to address autoworkers, threatening to outflank Biden, who dragged his heels before agreeing to the union’s request that he appear on a picket line. The UAW’s left-wing leaders, surely eager to induce the president to earn their endorsement and help them wall off Trump from their members, must have been flummoxed by the White House’s hesitation. The emerging consensus of opinion around the justice of the autoworkers’ economic demands will not decide the strike directly, but it could shake Biden from his stupor and bring him around on the UAW’s political needs. Last month the administration tried to avert a strike with $12 billion in subsidies for union EV plants: too little, too late, but a sign of what more can be won.
The UAW is not alone. In the past several years labor militancy has been on the rise across sectors, challenging not only particular employers but also, increasingly, the direction of the country. For a decade, beginning in Chicago in 2012 and escalating to the strike wave of 2018–2019 and the struggles over pandemic reopenings, teachers have resisted privatization and fought for smaller classes and safer, better staffed schools. Similarly radicalized by the pandemic, thousands of Starbucks and Amazon workers have stood up to these giants of the new economy, long thought to be unorganizable. In these and other campaigns, workers have faced relentless, often flagrantly illegal antiunion repression, prompting the Biden administration’s National Labor Relations Board to come to their aid with some of the most favorable interpretations of labor law in decades.
In Hollywood, by striking against the algorithmic production and distribution of television and film, actors and writers are defending the very idea of human culture as something more than pellets of pasteurized and predigested content. So too are workers in Pittsburgh, where the staff of the Post-Gazette has fought a bitter strike for nearly a year to preserve the basic possibility of local news. Across Los Angeles, thousands of hotel workers have been on strike for nearly a month, demanding not only better wages and working conditions but also for hotels to help solve the city’s crises of unaffordable housing and homelessness by offering housing support for hotel workers and providing empty rooms to the unhoused. A rolling wave of organizing at hospitals and nursing homes since the pandemic, including an enormous potential strike recently authorized at Kaiser Permanente, contests the ongoing staffing crisis in the health sector, which is intimately tied to patient access and quality of care.
In higher education, resistance to a collapsed academic job market and the depredations of increasingly mercenary administrations has quickly accelerated. Unions have launched major strikes across the industry, most notably in 2022 at the University of California, and won an extraordinary string of near-unanimous union victories across the private sector in the past several years—pro-union vote share is regularly above 90 percent in electorates that often exceed three thousand workers. Eight of the ten largest new union bargaining units since January 2022 have been at universities. (The other two were at hospitals.) Academic workers have revivified the democratic left wing of labor, not just contributing to the reformation of the UAW but also rapidly rebuilding the membership of the United Electrical Workers, once the third-largest CIO union but reduced to a tiny rump by the purging of the labor movement’s radical wing in the early Cold War.
At West Virginia University, having jammed the institution deep into debt with major spending on private jet flights and academically worthless capital projects, a rapacious administration now intends to lay off hundreds of faculty and staff members and shutter a wide range of programs and departments. Public sector unions in the state enjoy no legal rights, but the widespread outrage of students and faculty—including an 89 percent vote by the faculty of no confidence in the president—seems likely to evolve into some form of labor struggle and a major test for the academic labor movement.
On all sides, the scavenging ultrarich are busy trying to strip the copper from the walls. If they keep getting their way, we will be deadened in culture and intellect, worked to the bone, housed in unlivable conditions, choking on smoke, and unable to find care. Could there come a moment when they find that they have pushed too far, taken too much? For many decades, such a breaking point was nowhere on the horizon. With their unions in ruins and the cultures of solidarity they embodied scattered to the wind, workers took what they could get—trying to lose as little as possible, to keep their families where they lived, to climb out of the hole they fell into after the last layoff or injury, or foreclosure, or medical emergency. What distinguishes our moment is a change in initiative. Affordable housing, safe and high-quality education and health care for all, intellectual opportunity even in the poorest places, a rich culture and democratic public sphere, a low-carbon good life—this is now the platform of labor. If it were already in place, we might now have something deserving the name democracy.
Today more and more workers are in motion across sectors, regions, and industries—suggesting that the cycle of popular struggles that appeared to peak in 2020 with the Bernie Sanders campaign and the George Floyd uprisings is not complete. From a longer historical perspective, there is little reason to think it should have been. The constant flux of class formation, what Harry Braverman called the “ongoing social process” that is the working class, requires passing through painful gaps, valleys of disorganization between the peaks of solidarity. It becomes common to forget that the working class ever existed, or to fail to see how it might exist again, unable to recognize its new expressions—baristas, grad students. But then a moment comes when something old returns, something historically lost is recovered, and the recovery brings us not backward in time but forward. A king asleep in the mountain awakens to defend his people with knowledge and power long thought lost. A familiar face, not seen in years, steps onto the stage and opens the next act.