The GM Strike and the Historical Convergence of Possibilities

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A Socialist Project e-bulletin ... No. 1926 ... November 6, 2019
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The GM Strike and the Historical Convergence of Possibilities

Sam Gindin

On September 16, 2019, forty-six thousand defiant General Motors (GM) workers streamed out on strike. This eruption of long-festering worker anger and frustrations was directed not only at a corporation that had treated its workforce so shabbily, but also at the often-complicit role of their own union. The strike call came from the UAW’s top officers, but it was clearly the rank-and-file who were in the lead. Nothing GM was ready to offer before the strike could have met the workers’ goals, and a strike was virtually inevitable. The strike lasted six weeks, the longest at GM’s US operations in half a century.

In taking on GM, autoworkers were driven by their own particular grievances. But they couldn’t help but be emboldened by the wider upsurge of worker militancy in the US. In 2018, almost half a million American workers had participated in major strikes (i.e., strikes with 1000-plus workers) -- the most such strikes since 1986 and a trend that continued into... 2019. Moreover, as with the surprising empathy eight years earlier for Occupy’s challenge to the ‘1%’, the strikes touched an oppositional nerve among a significant portion of the public -- a sense, not necessarily well-defined, that the union battles expressed the animus of ‘the many’ to the grotesque inequality that had come to characterize American society.

A recent Gallup Poll further documented the pro-union temper of the times, noting that "union approval is near a 50-year high." This mood was graphically captured in the presidential primaries as Democratic hopefuls clamored to present themselves as having the closest union ties and promising the most progressive labour legislation. Some of the candidates even moved beyond the usual anodyne laments for the disappearing ‘middle class’ and, following Bernie Sanders, dared to reference the ‘working class’ and emphasize the priority of empowering unions.

As it turned out, the GM strike ended on a mixed note. The ratification turnout, over 80%, was among the highest ever at the Big Three auto companies, but the workers weren’t there to praise the negotiators. Only 57% of those attending voted for the agreement -- a notably small proportion given that the option was to continue the long strike and to do so under an uninspiring union leadership further weakened by a reprehensible scandal. The dissatisfaction with the outcome was clear even among those who reluctantly voted to end the strike.

This did not mean the strike was a failure. In contrast to the years of relative passivity, autoworkers took their main weapon, the strike, out of its shed and became actors in a larger struggle. The readiness to resist pushed talk of concessions aside. Instead of pessimistically asking themselves, ‘What are we going to give up this time?,’ autoworkers returned collective bargaining to a space for workers to make demands on the company. Battles elsewhere, including abroad, now took on a new hue and resonated more deeply. Picket line discussions shared stories and dreams. Supportive rap artists from the community joined picket lines to perform with ‘lay rappers’ from the assembly line. Monetary gains were minor, but the focus on ending tiered wages was a powerful signal to newer hirees that solidarity still meant something to most autoworkers, a message crucial to building for future struggles. Class formation advanced a step.

Yet what did all this ultimately mean? Is anything fundamental likely to change in the union as a result of the strike? What lessons, for both workers and the socialist left, were suggested by the strike and what potentials did it open up? It’s useful to begin such a discussion by revisiting the details of the GM settlement.

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