The United Auto Workers (UAW) ended its ~6-week strike against General Motors (GM) last week. It was the longest automotive strike in 50 years. It was, at the time, the latest in a strike wave that started with the teacher strikes several years ago. I say “at the time,” because even in the short time since the strike has ended, multiple other strikes have been announced, most notably the Chicago teachers strike.
A couple of weeks ago, I made my second trip to the nearest UAW picket line, in Spring Hill, Tennessee.
On the picket line, I chatted with one of the workers, asked him what the community response had been to the strike. He said that being in the South, a lot of folks had never even seen a strike before, they had no idea what to think. So there was a lot of simple ambivalence, neither for nor against. He said, of course, there was some support, some other unions in the area would come by and drop off food and chat with them awhile, and sometimes there would be nonunion workers drop by to show their support. He also said, though, that there was a lot of hate. They had things thrown at them, folks yelled and cursed at them as they drove by, called them lazy, etc. Hearing that disheartened me. I told him I just couldn’t believe folks would go out of their way to abuse workers fighting for their fair share on the job.
As soon as those words left my mouth, a car drove by. “Get back to work!” the driver yelled out the window.
It genuinely startled me, because I don’t understand how someone could be against the workers, especially if they knew anything about the situation. The UAW workers, after the financial crash of 2008, gave up a lot in their contracts to save the company. They sacrificed wages, benefits, pensions. Then they worked and brought the company back into profitability. GM is now seeing record-breaking profits. They received hundreds of millions from the Trump tax cuts. We were told that these tax cuts would spur job growth. Instead, GM announced layoffs. The CEO is making nearly 300 times more than the average employee, which is even higher than the absurd national average! The workers were only asking for some of what they had given up. How could you fault them for that?
I understand the culture in the South around jobs. You are supposed to just be thankful you’ve got one. If it pays well, then be even more grateful. If it doesn’t, or you’ve got some other problems on the job, either suck it up or find another place to work. Don’t cause a commotion.
This gets it all wrong, and all you’ve got to do is think about it for more than a second.
How many times have you had a boss or a manager that was just totally incompetent, who had no idea how things work on the floor? How many times have you just kept your head down and done something that you know is a waste of time, or even completely counterproductive, because the boss said so, and you have no voice? Just think: how much does the company really need the boss?
Now ask: how much does the company need the workers?
The most common situation on the job is that, given the absence of the boss, things would move along just fine. Workers know what needs to get done. If the workers all suddenly disappeared? Now that’s a different story.
Workers make the world run. Without our brain and muscle, not a single wheel can turn.
Your boss is at least as lucky, if not more, that you work for them as you are to have that job.
Workers who know that, and act on that knowledge, win. Union workers make about 25% more than their nonunion fellow workers. They have better benefits. They have more time off. They have better working conditions. And not only do they better their own material conditions, but they also create higher standards in the labor market, increasing wages and benefits even for non union workers. They also decrease overall inequality. See this graph with union membership and the income of the top 1%:
Every worker deserves a union. Unions equalize power on the shop floor, they take away the total dictatorial rule a boss would otherwise have over the workforce. They better the material conditions for members and nonmembers alike. They provide a strong voice in the political arena for working folks, in an atmosphere where the loudest voices are often wealthy, corporate special interests groups, groups that represent the 1% and could care less about working people.
Unions are the reason we have the weekend. Unions are the reason we have time off from work. Each and every freedom we have in and from the workplace is the freedom that union members fought and died for.
So next time you see a striking worker, don’t tell them to get back to work. Shake their hand, thank them for their service to the working people of this country, pick up a sign, and walk the picket line with them.
Then, go and organize your own workplace.
If you can’t muster even that small amount of courage though, then it is certainly your right to trade what is yours for a mess of porridge.
But don’t begrudge those of us who demand what is rightfully ours.
Jacob is a proud Alabamian, a BS in Mathematics, a union member, someone dedicated to a more just and democratic society. He can be found on Twitter @JacobM_AL and emailed at [email protected]