By Rev. Jesse Jackson
At least 12,700 United Auto Workers Union (UAW) workers have walked out in the first strike wave against the Big Three automakers — GM, Ford and Stellantis (the company that took over Chrysler).
Every worker in America — union and non-union, young and old, female and male, Black, brown and white — has a stake in this strike. At issue is not simply whether autoworkers can gain a living wage, but whether this country can begin to rebuild a middle class and curb the extreme inequality that undermines our economy and our democracy.
The companies paint the worker demands as extreme, even as the workers seek simply to get a raise that reflects the companies’ performance in recent years.
Consider that from 2013 to 2022 the companies earned $250 billion in profits, up 92% over that period of time. The average pay of their CEOs — last year each pocketed an average $25 million — is up 40%. Last year alone, the companies ladled out $9 billion in stock buybacks — rewarding shareholders but not workers.
Meanwhile, average autoworker pay, adjusted for inflation, is down nearly 20%. Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, made $29 million last year, roughly $14,500 an hour. The starting salary of an autoworker now is $17 an hour.
This astounding inequity has spread across the economy. The Economic Policy Institute reports that over the last 45 years, adjusting for inflation, CEO compensation in America’s 300 largest companies has risen 1,460% while a typical worker’s pay grew by just 18%.
The auto executives, however, have enjoyed special aid from the government. In 2008, GM and Chrysler almost went bankrupt and were bailed out with some $80 billion in taxpayers’ money. Workers made deep sacrifices to keep the companies going — a wage freeze, an end of cost-of-living raises, a lower paid tier for new workers, weaker pension and health care protections. They haven’t received a cost-of-living raise since 2009, even though consumer prices are up 40%.
Now, with the companies raking in record profits and the CEOs pocketing record salaries, workers are asking for their fair share. They seek wage increases on par with those of the executives, an end to the two-tier labor system that discriminates against new workers, a shorter workweek and an end to the use of temps to undermine full-time workers. They want workers to be rewarded when the company issues stock buybacks or special dividends to reward stockholders.
Central to the dispute is also what will happen as the companies again receive massive government subsidies, this time to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles. The companies have started building plants in anti-union red states, clearly hoping to use the transition and taxpayer subsidies to weaken workers and their unions. The union seeks protections so workers and their unions will benefit from the taxpayer subsidies, not just companies and their shareholders.
Will taxpayer subsidies help build a green economy that empowers workers to gain a fair share of the profits they help to produce? Or will the subsidies add to the extreme inequality already weakening our society and economy? Will they help build a broader middle class or deprive more workers of a living wage?
From Hollywood to fast-food workers to the autoworkers in the Midwest, workers are finally standing up. Once more the question is posed: Whose side are you on?
A stunning 75% of Americans side with the UAW in their negotiations and strike. President Joe Biden has praised the autoworkers. Sen. Bernie Sanders stood with the autoworkers on the first day of their strike. Donald Trump tells them they should stop paying union dues and oppose building electric vehicles — presumably throwing themselves on the tender mercies of the auto CEOs.
The media tends to focus on whether the strike, if it continues, will be bad for the economy. But the economy is not divorced from workers. It is bad for the economy when autoworkers can’t afford to buy the cars that they build. It is bad for the economy when autoworkers are paid less than they made 15 years ago. It is bad for the economy when full-time workers don’t have a decent retirement or can’t afford health care.
Record auto company profits haven’t helped workers. Taxpayer bailouts haven’t helped. Workers lost ground under President Barack Obama and under Trump. Wealthy CEOs don’t suddenly become generous. Workers will get a fair deal only if they fight for it. The UAW has decided to fight — and we all have a stake in their victory.