A decade ago, General Motors was on the verge of collapse. Facing down an earth-shattering financial crisis, tens of thousands of UAW members agreed to help save an American icon — and the economy along with it.
Autoworkers took on personal financial sacrifices, conceding contract victories that had taken years to secure. Working harder and longer for less, they ultimately carried GM out of bankruptcy and into a period of record-breaking profits.
Over the past three years, GM has pocketed $35 billion in North America alone, allowing CEO Mary Barra to claim her seat as the world’s highest-paid auto executive. After years of sacrifice, GM workers were ready to claim their share of that success.
These patriots had toiled for the sake of something greater — to preserve a social contract that Americans had come to expect. We worked hard, and in exchange, we could rely on secure, good-paying union jobs here in the United States.
But their bosses had other plans. Barra wasn’t interested in sharing wealth built squarely on her employees’ backs. She stonewalled contract negotiations and ultimately showed workers the door. Faced with no other option, autoworkers made the painful decision to go on strike, finding strength in each other even as GM retaliated against them.
Barra didn’t hesitate to strip away health coverage as punishment for daring to fight back. One worker’s spouse woke up from surgery without insurance, while another’s young daughter continues to be denied physical therapy.
It’s cruel, petty and painfully normal. Over the past four decades, those in power have tossed aside the norms that used to ensure some semblance of fairness in our economy. In its place, they have built a twisted set of economic and political rules that preserve virtually everything for themselves.
We see it in the CEOs making hundreds for every dollar their workers take home. We feel it in a supposedly booming economy that has delivered stagnant paychecks, longer hours and increasingly dangerous workplaces. And we recognize it in the ruthlessness with which bosses attempt to quash our right to organize on the job.
GM’s behavior has illustrated the untenable injustice of a rigged economy — and UAW’s strike is showing us how to fix it.
We can’t wait for corporations to change a system that they built for themselves. GM bosses clearly don’t feel loyalty to the working people who built, saved and rebuilt their company.
Left to their own devices, executives will demand the world from their employees while scoffing at any request for something in return. From auto plants to restaurants to offices, our labor has been systematically abused and devalued.
That treatment has stoked resentment and cynicism, even turning us against our most fundamental values. Having grown up through a debt-ridden, low-wage economic reality, some 70% of young workers now question the need to live in a democracy.
Freewheeling corporate greed is an unsustainable threat to our way of life, and only working people can put an end to it. This has to be our fight, and it has to be waged collectively.
There’s a reason that corporations fear union activity. It gives us unparalleled power to demand and fight for what we’re owed. GM executives have incomparably more power than any single autoworker. But with nearly 50,000 UAW brothers and sisters walking picket lines across the country, that single worker is now on even ground.
GM is paralyzed without its workers’ cooperation. Cash flow is frozen. Shareholders are anxious. And suddenly Barra doesn’t seem so powerful.
UAW’s fearlessness is a reminder that the only way to fight back is by fighting back. More than any time in a generation, Americans are taking that truth to heart. In 2017, a quarter-million people joined unions. Last year, twice as many walked picket lines. And now, 60 million non-union workers say they’re ready to join a movement with an approval rating nearing a 50-year high.
The UAW strike will end when GM workers win the fair treatment that they’ve earned. Our structural economic crisis has to end the same way. We have the power to win this fight — because there is power in a union.
Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.