Pluralistic: "Efficiency" left the Big Three vulnerable to smart UAW tactics (21 Sept 2023)

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An altered version of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch, better known as The Skating Minister (1790s), by Henry Raeburn; it has been changed so that the minister is holding a UAW 'On Strike' sign, and to insert a GM factory in the background.

"Efficiency" left the Big Three vulnerable to smart UAW tactics (permalink)

It's been 143 days since the WGA went on strike against the Hollywood studios. While early tactical leaks from the studios had studio execs chortling and twirling their mustaches about writers caving once they started losing their homes, the strikers aren't wavering – they're still out there, pounding the picket lines, every weekday:

The studios obviously need writers. That gleeful, anonymous studio exec who got such an obvious erotic charge at the thought of workers being rendered homeless as punishment for challenging his corporate power completely misread the room, and his comments didn't demoralize the writers. Instead, they inspired the actors to go on strike, too.

But how have the writers stayed out since May Day? How have the actors stayed out for 69 days since their strike started on Bastille Day? We can thank the studios for that! As it turns out, the studios have devoted so much energy to rendering creative workers as precarious as possible, hiring as little as they can getting away with and using punishing overtime as a substitute for adequate staffing that they've eliminated all the workers who can't survive on side-hustles and savings for six or seven months at a time.

But even for those layoff-hardened workers, long strikes are brutal, and of course, all the affiliated trades, from costumers to grips, are feeling the pain. The strike fund only goes so far, and non-striking, affected workers don't even get that. That's why I've been donating regularly to the Entertainment Community Fund, which helps all affected workers out with cash transfers (I just gave them another $500):

As hot labor summer is revealed as a turning point – not just a season – long strikes will become the norm. Bosses still don't believe in worker power, and until they get their minds right, they're going to keep on trying to starve their workforces back inside. To get a sense of how long workers will have to hold out, just consider the Warrior Met strike, where Alabama coal-miners stayed out for 23 months:

As Kim Kelly explained to Adam Conover in the latest Factually podcast, the Alabama coal strikers didn't get anywhere near the attention that the Hollywood strikers have enjoyed:

(To learn more about the untold story of worker organizing, from prison unions to the key role that people of color and women played in labor history, check out Kelly's book, "Fight Like Hell," now in paperback:)

Which brings me to the UAW strike. This is an historic strike, the first time that the UAW has struck all of the Big Three automakers at once. Past autoworkers' strikes have marked turning points for all American workers. The 1945/46 GM strike established employers' duty to cover worker pensions, health care, and cost of living allowances. The GM strike created the American middle-class:

The Big Three are fighting for all the marbles here. They are refusing to allow unions to organize EV factories. Given that no more internal combustion cars will be in production in just a few short years, that's tantamount to eliminating auto unions altogether. The automakers are flush with cash, including billions in public subsidies from multiple bailouts, along with billions more from greedflation price-gouging. A long siege is inevitable, as the decimillionaires running these companies earn their pay by starving out their workers:

The UAW knows this, of course, and their new leadership – helmed by the union's radical president Shawn Fain – has a plan. UAW workers are engaged in tactical striking, shutting down key parts of the supply chain on a rolling basis, making the 90-day strike fund stretch much farther:

In this project, they are greatly aided by Big Car's own relentless pursuit of profit. The automakers – like every monopolized, financialized sector – have stripped all the buffers and slack out of their operations. Inventory on hand is kept to a bare minimum. Inputs are sourced from the cheapest bidder, and they're brought to the factory by the lowest-cost option. Resiliency – spare parts, backup machinery – is forever at war with profits, and profits have won and won and won, leaving auto production in a brittle, and easily shattered state.

This is especially true for staffing. Automakers are violently allergic to hiring workers, because new workers get benefits and workplace protection. Instead, the car companies routinely offer "voluntary" overtime to their existing workforce. By refusing this overtime, workers can kneecap production, without striking.

Enter "Eight and Skate," a campaign among UAW workers to clock out after their eight hour shift. As Keith Brower Brown writes for Labor Notes, the UAW organizers are telling workers that "It’s crossing an unofficial picket line to work overtime. It’s helping out the company":

Eight and Skate has already started to work; the Buffalo Ford plant can no longer run its normal weekend shifts because workers are refusing to put in voluntary overtime. Of course, bosses will strike back: the next step will be forced overtime, which will lead to the unsafe conditions that unionized workers are contractually obliged to call paid work-stoppages over, shutting down operations without touching the strike fund.

What's more, car bosses can't just halt safety stoppages or change the rules on overtime; per the UAW's last contract, bosses are required to bargain on changes to overtime rules:

Car bosses have become lazily dependent on overtime. At GM's "highly profitable" SUV factory in Arlington, TX, normal production runs a six-days, 24 hours per day. Workers typically work five eight-hour days and nine hours on Saturdays. That's been the status quo for 11 years, but when bosses circulated the usual overtime signup sheet last week, every worker wrote "a big fat NO" next to their names.

Writing for The American Prospect, David Dayen points out that this overtime addiction puts a new complexion on the much-hyped workerpocalypse that EVs will supposedly bring about. EVs are much simpler to build than conventional cars, the argument goes, so a US transition to EVs will throw many autoworkers out of work:

But the reality is that most autoworkers are doing one and a half jobs already. Reducing the "workforce" by a third could leave all these workers with their existing jobs, and the 40-hour workweek that their forebears fought for at GM inn 1945/46. Add to that the additional workers needed to make batteries, build and maintain charging infrastructure, and so on, and there's no reason to think that EVs will weaken autoworker power.

And as Dayen points out, this overtime addiction isn't limited to cars. It's also endemic to the entertainment industry, where writers' "mini rooms" and other forms of chronic understaffing are used to keep workforces at a skeleton crew, even when the overtime costs more than hiring new workers.

Bosses call themselves job creators, but they have a relentless drive to destroy jobs. If there's one thing bosses hate, it's paying workers – hence all the hype about AI and automation. The stories about looming AI-driven mass unemployment are fairy tales, but they're tailor made for financiers who get alarming, life-threatening priapism at the though of firing us all and replacing us with shell-scripts:

This is why Republican "workerism" rings so hollow. Trump's GOP talks a big game about protecting "workers" (by which they mean anglo men) from immigrants and "woke captialism," but they have nothing to say about protecting workers from bosses and bankers who see every dime a worker gets as misappropriated from their dividend.

Unsurprisingly, conservative message-discipline sucks. As Luke Savage writes in Jacobin, for every mealymouthed Josh Hawley mouthing talking points that "support workers" by blaming China and Joe Biden for the Big Three's greed, there's a Tim Scott, saying the quiet part aloud:

Quoth Senator Scott: "I think Ronald Reagan gave us a great example when federal employees decided they were going to strike. He said, you strike, you’re fired. Simple concept to me. To the extent that we can use that once again, absolutely":

The GOP's workerism is a tissue-thin fake. They can never and will never support real worker power. That creates an opportunity for Biden and Democrats to seize:

Reversing two generations of anti-worker politics is a marathon, not a sprint. The strikes are going to run for months, even years. Every worker will be called upon to support their striking siblings, every day. We can do it. Solidarity now. Solidarity forever.

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