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As auto workers begin a fifth day of strikes at plants in Missouri, Michigan and Ohio, United Auto Workers President Shawn Fain has set a new deadline for contract negotiations.
“If we do not make serious progress by Friday, September 22 at noon, other residents will be called upon to stand up and join the strike,” he announced in a video posted on Facebook Monday evening , without revealing which plants or how. many would be called next.
Fain’s strategy of taking a limited, targeted hit at the three U.S. automakers has won broad support among its members.
On Facebook, one commenter compared it to a game of Battleship.
“He knows where all the boats are and knows exactly how to sink them!” wrote one commenter.
The simultaneous strikes against the Detroit Big 3 are unprecedented in UAW history. The approximately 13,000 auto workers already on strike represent only a fraction of the auto sector’s unionized workforce, but the threat of an intensified strike has increased pressure and left companies in uncertainty.
“We have a long way to go and if the company does not respect our workers’ demands, we will intensify our actions,” Fain told NPR on Monday.
Some factions of workers have protested, wondering what is the point of the strike if all 146,000 of them do not strike at the same time.
“So much for solidarity,” one person commented.
Others expressed impatience with this latest decision, commenting “Why wait until Friday? We voted to strike, let’s do it.”
In recent days, Fain has made it clear that all options remain on the table, including an all-out strike.
A new activism at the UAW
Labor historians see the deployment of this new strategy as a reflection of a new activism within the UAW under Fain’s leadership, but also of strategic and sharp thinking on how to put pressure on corporations while maintaining flexibility and limiting spillovers.
“The UAW is not in the business of bringing down Ford, GM and Chrysler,” says Erik Loomis, a history professor at the University of Rhode Island and author of A History of America in Ten Keystrokes. “That’s not the point. The point is to get fair treatment.”
While it’s too early to tell if the strategy will work, Loomis says the momentum appears to be on the union’s side, with companies having to guess which part of their supply chain might be next to be hit.
“It creates a scenario where businesses can’t really prepare,” he says.
Retain the $825 million union strike fund
There have already been repercussions for non-striking workers. On Friday, Ford furloughed 600 workers because they have to use materials that must be coated by the paint department, which is on strike.
GM warned it would lay off 2,000 workers at a Kansas plant earlier this week due to a lack of components supplied by GM’s Wentzville, Mo., plant, which is on strike.
The UAW said it would offer workers fired in response to the strikes the same pay as the strikers, $500 a week. For most auto workers on production lines, that’s well less than half their weekly pay.
To avoid spending its $825 million strike fund too quickly, Loomis says it’s entirely possible the union could end up returning some strikers to their jobs while forcing others out.
“No one really wants to be on the picket line for months,” he says. “Very long strikes usually don’t win.”
For now, the strikers will remain, Fain said in his video statement.
“We’re going to continue to hit the business where we need to, when we need to,” he said.
No breakthrough yet, but no breakdown either
Although there does not appear to be any major progress in the negotiations so far, Fain stressed that the talks have not broken down, as President Biden suggested last week.
“A strike is not a sign of an impasse,” says Sharon Block, executive director of the Center for Labor and a Just Economy at Harvard Law School.
“It shows that the parties are simply using a different tool – another tool – to try to change the dynamic at the negotiating table.”
Sources close to the negotiations say the parties continue to negotiate in good faith, meaning there has been movement on both sides.