United Auto Workers President Shawn Fenn poses with UAW members during a strike at the General Motors Lansing Delta Assembly Plant in Michigan in late September.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Unionized auto workers at General Motors have voted to ratify a new contract finalizing wage increases of at least 25% over the next four years, according to the UAW’s vote-ratification tracker.
Although the contract represented the largest victory for the union in decades, a large minority of workers were disappointed that the union did not get back the benefits and facilities that previous generations of autoworkers had enjoyed.
Ford and Stellantis workers are still voting on their contracts, which are broadly similar. The results so far show strong support for the agreements, with more than 60% in both companies in favor of ratification.
victory after unusual battle
After controversial and unusually public negotiations, the UAW’s historic strike against all three Detroit automakers began on September 15. Workers at three assembly plants, one per company, walked off the job early Friday morning and joined the protest.
Typically, the UAW targets a single company for negotiations and a possible strike, then hopes that the other two companies will reach a similar deal. But these were not ordinary conversations.
Sean Fenn, a radical reformer with big ambitions for the UAW, was chosen earlier this year to lead the union as it worked to clean up a deeply damaging corruption scandal. He brought a new attitude, new combative rhetoric and a new set of strategies.
Sensing a rare opportunity for significant gains, he laid out attractive goals for the union: a 40% raise over 4 years, the return of pensions and retiree health care to all workers, a 32-hour work week, a guaranteed cost of living. Inflation-linked growth.
Instead of targeting any one company, he insisted on talking to all three. Rather than keep the talks a secret, he repeatedly offered updates on what was on the table in Facebook Live sessions aimed at union members. Instead of building close and cordial relationships with automakers, he framed the negotiations as a war, casting the companies as the enemy – pitting the working class against the billionaire class, putting the soul of America at stake.
And then, instead of going on strike everywhere at once, they held their ground. They began the strike at a few facilities and expanded slowly and unexpectedly. This kept the strike in the headlines, kept companies under tension, and kept the costs of being on strike low enough that unions could negotiate long-term deals.
Companies were frustrated, and sometimes even angry. He accused Fenn of misrepresenting his proposals, skipping meetings, and spending more time making headlines than working toward a deal. But he was relaxed.
Some industry observers also argued that Fenn was raising membership expectations so high that it could make it difficult to ratify a final deal; After months of being urged to think bigger, will activists be willing to accept partial victory?
a negotiated deal
Ultimately, the union did not achieve everything it set out on its ambitious wish list. Neither retiree health care nor pensions returned – although UAW members with a 401K will now get a contribution equal to 10% of their pay up to 40 hours a week, with no required matching. The 32-hour work week was bad. (Fen still believes it, he told members in a recent Facebook Live.)
But workers will get at least 25% salary increase during the contract. Additionally, they will also get a cost of living increase, which is linked to inflation. All told, wages for long-serving employees should increase by about 33%, while some new hires and temporary workers who currently make less money will see their wages more than double. And the union won guarantees that at least at some battery plants, EV batteries will be made by unionized workers.
Ratification at GM was a surprisingly tough sell for the union. Some senior staffers wanted higher and immediate pay increases – pay gains are larger for new hires – or a larger ratification bonus. Other employees are concerned about long shifts, insufficient time off, or being held on to temporary status even after the contract is in place.
Several major GM plants rejected the proposed contract by large margins. But approval is based on a simple majority, and most employees across the company were in favor of it.
The deal will create a stir in the entire auto industry
Each company’s contract is slightly different – Stellantis, for example, allows factory workers to lease Stellantis vehicles with the same features as managers. And each company’s contract is voted on separately.
But for now, at least one company has finalized a deal. The UAW’s wage gains are expected to have an impact on the auto industry for years to come, increasing wages even for non-union workers as companies compete for labor.
It is not clear how much of this will reach consumers in the form of price increases. Some analysts predict that carmakers will have trouble raising prices because vehicle costs are already so high.
Meanwhile, the UAW has made its next ambitions clear: It wants to use these attractive new deals, which are being rolled out even before their ratification, to attract non-union workers elsewhere. Targets include plants of foreign automakers in the South and Tesla – the US automaker leading the EV revolution, which has fiercely opposed unionization.
This is a tall order. The union has tried to expand this way before and failed. But Shawn Fenn says skeptics didn’t believe they could ever get a cost-of-living increase, or that companies could be asked to bring battery plants under master contracts.
“When we return to the bargaining table in 2028, it will be not just with the Big Three, but with the Big Five or Big Six,” he told UAW members last month.