The United Auto Workers (UAW) strike has reenergized a progressive wing that struggled to maintain its fire and relevance early in the 2024 election.
Left-wing Democrats and labor advocates see the days-long wage hike effort against General Motors, Ford and Stellantis as bringing their top concerns back into the focus, offering an immediate channel for their activism around workers’ rights, corporate profits and income inequality that had fallen into the background this cycle.
President Biden’s embrace of the strikers last week showed his public dedication to unions, one of his longest standing political principles. For progressives, it also offered a new chance to show the power of their flank in battlegrounds like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“It is a real-time reflection of what the progressive movement has been talking about since the latter part of 2015,” said Nina Turner, a former state senator from Cleveland who served as co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign in 2020. “There is no doubt that what the UAW is doing is taking this whole thing to another level.”
“You needed the rawness of the progressive movement. Those voices out in the wilderness shouting from the rooftops,” said Turner, whose Ohio roots have placed her at some of the country’s biggest economic and labor disputes. “It’s the confluence of that that makes this moment even that much more powerful because progressives can say: ‘See, we told you.’”
Progressive lawmakers have offered support to thousands of workers taking action against low pay in critical assembly plants. Wages and jobs have been at the forefront of the demands, with workers railing against what they see as exorbitant CEO salaries and unacceptably low compensation for their industry’s labor force.
Union leaders from a variety of industries have rushed to express strong support for what many see as a national uproar over systemic economic inequality.
“We have a situation where the CEOs of the Big Three have gotten their raises while workers are still living with the sacrifices they made in 2008 to help this industry survive,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told The Hill in an interview Monday, referring to the three major automakers. “And that’s outrageous.”
“I think that inequity, that injustice resonates with every working person across the economy,” she said. “It’s time for a reckoning because working people are fed up with a system that only works for corporate executives and shareholders.”
Many liberal Democrats who have jumped to support the picketers were elected on pro-union platforms. Some hail from states and districts that are manufacturing and industrial labor hubs in the Midwest, further emphasizing their importance as Democrats and Republicans alike seek to define the major issues of the election.
Heading into the weekend, progressives in Congress and aligned organizers made moves to show their unity toward those pushing for a 40-percent increase in pay. While Detroit is at the center of the action, other cities like Toledo, Ohio, also saw an influx of activity that union leaders don’t see slowing down anytime soon.
While workers heard the president say they have the support of the White House, the discussions are still tense and ongoing. In an interview with NPR this week, UAW President Shawn Fain said that both camps only had “minimal conversations” over the past few days.
Fain is seen as a hero to much of the labor community. He’s willing to challenge the conventional thinking around ultra-rich executives, some on the left say, in a way that few other leaders have been willing to do. They like how he presents an unabashed case for corporate greed at the expense of working Americans.
“Neoliberals can’t just brush him off. They gotta listen to what he says because he wields influence with over 145,000 members,” Turner said. “They don’t have to build an army. They are the army.”
“The way he’s calling out the billionaire class, he’s not saying anything any differently than people like me or Sen. Sanders or other progressive movement leaders whether they’re elected or not have been saying about a rigged system or a rigged economy,” Turner explained. “The difference is his sole agenda is so laser-focused because he has not only the members behind them, but they have the power to upset the flow of the economy.”
“Now they got your attention,” she said.
On Capitol Hill, one politician offering a clear link between workers’ concerns and swing-state politics is newly elected Pennsylvania Sen. John Fetterman (D), who won a Senate seat in part over his labor advocacy.
Fetterman, who drives what his office noted is a “UAW-made” Ford Bronco, picketed alongside strikers over the weekend at the same plant that made his own vehicle, showing that his loyalty is with workers. Two longer-serving Senate heavyweights, Sanders and populist Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), offered similar sentiments. In the House, first-term progressive Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), who’s from the Pittsburgh area, highlighted the movement’s people to help shift the outcome.
“These CEOs are never going to move unless we the people join together in solidarity to move them,” Lee said in a statement. “Any company that can afford 40 percent raises for CEOs already raking in millions can afford raises for their workers who make .00275 (less than half a percent) of their company’s top executives.”
Other progressive officeholders, including Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who traveled alongside the Vermont Independent to the industrial Midwest as his other campaign co-chairman and has filled his travel schedule ever since, said he is heading to Toledo in addition to Detroit this week.
Biden’s embrace of the strike also shows a continuation of the left’s influence on the White House. The president — who said “the UAW deserves a contract that sustains the middle class” — has long been an advocate of unions and sought to make it a focal point of his administration. Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su was embraced by progressives eager to continue the traction made with her predecessor Marty Walsh.
Su is expected to visit Detroit as discussions continue into their fourth day.
Biden, who is facing low approval ratings from within his own party, gave another nod to progressivism by addressing the environmental and energy component of the automobile industry. But he still walked a fine line between both sides of the issue. He acknowledged that “strong unions are critical to growing the economy and growing it from the middle out, the bottom up, not the top down,” For climate activists, he added, “That’s especially true as we transition to a clean energy future, which we’re in the process of doing.”
The president appeared to balance priorities, however, by adding, “I believe that transition should be fair and a win-win for auto workers and auto companies.”
Climate and labor supporters were even clearer in their support of the laborers.
“For Green New Deal supporters, turning out in support of our allies at the UAW is a no-brainer. We are building a world together where regular people can thrive,” said Saul Levin, legislative and political director at Green New Deal Network. “Union jobs will power a new generation of electric vehicles and green labor. For decades, huge corporations have been the bad guy obstructing this shared mission, and we support any and all efforts to hold them accountable and make sure profits flow to working people.”
Henry of the SEIU, like other prominent union leaders, sees the autoworkers strike as one piece of a larger uprising that has built up over time, including the fight for a $15 minimum wage and fairer conditions and practices for a variety of industries like rail workers, baristas and writers.
“This is what unions are for,” she said. “Tough conversations, tough negotiations, and on equal footing between employers and their workers. This is what democracy looks like.”