Large federal unions endorse the auto worker strike action. A scholar explains why
“They know their job security depends on not just protecting their own rights, but a strong private sector,” says John P. Beck, of Michigan State University.
On Sept. 15, after months of talks failed to lead to a workable compromise, 13,000 auto workers went on strike against the three largest unionized vehicle manufacturers in the U.S.
Those workers say they’ll stay on strike until employers meet their demands, which include a 40% pay increase after a decade of falling behind inflation, a return to company-provided retirement health benefits, an end to “tiered” pay (lower pay for more recent hires), and a 32-hour workweek.
While it’s true some auto workers went on strike just four years ago, the current strike represents a far more ambitious labor action, as it’s the first involving all of the classic American carmakers in decades.
What’s more—and what puts it on the map for this column—is that federal employees and other public workers quickly have joined in support, finding common cause between themselves and private-sector, assembly-line industrial employees.
“Workers across America are fed up with wages that haven’t kept up with inflation, cuts to benefits and retirement, disparate treatment for employees doing the same work, and jobs that don’t provide economic security for our families and our communities,” Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees said. “We applaud UAW members for taking a stand to end the race to the bottom that has hurt American workers and American communities.”
“Their fight is all our fight,” Kelley continued. “The 750,000 federal and D.C. government employees represented by AFGE stand in total solidarity with striking UAW members.”
The National Treasury Employees Union, another of the largest federal employee labor organizations, also instantly jumped in the fray.
“[M]embers of the United Auto Workers (UAW) launched a historic strike against the ‘Big Three’ automakers,” Doreen T. Greenwald, the NTEU president, announced. “Tens of thousands of UAW members are picketing at three Midwest plants in Michigan, Missouri and Ohio. These union members have made a tough choice in choosing to go out on strike and demand that they be paid fair wages that reflect the success of the auto industry.”
Greenwald added that UAW workers made significant concessions to management during the financial crisis over a decade ago, to ensure the survival of their then-crippled employers. But now, with carmakers “raking in record profits” totaling over $250 billion in the years since, it’s past time for those corporations to give back to their workers.
“Although federal employees can’t strike, we know the value of collective effort,” Greenwald said, noting the biggest difference—and biggest similarity—in private- and public-sector unions. “Our unity and willingness to stand with each other contribute to our success at the bargaining table, and our efforts in Congress fighting for fair pay, benefits and good working conditions.”
Postal workers have also leaped behind the cause.
“The American Postal Workers Union stands in full solidarity with the UAW in their struggle to win strong contracts that guarantee auto workers the better pay, better hours and the better jobs they deserve,” APWU president Mark Dimondstein stated. Other major unions with a public-sector footprint—such as the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers—also swiftly supported these industrial workers.
Why are public employees so powerfully behind their counterparts in the private economy? And is that par for the course?
“This question is something I’ve presented to public-sector workers many times,” John P. Beck, who teaches labor relations at Michigan State University, told Government Executive. “It starts with the fact that during what many call the golden age of labor—about 1955 to 1975—there was huge growth in private-sector salaries and benefits, while public-sector workers didn’t keep pace—after all, public-sector workers were left out of the 1935 Wagner Act which codified union protections. Public-sector protections came much later—state-by-state, starting with Wisconsin in 1958 and Michigan in 1965.”
In other words, Beck notes, public-sector gains followed private-sector labor wins—making pay and benefits contract gains by employees outside government very important to state and federal employees’ bottom line. Yes, he’s talking about half a century ago. But also now.
“In between those two states recognizing state worker unions, President Kennedy in 1962 opened the way to federal employees and their unions,” Beck said. “But when public-sector labor was barely getting organized, it was accepted that public-sector jobs had not-so-great pay but good benefits.”
“Later, public-sector workers got improved pay along with those benefits. Sadly, very soon after this period of improvements—and public-sector workers are well aware of their history—from the Reagan era on, private-sector workers and their unions got attacked and public-sector workers also in many cases lost ground, with their right even to organize questioned.”
“So, public-sector workers know their situation,” Beck said. “They know their job security depends on not just protecting their own rights but a strong private sector—a wider economy earning enough money and taxed fairly to support a needed and strong public sector. Looked at this way, it makes all the sense in the world that we are witnessing cross-sector, cross-union support on this very important strike and major battle for the future.”
Beck added another emphasis, one he noted may not be getting enough attention across the wider media.
“I have to add that, on a whole other—and new—level, it makes sense there’s wide support for a bellwether change UAW is demanding: a 32-hour workweek,” Beck said. “Normally in recent decades, such a profound change might be approached through proposed legislation—but that’s not happening fast enough, and the auto workers are taking it on. And now feds and other public workers also see this as the right course—it’s on the table for the first time in a major strike.”
As of Tuesday, the UAW stated that if “serious progress” isn’t made, additional auto workers at other facilities will go on strike beginning at noon on Sept. 22.
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