The United Auto Workers (UAW) union is embarking on an unprecedented campaign to organize workers across 13 non-union automakers in the United States, a move that could significantly reshape the landscape of the American automotive industry. This initiative comes on the heels of the UAW securing record contracts with the Detroit automakers, signaling a new era of labor relations in the sector.
In October 2023, UAW achieved a landmark victory by securing unprecedented contracts with Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis NV encompassing substantial benefits. This included noteworthy wage increases of up to 23% over the next four years, resulting in an average hourly wage exceeding $30, retirement benefits, increased pension contributions, reduced healthcare costs for retirees and measures like restrictions on outsourcing and plant closures.
The current campaign, announced by UAW President Shawn Fain, targets nearly 150,000 autoworkers at companies including BMW, Honda, Hyundai, Lucid, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Rivian, Subaru, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo. Workers are signing electronic cards in support of the union’s efforts, which could potentially lead to the organization of U.S. plants from these automakers. However, it’s important to note that the union’s success in organizing each plant or automaker is not guaranteed and will ultimately depend on workers voting in support of UAW representation.
Fain’s strategy marks a significant shift from traditional union tactics. Typically, unions spend months or years building support within factories before moving to a vote on representation. However, Fain, who has already demonstrated a willingness to rewrite the rules of engagement with automakers, is taking a more aggressive approach. This simultaneous launch of major organizing campaigns is a break from tradition and could greatly assist the union’s bargaining efforts and scale.
The UAW’s membership has seen a dramatic decline over the past two decades, falling from about 700,000 members in 2001 to 383,000 at the beginning of 2023. This decline is in stark contrast to its peak of 1.5 million members in 1979. Organizing non-union automakers would not only help reverse this trend but also strengthen the union’s position in future negotiations.
Several non-union automakers, such as Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda, have announced plans to increase worker wages following the UAW’s deals with Ford, GM, and Stellantis. Fain has referred to these increases as the “UAW bump,” suggesting that the union’s influence extends beyond its direct membership.
Despite this influence, the UAW has historically struggled to organize foreign-based automakers in the U.S. Efforts to unionize plants with Volkswagen and Nissan have fallen short, and previous attempts to organize Tesla’s Fremont plant in California have seen little traction. Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, commented on the UAW’s aims at the 2023 DealBook Summit in New York, stating, “If Tesla gets unionized it will be because we deserve it and we failed in some way.”
One of the “strongest campaigns” thus far is at Toyota’s assembly complex in Georgetown, Kentucky, where 7,800 workers manufacture the Camry, RAV4, and Lexus ES. Fain’s message to workers across the country is clear: joining the UAW can provide stability and security, alleviating the stress of living paycheck to paycheck while companies make billions.
The UAW’s campaign represents a critical juncture in the American automotive industry. If successful, it could lead to significant changes in labor relations, wages, and working conditions across the sector. The outcome of this campaign will be closely watched, as it has the potential to influence the future of automotive manufacturing in the United States and set a precedent for labor organization in other industries.