Graphic by Merek Alam
On Sept. 15th, nearly 50,00 General Motors employees left their stations in order to form a picket line outside of their factories. The union responsible for the strike is the United Automobile Workers (UAW), and they have a long history with Michigan.
“I would say that they are among the central drivers / themes of Michigan history in the 21st century,” explains Professor Benjamin Peterson, who grew up in a union family and worked with the labor movement during college. “It’s really the 1936 Flint Sit-Down strike that inaugurated a new era in labor history and social movements.”
General Motors has yet to answer the UAW’s calls for better job security, profit sharing, less reliance on underpaid temporary workers and better health benefits. The problem isn’t a lack of money.
When General Motors went bankrupt in 2009, taxpayers footed a $50 billion bailout bill which the company claimed they were incapable of fully paying back, leading to the US government to declare an $11.2 billion loss on the endeavor. In 2018, General Motors received $104 million in tax rebates, then payed their CEO $22 million.
In the last three years alone, General Motors has made $35 billion in profit combined. While Americans have stood with the company, General Motors has turned its back on us. Yet, the problem may be larger than corporate greed. Unions themselves are in trouble.
Despite popular support for unions being at a record 50- year high, they have never been in more decline. In 2018, only 10.5% of Americans belonged to a union, the lowest rate of membership since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began collecting data on it in the early 1980s.
Many economists believe that this decline is at least partly responsible for the dramatic rise in income and wealth inequality.
Professor Peterson identifies that one of the issues that lead to union decline was a hostile political environment. Liberal support was eroded by the labor movement’s personal stumblings, some of which involved internal corruption.
“This left the labor movement without any strong defenders in the government, which has led to their inability to fight hostile legislation and, ultimately, to the weakness of American labor law,” said Professor Peterson.
This left unions wide open to attacks from an anti-labor and anti-government coalition that fought to overturn them using endless corporate money. “Under these conditions the labor movement simply could not compete in Washington or in the media and the center of the debate around work shifted definitively against them,” said Professor Peterson.
In addition, automation and globalization made it easier to outsource labor to robots or countries that allow more worker abuse. The Supreme Courts weakened unions even further with its Janus v AFSCME decision, which ruled that employees did not have to be part of unions to enjoy their benefits. This is all exacerbated with the forced adoption of the “gig economy” by younger generations, depriving us of ever obtaining a stable job in the first place.
Despite all this, there does seem to be a new labor movement brewing in the America.
Last February, teachers in 35,000 West Virginian schools organized a strike in order to protest the defunding and privatization of public schools. They shut down 680 schools for a total of nine days, yet students and parents were found standing next to the educators on the picket line.
This week, in addition to the UAW strikes, thousands of nurses in Chicago went on strike and millions of people across the country lined up to participate in a Climate Strike to protest climate denial and inaction from both corporations and governments.
Students can take action themselves. Professor Peterson suggested that students “…attend strikes and rallies, raise money to support the strikers and volunteer with the unions themselves.” He then adds that “…students should also view this strike as an opportunity to examine their own beliefs about work, the marketplace and the law. One of the things I love about studying labor is that it allows for endless discussions about collective action, democracy and how one should pursue a just society.”
More and more, people are refusing to go along with abusive conditions in order to generate money for a profit-hungry system that eats up both workers and the environment with equal disregard. In a machine that thrives on exploitation and destruction, non-cooperation and solidarity may be the perfect wrench in the gears.