The United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America are making history. For the first time ever, UAW struck against the “Big Three” automakers — General Motors, Ford and Stellantis — at the same time. Founded in 1935, UAW represents 400,000 active members across North America, is made up of 600 local unions and boasts a record of successfully bargaining for the first employer-paid health insurance plan for industrial workers. As of right now, 13,000 of the union’s members are withholding their labor, with more likely to join them down the line.
UAW initiated their “Stand Up Strike” on Friday, Sept. 15, after they couldn’t reach an agreement with the Big Three automakers. Both on the picket line and at the bargaining table, union members have made their intentions clear; the union’s demands include a 36% pay increase over four years, a benefit pension plan for all employees, increased time off, family protections and health care for retired employees. This strike comes after decades of complaints from the union about plant closures and offshoring.
UAW joins a number of unions currently striking across major industries. A tightening labor market and a confluence of expiring contracts after an extended pandemic-era postponement have created the market conditions for unions to reassert their bargaining power. While it may seem like the issues that auto workers are fighting for don’t mean anything to the average college student, you’d be sorely mistaken. The principal concern of UAW is that of economic equality and stability, matters that mean something to workers everywhere, whether they be part-time Starbucks baristas or Hollywood actors and writers. A rising tide lifts all boats; University of Michigan students should realize that — whether you graduate in two months or two years — unions are in a very real sense fighting for you, too.
Following the 2008 recession, many auto workers were forced to give up pay raises in order to help their employers survive the economic downslide. More than a decade later, amid the pandemic, auto manufacturers were out of work as plants shut down and wages were greatly reduced. The Brookings Institution estimates that the pandemic disproportionately harmed low-wage workers. As the economy continues to recover after COVID-19, the time is now for action.
Industrial organizing to mitigate the excesses of technology is not, of course, a new phenomenon, and has been a significant motivator in many labor moments. As automation progresses, the workers that once worked manufacturing jobs are increasingly being replaced by specialized machinery. Despite its increasing prevalence in other union movements, UAW’s demands have little mention of the rise of artificial intelligence. As the shift to electrical vehicles gains speed, the likelihood of automation in the auto sector becomes all the more realistic. Initial attempts to manufacture electric vehicles via automation have been wildly successful, increasing efficiency and reducing production time. The workplace is changing to a tech-led environment, but with AI comes fewer job opportunities for manufacturing workers and difficulties in achieving professional growth.
Through bargaining and collective action, striking workers today can protect the job security of later generations from the threat of AI employees.
The prevalence of large strikes in recent years shows a growing trend: Americans are more and more uncertain about the future of their labor. Artificial intelligence and automation are continuing to evolve, and they threaten to make a large portion of our entire labor force obsolete within the next several decades. Couple that with wages that have been dramatically affected by inflation and a global pandemic, and you have the perfect setting for a dramatic rebalancing.
While many young people were not directly affected by the last two major economic downturns, they will not be immune to future economic stress. Recent college graduates are filled with uncertainty about the economy and job market while college graduates have a higher unemployment rate than the national average. Students also face an economy with a middle class that has been shrinking since the start of the pandemic, along with the looming threat of another recession. Reckoning with the implications of this shake-up isn’t just for those on the picket line or at the bargaining table. The changes rippling through the working world are bound to reach all of us, and some already have. As college students searching for summer jobs or graduates looking for full-time employment, we must recognize that the world isn’t waiting to change: it already is. Whether you’re graduating with a mechanical engineering or computer science degree, just know that your future career trajectory isn’t going to be the same as it was 10 years ago. Pay close attention to the UAW strikes, and not just to support those on the picket line: They’re fighting for your future labor rights, too.