In a monumental labor victory echoing the 1937 Flint Sit-Down Strike, the UAW's triumphant strike against top automakers marks a defining moment in modern labor history.

When I was a kid, my church youth group in the summers would often go to a water park in Rockford, Illinois. To get there we’d take Interstate 90, and even now, I remember what it looked like when we drove past the Chrysler plant in Belvedere. Even on Sundays, that place was humming. It looked like what a factory was supposed to look like - a steady hum of activity, car carriers rolling onto the highway, people coming and going.

Earlier this year, Stellantis, the successor to Chrysler, closed the plant. Its workers were scattered to backup jobs across the country. I marched with some of them on the picket line at the parts distribution center in Plymouth, Minnesota.

Last week, the United Auto Workers settled their contract with Stellantis. It includes the reopening of the Belvedere plant. That’s… that’s never happened before.

The United Auto Workers have won a signal victory in their strike against the Big 3 Automakers. It’s easily the most important strike win since the 1997 Teamsters strike. If you’re feeling particularly enthusiastic, you can even make the case that the last time a US strike was this successful - in terms not just of the size of the victory, but its importance for the moment - was the original Sit-Down Strike in Flint, Michigan, in 1936-37, that launched the UAW and the modern American labor movement. A stretch, to be sure, but this was a pretty big win.

From where we sit now, it’s easy to feel like it was always going to go this way. But while we like to repeat the mantra, “strikes work,” the more accurate formulation is, “strikes can work.”

Sometimes they don’t work. A strike is a risk.

Take a trip back in time with me to visit an alternative past where things didn’t work out this way:

Shawn Fain takes over leadership of a United Auto Workers riven with dissent following a tight election this spring. Bad feelings are all around. The new leaders are spending as much time putting out internal political fires as they are building their contract campaign with the Big 3 automakers.

Fain’s refusal to shake the hands of the company representatives at the commencement of bargaining is derided as a cheap stunt. His regular videos updating members on negotiations often raise more questions than they answer, leaving members and the public wondering if UAW knows what it’s doing.

After weeks of fruitless negotiations, the UAW finally calls a strike, but you can tell it’s an act of desperation more than strategy. Fain and his team had over-promised to the members, and rather than admit defeat, they double down with a strike. UAW follows the old pattern - everyone out on the line at once, shut the place down until bosses come to their senses.

Right away there are cracks in the wall. Plants that sided with Fain’s political opponents during the election don’t fully shut down, leading to fights on the picket lines and endless media stories about a union divided. The automakers, seeing this, smile and sit back, content to wait out the union.

With 150,000 workers out on strike, the UAW’s vaunted strike fund begins bleeding cash. Stonewalled at the negotiating table, UAW leaders begin a belated public relations offensive, putting out a message of corporate greed and unfulfilled promises since 2007; their message is lost in the noise. The narrative of “UAW in disarray” has taken hold, and nothing can shake it. An attempt to get President Biden to intervene is unsuccessful, as unnamed White House sources tell reporters that Biden doesn’t want to be seen taking the side of a losing effort.

The automakers announce more potential plant closures, and begin advertising for replacement workers for distribution plants and other facilities. Four weeks in, with nothing having shifted in bargaining, workers at a few sites begin talking about going back in. Finally, one of them does, the workers having lost faith in the strike.

Once the first goes, others follow, and soon 10,000, then 20,000 autoworkers are back on the job, defying their union. Fain and his leadership team lack the political power to discipline the rebels.

The automakers put their last and final offer on the table - the same offer they’d made before the strike. Fain makes one last appeal to the members for solidarity, but even his own team has turned against the strike. Humiliated, they agree to the contract and return to work.

The headline in the next day’s New York Times: “UAW defeat heralds the end of labor militancy following COVID upsurge.”

That’s not what happened, but there’s absolutely a world where it could have. That world looks very similar to our own.

I can’t stress this enough. This strike was a high-wire act. It could have been very, very bad.

The question is, how close were we to that terrifying scenario? I’d suggest we were a lot closer than you’d think. Three elements, I think, made the difference between the tremendous wins we saw in the last week, and an alternative reality where it all went horribly wrong.

First, the conditions were right. Whatever one’s opinion on other aspects of the Biden presidency, this is easily the most pro-labor White House since FDR. That meant the UAW could imagine things like asking the President to walk the picket line, and could count on the National Labor Relations Board to protect their rights if they had been needed. Those things matter.

The economy is in the right place; unemployment is at historic lows, inflation is receding. Public sentiment is not with the billionaires. These are some of the best economic conditions for workers the country has seen in my lifetime. It’s surely not a coincidence that the successful 1997 Teamsters strike also took place in a strong economy. It matters.

Second, luck. Much of our everyday history is for all intents and purposes stochastic. Think of all that could have gone wrong that was beyond anyone’s control. A technical glitch in a video feed. An unplanned ugly incident on a picket line. A random judge issuing an injunction suppressing strike activity. So many things could have happened that wouldn’t have been anyone’s fault, that wouldn’t have been anyone’s plan, but would have had a huge impact on the strike

Beyond that, UAW seems to have been lucky in its foes. GM, Ford, and Stellantis seem to have been wholly unprepared for the Stand Up Strike, didn’t know how to respond. They didn’t have a coherent communications plan, letting UAW’s version of the story dominate the narrative. They hadn’t developed (or didn’t put in place) clear continuity-of-operations plans to keep the companies moving while the strike lasted.

Wrapped up in that is the third thing that made the difference. It involves a concept almost forbidden in discussions of labor strategy and action. A taboo word, one that the labor movement, and indeed much of the the broader progressive movement world, tries to avoid whenever possible:


We hate to talk about competence. So. Much.

What we love to talk about is commitment and passion and strategy. At a personal level, someone’s value as a union leader or activist is, above all else, measured by the strength of their solidarity - if they stand up for the right things, and fight hard, they’re good.

Similarly, when we evaluate national labor leaders, the first (and often only) thing we look for is how they talk about things. We need to see them talk about the working class, excoriate the 1%, and reaffirm their commitments to organizing, member democracy, and the power of a united labor movement. We also love it when they can tie lots of things together, demonstrating how their particular fight is part of something bigger. That’s what we look for.

When leaders show commitment to the movement and their solidarity, we treat them as good, and, if they win, we say those qualities are what won it.

On the opposite side of the coin, when leaders are unsuccessful, the main criticism is that they weren’t committed enough to the struggle. In more serious cases, this escalates quite naturally to accusations of betrayal, of selling out the working class.

This has a powerful internal logic. After all, if what we need to win is a true commitment to the fight, then by definition, if we lost, it must have been because our commitment is weak.

Am I oversimplifying how we talk about this? Yes. Do I care? Not so much.

The heart of the dilemma is this: commitment, solidarity, passion for the fight matter a great deal. They are very, very important. They are part of the moral and ethical dimensions of what we do. Moreover, they are often all that sustain us when the strife is fierce and the warfare long. But they’re not competence.

I’m looking at this only from the outside, and there’s a lot I don’t know, but everything I can see about the UAW Big 3 campaign tells me they were competent as hell, and that competence was the main ingredient in their victory.

Think about some of the elements of this campaign:

  • UAW leadership came into power right on the verge of negotiations but started running their game plan from day one. They had to unite the union and get everyone focused in the right direction. It’s pretty clear they were successful. That is not an automatic thing. One of these days I’ll write a whole piece on how union leaders need to get better at doing politics within their unions. These folks did the politics right.
  • They had a comprehensive plan all the way up to and through a possible strike. In some media reports, you’ll see this misrepresented. They’ll say UAW intended to strike all along and never sought to reach agreement - just went through the motions until it was time to walk off the job. I don’t think that’s true. I think, rather, that UAW built a campaign that included a strike in their plans, but only if and when things got that far.
    • That’s not always what unions do. The more common behavior is to negotiate, try some actions and various tactics and then, if they don’t work, stop and look around and ask, “is it time to talk about striking?” This isn’t a sign of cowardice or an unwillingness to fight for the working class. Planning a full contract campaign is hard! Many unions have their hands full just getting themselves to the bargaining table in decent shape.
    • Among other things, for this plan to have been carried out, UAW must have had a strong division of labor. There’s a herding instinct in union campaigns: everyone wants to be part of every decision. It’s hard to have enough trust to let other people handle their part when they handle theirs. Again, I don’t have any inside knowledge, but while some part of UAW was focused on the day-to-day of negotiations, another part was prepping for the strike. That sounds simple; in practice it’s tough to do. They did it.
  • The Stand Up Strike model was fucking brilliant. If there’s one part of the labor movement I know better than anyone, it’s late-night conversations over drinks between labor nerds who say to each other, “you know, if I was running one of these big campaigns, here’s what I’d do…” Everything we’d ever talked about, this campaign had, but for real instead of just in our imaginations. A new way to strike, escalating pressure more deliberately, with more flexibility. A ridiculously clever legal strategy. A brilliantly-executed communications strategy.
    • It wasn’t just the planning at the top. The Stand Up Strike only worked because of a breadth and depth of organizing across the union. For it to work, UAW had to be able to call a plant out on strike with a bare minimum of notice. The workers I picketed with in Plymouth had gotten about three hours. They walked because they were organized. They were prepared. The workers I talked to had never struck before, but they were ready, willing, and able. The call came, and out they went.
    • Striking, as a personal activity, is scary and hard. It’s an enormous leap of faith to walk off the job and hope your union will get you back in the door. It can take months of organizing to get a group of workers to do it. The folks in Plymouth had three hours to decide. I’ve led workers out on strike before. I’ve never done a good enough job to have confidence that I could call them up, tell them to go, and they would go at the drop of the hat. That required extraordinary competence, from the top all the way down to the strike captains on site.

You’re going to see a lot of smart commentators talk about this strike as a triumph of solidarity. It was. It really was.

But what made this strike successful was that the UAW made a brilliant plan, and executed it almost without flaw. If you talk about this strike and don’t recognize how good the UAW was at doing this, you’re missing the critical piece.

Lots of optimistic unionists are going to march into their local meeting next week and demand that their union do what UAW did. That spirit and energy are wonderful. They’re a welcome sign that the wind is at our backs, that this time really is different, that there’s a chance that this could be a moment in time that future generations will remember as we remember the workers in Flint 87 years ago.

Replicating the UAW’s success isn’t just about courage and solidarity and fire. If you want to win, you’re going to have to plan, to be careful, and to know your limits. Many unions in this country (maybe most?) simply aren’t in the place where they can do what the UAW did with the same level of skill. I’ve been in this world for 25 years. By any measure I’m pretty experienced, and I like to think I’m pretty good at it. No way I could plan or execute a campaign of this sophistication and timing. I’m not good enough.

UAW was good enough. I’m in awe. Solidarity, and congratulations.



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